One of the smaller Anabaptist groups in North America, the Brethren in Christ developed in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania as
River Brethren, people with Mennonite roots who were attracted to Protestant pietism and revivalistic emphases in church life. In this volume, historian M. J. Heisey draws on her own Brethren in Christ heritage and broader Anabaptist-related peace scholarship to explore the mid-twentieth century legacies of non-resistance and peace activism of this small denomination. Grounding her study primarily in the stories of World War I and World War II-era conscientious objectors, Heisey interprets both the persistence and sometimes tenuous relationship of Brethren in Christ people to their church’s legacy of nonresistance.
Heisey’s archival spadework is evident from the first pages of her book to the impressive appendices, which list by name Brethren in Christ members drafted during the First World War as well as participants in World War II-era Civilian Public Service, Canadian alternative service, Mennonite Central Committee postwar relief work, and U.S. I-W service. The author’s focus on individual stories — drawn from publications such as the denomination’s periodical Evangelical Visitor, personal papers, diaries, and letters, are supplemented with more than 150 questionnaire responses and several dozen oral interviews. Throughout her study, Heisey balances her broader interpretive focus on the Brethren in Christ as part of the larger historic peace church milieu with narratives drawn from the lives of a variety of Brethren in Christ folk — men, women, children, and teenagers — including many who stayed in the denomination and some who ultimately left.
The Brethren in Christ grouping is small: 4,000 members in North America in 1914, doubling to approximately 8,000 by 1958. The largest concentrations of BIC populations in these years were in Pennsylvania, home to the BIC-founded Messiah Bible College and Missionary Training School (now Messiah College), Ontario, central Kansas, and southern California.
Heisey’s thesis is that the Brethren in Christ made a transition through the two world wars, initially drawing from an identity as a
plain people but moving into a wider historic peace church subculture in North American society. Through these years, the denomination struggled to maintain a consistent nonresistant peace witness and to pass on this legacy to successive generations. Throughout her study, Heisey is careful to draw on evidence from the daily lives of Brethren in Christ folk (including economic and social relationships within local communities) as well as official church positions and disciplines. She also pays attention to gendered constructions of peace theology, noting, for example, the implications of dress proscriptions and service opportunities for BIC women in mid-century, when most people within the denomination
continued to think of nonresistance as a male issue (p. 165).
Heisey argues that through the two world wars, BIC members developed patterns similar to Mennonites and other Anabaptist-related groups for encouraging conscientious objection (including refusal to wear the military uniform in World War I training camps and engaging in alternative service in World War II and postwar relief work). She notes, however, that in the Second World War, approximately half of BIC drafted men engaged in military service, and that by the late 1950s, nonparticipation in the military was no longer required for BIC membership. Heisey laments a move away from a
corporate witness toward a more individualized expression of peace concerns by the late 1950s and beyond, and suggests that in coming years, the persistence of BIC peace commitments is an open question.
An interpretive weakness of the work is Heisey’s emphasis on the Brethren in Christ denomination’s weakening corporate peace witness, and further, to a preponderance of conflicts within the BIC community. She asserts that, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, BIC members too often forgot, or failed to value, their legacy as a people of peace. And she points to conflicts embedded in congregations as evidence that the Brethren in Christ failed to find applications for their peace theology close to home. These suggestions, while provocative, are not substantiated with clear evidence.
Nevertheless, the book’s strengths outweigh its shortcomings. For readers of Mennonite Life, Heisey’s contextualization of the BIC denomination within the wider Mennonite fold will be especially appreciated. Further, two emphases of this study — the inclusion of women’s history (exemplified by an extended discussion of relief worker Elsie C. Bechtel in France for post-World War II work), and discussion of BIC people as constructing multiple identities in everyday life, with
entanglements of mainstream values are especially valuable. For its contributions to peace history literature and to American religious life, this book is a welcome addition.