October 26, 2020

My Ancestors’ (not so great) Interaction with the Church (Part 2 – Dress Code Excommunication)

Frey Family - Lois at center top

Frey Family – Lois at center top

My Grandmother, Lois Grace Frey, was an extraordinary women. Her parents were pioneering missionaries to Africa with the Brethren in Christ in 1905. The Brethren in Christ were a branch of the Mennonite tree, with Wesleyan influences. My Great-grandfather, Harvey Jacob Frey, founded Mtshabezi mission in what is now known as Zimbabwe where he established a school for girls. The family returned to the U.S. in 1924, in order to give the children a high school education. When her parents returned to Africa, Lois stayed behind. She was accepted into Taylor University in Indiana where she graduated with a B.A. in 1930. This was at a time when very few women attended university.

LeslieGeorgeBarhamShe returned to Africa soon after graduation, where she was soon put to work training teachers for Mtshabezi mission. Her father passed away in 1936. Lois was in charge of the School when my Grandfather, Leslie George Barham showed up, asking if he could show movies to the children. They soon became good friends. My Grandfather was interested in doing Christian work in much more primitive conditions in what is now Zambia. He asked Lois if she would marry him and join him in this work, and she agreed.

This was where things got difficult. Her mission organization was against the marriage. Among the items that were raised was that my Grandfather was worldly, as evidenced by the fact that he wore a tie! She decided to follow her heart, and resigned from the organization, at which point her friends were ordered to “shun” her, and to have nothing further to do with her. They were told to ignore her, even if she passed them in the street. She was very hurt by this decision. I wonder if it might have turned out differently had my Great-grandfather still been alive.

House at KalunduMy Grandmother and Grandfather moved up to Zambia where they built a thatched roof house at Kalundu. Their nearest English speaking neighbors were 80 miles away. They faced danger from wild animals on a regular basis. Lions killed their cattle, and their kitchen was even invaded by lions one night. One pot was punctured by a lion’s teeth. Their dog was killed by a leopard as they walked a lady home one evening. My mother and uncle were born into this environment and faced many of the same dangers. On a lighter note: The family transport was a motorcycle that could fit all four family members at once!
CrocodileMy Grandfather’s first claim to fame occurred in 1932. He was asked to shoot a crocodile that had just killed a child. He found it, and shot it, and was posing for a picture while sitting on its back, when everyone took off running. He had only stunned it! He quickly jumped up and shot it again. He is probably one of the only people in the world who has sat on the back of a live man eating crocodile!

BibleTranslationHow worldly was my Grandfather? Well, among other things, he decided to spend his life doing Bible Translation, and produced the first Bible in Bemba, the trade language of Zambia. With all the revisions that he did, he ended up typing through the Bible seven times on a manual typewriter.

My earliest memories are of them visiting Canada in the 1960s. We moved to Africa for four years in the 1970s, and I got to spend a lot of time with them over the holidays. Christmas charades were a yearly highlight.

After my Grandfather’s death, my Grandmother came to live with us in Canada. Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with cancer. I came to realize how brilliant she was, that, even while she was dying, every day she would complete the New York Times cryptic crossword puzzle.

Today, whenever I hear a debate about dress codes in church, I nod and smile, and sometimes tell the story of a woman who got excommunicated because her husband-to-be wore a tie.

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Wonderful piece Mike. Too many churches have too many rules and regs! As the old saying goes, when the microcosm becomes the macrocosm, the important things become the forgotten things. I’ve been searching scripture for a long time and can’t find a reference for a dress code Thou must wear a suit and tie in the House of God? How about robes? No? Sandals and togas? Actually, some of the mist Godly men I know wear shirts and flip flops to church. Of course, they go surfing at the beach afterwards so no point of wasting time

    • Biblical dress code? Easy! 1 – avoid the appearance of evil, so if the world wears it and likes it, it’s evil, and thus should be avoided. 2 – women can’t wear what men wear. 3 – obey the man of god’s teaching for god placed him over you, and if you disagree with his rules, you are in rebellion and practicing witchcraft.


      thank you, ifb background

  2. It’s often a matter of fossilized cultural perspective. Do you know why the Amish don’t wear buttons? In the late medieval/early modern period, buttons were rare, and made of costly materials. Having buttons on your clothing was a sign of wealth and ostentation. And of course, the proto-Amish rejected them as a waste of money and a foolish vanity. Now? Buttons are literally “too cheap to meter”. But the Amish still make clothes without them, because “buttons are vanity” is enshrined as tradition.

    Some things (Virgin Birth, Resurrection) are worth fighting for. Some things (no buttons) aren’t.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      It’s worse than that. It is how Law gets made. The Mennonites and Quakers correctly noted that extravagant dress was a vanity used by some to set themselves apart from others. They recognized that this is a Bad Thing, and chose not to engage in it. The problem was that rather than enacting the general principle of “don’t wear extravagant dress” they enacted prohibitions of the specific forms extravagant dress took in their narrow time and place. In many cases they took this further and mandated the non-extravagant dress of their narrow time and place. Fast forward a couple centuries and this mandated dress is so out of date that it is a costume, serving to set its wearers apart from others.

      The Quakers broke this pattern a century or so ago. Younger Quakers correctly noted that dressing like the guy on the oatmeal box was itself a vanity. They returned to the general principle of dressing simply. Modern Quakers tend not to wear jewelry, much less dress like runway models, but they don’t dress weird. The Amish (whom we tend to romanticize more than we ought) and the more conservative Mennonites in general? They dress weird.

      How this lesson applies to, say, the Pauline epistles is left as an exercise for the reader.

      • melissatheragamuffin says

        Um let the record show that some conservative Friends do, in fact, wear plain dress.

        My husband asked a very good question a few weeks ago: We were eating out and an entire family came in wearing Eagles jerseys. Some of them were wearing face paint. My husband said, “Why is it okay to dress like that, but plain dress is weird?”

        • Richard Hershberger says

          “some conservative Friends do, in fact, wear plain dress.”

          I did not know that. I dated a Friend many years ago, and she told me about the change-over, and I have some friends now who are Friends, and they agreed with it. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that there is a conservative faction holding on. If I saw them, I would probably assume they were conservative Mennonites.

          And to answer your husband’s question, it is because “weird” and “not weird” clothing are cultural constructs, not absolutes. What message a particular set of attire sends out depends on the time and place. This is the problem with fixating on the form regardless of the surrounding culture. You end up sending a different message than you intended.

    • I had always understood that the reason for the absence of buttons was that they were representative of the military. l am sure that was what they told us when we visited the Amish in Pennsylvania

      • This also what I heard on my most recent (and possibly last, as for a funeral) visit to Lancaster a couple years ago.

      • It could be that. It may be both. But the basic point (the danger of freezing contemporary cultural norms as The Ultimate Standard) remains.

      • Tim – that is correct, though over time, it has also taken on a”plain dress” aspect as well.

    • Plain dress is not just about anachronistic simplicity of apparel, or modesty. Amish and Mennonite make decisions together as churches, and not as individuals, about what uniforms they wear in large measure to undercut and diminish the role of individual choice, and to prevent the development of individualism that is typical in modern societies. For the same reason many plain sects do not allow mirrors in the homes of members; Amish and plain Mennonite claim to find their identities in the other members of their communities, and not in mirrors or in individual choices about what clothes to wear. I’m skeptical about how this all works out in practical day to day life, but it’s certainly not merely about modesty or simplicity; it’s about rejecting the development of extreme individuality, and the pride that often goes with it.

      • Robert, afaik, the conformity expected (demanded, often) in those churches is pretty unbearable for many people, but given their theology (Amish believe that leaving church after adult baptism is to break a vety solemn vow) and the fact that they don’t have any documentation required for life in the wider worod (such as Social Security cards), it is *very* difficult for anyone to leave.

        One of the churches up here is especially strict; members use oil lamps on their buggies when driving at night and fought very, very hard to keep from having to put reflective triangles on their buggies (they use thd smallest ones allowed by law). I’ve had some truly frightening moments, cruising along a local road that is built into the side of a ridge and which has no verge to speak of, at this time of year. You can’t see these folks’buggies at night until you’re so close that it’s hard to avoid a crash.

        • Yes, I’m familiar with the problems surrounding Plain communities, since I live in Lancaster County. Often the net result of curtailing the development of individuality in these communities is that the weak are completely at the mercy of the strong, and there are no mediating institutions to moderate the near absolute power of the leaders and rule-makers.

          I just wanted to point out that the rules surrounding plain dress are not merely motivated by modesty and simplicity, but part of a concerted strategy to develop social solidarity and conformity within the subculture. In a way, this exemplifies a reflexive rejection of modernity and the “autonomous” individual of the kind that postmodernism claims would be salutary; I’m not sanguine about this option, because I suspect that it in fact ends in a high level of social dysfunction, and ultimately in oppression.

          • The Lancaster Co. Amish are, generally speaking, better-educated and more in tune with the wider world than the folks up here – even on things like basic sanitation and routine health care. We are isolated up here in the mountains, and the people from the strictest Amish churches want it that way. (Particularly true since the rail service went down to one eadtbound and one westbound passenger train daily.)

            The late sociologist John A. Hosteler used this area as a template for describing differences in Amish, Mennonite and other churches (Lutheran and Methodist) in his book that’s simply titled The Amish. Am sure it’s a common item in the many gift shops and whatnot in your area. Hostetler has descriptions and photos of people wearing garb that I’ve never seen (wool or linen trousers with one suspender and the like; fabric looks handspun), but i think most of them live way, way out in the far reaches of local valleys and come into town as little as possible. They are from the most conservative area churvh and apparently are much like the original Amish settlers here, in belief, practice, garb etc.

  3. what an interesting heritage you have, MIKE . . . thanks for sharing your family’s story with us . . . the pictures are amazing!

  4. We’ve been into this a bit before, Mike, but I’m sure that our great-grandparents knew each other. Fred Bunker and Belle Richards Bunker went to South Africa in the early 1890s. My grandmother, their fourth of five children, was born at Amanzemtoti (spelling?) Mission Station in Natal in 1900. The family spent some years in Mozambique as well, and in Zimbabwe, where my great-grandfather was given land by Cecil Rhodes to build Mount Selinda Mission Station. He too was in trouble with his mission board (Congregational) for, among other things, having “gone native” and trusting local coworkers with too much responsibility. I feel some contentment that I got into trouble along the same lines when I was a missionary, too.

  5. Zambia remains a fascinating, complicated sort of place. After the recent death of President Sata, one Guy Scott was appointed acting president. Like your grandfather, he’s fluent in Bemba and appears to favor ties. And, like your grandfather, he’s actually a white dude making a go of it in Africa! Shades of Fujimori in Peru, perhaps.

    • Except that there actually were many, many Japanese immigrants to South America prior to WWII. Brazil was the primary destination , but other countries have communities of people descended from Japanese immigrants. Peru is one of them.

  6. Klasie Kraalogies says

    Mike, my parents were (Dutch Reformed) missionaries in Zambia (that is where they met) between 1961 and 1971. They were in the east at Katete, near Fort Jameson. The language they used there was Nyanja. For years later, when they did not eant my brother and I to know what they were saying, they switched to Nyanja. They were put in a position where they had to leave the country in 1971 when the government nationalized the mission school.

    I wondee if their paths ever crossed with your folks’?

  7. Thank you for sharing the beautiful photos and family history. Their love of God shines on their faces.

  8. Story as old as time. People of the church will always be tempted to substitute a discussion of the effects of faith (real or imagined), for a discussion of faith itself, and (more importantly) for proclamation of the Promise which implants and supports faith in the God of all mercy and compassion. So sad, so common.

  9. Loved the read on all accounts and your “tie” banishment reminds me of an event between me and my wife. She was raised in “old-time holiness” with all its legalities, a bunch I stepped into with my conversion, a bunch which has since come a long ways in discarding such demands. Roots runs deep, however, and my attending a class taught by a young fellow (30) who was tattooed head to toe before coming to Christ just mystified her. So much so that she was continually pursuing the subject of him teaching Bible in such “condition”. One night when she turned to me and inquired if the Book didn’t condemn doing that to your body, I replied “Yes. It’s in the Old Testament. In the New Testament it says that if women want to know something, let them be quiet and ask the husband when they get home.” Her faith is strong. She has been the love of my life for more than fifty years and I probably was too quick and too brash, not meaning to hurt her in any way. The accusations, though, were immediately dropped, never heard again….

    • What would she think of us believers who want or are getting a tattoo then?

      • She’s not so outspoken on it any more, Stuart, would probably just tell you she doesn’t understand such attraction, and have you laughing with her about it all. As noted, “roots run deep” and, raised in that type of teaching from early youth, she wonders how those who she knew were so deeply attached to His Spirit could have been wrong about such things. It’s a journey, my friend.

        • I’m reading some of these other replies and thinking: Do any of us have this all completely figured out yet? I never swallowed all the legalism, but can tell you this: there was more genuine “Spirit in our midst” in those days, God’s grace leading us eventually beyond such beliefs, than we know on a regular basis now that our congregation, through “charismatic renewal”, has grown from 75-100 to some 800 or more on a Sunday evening. If my words, in print, seem to rebuke, they are not meant that way. Just saying that this is a journey in Christ and, if we are, in truth, following Him, there is change along the way, humanity making it a stumble down the path even “in” Christ….

        • she wonders how those who she knew were so deeply attached to His Spirit could have been wrong about such things

          Something else I’ve wondered many times. It’s a mystery.

          • Christ probably would have turned a blind eye to the Pharisees’ tithing of their spices if they had also been giving to the poor and the widows…

  10. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

    That was a fantastic story, and well-written. The photos were awesome! I’m thankful for people like your grandparents, who toiled in obscurity for the sake of others. Thank you for sharing, Mike.

  11. Excommunicated for wearing a tie? It is for good reason that God has repeatedly warned in the Bible about not adding to His commandments. Legalism feeding on itself becomes monstrously big!

    • it is strange that in an attempt to live more simple lives as a Christian community that the laws of Our Lord were ‘not enough’ for some . . .

      perhaps the original intent of simple living WAS a good one,
      it just went wrong when people took offense at someone who was conforming to Christ, but not to themselves

  12. What a wonderful piece. Great story.

  13. So intriguing! I can be obsessive about family histories, have even bought perfect strangers pictures to frame from sele stores if something interests me. This was just really exciting, plan to look up these places on map., am also map junkie. Somewhere in the NT we are admonished to “wear a cloak.” Does anyone take that seriously and why not? Two friends (twins) in college, Betty and Hetty, dressed exactly alike with longish skirts, long sleeves, long hair, no jewelry, lipstick, or bright colors. They had come from Prairie Bible Institute where such was required. However, every outfit was heavily beruffled and many flowers adorned the hair. Boys were required to wear ties. Funny how these things take on a life of their own. Am quitting this boring post now, thanks again CM for the fascinating glimpse.

  14. Incredible story. Feels like it should be included on the Old Time Religion Blog.


    We like to think people back then had their heads screwed on straighter…but then stories like this one remind us that Nope!

    • Suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about history. We may have Benny Hinn now, but back then they had Aimee Semple McPherson. We may have Tim Lahaye, but they had William Miller. We may have Ron Hubbard, but they had Joseph Smith. We may have Mike Bickle, they had Charles Parham. We may have Ted Cruz, they had John Dowie.


      How we never learn and quickly forget.

  15. We know people are holy by the clothes they wear, especially when coming to worship The Lawd God Al-MI-ghty!

    • OR, surprised by the clothes they DON’T wear, Rick Ro! Am certainly not a pious prune but just am continually surprised by the strapless or very low cut dresses. on most of our good fundamentalist brides. The times they are a’changin.

  16. Finally! I have an excuse for my informality of dress. Ties are worldly! Who’d a thunk it? Just reinforces the fact that we need a vision that supersedes our particular generation. If only they could have seen bigger. If only we could see bigger. Trapped by the immediacy of a fleeting set of rules. Great stuff, downright interesting.

  17. Mike, to me it is obvious that your grandmother was an extraordinary woman just from the photograph. Interesting that the rest of her family could have been identified as German, Swedish, even Irish, without anyone blinking, but she could have been Greek, Iranian, even East Indian, not to mention the Middle East without anyone blinking. She was certainly beautiful.

    The Amish around me seem a little more in touch with reality than some. They ride bicycles, wear watch caps in the winter, tho as I understand it each township sets its own rules. The younger ones seem a little more in contact with joy. Don’t know if there is an overriding regional authority. The idea of shunning over doctrine seems to me bordering on the antichrist spirit. I expect there are going to be some remedial education classes taught on the other side. Maybe the appropriate teachers for those who shunned this side might be some of those forgiven who crucified our Lord.

  18. Cool story! Fun read! Great genes, Dude! 🙂