Christian Service Brigade

I’ve noted in a previous post how the Baptist General Conference retreated from debating the Vietnam War in 1968, a quiescence which would persist to the end. Part of that retreat included what I termed an “invasion of the domestic.” Here’s how I described that shift as it related to the chaplaincy:

Whereas in previous years chaplains had been characterized more as missionaries than as part of the American military apparatus, the domestication of the chaplain intensified in 1968-69 as the language and imagery of the domestic church invaded the military chaplaincy.

A 1962 Brigade setting demonstrating the patriotic - but still civilian - nature of the organization (December 24, 1962 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

A 1962 Brigade setting demonstrating the patriotic – but still civilian – nature of the organization (December 24, 1962 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

In this post, I’d like to look at that invasion of the domestic further by way of a case study focusing on a program the Conference participated in called Christian Service Brigade (usually referred to by the shortened ‘Brigade’ moniker).

Brigade was founded in 1937 by Wheaton alumnus Joe Coughlin as a program to foster the development of boys into Christian men (the program is fairly similar to a sectarian Boy Scouts). In the words of the program’s founders,

A boy’s love of adventure, the outdoors and rough-and-tumble activity should blend naturally with his love for Christ and desire for Christian growth (May 1, 1975 Standard).

A Brigade leader explains different organizational ranks to young men (April 13, 1964 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

A Brigade leader explains different organizational ranks to young men (April 13, 1964 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

As an external program in which the Conference participated, I’m really not sure how much freedom was afforded to Conference churches in the running of the program. Harvest Press, the Conference imprint, did publish Brigade materials, so I’m inclined to think that the Conference had significant leeway, but I’d be happy for correction.

No matter the degree to which the Conference could control Brigade activities, the organization makes an interesting case study of the changing acceptance of militarism within the BGC. The program was heavily advertised in the Standard, and those advertisement were often accompanied by photos. These materials make possible some interesting analysis.

Brigade members at attention. The flag at right appears to be the Christian flag, designed in 1907 by Charles Overton (February 3, 1964 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

Brigade members at attention. The flag at right appears to be the Christian flag, designed in 1907 by Charles Overton (February 3, 1964 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

In 1962, before the Vietnam era, Brigade photos show largely civilian-clad leaders and members. Inculcating patriotism was a significant aspect of the program. A December 24, 1962 Standard advertisement read, “patriotism and love for country stand at the core of Christian Service Brigade training.”

A February 3, 1964 Brigade photo showing members learning aircraft mechanics. Other Brigade activities included rifle practice and camping (Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

A February 3, 1964 Brigade photo showing members learning aircraft mechanics. Other Brigade activities included rifle practice and camping (Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

By 1964, the photos accompanying Brigade features had changed. Gone were civilian clothes; in their place were full, military-style uniforms complete with medals, badges, and ties. The bible memorization and spiritual emphasis of the earlier program continued, but was supplemented by new additions: camping, outdoor survival skills, and aircraft maintenance. While that latter activity was billed as an essential skill for a missionary pilot to have, it’s a little eerie to see knowing that some of the boys pictured may well become mechanics in Vietnam; the juxtaposition between the quasi-military nature of the scene and the civilian mundanity of task at hand reminds me of a still from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will which similarly mixes civilian and militaristic themes.

Brigade members stand at attention (February 3, 1964 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

Brigade members stand at attention (February 3, 1964 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

A caption from the same year further establishes the connection between the spiritual and the martial: “The Brigade uniform symbolizes the discipline that is a vital part of  boys work. Paul enjoined the Christian to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

A young man in the Christian Service Brigade uniform (March 25, 1968 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

A young man in the Christian Service Brigade uniform (March 25, 1968 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

That kind of militaristic ethos persisted in Brigade from about 1964 through 1969 (the dates are impressionistic). Around that latter year, the hard edges of Brigade started to wear off and the photos illustrating the Standard begin to lose their military discipline. Although the dates are slightly later than the domestication of the chaplaincy I observed previously, the pattern roughly fits: the early years of the war saw the establishment of a blend of patriotism and Christianity which was directed toward missions; the late ’60s saw that mixture elided in favour of a softer, domestic image.

By 1975, Brigade had changed entirely, eschewing both uniforms and the patriotic language employed over a decade earlier.

Brigade still operates today, and from a brief perusal of its website, today’s Brigaders seem to have adopted a balanced look; their uniforms evoke the Boy Scouts more than the military. I’d be curious to know whether the organization saw the same kinds of shifts in ethos during other wars. And given the organization’s founding on the eve of World War II, I’m curious to see what Chris will turn up if he encounters Brigade in that era.

Brigade sheds the last of its military trappings (May 1, 1975 Standard) - Bethel University Digital Library

Brigade sheds the last of its military trappings (May 1, 1975 Standard) – Bethel University Digital Library

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2 comments

  1. Haven’t encountered the Brigade yet in WWII, but I haven’t read as much in The Standard (or Our Youth, the BGC youth magazine) as in Bethel publications. I hope you don’t mind that I corrected one typo that involves my name: “Paul enjoined the Christian to be a good soldier of Jesus Chris[t].” 🙂

  2. […] Conference’s reaction to that event said about their public theology. Finally, I examined the prevalence of militaristic language and imagery in the early Vietnam period — and imagery that gradually elided as the war […]

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