The Brethren of the Common Life (Dutch name, Broeders des gemeenen levens) was a religious brotherhood founded in Holland about the middle of the 14th century by Gerrit Groote and Florens Radewynsz. Their purpose was to counteract the secularized life of the church by creating and promoting a truly pious Christian life shut away from worldly life, but actively engaged in earnest work for their fellow men, especially in education. They lived in community houses, men and women in separate buildings. They were not bound by a vow; anyone could leave the community life at will. Obedience, celibacy, and poverty, the three fundamental monastic rules, were also practiced by them, but without a vow. Voluntary renunciation of private possessions and community of goods were based on the example of the early Christian church, and the pledge to work was based on Bible passages like 1Thessalonians 4:11, "Study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands."
What distinguished them from the monastic orders, which had at that time degenerated, was their genuine piety, their repudiation of the monastic vow, and their opposition to begging. In other respects life in their houses was regulated with monastic strictness. The spirit of love, shown in humility, obedience, community life, and chastity, was to permeate and govern all the inmates. The day from three in the morning until nine at night was divided between work and spiritual exercise.
The tasks of the Brethren varied. All kinds of handicraft, gardening, agriculture, and fishing were carried on. The educated clergy occupied themselves chiefly with copying books, making a great contribution of lasting value along this line. Even today there are in public and private libraries, especially in Holland, an uncommonly large number of manuscripts which originated in these communities.
In the center of mutual edification were the collations. These were devotional addresses which were occasionally interrupted by questions and answers or alternated with longer conversations. The collations were of two kinds. One was intended for the common people, and took place on Sundays and holidays, when the doors of their houses were opened to the public; the other was meant only for members and was held daily in connection with the common noon and evening meals.
Such communal houses were located in Holland in Deventer, Zwolle, Amersfoort, Hulsberger near Hattem, Hoorn, Delft, Gouda, 's Hertogenbosch, Doesburg, Groningen, Harderwijk, Utrecht, Nijmegen, Albergen; in Belgium at Liege, Louvain, Ghent, Brussels, Grammont near Oudenaerde, Mechelen; Cambray in France; in Germany at Münster, Cologne, Wesel, Osnabrück, Emmerich, Trier, Herford, Hildesheim, Kassel, Butzbach, Marburg, Königsstein (Nassau), Urach in Württemberg (see Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche, III, 439), Magdeburg, Merseburg, Rostock, and Culm (West Prussia).
The significance of the Brotherhood of the Common Life in pre-Reformation times was profound. Their genuinely pious, serious way of life as well as in their instruction and their preaching were exceedingly fraught with blessing. Their collations attracted many. Although their influence in the transformation of the educational system was less inclusive and sweeping than has sometimes been assumed, it was nevertheless of lasting effect; on the whole it may be asserted that in many respects it prepared the way for the Reformation. When the Reformation came into the country the task of the brotherhood was fulfilled; its houses were gradually dissolved; it ceased to exist.
There is no evidence of any connection with the Anabaptist brotherhood; the Brethren of the Common Life adhered to Catholic doctrine and always remained loyal to it. There is no trace of separation from the Catholic Church. W. J. Kühler, the Dutch Mennonite historian, held that the soil for the Anabaptist movement in Holland was prepared in part by the Brethren.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 279.
Hyma, Albert. The Brethren of the Common Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950.
Kühler, Wilhelmus Johannes. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink, 1932: v. I, 24-32.
Moll, Willem. Kerkgeschiedenis van Nederland vóór de hervorming. Arnhem: Nijhoff, 1866: v. II/2, 164-178.
Post, Regnerus Richardus. De moderne Devotie. Amsterdam: van Kampen, 1940.
Post, Regnerus Richardus. The modern devotion: Confrontation with Reformation and Humanism. Leiden: Brill, 1968.
Cite This Article
Neff, Christian. "Brethren of the Common Life." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 17 Mar 2014. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Brethren_of_the_Common_Life&oldid=76014.
Neff, Christian. (1953). Brethren of the Common Life. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 March 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Brethren_of_the_Common_Life&oldid=76014.
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