Celebrating Completion of the Brethren Digital Archive

Photo by Brethren Digital Archive
Some of the archivists, librarians, and historians who have been part of the committee organizing the Brethren Digital Archive: (from left) Some of the Brethren Digital Archives committee (left to right): Liz Cutler Gates, Brethren Missionary Herald; Darryl Filbrun, Old German Baptist Brethren, New Conference; Gary Kochheiser, Conservative Grace Brethren; Steve Bayer, Old German Baptist Brethren; Paul Stump, Brethren Heritage Center; Eric Bradley, Morgan Library, Grace College and Seminary; Larry Heisey, Brethren Heritage Center. Seated, Shirley Frick, Bible Monitor.

We know little about the early Brethren. We do not even know the actual date of the first baptisms. In fact, few documents survive from our first century. Important early writings such as those by Virginian Benjamin Bowman (1754-1829) are no longer extant.

Not without reason have historians referred to the years from 1776-1851 as “the silent years.” The “silence” ends in 1851 with the publication of the first Brethren periodical, “The Gospel Visitor” edited by Henry Kurtz, joined in 1856 by James Quinter who would become sole editor. Eventually the “Visitor” would absorb other periodicals forming the “Gospel Messenger” in 1883.

As denominational factions that would result in painful divisions formed around editors and periodicals, many wished for a return to silence. There was, of course, no turning back. Periodicals were the driving force behind denominational expansion and world-wide mission for the Brethren. Editors emerged as powerful shapers of denominational culture and identity. Brethren increasingly understood themselves as part of an international community, unique yet in mission with other Protestants, sharing Christ far beyond their isolated communities.

The paucity of information had ceased. The days of information overload had begun. One was not only overwhelmed by the printed pages of denominational periodicals of such bodies as the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Dunker Brethren, Old Order German Baptists, and Grace Brethren Church, but the new interest-driven periodicals established by advocacy groups within denominations such as missionary societies, colleges, seminaries, and even districts.

As we look back to the golden age of the printed page, we can only marvel at this remarkable flowering of Brethren thought and action and ask how, if, or in what manner the personalities, deeds, and thoughts of our own time will be remembered and recorded?

Now the golden age of Brethren print media has wonderfully come to life in the Brethren Digital Archive, available online in a full-text format without charge at archive.org/details/brethrendigitalarchives . It contains 29 periodicals published from 1852-2000 by the spiritual heirs of those baptized in the Eder River.

Funded in part by a grant from the Sloan Foundation and the generosity of Brethren institutions and individuals, the project was directed by the librarians, archivists, and historians of Brethren-related colleges, universities, and historical centers.

This incredible resource is even searchable by names of individuals and congregations, and even concepts. Among the distinctly Church of the Brethren periodicals are “The Gospel Visitor,” “Brethren at Work,” “Gospel Messenger,” “Messenger,” “Inglenook,” and “Missionary Visitor.”

These resources provide a glimpse into past Brethren practice, beliefs, and dare we say controversies. The archive provides a rich source of congregational, regional, and even district history. One can read forgotten but still deeply profound devotional writings of A.C. Wieand, Anna Mow, and William Beahm, for example, and the moving and thoughtful editorials of Desmond Bittinger and Kenneth Morse. Readers may encounter vintage prophetic writings of Dan West and Kermit Eby, or children’s stories by Lucille Long, or explore how Brethren faced the crises of the Civil War, World War I, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights crusade for racial justice.

This remarkable resource is available to all with an Internet connection.

— William Kostlevy is director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin, Ill.

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