Making Meaning when the Historical Record is Silent

In August 2018, Brethren in Christ History & Life published “Henry R. and Frances Rice Davidson: Life and Vision.” In that article I explore the contributions of my ancestor who became the first editor of the denominational publication that came into Brethren in Christ homes for one hundred and thirty-one years, from its launch in August 1887 until it was replaced in in 2007 by a periodical called In Part.1 Publication is a milestone, not necessarily the end of the research process; and so I continue to puzzle over these ancestors lives. One question for me, still unanswered,2 is how did the Reverend Henry Davidson, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent, come to be ordained in 1846 as a minister in the tiny community of River Brethren, virtually unknown until 1860 when they identified as Brethren in Christ? How did his nearly seventy years of leadership, that I have argued was significant in bringing the denomination into nineteenth century evangelicalism, begin?3 In this post I explore that question and offer suggestions as to why knowing this matters.

As I have been researching and writing on Henry Davidson how I have wished that he had preserved his experience of having “moved into the church,” as his friend and colleague William Baker put it.4 The only record we have, as far as I can find, is in family historian Earl Brechbill’s geneological history.5 I have long puzzled over this short acknowledgement: “Henry was ordained a minister in the Brethren in Christ church at the age of twenty-three.”6 His father Jacob, a farmer and millwright, was a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and his grandfather Robert Davidson had been a Presbyterian minister. Not even Henry Davidson’s obituaries agree on his denominational history, with the Evangelical Visitor putting Henry’s father in the Brethren in Christ church, and the Wooster Weekly Republican saying he was a Presbyterian minister.7

The confusion is hardly surprising, with the influence of the German Pietist movement that reflected Enlightenment values of subjectification and emotion, and the variety of expressions of personal faith that arose, as individuals studied the Bible for themselves.8 In the immediate post Revolutionary era, the evangelical preaching of Reformed leader William Otterbein and Mennonite Martin Boehm gave rise to a number of denominations in the United States including Presbyterians, German Reformed, and Mennonites uniting into a body “vague and undefined” until they organized in 1815. This conglomeration, which identified as United Brethren in Christ, illustrates the freedom fostered by democracy and populism that Mark Noll has noted caused “the churches [to be] strongly identified with the common people.”9 Adhering to no church doctrine beyond the New Testament, accepting all modes of baptism including sprinkling, pouring and immersion, the movement quickly spread, including to Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County where the Davidsons lived.10

Henry Davidson’s silence about his experience and motives for moving from the United Brethren in Christ to the small enclave of German speaking “thrifty tillers of the soil” with their fear of “popularity of any kind,” reflects the practice of the River Brethren, thus named by outsiders because they baptized new members in the closest creek or river.11 When Henry joined their numbers in the 1840s, sixty years had passed since Jacob Engle and others had been baptized in the Susquehanna River, keeping who was first in their hearts to the grave.12 Evidently Davidson was attracted to this humble group, at that time virtually unknown, judging by John Winebrenner’s History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, first published in 1844. When Davidson “moved into the church,” to use Baker’s words, Winebrenner’s recently published history had missed them altogether. They were unique in the 1848 edition of the six hundred page compendium, with anonymous authorship by “A Familiar Friend,” whose six page article remains, in Brethren in Christ historian Carleton Wittlinger’s words, “the most reliable secondary source for early Brethren in Christ history.”13 No other group, including the Mennonites and the Amish, avoided identifying the author describing the polity, practice and history of their particular group.

Fast forwarding to August 1887 with the launch of the Evangelical Visitor, we can glean insight into the experience of early converts into the River Brethren. Davidson’s friend and colleague W.O. Baker, a medical doctor who practised medicine in Ashland, Ohio and preached for the congregation in Stark County, recounted his conversion and baptism three decades earlier in Sugar Creek, where it meandered by Wayne County’s Paradise, Ohio. Baker’s note that Henry Davidson, editor of the new paper, had been among those present in late February [1854] at his baptism, confirms Davidson’s long history with the denomination.14

In my mind’s eye I see the senior minister Jacob Hoffman standing with red topped boots reaching his knees standing in the cold creek, possibly supported by an overhanging branch, baptizing the most recent convert to the small community of River Brethren. I see Henry Davidson, a young minister in the group, standing among others, uniform grey overcoats overlapping red topped rubber boots, large capes draping each man’s shoulders, broad brimmed hats in hand, witnessing this powerful moment when a new member submitted to the triune immersion that confirmed his conversion experience, a ritual done in a way that separated the River Brethren from other groups. Baptism in cold waters, the first time in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and finally in the name of the Holy Spirit, confirmed Baker’s commitment to living out his faith in this particular community of believers.15

It remains unclear exactly where Henry Davidson encountered the German community of River Brethren; perhaps it was in German township, located just south of Redstone township where the Davidson’s lived.16 Whatever the case, we must assume that as a young man Henry Davidson, similar to his friend William Baker, was attracted to the warmth of these people and the way that they lived out the particular convictions that set the River Brethren apart from other groups.17 The similarity of emphasis on a new birth before baptism must have felt familiar to the young Henry. Somehow the clarity of conviction that church order must insist on a single mode of baptism, triune immersion, appealed to him, as it had to his friend William Baker.18 Davidson’s attraction to the clarity of conviction that allowed for the warmth of testimonials where members told of their conversion experiences, their “sorrows, joys and future hope,” yet insisted on ordinances such as river baptism and foot washing rituals would have a far reaching impact on the denomination; fifteen years later in the 1860s it would claim the name Brethren in Christ, remaining distinct from the United Brethren in Christ of Henry Davidson’s origin.19

Although River Brethren pietism distinguished them from their Mennonite relatives with the insistence of the former, as Wittlinger has put it, on “a personal, heartfelt experience of the new birth as normative for the beginning of the Christian life,” their evangelism was practised in a quiet, relational way.20 It was the way they lived their faith that attracted others. Some, similar to William Baker and Henry Davidson, expressed the desire to become a part of a particular congregation, joining in the “full fellowship” that meant choosing to be baptized by triune immersion and to adopt the practices of those particular Brethren.21

It is impossible to fully understand the motives of another, but history does provide a way to know ourselves as individuals, as families, as churches, as societies, a way into becoming more deeply rooted as we are intentional about understanding faith in the context from which we came. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer has wisely suggested that Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”22 The formative role that Henry Davidson and his friend William Baker took in introducing to the Brethren in Christ changes that had marked the pietist movement from the eighteenth century, including communication through print culture, missions, and opportunities for women to serve in public ways, had far reaching effects on the denomination.23 As the Brethren in Christ (in Canada Be in Christ) continue to develop during these fast-changing and tumultuous times, with secularism and evangelicalism in head to head combat, both shaped by the pietist impulse with their privileging experience over authority, it is essential that we know our history.24

On a personal note as I have explained in the occasional series “Growing up Brethren in Christ,” published in Brethren in Christ History & Life, it is in the on-going attempt to come to deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey and the denomination in which I grew up that I continue to explore the lives and spirituality of my ancestors Henry Davidson and his daughter Frances Davidson.25 Indeed, my journey has taken me in the opposite direction to Henry Davidson with my journey away from my Brethren in Christ roots to eventually be ordained in the Mennonite Church, while serving as chaplain and professor in a Presbyterian theological school. As I reflect on how my spiritual journey has taken me out of the Brethren in Christ to the Mennonites and Presbyterian communities, I am curious about my ancestor’s journey. Henry Davidson’s spiritual quest took him away from his Presbyterian and United Brethren in Christ roots to a group founded by Jacob Engel, another seeker whose journey brought from his Mennonite roots, to establish a tiny group convicted of the efficacy of triune baptism. The curiousity of the detective continues to motivate me as I continue to explore, as Palmer has put it, “how much of the past lives in us today,” and to seek community among the great cloud of witnesses.26

1“Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54; See also Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor, Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 323.

2Nancy Theriot has explored the potential in reading texts in ways that the historian can attempt to understand something of how people from the past were making meaning from their lives. See her Mothers & Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

3Paul Hoffman, compiler, “History of the Davidson descendants,” printed in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” Robert K. Brechbill, printer (July 1973), 55.

4Earlier publications developing the story of Henry Davidson and his family include “Searching for Mary Mathilda Yoder,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/07/02/searching-for-mary-mathilda-davidson-yoder/; “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual ‘Mother” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ “In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/06/27/in-pursuit-of-the-missing-portrait/ “History as Relationship” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/ “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision;” “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission.” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Reverend Henry Davidson,” (1823 – 1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (2014), 5-16.

5Paul Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill, printer, 1973), 49 – 59.

6Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 55.

7Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 53, 55; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 127, n 41.

8Douglas Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 205, 277, 278-79.

9Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.

10Paul A. Graham, “The Beginnings,” 45-46 and Raymond Waldfogel, 130, in Paul R. Fetters, TrialsandTriumphs:HistoryoftheChurchoftheUnitedBrethreninChrist (Huntington, IND: Church of the United Brethren in Christ Department of Church Services, 1984); See also William Hanby, “The United Brethren in Christ, in John Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848), 550, 561; Carlton Wittlinger, QuestforPietyandObedience:TheStoryoftheBrethreninChrist (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 129-33.

11Climenhaga, History, 53.

12Wittlinger, Quest, 19-23.

13Wittlinger, Quest, 14, n. 41; see “A Familiar Friend,” in Winebrenner, History, 550-56.

14Evangelical Visitor I, 1 (1 August 1887), 9; In his biography, D. Ray Heisey, Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W. O. Baker, 1827-1916 Grantham, PA: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004), 22, places 1854 as the year that Baker was baptized.

15A. W. Climenhaga, History of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1952), 55-56, 69.

16Homer Rosenberger, “Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania,” Part II, 61 file:///C:/Users/lucille.marr/Downloads/3099-Article%20Text-2944-1-10-20121002%20(2).pdf Accessed August 2020.

17In her diaries, Davidson’s daughter Frances noted how she missed “our own meeting,” when she was studying at Ashland College. “It does me so much good to get to our own meeting. It warms me up.” Hannah Frances Davidson, Diary 1 (11 Feb 1881) Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. https://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive?utf8=%E2%9C%93&search_criteria=HFD+Diary&searchButton=Search accessed 22 June 2020.

18Wittlinger, Quest, 23-24; see also Laban Brechbill, History of the Old Order River Brethren, edited by Myron S. Dietz (N.P: Brechbill & Strickler, 1972), 27-28, 33.

19Climenhaga, History, 70; Wittlinger, Quest, 24, 136.

20Wittlinger, Quest, 23.

21Climenhaga, History, 58.

22Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.

23Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 238, 275, 278-79, 285.

24Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 275-76; Indeed, in the view of McGill Emeritus professor philosopher Charles Taylor, both modern secularism and modern evangelicalism with their privileging experience and action are rooted in the seventeenth-century Pietist impulse. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-27.

25“Growing up Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Vol. XLI, no. II, no 1 (April 2020), 118-25.

26Palmer, Courage to Teach, 54. See, for example, Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.

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