Memories of the Christian Brethren

In the current issue of Faith Today, columnist John G. Stackhouse, Jr. promised additional reflections on growing up in an otherworldly evangelical community. Here they are.

Son of the Brethren, John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
Growing up evangelical is a gift horse whose mouth John Stackhouse is willing to look straight into.

Because I spent the first twenty years of my life “among the Brethren,” as we’d say – including three of those years in the actual town of Plymouth, England, so I have been a real Plymouth Brother – I have far too many memories to recite here. Lest my column appear to be coldly analytical toward my heritage, however, or even unappreciative of it, let me recite a few tales of what it was like to grow up in the Canadian version of this global movement.

The Bible was a Big Deal. We had rituals regarding its use, although we would never have used the term “ritual,” tarred as that word was by association with Roman Catholics.

(Indeed, Roman Catholicism was the great “Other” for us, the trumped-up counterfeit of authentic Christianity. We believed that Roman Catholicism was all we were not – which was, indeed, perhaps true even in ways we hadn’t recognized! But we never knew enough about it to consider just how it was “other.” We just knew it was Not Us, and therefore bad. As we clever teenagers learned to say in mockery of our elders’ warnings, “I’m ignorant of the subject, but I know it’s wrong.”)

Anyhow, our rituals were many when it came to the Bible. We never let it touch the floor, nor would be put another book on top of it. In particular, we were trained to memorize Scripture – and word-for-word with the chapter-and-verse reference.

I have found this heritage invaluable as a theological teacher. Just yesterday, a student in class tried to make a point by citing a fragment of Scripture. Another student corrected him by reciting the verse in question . . . but left off the last phrase, which reversed entirely the meaning he was attributing to it. Because of my father’s insistence that one learn Scripture “cold,” I recognized the omission and we got things sorted out before more theological harm was done!

Knowing the references, of course, wasn’t much help if you didn’t know how to use them. So we had Sunday school songs that taught us the order of the Bible books. Years later, as a father of high-schoolers, I got out my folk guitar for a Sunday school class and taught them this goofy, “bm-chk” song, strumming away in a corny version of country-and-western. These dying-to-be-cool kids loved it – and learned it. I suspect they remember that song, in fact, better than anything else I taught them that year.

Just like learning the alphabet is crucial to advanced work in the humanities, or memorizing the periodic table helps in advanced work in chemistry and biology, so recalling quickly the books of the Bible is a crucial tool for theological study – helping one see the books in their relations to each other as various collections and units: Pentateuch or Wisdom or Pastoral Epistles or the like, or how Malachi nicely concludes the Old Testament and sets up the New.

As for those early-on-Sunday-morning communion services, I could write a chapter on those alone. By the time we were teenagers, my sisters and I could recite by heart the script for the “spontaneous” prayers of old Mr. D—, or could preach in the bombastic and sentimental style of his evangelist son. I could imitate the big bass voice of another man in the congregation, right down to his insistence on singing the tonic when in fact the normal harmonizations would call for the dominant or sub-dominant. (Yes, I know I should get over it. But I can’t. I just can’t.)

In fact, because we did not use musical instruments for this service (more about instruments in a moment), and because our “Believer’s Hymn Book” contained only lyrics, my musically inclined family all learned to harmonize by ear, as did others around the room. Sometimes we’d have to negotiate chords on the fly with other families (!), but sometimes the Spirit would lead and we’d all sing in quite a lovely harmony.

I also appreciated the opportunity to try my wings at preaching in those services. I have written elsewhere that the gender line in those services became a serious bone of contention for me. But for now I want to celebrate the opportunity at least we young men received to speak on Scripture by preparing a short reflection – maybe just three-to-five minutes long. Working at such a small scale helped me learn concision and coherence – something I then used when I started writing for publication and the only work I could get was book reviewing. Again, creating within tight constraints, like painting miniatures, teaches you things that, all going well, make one a better preacher or writer when the canvases get bigger.

The only one of these reflections I can remember offering was the first time I tried to connect something I was learning in school with what I was reading in the Bible. Our English class was studying George Orwell’s 1984 and the way Big Brother and his organization would discover and then exploit one’s worst fears reminded me that the holy Son of God would have loathed sin more than anything . . . but then willingly succumbed to being crushed by a mountain of it, and its punishment, on the Cross. That the Bible and culture could connect so powerfully was a revelation to me. I have tried since then to connect contemporary culture and the Bible on other occasions (= most of my career).

The single element of those Brethren communion services that I appreciated most, however, was not the prayers, or the music, or the preaching. In a kind of Daoist/Zen way (and I say that with tongue firmly in cheek, since we were ignorant of those subjects, too, but knew they were wrong), I valued above all the silence.

Garrison Keillor writes about his own experiences in such services on a hot summer day when a fly would buzz against a window and occupy his attention. But I was rarely distracted thus. Instead, I found the atmosphere of resolute quiet to open up space for imaginative episodes. What would it have been like, really, to be in the Garden of Gethsemane – as Jesus or as one of the sleepy disciples? What would it have been like to be berated by Caiaphas, or terrified in the outer courtyard by a servant girl linking me with the Accused inside? What would it have been like to face Pilate or Herod, to be stripped and beaten, to be spiked and tied and hoisted into place on a cross?

I didn’t need Mel Gibson to introduce me to the horrors of the Passion of the Christ. And I didn’t dwell, I’m glad to say, on the horrors so much as on the love and devotion and commitment of the Lord Jesus, the grit as well as the grace of the Man, to take it and take it and take it some more – out of love for his Father, his disciples, his world, and me. In those silences – sometimes they would stretch out for five minutes and more – I could begin to feel, as well as just “know things about,” the Cross of Christ. I am sure that those experiences made me a more convinced and committed Christ-follower.

As for evangelism, yes, I could poke fun at some of our well-intended but probably fairly fruitless exercises in duty. Our Sunday evening services were called “gospel services,” but precious few ever attended who weren’t already committed. On summer evenings we would raise the stakes and move the service to an empty shopping centre parking lot on the main drag of our town’s motel strip. There we would erect a P.A., a small stage, and a tiny (portable) piano.

We hoped that passersby somehow would ignore our precious golden summer nights in northern Ontario, would pull in to listen to our music and preaching, and then would get saved. I remember precisely no one ever rendering an account in the fall about how many “decisions for Christ” were actually recorded through such efforts. I also don’t remember anyone openly questioning whether we’d do the same thing all over again next year.

At the opposite end of the climatic scale, a small group of us Brethren Bible schoolers braved the bitter depth of an Edmonton winter evening to go door-to-door for the gospel. Why anyone even opened their door to us is a mystery to me, and after a number of weeks of this, just one young teenager consented to be picked up to try out our church the following Sunday.

When I excitedly parked the car to pick her up on the morning in question, there was no answer at the door. I was crestfallen. When I reported my disappointment on Monday, however, our Bible school teacher seemed utterly unsurprised, and counseled me to keep at it. Without his suggesting just why we should persevere, however, I remember concluding something else instead – more along the lines of “Never again!”

I have been thrilled to share the gospel in many other modes since then, from airplane conversations to national radio and television in several countries. But I never went back to door-to-door during a Canadian winter. (I just wish there was a Bible verse to back me up on that conviction, but as a Plymouth Brother I know the Bible too well to believe that there is. And another winter is here….)

Lastly, though, I want to testify to the family dynamics of my little church, right down to the ritual (there’s that word again) of  addressing the adults with the epithets “Uncle” and “Aunt.” In other languages and cultures, I have since learned, one uses such terms in deference to one’s elders. But we used them in truly familial fashion.

Uncle Harold or Uncle Frank lent us their snowmobiles. Uncle Allan and Uncle Doug taught us faithfully in Sunday school or led the boys’ club. Uncle Don or Uncle Dave might help us move furniture, or even heavier things.

(I remember Uncle Don picking up creosote-filled railroad ties by himself, one by one, hoisting them up on his shoulder and carrying them from the road around the house to my father who was building steps down to the lake from our backyard. I always made sure to stay on the right side of Uncle Don after that.)

Aunt Betty and Aunt Molly and Aunt Susan and Aunt Jean made fabulous cakes and pies for our many church meals. They made other things too, I suppose, but my boy’s memory remembers mostly the desserts. I do, to be sure, recall something called “ambrosia” (don’t ask) – and some horrid thing that suspended small vegetables in gelatin (really, please, don’t ask). But what I recall fondly were such delicacies as raisin pie, rhubarb pie and various sorts of lemon meringue pie (ranging from delicious to “biohazard”).

And those ladies then played the piano and organ for our main church services, sometimes with considerable élan. (A few were masters of what I would call “white gospel piano,” full of runs and octaves and fills, but without the sexy syncopation that would make some of us nervous about rock music.)

It was one of the great moments of my own musical career, such as it has been, to be allowed to play for the main service on Sunday morning – or, as we called it, “the Big Time.”

These good people would come to our house for Sunday dinners and Saturday night parties, and we would go to theirs. Moreover, everyone showed up for the annual Sunday school picnic, the fall Bible conference (don’t get me started on the 75-minute-plus sermons at those things), the Christmas pageant, the spring week of “children’s meetings,” the Vacation Bible School, the summer camps, and more, more, more.

In such frequency of meeting and such seriousness of purpose, tempers would sometimes fray, people would get on each other’s nerves, and gossip was a constant temptation. But these folks mostly got along.

Better than that, they showed up in crises, whether births (or miscarriages), marriages (or separations), funerals and more. They truly and actually cared for each other: That’s what “love” in the Bible is mostly about. And in everything they did, they really tried to “let the Lord be magnified,” which was the slogan in large letters posted on the wall behind the pulpit of our chapel.

I would like to belong to such a church again.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is the Samuel J. Mikolaski professor of religious studies and dean of faculty development at Crandall University in Moncton, N. B. Find more of his columns at www.faithtoday.ca/ChristAndCulture.

4 thoughts on “Memories of the Christian Brethren”

  1. Chip.
    Interesting takeway and insight into what you really gleaned from meeting with “The Brethern” as a youngster.
    It comes across (to me at any rate) to be somewhat negative and perhaps more than a little condescending as to knowing the hearts of some. ie Old Mr. D in his prayers would lift me for one into the heavens. An uneducated man who love The Lord and wanted each there to “worship” in this way was uplifting.
    Do we equate worship today with entertainment using music written for radio play as worship? I for one think not.
    And to declare uncle A as bombastic (high sounding but with little meaning) is harsh. As an itinerant evangelist he brought many to know the saviour throughout Ontario and indeed the N of the USA too.
    So I for one would not throw stones.
    The sign over the pulpit is ” Jesus Christ is Lord” by the way
    Like me, when I find a perfect “church” when I would join it too would be not so perfect.
    Our Worship/Breaking of Bread service is still what I would call the quiet meeting. And as I still worship this way, each week it is so uplifting for me/us.
    How well I remember your family and the hospitality shown.
    I remember your fathers radio program.
    I too remember our loss when your family left for greener pastures, and some of the circumstances around it.

    Love in Christ my brother.

  2. I still very much enjoy my occasional visits to Bethel Gospel Chapel in North Bay and the Island Bible Chapel on St. Josephs Island. I feel at home there even though I’m a visitor.

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