In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait

Prominently displayed on the main wall of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives are portraits, in the words of historian Carlton O. Wittlinger, of “three nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ.” 1

Jacob Brechbill (1832-1902), Sarah Ober Brechbill (1839-1908), and Henry Davidson (1823-1903) happen to be ancestors of mine; for several years I’ve been in pursuit of more information than was necessary for Wittlinger’s, or even archival, purposes. Whose is the missing portrait? Did Davidson have a wife who shared his life and ministry? Who was she?

As family historian Earl Brechbill has noted, the Brechbills and the Davidsons were members of the River Brethren (Brethren in Christ) community. The former lived out their lives in DeKalb County, Indiana, where Jacob and Sarah met, married and raised their family. Memorialized by their descendants for having donated the large block of land on which the Christian Union Church in Garrett was built, with its expanse of cemetery all around, the portraits of Jacob and Sarah Ober Brechbill depicted above were donated to the archives in their memory.2

Henry B. Davidson was another significant figure among the nineteenth-century River Brethren. He is remembered in Brethren in Christ circles as the founding editor of the church periodical, The Evangelical Visitor; his is also known as a driving force behind denominational mission.3 It is not known where Davidson’s portrait originated; nor is there a companion at his side, memorialized as his partner during his lifetime of ministry.

Davidson’s portrait, depicting intense eyes lined with passion and pain, peering out from under dark eyebrows, and the bow-tie that distinguishes him from Jacob Brechbill, raises questions in this viewer’s mind.4 Who was this man with the Scottish surname living and providing leadership among the nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ?5 My years of research have shown that Davidson lived adventurously and passionately, with a deep faith, as his calling took him from his natal Pennsylvania west to Ohio, north to Michigan, and south and west to Kansas before circling back to the state of his birth. With the tragedy that stalked him and his family, over his eighty years Henry wed not once, not twice, but three times. In the process, he was blessed with thirteen children.6

The researcher might ask, if there was a portrait hanging next to Henry Davidson’s, which one of Henry’s three wives would it feature? Would it be Hannah Craft Davidson, whom he married as a young man in his mid-twenties, and with whom he fathered five children? Would it be Fannie Rice Davidson, who after Hannah’s untimely death from typhoid fever when she and Henry were in their early thirties, agreed to marry him and come out to Ohio to raise his young family? Or would it be Kate Brenneman, whom Henry married toward the end of his life, and who served with him in his late life ministry?

If there were one portrait, it would seem fitting to honor his second wife Fannie Rice Davidson. Fannie raised Hannah’s five, and bore eight more children. During their many years in Ohio while nurturing their brood of thirteen, she managed their large home and farm, freeing Henry for ministry. In her latter years, she followed him as he moved from Ohio to Michigan, and from Michigan to Kansas, pursuing the dream of capturing support for a church periodical. This is particularly impressive when we learn in her obituary that she had suffered from cancer for the thirty years preceding her death in 1894.7

If a portrait of Fannie Rice Davidson should surface, it would help to make sense of Henry’s portrait, placed at is in proximity to those of Jacob and Sarah Ober Brechbill. It was Fannie who bore Henry’s namesake twins – Henry and Henrietta, who married, respectively, the Brechbill’s daughter Elizabeth and son John. Fannie shared in the family bond that these liaisons created.

If such a portrait would grace the archives’s wall, Fannie Rice Davidson would finally be re-united with her husband and father of their children. In sharp contrast to Jacob and Sarah Brechbill, whose graves lay side by side, and who have been memorialized by their family as donors of the land for the expansive cemetery surrounding Christian Union Church, Fannie and Henry Davidson were put to their final rest respectively in Abilene, Kansas, and Wooster, Ohio, with no less than 900 miles separating them.

At her father’s death, Fannie’s namesake daughter H. Frances Davidson, the pioneer missionary well known in denominational circles as Henry’s daughter, insisted on remembering her mother with white cosmos seeds sent from her post at Matopo Mission in Southern Rhodesia.8 I have suggested elsewhere that Frances’s wish was a way of remembering her mother on Henry’s death, for he was buried in Ohio next to his first wife Hannah Craft Davidson, in close proximity to his first family most of whom had settled in that state.9

Perhaps one day the ancestral trio on the Brethren in Christ archive wall will be squared off with a fourth – that of Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson. If such a portrait would surface, the distance between Fannie’s burial site in Abilene, Kansas and Henry’s in Wooster, Ohio finally would be bridged, as the wish of their daughter Frances’s gift of cosmos seeds sent so long ago implied.


  1. Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 47; photos of the three portraits are courtesy of Brethren in Christ Archives, Mechanicsburg, PA.
  2. Early D. Brechbill, “The ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill printer, 1973), 26; photo by William Stoner. https//www.findagrave.com/cemetery/466301/Christian-unon-cemetery Accessed 17 June 2019. Granddaughters Viola Martin and Mary Olinger and great—granddaughters Joanna Hoke an dEsther Hoover donated them to the Archives. Glen Pierce to Lucille Marr, electronic mail, 12 June 2019.
  3. See, for instance, Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor,” Brethren in Christ History and Life, Vol. XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 323-34.
  4. “Reverend Henry Davidson (1823-1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries,” Historical Papers, Canada: Society of Church History (2014), 5.
  5. I have researched and written aspects of his story published as “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54.
  6. For brief biographical sketches of Henry’s children, please see “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” nn 2-4, 10-11; family tree, 119.
  7. Photo courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Mechanicsburg, PA.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, personal diary, 2 March 1895, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Davidson,” 115. Fannie left her own legacy as mother of her namesake, H. Frances Davidson. The younger Frances carried her mother’s, and also her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s name. I have developed this maternal line in the Stewart-Rice-Davidson genealogy in “’Conflict, Confession, and Conversion,” 18.
  9. “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 116.

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