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Letting go of appearances

The challenge to be clothed with Christ in order to share the good news

by Ruth Dourte

Witnessing to the world:We value an active and loving witness for Christ to all people.

In the 1920s, when I was growing up, Brethren in Christ people gave visible evidence of our beliefs by how we dressed: erect collars without ties for men and cape dresses and head coverings for women. Our appearance expressed our deep commitment to the values of modesty, simplicity, and nonconformity.

I remember my grandmother’s black, ankle-length cape dress. The “cape” lay around her shoulders like a shawl, rounded off in the back and pinned in the front at the waist. She also wore an apron (in which she pocketed mints for the children) and was so conscientious about having her head covered that she wore a nightcap.

When I joined the Church at age 9, I complied with the standard of dress among the BIC. For many years, Church leaders resisted setting specific guidelines for dress, but in 1937, out of a desire to preserve our values, General Conference did just that.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I began to question the imperative of wearing the traditional dress of the BIC. In 1943, my husband, Eber, became pastor at Hollowell BIC, a little one-room country church near Waynesboro, Pa. When we arrived, the church had 11 members and about 35 in attendance at Sunday School. The church began to grow as a result of revival meetings, and we saw many people “go to the altar,” declaring their allegiance to Jesus.

Up until then, Grace Woglemuth—the wife of our district’s bishop—and I had been sewing cape dresses and making pleated head coverings for the women in the church. But now, with so many converts, we could not possibly keep up. As a result, we began to wear modest dresses, without capes.

This decision generated distress among some. Two deacons pled with me to reconsider, and my own father was so stricken by this change that he stopped coming to church for a time.

But even more surprising and heartening was the response of one woman in the church, who told me that she and others began to feel like they could be up “on my level now.” While I had always thought that plain dress spelled humility, my neighbors had interpreted it as a sign of righteousness that seemed unattainable.

By 1957, the Hollowell Church had 85 members, and attendance averaged over 250. God revealed His presence and power in ways we cannot fathom!

Throughout the 1950s, we Brethren in Christ changed in our dress, as well as other practices. Yet my recollection is that many of these transitions had been evident in places like the Hollowell Church prior to the BIC’s official involvement with the National Association of Evangelicals in 1949.

Frankly, I had no personal desire to be rid of the plain clothing I’d grown up wearing. In fact, doing so felt like a serious “betrayal” of my heritage, as I loved following after the unpretentious examples of my aunts and grandmother. Yet the church member’s comment about my clothing helped me realize that others didn’t always see plain dress as setting Brethren in Christ apart—but as setting us above. As I was learning, following Christ and spreading the Gospel should be kept as our most important priorities.

More of Ruth’s story is captured in “Reflections of an Octogenerian,” in the August 2010 edition of Brethren in Christ History and Life.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of In Part magazine.
Ruth Dourte

Ruth Dourte, 92, is a member of Dillsburg (Pa.) BIC. She and her husband, Eber, will celebrate their 70th anniversary this December. Recently, she was in her attic and found one of her old cape dresses.

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Amy Starr Posted on September 3, 2013

Thank you for this reflection on this period of change in the BIC. I find it so interesting to hear about this transition in the life of the church and its people.

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