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Religious Movements: The Brethren http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/brethren.html


The Brethren


 I. Group Profile
 II. Brief History
 III. Church Governance
 IV. Brief Overview of the Five Brethren Groups
 V. Issue: Women's Participation in the Church of the Brethren
 VI. Links to Brethren Web Sites
 IV. Bibliography

I. Group Profile

  • Name: The Brethren
  • Founder: Alexander Mack
  • Date of Birth: 1679 - 1735
  • Birth Place: Schrisheim in Germany
  • Year Founded: 1708

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II. Brief History

With the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, the German principalities were given the freedom to choose between the Catholic, Lutheran or German Reformed traditions as their established faiths. But the established churches were not satisfactory for some. Pietism began to gain influence among people who felt that the churches were too mechanical.

Alexander Mack agreed with the pietists position that there was a needfor a more personal and spiritual experience in religion. But unlike the pietist who believed that baptism was merely spiritual, he believed in adult baptism and the importance of water in the baptismal act (Brubaker, 2). On a summer day in 1708, Alexader Mack rebaptized eight people in the river Eder, thus initiating the "Brethren movement."

The Brethren, officially known as the German Baptists throughout the nineteenth century (Melton, 441), mixed pietism with the Anabaptist tradition, blending a renewed emphasis on spirituality with the Anabaptist emphasis on outward expression of faith. They were specially influenced by the Mennonites , with whom they had a close, interacting relationship and to a lesser extent by the Amish . But unlike the Mennonites and Amish, the Brethren rejected the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 and the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 , because they wanted no other creed than the New Testament (Bowman, 1995:26).

Baptizing adults often meant "rebaptizing" people who had been baptized into an established church, which was an illegal act (Brubaker, 2).Therefore, the established churches were very antagonistic toward the Brethren, causing the Brethren to migrate to more friendly areas. In 1719, Peter Becker led the first group of twenty families to America and settled in Germantown Pennsylvania. In 1729 Alexander Mack sailed to Philadelphia with 120 Brethren and assumed the leadership of the Germantown congregation, which was willingly relinquished by Peter Becker. Four years laterJohn Naas completed the migration to America (Bowman, 1995:6-8).

From the outset, the Brethren set themselves apart from mainstream society and even mainstream Protestantism, thus separating themselves from a "sinful world." They were deeply committed to fulfilling the "primitive church model" as laid out in the New Testament -- they wanted to restore the church as Jesus had left it (Bowman, 1995:26). For them this meant abstaining from involvement in politics and war, avoiding fashionable dress, religious icons, and musical instruments in worship. Their strong belief in adult baptism by trine immersion separated them from other Christian groups, and even from the Mennonites and Amish who, although they believed in adult baptism, did not practice immersion (Bowman, 199:75). They were mocked and nick-named "Dunkers" by the larger society because of their peculiar immersion practices (Melton, 441). In keeping withtheir belief in separation and unity, the Brethren were expected to marry only other Brethren(Bowman, 1995:66) and addressed one another as "Brother" and "Sister" (Bowman, 1995:67).Their separation was facilitated by the fact that they lived primarily in rural, agricultural areas and were therefore limited in the amount of contact they had with the outside world.

The Brethren continued to grow and spread to western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina (Bowman, 1995:6-8). Between 1790 and 1860 they grew from 1,500 members to 20,000 members, and by 1880 they had grown to 58,000 members (Bowman, 1995:95). They also established congregations in Kentucky and Ohio in the 1790s, Missouri and Illinois in the 1810s, and in California and Oregon in the 1850s (Melton, 441). They experienced a short-livedthreat in the early to mid-eighteenth century from Conrad Beissel , a spiritual mystic, who left the Brethren in 1728 and formed his own religious colony at Ephrata in 1732. He converted many Brethrento his way of thinking, including Alexander Mack's own son. But the threat ended with his death in 1768 and many returned to the Brethren way of life (http://cob-net/cloister.htm, 12/7/98).With their growth, the Brethren established a democratic Annual Meeting beginning in the mid-eighteenth century,to be the final voice in church matters (Bowman, 1995:15). The Annual Meeting has become known as the Annual Conference .

During the Revolutionary War, the Brethren were persecuted as loyalists because of their refusal to fight. Within the Brethren oral tradition is the horror story of Peter Suma and two others who were found guilty of treason and were hanged. But most often persecution consisted of heavy fines, embarrassment, and vandalism (Bowman, 1995:17). Other wars brought similar stigmatization, although by the First World War some Brethrenhad become so progressive that they compromised the traditional peace position of the Brethrenand decided to enlist (Bowman, 1995:351).

Many other peculiar traditions of the Brethren, such as plain dress, nonparticipation in politics and the free ministry, have suffered the samefate. As the Brethren Church grew and expanded, moving them beyond their traditional agricultural communities, and as industrialization made more "worldly" products available to everyone, they became increasingly more mainstream , and less recognizable as a distinct body.

The 1830 government decision to make public schooling mandatory was an important factor leading to the modernization of the Brethren (Bowman, 1995:96). The increase ineducation brought with it an increase in the use of English and a decrease in the use of thetraditional German, even in preaching (Bowman, 1995:97). It also ushered in a new educated, progressive groupof young leaders who pushed for higher education, publishing, and evangelism as opposed to staunch separation. The 1858 Annual Meeting decided that they could not prevent members from attaining a higher education (Bowman, 1995:100) and Brethren Colleges began to emerge.

The liberalization, however, did not proceed without debate and subsequent schisms within the group. In 1881, the Old German Baptist Brethren withdrew to preserve pure, traditional "apostolic Christianity." In 1883 the progressive members organized under H.R. Holsinger and formed what later became known as the Brethren Church (Bowman, 1995:126). They were more concerned with evangelism and education. For them, if Biblical scripture did not explicitly condemn something, then it should be allowed.The main body of Brethren left behind, hoped to balance conservatism and evangelism -- they wanted others to accept and join them in their plainness (Bowman, 1995: 129-130).

But this body, officially known as the Church of the Brethren by 1908 (Bowman, 1995:231), became more and more progressive as well. A 1911 decision supported plain dress, but it was no longer a test of membership (Bowman, 1995:238). In 1912, the Church decided to allow voting and office holding although they continued to discourage it, and they also accepted the formerlycondemned monetary support of ministers (Bowman, 1995:233).

Evangelism became more important than the "purity" of the church and sotoday the Brethren are not a noticeably distinct group. In the 1960s they even debated merging with mainline protestant denominations in the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), but in 1966 they decided against it. Their reasons for not joining, included differences in the understanding of the sacraments, especially in baptism, the possibility of too much organizational complexity, the threat of becoming a national, established church, and a fear that their peace position would suffer (Bowman, 1995:364-368).

So, although the Brethren are no longer noticeably distinct, they still believe that there are important differences between themselves and other Protestant groups. Concern over the increasingly progressive tendencies led to the separation of the more conservative Dunkard Brethren in 1926 and the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches in 1939.

Sacred or Revered Texts:

  • The Bible with a pronounced focus on the New Testament.

Size of Group:

  • The Church of the Brethren is the largest of the five groups with 149,681 members according to 1989 figures (Melton:441). It is followed by the Grace Brethren Church with 41,767 members as of 1985 (Melton:440). The sizes of the other groups are as follows: Brethren Church - 13,028 in 1995 (Melton:440); Old German Baptist Brethren - 5,277 in 1995 (Melton:444); and Dunkard Brethren - 1,035 in 1980 (Melton:442).

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II. Beliefs of the Group

The Brethren traditionally believe in the preeminence of child-like faith, Christian unity, obedience including the importance of nonresistance and non-swearing, discipline, separation from the larger world (Bowman, 1995:27), and believer's baptism. The Brethren based their faith on the New Testament -- they considered all other creeds to beman made. Their faith was not to be merely nominal; it was to manifest itself in their dailyconduct. Along with their faith, they were also to promote Christian unity among their brethren,a unity which was often synonymous with their separation from the outside world. The Annual Meeting was a means through which the Brethren could speak as one voice on church matters and maintain separation. For example, in 1804 the Annual Meeting proclaimed that adornment of plain clothingwas necessary for membership in the church and by 1837 members also had to promise to avoid military combat (Bowman, 1995:57). These decisions had the effect of creating a sense of solidarityand separation. Ironically, the Annual Meeting composed many regulations which later generations of progressive Brethren viewed as violating the group's commitment to noncreedalism.

Obedience was of utmost importance in maintaining unity and separation. They were to be obedientto Christ and the "primitive church" model. By 1848, to become Brethren through baptism and maintain their membership,they had to accept a formula of nonresistance, nonswearing, and nonconformity (Bowman, 1995:57). Baptism as an act of obedience,acknowledged and accepted the saving grace of Jesus. The baptism consisted of immersing the baptismal candidate three times (forward) "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Bowman, 1995:56). The ceremony always took place outdoors in a river or stream. The candidate was asked three questions to confirm their faith and then, with the agreementof the entire congregation, the person was received into the fellowship by the hand and a holy kiss -- a kiss on the lips between members of the same sex (Bowman, 1995:67). The love feast, consisting of a special meal, footwashing and communion, was also important in maintaining unity and obedience. The feast united and uplifted the members (Bowman, 1995:59).

Discipline was originally very important for maintaining unity -- they believed in love, but not lenient love. Punishment existed in varying degrees. The least of the punishments was stigmatization .Other members withheld the holy kiss from the stigmatized person, but the person was still allowed to attend worship. A disowned person lost their membership, but the door for later reconciliationremained open to them. The most severe punishment, avoidance or shunning , revoked the person's membership and placed them in social isolation (Bowman, 1995:89). As the Brethren became more mainstream and the individual gained in importance over unity, discipline became unpopular and has basically ceased. As time progressed, the Brethren began to view themselves with mainstream Protestants and they lost their distinctiveness. Many of their traditional beliefs have been modernized. For example, they now see unity in diversity rather than sameness. Decisions are left to the congregation and individual. The holy kiss has become optional, the dress is no longer necessarily plain, and communion is no longer practiced only in love feast form, nor is it reserved for members only (Bowman, 1995:373-374). They are no longer "peculiar." In fact, they are a very forward lookingchurch. They are highly active in mission projects, education, publishing, and fundraising. Some within the church are still quite progressive even by today's standards, as exemplified by the existence of the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns . It is this kind of progressiveness which led to the creation of the different Brethren groups.

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III. Church Governance

Historically the church was led by ministers, deacons and elders. The minister's main responsibility was preaching and aiding the elders. Deacons were responsible for administrative affairs such as preparing for the love feast and conducting annual visits with the members of the congregation (Bowman, 1995:298).Elders were the "spiritual shepherds" (Bowman, 1995:298). They were respected and feared -- they were the highest degree of the free ministry. A 1912 decision, however, allowed for a paid ministry which gradually overtook the free ministry (Bowman, 1995:233) and eroded the positions of deacon and elder. Youth and education became more important than age and tradition. The 1942 Annual Conference declared that deacons were subordinate to the ministryand could perform church functions when requested, but not on their own (Bowman, 1995:299). Elders met with a worse fate, as the pastor and not the elder, became the highest degree of ministry.In 1967 the Brethren voted to do away with the office of elder altogether (Bowman, 1995:308). Ministers are elected by a majority of the congregation to serve and they have "full 'authorityto administer rites of the Church'" (Bowman, 1995:308). The Brethren are a very democratic group. Church council meetings are held for deciding matters of congregational importance (Bowman, 1995:73) and in 1866 District Meetings were approved as a means of screening and answering questions of a local nature (Bowman, 1995:122). Each Congregation is a member of a district and each congregation and each district participates in the Annual Conference (S. Loren Bowman, 26). The Annual Conference decides matters on a national scale. Originally all members were invited to attend and vote (women were limited), but this became cumbersome and in 1866 it was decided that only ordained elders and elected delegates would vote, although implementation was slow (Bowman, 1995:122). The Annual Conference was most powerful in the mid-nineteenthcentury (S. Loren Bowman, 62) and remains the ultimate legislative body of the church, although it has considerably declined in power with the progressiveness and diversity of the Church of the Brethren.

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IV. Brief Overview of the Five Brethren Groups

Old German Baptist Brethren : A conservative wing of the Brethren movement which withdrew in 1881, because of the main group's progressive inclinations. They opposed Sunday Schools, missions and higher education. They have now lessened their opposition to education, however, and even sponsor parochial schools. They retain the plain garb and believe in non-participation in war, government, secret societies, and other worldly amusements. They also generally remain conservative on oathtaking, lawsuits, and non-salaried ministers. Voting is allowed. They have one periodical, The Vindicator . Orderscan be sent to 701 St., Rte. 571, Union City, OH 45390. Membership according to 1995 figures: 5,277 members, 52 churches and 236 ministers (Melton, 443-444). Brethren Church : A more liberal wing of the Brethren. Members withdrew in 1882 with Henry R. Holsinger who had been expelled and in 1883 they formed the Brethren Church. They objected to the lack of educational opportunities, the uneducated clergy, and the plain dress of the 19th century. They have refused to adopt a statement of faith, thus maintaining the New Testament as their only creed. They believe in baptism by trine immersion and retain the communion service with the footwashing service. They have ordained ministers which lead the church in its spiritual affairs. They are also highly supportive of missionary activities. Their educational facilities include Ashland Theological Seminary and Ashland University , both in Ashland Ohio. Periodicals: The Brethren Evangalist and Insight Into Brethren Missions . Membership according to 1995 figures = 13,028 members and 103 churches.(Melton, 440).

Church of the Brethren : The main body of the Brethren whose history and beliefs have already been detailed. They have become quite liberal as a whole, although there is still a good bit of congregational variation. Their distinctive dress has nearly disappeared, however a few congregations remain conservative in this area. They support salaried, professional pastors and in 1950s women became eligible for ordination. The group is highly involved in service projects and education. Educational Facilities: Bethany Theological Seminary in Oak Brook Illinois; Bridgewater College in Bridgewater Virginia; Elizabethtown College , Elizabethtown Pennsylvania; Juniata College , Huntingdon Pennsylvania; Manchester College , North Manchester Indiana; Mc Pherson? College , Mc Pherson? Kansas; and the University of La Verne , La Verne California. The group's periodicals include: Messanger and Brethren Life and Thought -- available from Bethany Theological Seminary, Butterfield and Meyer Rds., Oak Brook, IL 60521. Membership according to 1989 figures: 149,681 members, 1,102 congregations and 2,436 ordained ministers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico (Melton, 441).

Dunkard Brethren : Another conservative element, which left the main body in 1926 when it became clear that the rest of the church would not conform to the Bible Monitor , a conservative periodical begun in 1922 by B.E. Kessler. They follow traditional Brethren beliefs and practices: women are expected to have long hair and to wear a head covering, men are to have short hair, no musical instruments are accepted in the worship time, and of course divorce and remarriage is not allowed. Elders, ministers and deacons are laymen who are elected by the local congregations. Elders perform marriages and conduct burials. They are also resonsible for administering the ordinances. Ministers preach and assist the elders, while deacons deal with administrative matters. These leaders form the General Conference, which is the highest legislative body; its decisions are final. The Dunkards' perodical is The Bible Monitor . Membership according to 1980 figures = 1,035 members and 26 congregations. (Melton, 442).

Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches : This group left the Brethren Church in 1939 due to concern over liberaltendencies. Its members organized around Alva J. Mc Clain? who had been dismissed from the church's Graduate School of Theology in 1937, and organized the Grace Theological Theological Seminary for Ministerial Training. This caused confrontation at the 1939 General Conference of the church, and the seminary's supporters walked out and formed the National Fellowship of Brethren Churches which assumed its current name in 1976. They adopted the 1921 "Message of the Brethren" which had been proposed earlier to the Brethren Church by Mc Clain?. In 1969 they revised it as a "Statement of Faith". They believe in trine immersion and the three-part communion consisting of the meal,the footwashing, and partaking of the bread and cup. They support schools and mission programs. Their educational facilities consist of Grace Theological Seminary and Grace College , both in Winona Lake Indiana. Membership according to 1985 figures = 41,767 members, 312 congregations, and 519 ministers.(Melton, 442).

Although the Brethren have split into different groups and have lost many of their traditions, they still retain a common heritage and this binds them in an almost prideful way (Bowman, 1995:406).

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V. Issue: Women's Participation in the Church of the Brethren

Women's participation thoughout the history of the Church of the Brethren has been constrained.They were active in rearing and teaching the children and active in the daily lifeof the congregation as well (Brubaker, 31). Throughout the nineteenth century "Sisters"led prayer meetings (Brubaker, 117), organized Sunday schools (Brubaker, 118) and with the advent of mission work, they becamevery active with programs at home and abroad (Brubaker, 113). Furthermore, the wives of deacons, ministers, and elders also had to care for the family farms as their husbands were very busy. Despite all their efforts, an 1891 decision asserted that women were called into the service of the church with their husbands, but only as "helpmeets" to them (Brubaker, 28) and not as workers in their own right. The communion service was another area of unequal treatment and has been rectified, as is the trend. Women were not allowed to break bread among themselves which was a privilege enjoyed by brothers; instead the bread was given out to each of them. This was understandably seen as unfair and a great debate over the issue lasted for sixty years. But in 1910, the Annual Conference? finally decided to allow sisters to break bread among themselves. Thus, the unity of the churchin Christ won out over male headship over women in the love feast and communion (Brubaker, 60).

Participation for women in the Annual Meeting was limited and many women probably stayed at home to preparefood or care for the children (Brubaker, 18). They were unable to serve on the "Standing Committee"which was responsible for introducing controversial matters at the Annual Meeting, as it was composed only of elders. Women were also generally not encouraged to vote on matters at the Annual Meeting and the appointed commitees included only men until the twentieth century (Brubaker, 19). So womenwere highly affected by decisions in which they had no voice. In 1882it was noted that women were not receiving their due rights, and so women were granted the same liberality to vote as the men (Brubaker, 19). They lost their right in 1883, however, when it was decided that only delegates could vote (Brubaker, 20).

They regained their right when a 1899 decision allowed women to be delegates to district meetings. Some members it seems, interpreted this decision as being applicable to the Annual Meeting as well, because in 1901 seven womenbecame delgates to the meeting (Brubaker, 20). By 1915, twenty-four of fourty-two district delegationsincluded women (Brubaker, 20). The 1952 Annual Conference asked for a greater representation of women on boards and committees (Brubaker, 129)and also decided that women could be ordained as pastors (Brubaker,145). Finally, the 1958 Annual Conferencegranted women full and unrestricted rights in the ministry (Brubaker, 145). Now there are no longer any official policieslimiting women (Brubaker, 151). The Church supports and encourages the equality of women and men, evenon the national scale as evidenced through its support of the Equal Rights Ammendment (1970 Annual Conference? Resolution on Equality for Women, http://www.brethren.org/ac/ac_statements/women.htm, visited 12/3/98, 1:00 pm).

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VI. Links to Brethren Web Sites

Who Are the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish and Brethren? This is an account of Anabaptist history written from the perspective of a Brethren/Menonite. He explains the origins of the Mennonites, Amish and Brethren.http://home1.gte.net/weaverrr/Anabhist.html
Church of the Brethren Timeline, A list of events which influenced the Church of the Brethren and also places the Church of the Brethren in relation to the larger world events. http://www.cob-net.org/timeline.htm
Church of the Brethren Official Website. Offers abundant information on the Church of the Brethren, including a brief historyand explanation of their beliefs. It also provides a link to the Annual Conference and thisbody's statements on many controversial matters and recent news. http://www.brethren.org/index.shtml
Church of the Brethren Network. Gives a history and details beliefs. It also contains a wide variety of information, from colleges, to activitiesto Brethren camps. http://www.cob-net.org
Frequently Asked Questions. Answers frequently asked questions about Brethren origin and baptisms. http://www.cob-net.org/faqs.htm
Grace Brethren International Missions. Demonstrates the importance of mission projects for the Grace Brethren. Provides a historyof their missions, explains what they are doing and where, and what they hope to accomplish. http://www.gbim.org
Dunkard Brethren Church. Describes the church polity and methods of government. http://www.bibleviews.com/dunkardpolity.html

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IV. Bibliography

  • Bowman, Carl F. 1995. Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a "Peculiar People." Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Bowman, Loren S. 1987. Power and Polity Among the Brethren: A Study of Church Governance. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press.
  • Brubaker, Pamela. 1985. She Hath Done What She Could. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press.
  • Durnbauh, Donald F. 1967. The Brethren in Colonial America. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press.
  • Fitzkee, Donald R. 1995. Moving Toward the Mainstream: 20th Century Change Among the Brethren of Eastern Pennsylvania?. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.
  • Kraybill, Donald B., and Carl F. Bowman. 2001. On the Backroad to Heaven: Older Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethern. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Melton, J. Gordon. 1996. Encyclopedia of American Religions (5th Edition). Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 440-444.
  • Sappington, Roger E. 1985. The Brethren in Industrial America: A Source Book on the Development of the Churchof the Brethren, 1865-1915. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press.
  • Yoder, Don. 1998."Sects and Religious Movements of German Origin," in Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Vol I: 615-633.

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Created by Kristin Kegerreis, For Soc 257: New Religious Movements, Fall term, 1998 Last modified: 07/17/01

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