A Feather in Your Cap
Legalism in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ / Bible Fellowship Church
By Jill Davidson
The Historical Society of the Bible Fellowship Church
October 28, 2006
When you got dressed this morning, what factors determined your choice of clothing? Was it the weather? Was it the occasion? Or was it the preacher? The idea of the preacher dictating what you could or could not wear may sound ludicrous to some, but to others it is a clear memory.
Many people report hearing from the pulpit a ban on jewelry, silk stockings, and ribbons or feathers on hats. In the 1920’s, Mrs. Florence Henry Deppe of the Whitehall church was in the congregation when H. B. Musselman said from the pulpit: “You should not spend money on expensive clothes and hats with feathers like that one,” pointing to her Stetson hat with a feather in it. “Instead, the money should go to missionaries and to the Lord’s work.” Mrs. Deppe answered, “I already paid for this hat and I gave to the missionaries. Now would you please get on with your sermon.” To avoid just such an incident, when Gospel Herald R. C. Reichenbach married Alberta Snyder in 1940, she clipped the feathers off her wedding hat so W. G. Gehman wouldn’t say anything about it.
Alice Weaver Wolfe, born in 1903, is a member of the Terre Hill church. When she married her husband, Paul Wolfe, in 1921, it was understood that everyone should wear two layers of clothing: long-sleeved underwear, long-sleeved dresses or shirts, and two layers on the legs, also. This was for the sake of modesty. Not everyone complied with this idea, though.
Preacher Jim Koch heard stories of preachers collecting flowers, feathers, and ribbons from hats, and collecting jewelry and keeping it. However, Jim reports this as being “before his time” (he was born in 1923). When Jim was a kid, he had to wear knickers but hated them because other kids wore other things. Being thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch, his parents (James Koch and Rosa Marie Gehman) made him wear clothes until they were really worn out. Concerning amusements in the Koch household, comics were forbidden and movies were taboo. If Jim played marbles with his friends, he could not play “for keeps.”
One day, B. Bryan Musselman was walking home from school when someone threw a baseball to him. He caught it and threw it back. Someone from church saw it and reported it to his father, Presiding Elder H. B. Musselman, because B. Bryan was “mingling” with the world.
When preacher F. M. Hottel’s daughter, Grace, was only a few months old, she was at Mizpah Grove with the family. As was expected, she was dressed in long sleeves and a long dress to cover up her tiny body. When she developed prickly heat, her father went into town to purchase a short sleeved undershirt for her. H B Musselman thought it was terrible that little Grace Hottel was dressed in only a diaper and a short sleeved shirt. F. M. Hottel replied, “If you want to stay up during the night with a crying baby, you can have her.”
In 1938, when F. M. Hottel’s daughter, Ruth, married Herb, the son of preacher E. N. Cassel, exchanging wedding rings was not commonly done among the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Nevertheless, Ruth told her father that she wanted a wedding ring, and if it could not be part of the ceremony, they would give each other rings afterward. F. M. Hottel thought that would be hypocritical, so it was put into the ceremony, in spite of H. B. Musselman’s admonition against it. When Ruth’s sister, Grace, married Ralph Reed in 1941, there was no discussion. The ring exchange was part of the ceremony which was performed by Grace’s father, F. M. Hottel.
When Gospel Herald Dave Thomann married Polly Musselman in 1941, the exchange of wedding rings was not part of the ceremony. B. Bryan Musselman performed the ceremony and told Dave to “just slip it on.”
When Ardella Bray’s sister, Merle, was in high school in the early 1930s, she was not allowed to wear a gym suit in school. This and other such items turned Merle and others away from the church. Merle eventually resolved the matter, but it took a long time.
Mrs. Grace Musselman, wife of Henry, reported that the minister went along when she picked out her wedding dress to be sure it was modest and becoming of a Christian.
Alice Wolfe remembers A. G. Woodring telling her not to wear silk stockings. She wore them anyway because that was all she had. A. G. asked her husband, Paul, to buy her other stockings. Paul asked in reply, “What would we do with the silk ones?” A. G. answered that it would be OK then for Alice to wear the silk stockings but she shouldn’t talk about them. It seems worldly pride was some of the concern there.
Preacher John Dunn recalls that his mother was not raised in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ church but trusted in Christ as Savior as a young woman. T. D. Gehret was her pastor in Wissinoming in the early 1920s and told her to wear black stockings instead of the silk ones she had. She replied, “When the Lord tells me to, I will.”
In C. H. Brunner’s 1905 essay on sanctification, he states: “We dress not to please our carnal relatives or associates, but Him who has purchased us with His own blood. It is altogether unbecoming to decorate the body of a child of God thus sanctified for the indwelling of Christ, in the flippant, gaudy attire of the harlot after the latest Parisian fashion plate, like so many professors of today do. It is equally unbecoming to sanctified believers to wear heavy fashionable mourning attire, borrowed often at that, to make a display of their sorrow and grief as though they had neither hope nor Bible and believed neither in a loving, all wise Father nor in a resurrection and a life to come.” This essay was presented to the ministerial convention on October 11, 1905, in Bethlehem, Pa.
These accounts of preachers micromanaging the flock are only part of the story. What do we find in the annual conference records concerning dictating fashion, adornment, and other personal choice activities?
In 1873, there was a discussion about the article concerning dress from the Doctrine of Faith and Discipline. “Brother” William Gehman brought up the matter and it “was discussed in great detail but in love and gentleness.” The discussion mentioned “hoops, women’s hats, etc.” Nothing of hoops from this discussion was mentioned in the annual conference minutes, but it was resolved that the sisters be permitted to wear a plain hat. Included is a reminder that “as disciples of Jesus we should not imitate the world in any way.” As a matter of interest, the hoops of 1873 would not be the sort to make the skirt very large as seen in American Civil War era photographs. The 1873 hoops would refer to a small bustle, but they were still called hoops.
At the 1889 Sunday School convention, Abraham Kauffman spoke on the
good and evil result of the Sunday school. The discussion was by William B.
Musselman and M. A. Zyner. It was resolved “that we accept the lecture as it
was given and as it has been discussed, namely, that when the Sunday School is
not kept free from worldliness and secularism in conduct and dress, and in the observance of holidays, etc., then the evil result is greater than the good.”
In 1893, “the matter about gold and golden necklaces was discussed.” There is no detail recorded concerning the discussion, only that it was discussed.
In 1904, Pastor E. T. Shick gave an essay on the pastor’s wife. “She should be in subjection to her own husband, she shall be a house wife to keep the house, and dress plain, not dressing her children for show. In bossing the pastor she will have a very bad influence upon the work.”
H. B. Musselman was presiding elder of the Bethlehem district in 1915. In his report, he includes the following: “The young people are making excellent progress on spiritual lines, and their willingness to walk in the Master’s steps is manifestly seen, but living obedient and devoted lives for their Blessed Lord and Master, whom having not seen they love. They are plain in dress, and free from worldly alliances, having been gloriously ‘kept’ by the Spirit’s power from the currents of worldliness, and from the fleshly allurements that throng this present age.”
Was the MBC/BFC strict or lax, compared to other churches? It depends on who we were standing next to. The Franconia Mennonites had resolutions concerning women’s hats and plain head coverings, as well as depth of neckline and length of hemline. Men were to wear the plain suit and hat. Both sexes were to not follow the style of the world in the cutting of the hair. In 1946, the cape dress was decreed for women and the plain-cut coat with black shoes for men. Other details are prescribed and wedding rings continued to be forbidden for many years. By the 1950s and 1960s, frustration was expressed concerning the disregard for the “dress code” by so many people.
The Eastern District Conference of the Mennonites, which spawned the group that would be called the Bible Fellowship Church, was more lax about dress than the Franconia Mennonites. The 1866 semi-annual conference had a discussion on the many new fashions. It was decided that banning certain sinful fashions (not named in the record) would not bring about the desired result of the real spirit of obedience. Instead, council was of the opinion that ministers should preach on the matter and allow the truth to work on the hearts of the people toward obedience of their own free will…”since true holiness only comes from proper knowledge and truth by loving obedience.”
In subsequent decades, the Eastern District Conference minutes are concerned about baptism, foot washing, congregations joining and leaving, and missions among native Americans in Western states. Fashion and dress are no longer issues.
The River Brethren are very particular about what people wear, even to the point of dictating the length of a man’s coat sleeves, using a mathematical formula. All this is for the sake of not being proud.
Some of the Plymouth Brethren assemblies were very strict and exclusive. If you did not dress according to what was dictated, you were not welcome in the meeting.
The Church of the Brethren dressed plain for many years. Women wore the head covering and men wore a wide brim hat. Annual meetings addressed issues such as tapered hair cuts for men and raising hemlines on women’s dresses. Gold wrist watches were a topic for discussion at annual meeting. Some people left the church because of the strictness of the rules of conduct.
In other churches, standards for clothing were not an issue at all. Some of these people would be considered “the world,” people with whom we were not to mingle and like whom we were not to be. This would include the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Church in our communities.
A comparative look at photos from the late 1800s into the 1900s reveals that MBC people were stylish, yet conservative. They did not have the latest fads, but they were not decades outdated, either.
What about the whole idea of an authoritative body dictating to others what to wear? This idea was not new to nineteenth century Christians. In Exodus 39, God gave specific, detailed instructions concerning clothes for Aaron, the first high priest. There was spiritual meaning in a lot of the details. In addition, the outfit would identify the person as holding the office of high priest. In 1634, the use of lace, except a small edging on linen, was forbidden in Puritan Massachusetts. In France in 1638, Cardinal Richelieu banned all elegancies of fashion such as gold, lace, and fringes. Today, many groups have uniforms for identification purposes (armies, sports teams, work places).
What was the motive of our earlier leaders when they dictated specifics of fashion and personal decoration? With Olivia Barnes, daughter of B. Bryan Musselman and granddaughter of H. B. Musselman, we believe they were well intended. The writings of H. B. Musselman, C. H. Brunner, and W. G. Gehman explain that they were interested in the spiritual life of the people of the church. In the matter of the high neckline, wrist-length sleeves and low hemline, however, it may have been more than a matter of modesty. These characteristics describe the dress of women in the late 19th century. Was H. B. Musselman merely resisting change? Was he equating the conservative culture with Christian expression?
H. B. Musselman’s life spanned a time of radical social change. He was born in 1868 and died in 1956. In the late 1800s, the industrial revolution changed American society in many ways. Industrialization changed a man’s work world from self-employment with his skill and trade, to being a corporate employee. This change offered more stability in income, plus it gave higher wages for fewer hours. The result was more leisure time with more money and options for filling that leisure time. In many cases, the job was no longer fulfilling. The private domain of family life now broadened into a center for personal recreation. The youth culture was developed by the corporate world as a market for all kinds of consumer goods, promising love and romance if women kept themselves physically attractive and young looking. The home lost many of its social functions of nurturing and instilling morals, training a son in his father’s trade and training a daughter in domestic skills as matters of survival. Now people were looking for excitement and fun at home and in society in their increasing amount of leisure time. Hollywood movies instructed people in these new attitudes. This was H. B. Musselman’s world, living through these shifts in American society and culture.
A portion of those shifts concerned people’s clothing. Clothing for the masses was no longer just a matter of covering one’s body and providing protection from the elements. Pleasure was increasingly a goal and expectation, including the visual pleasure of a person’s appearance and the pleasure of creative personal expression through one’s clothing. H. B. Musselman, along with C. H. Brunner and W. G. Gehman, were concerned for the modesty, priorities, and perils of pride of the people under their spiritual leadership, as evidenced by their writings and what they preached.
What is preached on this subject from the pulpit of the BFC today? Pastor Philip Yerrington touched on these things in a sermon given on 28 May 2006. He preached that the Lord accepts people completely. It doesn’t matter what clothes they have on, it doesn’t matter what hair style they have or the length of their sideburns. People might dress completely different from us and look completely different from us and act differently and have different musical tastes. These are not eternal issues. What matters is that people trust in Christ as Savior. Jesus said, “He that believes in me, has eternal life.”
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Philip Yerrington, 28 May 2006. Graterford Bible Fellowship Church.
Barnes, Olivia Musselman
Bray, Ardella Bieber
Koch, Beatrice King
Reed, Grace Hottel
Reichenbach, R. C.
Wire, Doris Deppe
Wolfe, Alice Weaver