Appeal, No. 15, May T., 1951, from decree of Court of Common Pleas of Mifflin County, Jan. T., 1949, No. 1, in case of The First Church of the Brethren of Lewistown et al. v. Harold Snider et al. Decree affirmed.
James E. Bennet and Paul S. Lehman, for appellants.
Paul E. Fetterolf and Frank E. Hahn, Jr., with them Edmonds, Obermayer & Rebmann, for appellees.
Before Drew, C.j., Stearne, Jones, Bell, Ladner and Chidsey, JJ.
OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE LADNER
The First Church of the Brethren of Lewistown is a religious corporation, incorporated by decree of the Court of Common Pleas of Mifflin County on May 7,
. Unhappy differences having arisen in the congregation, a bill in equity was filed in which it was charged that the pastor, Harold Snider, and those of the congregation supporting him, had departed from the practices and beliefs of the established Church of the Brethren, the highest human authority of the denomination being the General Conference. The bill charged in substance that the defendants instigated by the Pastor Snider, endeavored to set themselves up as an independent congregation and were about to dedicate the church property in the name of the Calvary Independent Church.
The cause came on for trial before President Judge SHEELY, specially presiding, who after a full hearing and careful review of the evidence found in favor of the plaintiffs and entered a decree nisi granting the relief prayed for.Exceptions to the chancellor's findings and decree nisi were subsequently dismissed by him sitting en banc.
We have perused the evidence and conclude the learned court's findings of fact are supported by adequate evidence and therefore can do no better than recite the facts as they are set forth by him in the following extract of the discussion of his adjudication: "The dispute mainly concerns the alleged efforts on the part of the defendants, and particularly the Reverend Harold Snider, their pastor, to disassociate themselves from the general denomination of the Church of the Brethren and to declare themselves sovereignly independent of any authority by the various conferences and committees of the general denomination. As to their efforts in this respect there can be no doubt.
"The Reverend Harold Snider, a duly ordained minister of the Church of the Brethren, became pastor of the First Church of the Brethren of Lewistown on or about January 1, 1941. On May 4, 1942, under his
leadership and direction, the congregation adopted a constitution and by-laws (although they were then operating under a corporate charter) which provided, inter alia, that the congregation should be known as the Church of the Brethren and, in Section 2: 'Though it shall be the purpose of this congregation to work in harmony with all other branches of our own faith and name, and also with all other churches insofar as our doctrine of faith will permit, it shall nevertheless be the object of this group to maintain at all times a strictly independent sovereignty, exercising the right of free choice in all matters, which is in keeping with the historic position of our church, same being strictly congregational in its form of government.' The immediate reason for the adoption of this statement of sovereignty does not appear, but its purpose may be found in the defendants' contention that dissension between the Reverend Mr. Snider and the Elders of the Middle Pennsylvania District began on or shortly after the date when the Reverend Mr. Snider assumed his ministry to the Lewistown congregation. Thereafter, under the leadership of the Reverend Mr. Snider, the hymnbooks used by the congregation were changed and a hymnbook not published by the Church of the Brethren was adopted. Likewise, the Sunday School literature was changed from that prepared by the Church of the Brethren to that published by a non-denominational publishing house. Neither of these acts, of itself, would constitute a departure from the doctrines of the church but, when considered with the other acts of the defendants, they assume importance as showing the real intention of the defendants or, more particularly, of the Reverend Mr. Snider. About 1946 the Church Council officially resolved not to forward money to the General Board of the church at Elgin, although this resolution was not carried out and payments
were thereafter made at the direction of the Finance Committee.
"In 1942 the Reverend Mr. Snider published and distributed a book entitled 'Does the Bible Sanction War' in which he explained why he was not a pacifist and drew a distinction between 'aggressive' war and 'defensive' war, contending that only the former was prescribed by the Bible. He likewise preached and spoke publicly on the same subject. This teaching was contrary to the historic peace doctrine of the church and the statement in the Declaration of Faith that the church 'opposes on scriptural grounds, war and the taking of human life.' Although it is true, as contended by the defendants, that the church did permit freedom of choice by the individual as to whether he should assert his conscientious objections to war when called for service, and that 80% of those called were inducted into service, the General Conference of the church has a Standing Committee known as the Peace Committee whose duty it is to promote in every way possible 'a realization of the wickedness and folly of war, and thus to build up a public conscience which shall demand peaceful methods in settling civil and international differences.'
"The Reverend Mr. Snider also published a paper called 'The Brethren Fundamentalist' in which he expressed his views on doctrinal and church matters. He particularly took issue with the action of the Annual Conference in joining the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. Not only did he oppose affiliation with the Federal Council, but in his writings and in his public utterances from the pulpit he attacked the leadership of the church as false, apostate, modernist, corrupt, and unworthy of the support and respect of the members of the congregation.He also delivered personal attacks upon the leaders of the Middle
District of Pennsylvania. Early in 1948 the congregation, overlooking, or perhaps ignorant of, the fact that it had been incorporated in 1917, attempted to incorporate the congregation under the name of 'Calvary Brethren Church of Lewistown, Pennsylvania,' but after objections were made the effort was dropped. There is an important difference between 'The Church of the Brethren' and the 'Brethren Church' as is indicated in the case of Main Street Brethren Church of Myersdale vs. Polman, 14 Somerset 49. While the selection of this name may have been accidental it was, at least, unfortunate. It is, however, significant that the purpose clause of the proposed corporation made no reference to the general Church of the Brethren as did the original charter of 1917.
"As a result of these acts by the Reverend Mr. Snider, the Elders of the Middle District of Pennsylvania appointed a committee to present and hear charges against him, charging him specifically with publishing incorrect statements, opposing the historic peace position of the Church of the Brethren; refusing to hear the church as represented by the Elders of the Middle District and the Standing Committee of Annual Conference; and attempting to incorporate the Lewistown Church of the Brethren in the name of another denomination. Instead of answering the charges or appearing at the hearing at which the truth or falsity of the charges could be established by the church judicatory, the Reverend Mr. Snider wrote a letter dated April 24, 1948, to the Ministerial Board of the Middle District of Pennsylvania resigning his ministry in the Church of the Brethren, stating that the present leadership of the church had indicated the test of loyalty to the church to be contingent on one's willingness to preach pacifism and approve the merger with the modernistic Federal Council of Churches of Christ in
America; that he was not a pacifist and that he was a fundamentalist. In a postscript he stated that he was not resigning his pastorate in the Lewistown church. On May 1, 1948, the Elders of the Middle District of Pennsylvania received a report of the committee and took action declaring that the Rev. Mr. Snider was no longer a minister of the Church of the Brethren and notified him of that action.
"On April 26, 1948, two days after Mr. Snider's letter of resignation, the Church Council of the Lewistown Church adopted a resolution withdrawing the application for articles of incorporation 'and instead we declare ourselves (according to the constitution and by-laws of this congregation adopted May 4, 1942) to be sovereignly independent, and will recognize no authority outside of this local congregation.' It was further resolved that 'we declare our name to be from this day hence The Calvary (Independent) Church of the Brethren' to worship God according to the Holy Bible and as clearly set forth in the doctrinal statement of the constitution as contained in Article III, and that we practice the 'distinctive Brethren doctrines and teachings as set forth in the statement of faith which is published by the church entitled "The Church of the Brethren"... insofar as they are formed in agreement with God's Word.' On May 2, 1948, the constitution was amended to change the name of the church to 'Calvary Independent Church of the Brethren' and Article II, Section 2 was amended to read: 'As a sovereign independent congregation so determined by the Church Council ...