David A. Hollinger, When This Mask of Flesh Is Broken: The Story of an American Protestant Faith, Outskirts Press, Denver, CO, 2019. 89 pp. $12.95. ISBN 9781977211149.
The distinguished American intellectual and religious historian David Hollinger describes his family memoir When This Mask of Flesh Is Broken as “American gothic.” It’s an apt expression. The story told in this short volume is one of bleak, frigid, subsistence farming on the barren Saskatchewan prairie; mental illness and its generational effects; sectarian Christianity; patriarchal power; and the bonds of persistence and reliance forged in this harsh and unforgiving setting. It’s both a somewhat disturbing and powerful story, and it is also a story worth reflecting on by those who care about Anabaptism and mission.
The story Hollinger tells is that of his father, Albert Hollinger Jr. (referred to as Junior throughout the text), his father’s siblings, and his father’s parents, Albert Hollinger Sr. and Annie Deardorff Hollinger. The elder Albert Hollinger was a prosperous farmer and Church of the Brethren minister from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the early twentieth century when he accepted a call, in 1921, to serve as pastor of a small, upstart congregation on the Saskatchewan prairie. Accepting the call was, according to Hollinger, relatively easy for the elder Albert but not nearly as seamless for his family.
In Gettysburg, the family—which included the elder Albert’s wife, their seven children, and their live-in housekeeper and aunt—had been somewhat cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile, with access to education, cultural and social connections in the wider community, and stable religious networks. In Saskatchewan, they faced nearly impossible farming conditions, reliance upon faraway Winnipeg bankers for loans, and relative social isolation in the sparsely populated region.
Other traumas also shaped what Hollinger terms the family’s “Canadian sojourn” (55). Their religious community in Canada was more fundamentalist than in Gettysburg, and the children, in particular, were disturbed by the visiting “hell-fire revivalists” and their emphasis on sin and damnation (33). Even more traumatic were the effects of mental illness upon the family. First was Annie Hollinger’s undiagnosed mental illness, which rendered the family matriarch catatonic from 1914 until her death in 1927. During that period, her leg was amputated after she contracted gangrene from an infected toe but was unable to disclose her discomfort to anyone. Eldest son Archie’s similarly undiagnosed “serious emotional problems” (31) resulted in his involuntary institutionalization in 1922 and his untimely death in 1946 at age 52.
In Hollinger’s telling, the elder Albert remained relatively aloof from the day-to-day struggles of his children in this unforgiving environment, concentrated as he was on his religious duties and his increasingly prominent position within the national Brethren community. Meanwhile, the younger Albert and his siblings experienced relocation, isolation, and parental absence in visceral ways that fundamentally altered their life journeys, even after the patriarch’s sudden death in 1932 and the family’s return to the United States, and the sale of the Saskatchewan property after 1941.
One legacy was familial: only a few of the seven siblings married, and only two had children. The siblings worried both about the hereditary inheritance of mental illness and about perpetuating the poor parenting that had been modeled for them by their father. As one of Hollinger’s uncles put it: “We were always afraid” (32). A second legacy was communal. Even after the end of the Canadian sojourn, the siblings were bonded together, their lives intertwined. Junior and his wife, Evelyn Steinmeier, opened their homes at different times and in different places to several of Junior’s siblings. All of the siblings relied on one another for advice, counsel, and financial and emotional support. In their later years of life, five of the siblings—Junior, Charles, Roland, Annie, and Edith—lived in geographic proximity to each other in La Verne, a Church of the Brethren stronghold nestled in the foothills of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. The bonds of reliance and persistence, forged in the harsh conditions of the Saskatchewan prairie, held the siblings together for the rest of their lives.
Hollinger’s purpose in When This Mask of Flesh is Broken is not primarily one of reflection on mission. But for readers engaged in cross-cultural service and other forms of ministry, Hollinger’s family memoir raises issues that warrant serious consideration. In the main, the book offers a potent reminder of the human and familial costs of following a perceived call to Christian service. As Hollinger represents the situation, Albert Sr. was emotionally unavailable to his children during the Canadian sojourn, preoccupied by his religious vocation and by the relentless work required to eke out modest crop yields in the barren environment. We know, of course, that the elder Albert was not unique in this regard; the annals of Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Church of the Brethren history are filled with stories of men who prioritized a perceived divine call over the care of their families, or whose religious work placed undue burden on wives, children, and extended family.
In addition, the book shows how Christian mission was often intertwined with manifest destiny. Hollinger repeatedly points out that Anabaptists who settled on the Saskatchewan prairie, including his grandfather, believed in “the great myth of ‘Virgin Land’” and mixed capitalist pursuits—the acquisition of land suitable for farming, for example—with their religious mission (12, 15). Both of these realities deserve serious reflection by those who care about both Anabaptism and mission, and Hollinger’s book illustrates them in vivid terms.
There are some factual errors in Hollinger’s account, mostly revolving around his grandfather’s pastorate in Saskatchewan. Hollinger indicates that Albert Sr. relocated his family to Canada at the invitation of a group of Brethren in Christ—a denomination that was shaped, like the Church of the Brethren, by Anabaptist and Pietist influences—who were looking for a new minister. According to Hollinger, they had split from another group of Brethren in Christ over that latter contingent’s “turn toward Pentecostalism” (14). However, according to historian E. Morris Sider, who has written the definitive history of the Brethren in Christ in Canada, the split among Saskatchewan Brethren in Christ was precipitated not by disagreements about Pentecostalism but by disagreements over whether sanctification is a lifelong process (the traditional stance among Anabaptist-oriented groups) or an event, a “second work of grace” similar to justification (the stance taken by many groups in the American holiness tradition). The group that invited Albert Sr. to serve as their minister were the traditionalists, and they believed themselves to be the true Brethren in Christ, even though they had pulled out of the established Brethren in Christ congregation. Hollinger presents these dissidents as forming a “‘fusion’ congregation” (15), an equal-parts mix of Brethren in Christ and Church of the Brethren, but Sider presents the dissidents as having “joined the Church of the Brethren,” not blending church traditions.1 Moreover, Hollinger claims that the Brethren in Christ Church named Albert Sr. “bishop of Western Canada” (23–24), but I could find no evidence in the minutes of the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church (the denomination’s highest governing body) that he ever held that title officially. Perhaps the Brethren in Christ dissidents bestowed the title on Albert Sr., without official authority, as a sign of their gratitude for his leadership, but there’s no record of Hollinger’s grandfather receiving that honorific through the church hierarchy.
But these are minor factual and interpretive issues in an otherwise valuable story. Hollinger’s memoir is not intended as a missiological text, but it is nonetheless worthwhile reading for those who care about Anabaptism and mission.
Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas is director of the E. Morris and Leone Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies and senior lecturer in the humanities at Messiah College (Mechanicsburg, PA).
Sider’s version of this story appears in Be in Christ: A Canadian Church Engages Heritage and Change (Oakville, ON: Be in Christ Church of Canada, 2019), 222–27. Quotation from p. 226. The Brethren in Christ in Canada changed their denominational name to “Be in Christ” in 2017.