Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Bridgewater College

Regina Wenger

Early next year, I’m presenting a paper at the American Society of Church History on a panel titled “Competing Identities: Denominational Higher Education in the American South.” In the literature on American higher education, the examination of denominational schools, particularly those in the South, remains understudied. My co-panelists and I hope to explore the impact of geography and religious affiliation on single-sex and co-educational colleges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My paper, tentatively titled “Embers of the ‘Burning’: Shenandoah Valley Anabaptists, Higher Education, and Civil War Legacy,” will investigate the postbellum tensions between nonresistance and the memory of the Civil War at two Anabaptist colleges in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley: Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University. The former a school started by the Church of the Brethren, the latter a Mennonite institution. Founded in 1880 and 1917, respectively, many of the schools’ founders carried personal or family memories related to the destruction caused by the war. While the conference paper will address both schools, in the post I’m going to take an initial dive into the sources and offer some preliminary conclusions about the interplay between nonresistance, Civil War memory, and institutional life at Bridgewater College.

Elder John Kline and the Virginia Brethren’s interest in higher education emerged on the eve of the Civil War. Their early efforts indicate they possessed an increasing openness to the value of education for the benefit of the church. In 1857, the Yearly Meeting of the Brethren took action to allow members to advocate for higher education in accordance with “gospel principles.”1 Two years later, Brethren leadership spearheaded the creation of Cedar Grove Academy in the northern Rockingham County town of Broadway. It was the first Brethren institution for higher education. The Academy persisted through the Civil War, but closed soon after the conclusion of the conflict. Elder John Kline proved instrumental to its founding, gathering supporters, and providing the land for the school.2

As a local leader, Kline also played an important role in the Virginia Brethren’s response to the looming Civil War. Acknowledging the precarity of the nonresistant position, he and other church leaders worked diligently for provisions for Anabaptists in Virginia and Confederate conscription legislation. Though succeeding in that aim rather quickly with Virginia law, Confederate legislation threatened to nullify their efforts. Only after a brief imprisonment for noncompliance and the advocacy of Virginia political and military officials did Kline and other Anabaptist leaders obtain allowances from the Confederate governmen in October 1862 for Anabaptists to opt out of military service.3 Kline’s leadership in the Brethren community persisted, but hostility toward dissenting Anabaptists amped up as the war leeched empathy from their Shenandoah Valley neighbors.4 Unlike Anabaptists in neighboring Augusta County, Brethren and Mennonites in Rockingham County largely opposed secession, while many Anabaptists in both counties also supported the Confederacy through agricultural commerce.5 Elder Kline’s prominence, as well as his anti-slavery position and Union sympathies, made him a target for violence as the war escalated community tensions. Confederate loyalists murdered Kline near his home in Broadway on June 15, 1864, for his positions, but also in response to his frequent trips north on church business and alleged engagement in smuggling Anabaptists evading conscription into Union territory.6 Fifty years after his death, a Brethren historian described Kline as a “martyr” assassinated as part of a “deeply laid scheme” by those that despised his goodness and faithfulness to God.7 Only a few months after Kline’s murder, a second tragedy swept through the Anabaptist community in Rockingham County.

Union General Phillip Sheridan’s scorched earth campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley during the fall of 1864 indiscriminately scarred its residents, regardless of religious affiliation. The Valley served as a prime agricultural region for the Confederacy, so cutting off supplies to the South proved essential to Union victory. “The Burning,” as Sheridan’s autumn inferno came to be called, reduced the barns, mills, and homes of Anabaptists and their neighbors to ashes, with no regard for professed loyalty.8 The effects of the destruction continued to smolder in the Valley long after the fires ended. James Lehman and Steve Nolt conclude, “Never before—or since—had Mennonites [and other Anabaptists] in the United States experienced such collective property destruction.”9 The trauma caused by the Burning lingered after the war as the Union denied the claims of most Anabaptists who tried to recover assets lost in the conflagration due to their commercial support of the Confederacy.10 Such destruction also delayed any efforts to re-establish Brethren higher education in the Shenandoah Valley.

Fifteen years after the war’s end, the school that would be Bridgewater College started in southern Rockingham County. The years following the war necessitated rebuilding and a reorientation of collective identity. Lehman and Nolt note that, like many of their neighbors, Anabaptists in the reconstructing South chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans, which historian David Blight chronicled in his book Race and Reunion.11 Bridgewater College started as a joint effort between Daniel C. Flory, educated at the Brethren Juniata College, and Virginia Brethren leaders in 1880. Originally called Spring Creek Normal School, Flory’s co-educational institution maintained its ties to earlier Brethren education while also charting a new path. The first board included John J. Bowman, a Brethren layman who helped found the Cedar Grove Academy, as well as Walter B. Yount, who would become Bridgewater’s first president in 1895.12 Known as the Virginia Normal School in 1882, the institution settled in Bridgewater seven years later and took its eponymous name. Literary societies flourished at the normal school and later the college, as did sports.13 The institution experienced hardships in its early years, but it matured under the leadership of President Yount (1895-1910).14 Records produced in the years of his administration provide the first clear picture of the legacy of the Civil War at Bridgewater College.

The first printed Bridgewater College history owes its origins to a student society memorializing the Confederacy. A December 1902 program of Bridgewater’s Virginia Lee literary society produced pieces for the student periodical, the Philomathean Monthly, and eventually became a1905 alumni-produced institutional history titled Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present.15 One of the two societies formed in 1897 when the Philomathean Society grew too large, the Virginia Lee Society influenced student life and periodicals into the 1930s.16 The organization embedded remembrances of the southern cause into its activities. Selecting Confederate gray as their color, the Society celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday annually, adorned their space with his likeness, and hosted speakers who interacted or served with him.17 Examining the life and work of the Society’s founding president, John W. Wayland provides a glimpse into the endurance of Lost Cause memory and its connections to Bridgewater.

Born in Shenandoah County in 1872, John Walter Wayland started attending Bridgewater in the late 1890s, graduating in 1899. He presented the name “Virginia Lee” for the Society to honor the Lee family and the inaugural state that produced them. Wayland also composed the lyrics to the Society’s song.18 Upon his graduation from Bridgewater, Wayland served as Editor-In-Chief of Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present and its 1930 alumni-produced history: Fifty Years of Educational Endeavor. By the latter work’s publication, he had earned a PhD in History from the University of Virginia in 1907 and embarked on a prolific career as a professor, administrator, and author.19 He also spent a significant portion of his adult life ordained in the Brethren Church. He died in Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1962. A brief analysis of the Civil War/Reconstruction sections of one of Wayland’s histories illustrates how he viewed the conflict and rebuilding as a Virginia Brethren and historian.

In A History of Rockingham County (1912), Wayland couched his assessment of the conflict and rebuilding in a measured tone. While he did characterize Reconstruction as a failure, only once did he deploy the term “carpetbaggers” to describe northerners presence in the South.20 Wayland mentions that 418 African Americans registered for the 1867 election, and found their civic participation indicative of “why the process of reconstruction was accomplished [in Rockingham County] with so little disturbance.”21 The relatively small numbers of enslaved African Americans living in the County during the antebellum period, as well as the its proximity to the free state of West Virginia, likely contributed a smaller free Black population during Reconstruction. This context may have also influenced Wayland’s conclusion that reunification was an easy process.22 A History of Rockingham County contains a section titled: “Some Interesting Incidents.” Of the four events mentioned that occurred during the Civil War, the death of John Kline was one. Surrounding this account of “a martyr to duty and the work of peace,” Wayland placed reports of the death and memorial of Confederate General Turner Ashby, the ingenuity of General Stonewall Jackson, and the innocence of Confederate scouts in the murder of Union Lieutenant. John R. Meigs, an incident that helped spark General Sheridan’s burning of the Valley.23 The inclusion of Kline’s murder points to its importance in the mind of the book’s Virginia Brethren author, but its location points to a shift in how Bridgewater College through one of its notable alumni recalled the Civil War.

The trials of the Brethren during the Civil War and the civil religion of the Lost Cause formed two district streams of memory with no dissonance between them. The prevalence of the Lost Cause at the college and in Wayland’s writings is not altogether unsurprising given its pervasiveness in the South. Charles Reagan Wilson argues in Baptized in Blood that, as the civil religion of the South, the Lost Cause inextricably bound together southern culture and interpretations of history in ways that made it distinct from the northern civil religion. “Southerners interpreted the Civil War as demonstrating the height of Southern virtue, as a moral-religious crusade against the atheistic North…. The antebellum and wartime religious culture evolved into a Southern civil religion, based on Christianity and regional history.”24 Thus the religious life at Bridgewater, grounded in service to the nonresistant Brethren church and community, co-existed alongside a student organization memorializing the heroics of Robert E. Lee. Likewise, John W. Wayland remembered Elder John Kline for his nonresistance and faithfulness to God, rather than as an individual who opposed slavery and suffered death for his supposed actions for the Federal cause and Union sympathies. Couching an early supporter of Brethren education as a religious rather than political martyr allowed Wayland to place Kline alongside such venerated local Confederates as Turner Ashby and Stonewall Jackson. All these men could be celebrated for their faithfulness and dedication. The nonresistant convictions and wartime experiences of the Shenandoah Valley Brethren did not prevent the presence of the Lost Cause at Bridgewater College, but rather they dwelt alongside one another as influential, but mutually exclusive, historical memories.

As I develop this project, I’ll investigate further these initial conclusions about Bridgewater and put them into conversation with my exploration of Civil War memory at the slightly younger Mennonite school that became Eastern Mennonite University. What similarities and differences existed between Brethren and Mennonite historical narratives about the Civil War? How did those memories manifest in the institutional life of each school? It will be fascinating to continue to study the interplay between historical memory and Anabaptist theology, alongside attention to their roles in developing higher education in the South.


1. Paul Haynes Bowman, Brethren Education in the Southeast (Bridgewater, VA: Bridgewater College, 1955), https://digitalcommons.bridgewater.edu/brethren_education_southeast/1, 27. See also: Kenneth M. Shaffer, “Higher Education Institutions of the Church of the Brethren,” in Religious Higher Education in the United States: A Source Book, ed. Thomas Hunt and James Carper (New York: Routledge, 1996), 279–295, 279-281.

2. Shaffer, 282.

3. For a summary of this process see: Lehman, James O., and Steven M. Nolt. Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central, 63-66. In his analysis of Confederate substitution in Rockingham County, John Sacher notes the statistically higher rates of substitution, which he primarily attributes it to the concentration of Anabaptists in the community. John Sacher, “The Loyal Draft Dodger?: A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution,” Civil War History 67, no. 2 (2011): 153–178, 161-165.

4. Lehman and Nolt. 56.

5. Lehman and Nolt, 58-60, 190-193, 199-200.

6. Lehman and Nolt, 189.

7. Daniel H. Zigler, History of the Brethren in Virginia (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1914).143-144.

8. For more detailed accounts of Sheridan’s campaigns see: Lehman and Nolt, Chapter 10; John L. Heatwole, The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley (New York: Rockbridge Publishing, 1998); and Jeannie Cummings Harding, “Retaliation with Restraint: Destruction of Private Property in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign” (Masters Thesis, James Madison University, 2013), https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1241&context=master201019.

9. Lehman and Nolt, 199.

10. Lehman and Nolt. 226-227.

11. Lehman and Nolt, 222-223. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make it claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

12. Bowman, 28; Francis Fry Wayland, Bridgewater College: The First Hundred Years 1880-1980 (Lawrenceville, VA: Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 1993). 11-12.

13. Francis Fry Wayland, 36-37.

14. He was named president in 1895, but held the leadership title “Chairman of the Faculty” beginning in 1892.

15. John W. Wayland, ed., Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1905), 36.

16. Francis Fry Wayland, 91.

17. Francis Fry Wayland, 88-89.

18. Francis Fry Wayland, 87, 89.

19. In recognition of his educational influence, Rockingham County Schools opened a school named after Wayland in 1964. It still bears his name and is in operation today.

20. John W. Wayland, A History of Rockingham County, Virginia (Dayton, VA: Ruebush-Elkins Company, 1912), 172.

21. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 163.

22. Sacher, 160-161.

23. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 433-435.

24. Charles Regan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 7-8.

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