Miami Valley of Ohio welcomes the 5th Brethren World Assembly




A feetwashing basin and Bible on the worship center at the 5th Brethren World Assembly
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
A feetwashing basin and Bible on the worship center at the 5th Brethren World Assembly

Extending greetings to all those present at the 5th Brethren World Assembly on July 11-14 in Brookville, Ohio, Brethren Heritage Center board secretary Larry E. Heisey noted the unique location of the meeting. All of the seven main Brethren groups in North America descended from the believers brought together by Alexander Mack Sr. in Schwarzenau, Germany, are represented in the Miami Valley area near Dayton, Ohio.

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“This makes us unique in Brethrendom,” Heisey said.

Brethren spirituality was the theme of the assembly, which is held every five years with sponsorship from the Brethren Encyclopedia Board. The 2013 assembly was hosted by the Brethren Heritage Center, a nonprofit organization based in Brookville and started in 2001 to preserve historical and current information on the various Brethren bodies.

The uniqueness of a cooperative venture between these Brethren groups--now numbering seven--was remarked upon during the assembly by several people including Donald Miller, former general secretary of the Church of the Brethren and professor emeritus at Bethany Seminary. He credited the impetus for such conversations to peacemaking icon and On Earth Peace founder M.R. Zigler, who also helped to start the Brethren Encyclopedia.

The planning team for the 2013 assembly included representatives from six of the seven main Brethren bodies in North America: chair Robert E. Alley, Church of the Brethren; Jeff Bach, Church of the Brethren; Brenda Colijn, Brethren Church; Milton Cook, Dunkard Brethren; Tom Julien, Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches; Gary Kochheiser, Conservative Grace Brethren Churches, International; Michael Miller, Old German Baptist Brethren Church-New Conference. Although not on the planning team, the Old German Baptist Brethren are represented on the Brethren Encyclopedia Board and at the Brethren Heritage Center.

The Brethren Heritage Center in Brookville, Ohio
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

Having the Brethren Heritage Center host a meeting convened by the Brethren Encyclopedia board was a match made in Brethren heaven--like peanut butter and chocolate, or perhaps more like chocolate and even more chocolate. The Brethren Encyclopedia Inc. since its founding has provided the platform for cooperative work and planning between the Brethren bodies descended from the 1708 baptisms. The Brethren Heritage Center has exemplified the same cooperation and fellowship among all the Brethren groups in the Miami Valley, even as they continue to experience splits based on differences of doctrine and practice.

Although differences in dress, beliefs, and practice were immediately apparent at the assembly, the gathering succeeded in large part because it was not a business meeting but instead a place for Brethren to be present with each other and with God. The participants expressed a hunger to teach and learn more about a shared heritage, and simply to be together as a faith family.

Presentations, panels, tours, worship--and ice cream

The assembly started off with keynote presentations on Brethren spirituality in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Other main sessions focused on the place of Jesus in Brethren spirituality, Word and Spirit in Brethren spirituality, community aspects of Brethren spirituality, and the Brethren ordinances such as love feast, feetwashing, and anointing

Seminars and panel discussions gave insight into evangelism and mission as a form of Brethren spirituality, the role of the Bible in Brethren spirituality, Brethren spiritual formation, Brethren worship practices, Brethren separation from the world and engagement with the world, Brethren hymnody, Brethren devotional literature and poetry, and the spiritual writings and poetry of Alexander Mack Jr. A panel of youth and young adults gave responses to close out the presentations.

Bus tours took participants to see Miami Valley sites important to Brethren history. Included were sites related to the schisms of the 1880s when the “conservatives”--who became the Old German Baptist Brethren, and the “progressives”--who became the Brethren Church and the Grace Brethren, first organized and broke off from the body that continues as the Church of the Brethren. Tours also visited Lower Miami Church of the Brethren, a “parent” congregation for the Brethren churches of the area, and other sites of interest.

Each evening the assembly ate and worshiped together at a local congregation, hosted by Brookville Grace Brethren Church and Salem Church of the Brethren. Ice cream socials closed out the days.

A group of Nigerian Brethren pose with tour leaders at a barn that marked an important moment in the history of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church.
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
A group of Nigerian Brethren pose with tour leaders at a barn that marked an important moment in the history of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church.

Although the event was dubbed a “world” assembly, the majority of Brethren who attended were from the United States, many local to the Miami Valley. A group of Nigerians attended from Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN--the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). Bernd Julius, who had been on the planning committee for the 2008 assembly in Schwarzenau on the 300th anniversary of the Brethren, brought greetings from the village in Germany where the Brethren movement began.

Keynoters explore Brethren spirituality through the centuries

Nuances of spirituality may have been demonstrated or experienced in different ways and languages during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but one unvarying thread was that it was expressed through dedication to scripture and prayer, in community, and was considered most faithful when expressed in a manner that brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to life.

“There is no such thing as a generic spirituality,” said Jeff Bach, director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, as he approached the topic of 18th century Brethren spirituality--but he nevertheless looked for common elements to a complex story.

The first Brethren were wary of basing their spirituality upon the lives of “holy men,” but devotional sources such as the Martyr’s Mirror provided great inspiration. These Anabaptist sources had a profound effect on a spirituality that inspired Brethren practices and ordinances. The first Brethren preferred spontaneous prayer to outward practices and an “outward prayer book.”

Bach chose to focus on lesser known Brethren individuals from the 18th century including John Lobach, Catharine Hummer, Michael Frantz, and Jacob Stoll.

Lobach (1683-1750) wrote in his autobiography that he engaged in the same practices before and after his spiritual awakening, but even as a child he considered these practices faked and fruitless. After a vivid conversion in 1713 he found that singing hymns, reading scripture, and prayer were now a powerful part of a personal relationship with God. In 1716 he was arrested and sentenced to a life of hard labor as one of the “Solingen Brethren,” although eventually he was released. His experiences in prison led to a deeper identity with the sufferings of Jesus and a deeper desire to love and forgive enemies.

Some of the youth and young adults who gave responses in a closing panel
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Some of the youth and young adults who gave responses in a closing panel

Michael Frantz (1687-1748), minister to the Conestoga congregation in Pennsylvania, wrote his Doctrinal Confessions that included a short prologue of spiritual self-examination, a lengthy account of various Brethren practices and doctrines (both of these sections in verse), and a prose piece that encouraged nonconformity but warned, among other things, that “taking pride in simple clothing might become the greatest arrogance of all.”

Catharine Hummer (fl. 1762) of the White Oak congregation in Pennsylvania, found expression of a powerful spirituality in dreams and visions that were recorded by the breakaway Ephrata community. Her warnings about the end time and her visions of baptism after death, expressed in her powerful preaching, found expression in hymn texts and demonstrated that their spiritual value was found not just in singing, but in reciting and meditating upon these poems.

Conestoga elder Jacob Stoll, whose devotional works were published posthumously in 1806, used Bible verses as the starting point for short devotional poems that were widely read by the Brethren. His were the “most mystical of Brethren writings” yet remained anchored in community. The mystical union with Christ expressed in terms of marriage still relied on a gathered community.

“Like a precious gem (spirituality) has many facets,” said Dale R. Stoffer, who spoke on 19th century Brethren spirituality. Stoffer is an elder in the Brethren Church and professor of Historical Theology and former academic dean at Ashland Theological Seminary.

He noted that while Catholic spirituality was grounded in mysticism, and Protestant mysticism was grounded in correct doctrine and an inward private experience, for Brethren spirituality “ordered all of life under Christ’s Lordship.”

A Nigerian Brethren woman joins in singing the hymn by Brethren founder Alexander Mack, 'Count Well the Cost'
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
A Nigerian Brethren woman joins in singing the hymn by Brethren founder Alexander Mack, 'Count Well the Cost'

Scripture, hymnbooks, the devotional literature of the Sauer and Ephrata presses, and eventually the Brethren periodical literature that began with Henry Kurtz’s “The Monthly Gospel Visiter” were the ingredients of a spirituality that over the course of the century encountered Revivalism and the Holiness Movement. This was especially apparent in the differences in the categories included in German and English hymnals of the Brethren.

“The Brethren, like the Anabaptists and the Pietists, did not distinguish between doctrine and spirituality or doctrine and practice,” Stoffer said. He brought attention to the writings of Henry Kurtz, Peter Nead, and Abraham Harley Cassel--but the eye-opener for most attendees was the story of Charles H. Balsbaugh (1831-1909) who, having been reduced to permanent and painful disability, nevertheless wrote over 1,000 articles scattered over various periodicals. Balsbaugh confessed that he moved from a position as a legalist to one who discovered that “Christ demonstrated how God lives and how the Holy Spirit made it possible for us to live the same life.”

Speaking on the Brethren of the 20th century, William Kostlevy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archive at the Church of the Brethren General Offices, illustrated the breadth of influence of liberal, conservative, and evangelical Christianity on Brethren spirituality.

“How does one get from Gottfried Arnold to M.R. Zigler?” Kostlevy asked, then continued, “What in the world is spirituality, anyway? No other word has been the subject of so much misunderstanding and useless argument.”

He suggested that the Keswich movement, founded in northern England, was a major influence on American Protestantism and the Brethren. Keswich theology insisted that “sinful nature is not extinguished but countered” by Christian spirituality, as opposed to the Brethren hope that transformation would lead to a more Christlike life. Kostlevy also pointed to the influence of the school of Dwight L. Moody, which demanded surrender to Christ, and emphasis on the cross instead of the life of Jesus.

Diverse Brethren personalities of the 20th century were touched on, such as A.C. Wieand, one of the founders of Bethany Theological Seminary, who encouraged Brethren to seek “the higher Christian life”; Bethany professor Floyd Mallot, who “was always suspicious of religious emotionalism”; Anna Mow, who found the essence of spirituality in Bible study, corporate worship, and prayer; and especially Dan West, founder of Heifer Project, now Heifer International, who “often annoyed his superiors, his behavior was erratic, he could be caustic and he was not incapable of insulting the denomination that paid him,” in Kostlevy’s words. West especially had an impact and even a cult-like following among Brethren, Kostlevy said, perhaps because he had a spiritual side expressed in poetry and action despite the fact that he was “impatient with orthodoxy.”

Quilts hang on the walls at the Brethren Heritage Center, and are admired by assembly participants
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Quilts hang on the walls at the Brethren Heritage Center, and are admired by assembly participants

The reinvigorated Believer’s Church, as influential 20th century Brethren historian Donald F. Durnbaugh characterized the Brethren movement, found spiritual expression in the authority of Christ, the authority of scripture, the restoration of the New Testament church, separation from the world, and, paradoxically, ecumenical engagement.

For more about the 5th Brethren World Assembly

Find a photo album from the assembly linked at www.brethren.org/album . DVDs of each major presentation and worship service are available, with taping was done by Church of the Brethren videographer David Sollenberger and crew. DVDs are $5 each, or any three for $10, with shipping added. See story below for details or contact the Brethren Heritage Center, 428 Wolf Creek St., Suite #H1, Brookville, OH 45309-1297; 937-833-5222; mail@brethrenheritagecenter.org ; www.brethrenheritagecenter.org .

-- This coverage of the 5th Brethren World Assembly is by Frank Ramirez, pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.

Go to www.brethren.org/Newsline to subscribe to the Church of the Brethren Newsline free e-mail news service and receive church news every week.

 

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