Church of the Brethren

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The Church of the Brethren originated at Schwarzenau, county of Wittgenstein, Germany, in 1708. A group of eight Pietists, of whom Alexander Mack was the leading spirit, formed a covenant to live in all things according to the New Testament and to be governed by it. They adopted no name and did not think of themselves at first as a denomination. They referred to one another simply as "the brethren," whence the name which is now a legal corporate title. The name was long vague. Their leading teaching concerning baptism by immersion gave them the name "Tunkers." The forms of this name are legion, although recently writers have been concentrating on the spelling "Dunker." Since this would be a German equivalent of "baptist," the name German Baptist was often used for them in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania and later. However, the origin of this group is definitely continental Anabaptist and Pietist, and is not to be connected in any way with the English Baptist movement. The Brethren are most accurately represented at the point at which Pietism and the Anabaptist movement intersect.

Pietism is the great German revival movement associated with the names of Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705) and his disciple and junior colleague August Hermann Francke (1663-1727). The message of Pietism was the emphasis upon goodness of heart, disposition, and conduct as the only valid evidence that a man was a true Christian. Hence Pietists spoke much of conversion, but they always meant a conversion to practical goodness.

The pietistic emphasis created fierce controversy. To many they seemed to be preaching salvation through works. To themselves they seemed to be teaching a true spirituality. To an impartial student the reconciliation seems to be that Pietism is a species of subjective ethical mysticism. It is properly designated Christian on account of its devout (and it was devout rather than creedal or critical or academic) acceptance of the canonical Scriptures as God's Word and the norm of spiritual life.

When the pietistic emphasis was carried too far it resulted in disregard of and contempt for and finally separation from the state church. Spener and Francke condemned separatism; nevertheless soon many Pietists outran their guides and separated from the organized Church. They are known as "Separatists," and the reader must distinguish this term in German church history from its usage in English church history.

Alexander Mack and all his associates had been Separatists, who came to Schwarzenau for various reasons. There Count Henry permitted them to live quietly and the imperial laws against dissenters were unenforced. At Schwarzenau, Mack and others found the regime of "no organized Church," i.e., complete unregulated religious individualism, to be unsatisfactory.

In the meantime they had come under the influence of the writings of Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), the brilliant and somewhat original and erratic pietistic scholar. Arnold has been called with truth the "father of modern church history." His researches into primitive Christian life and institutions were outstanding. Arnold's description of primitive church life impressed Mack and his friends. In Arnold they read that the early form of baptism had been trine immersion, and that the agape or fellowship meal had been long cherished in the early church and held in connection with the communion. Arnold wrote of the practice of feetwashing as a rite, the kiss of peace, and the anointing of the sick with oil as rites of the early Christians. He portrayed the nonresistance, non-swearing, and the non-worldly emphasis of early Christianity.

The likeness of these ideas to the principles and practices of the existing Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations is patent. But Arnold's studies gave a new basis in history and a newer, greater authority for these ideas. In 1708 after some months of Bible study and prayer, and meeting in homes, a church organization was formed. The literature of the times refers to the Brethren as the "new Baptists."

In 1715 a group moved to Krefeld, where they were called Dompelaars, and where they had close contact with the Mennonites.

Petty persecution induced emigration, especially when joined with the financial promises of William Penn's agents. The Brethren came to Pennsylvania in two main parties. Peter Becker led a party from Krefeld in 1719. Alexander Mack led the larger party in 1729 from Holland (to which they had fled from Schwarzenau in 1720 after the death of Count Henry). Both groups settled at Germantown, but quickly spread to the area of available land in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The first organization was made in the Mennonite church in Germantown. The immigrants totaled only 219.

From this German area of eastern Pennsylvania, the spread of the church has paralleled the pattern of American western expansion. By 1851, the church was on practically the same territory it now occupies, although the number of congregations and the membership have greatly multiplied.

In colonial Pennsylvania, the erratic Conrad Beissel led a schism (1728) which resulted in the now extinct Ephrata monastic community. There were no further significant divisions in Brethren ranks until 1881-1883. At that time the increasing urbanization and industrialization of American life so disturbed the Brethren that it resulted in a double schism. A minority party felt that the annual meeting was sanctioning innovations and that the old simplicity and fraternity was disappearing; so they withdrew and continued as the Old Order German Baptist Brethren. But the other extreme felt the annual meeting was hopelessly reactionary and that it had grown autocratic, and so calling themselves "progressives" (official name, "The Brethren Church") they too seceded. The main body continued and was popularly called "the conservatives." In 1908 (bicentennial year) the annual meeting or annual conference as it has come to be called, adopted the legal name "Church of the Brethren." In the early 20th century, especially in summer camps and student age groups, the name "Dunker" has come again into wide and this time in an affectionate and proud usage. In 1926 a small schism arose at Goshen, Indiana, which called itself "Dunkard Brethren." It was a second "Old Order" movement and remained small.

Foreign missions first found expression in 1876, when Christian Hope, a Danish convert in this country, returned to his homeland to share his new-found faith with old friends and relatives. By the 1950s organized missions were at work in India (since 1894), in China (1908), Nigeria (1922), and Ecuador (1946).

The Brethren Service Committee (now Brethren Service Commission) emerged from the troubled years of World War II. It was established by the conference in 1940. Its first task was to look after the conscientious objectors, of whom the church furnished 992 for Civilian Public Service. Although the church took a strong official position against all military service, in practice it left it to the conscience of the members to take noncombatant service or even full military service. In the confusion of the war more took military service than was expected. While the Service Commission was a frank imitation of the well-known Friends' Service Committee, it still may be regarded as an indigenous expression of the Pietism inherent in the Brethren heritage with a desire to give a peace witness. Its work has been literally world-wide but has been rapidly adapted to the shifting panorama of the world's suffering. It has carried on much relief work for war sufferers in Europe and China.

The Church maintained six colleges in the 1950s, Juniata, Bridgewater, Manchester, McPherson, La Verne, and Elizabethtown, and Bethany Biblical Seminary of Chicago, which was a standard theological seminary with a training school affiliated. Mennonite Biblical Seminary was affiliated with Bethany Biblical Seminary from 1945 to 1958.

At the Annual Conference held at Orlando, Florida, in 1947 a comprehensive reorganization of the overhead denominational machinery was adopted. The congregation presided over by an elder remained the primary unit of organization. The congregations were grouped into districts. There were 49 districts in the United States and Canada. The districts were represented by delegates (who must be elders) and these formed the Standing Committee of Annual Conference which received all reports and prepared business for the conference. Each congregation could have at least one conference delegate elected by the local council. Large congregations had delegates in proportion to membership.

Since the late 19th century the conference has had a miscellaneous and changing assortment of committees and boards to make its work effective. In 1947 these were all summarily replaced by a General Brotherhood Board of 25 members chosen by the annual conference. The board divided itself into "commissions" for convenience to oversee the work and also acted as a unit. In 1955 there were five "commissions." A publishing house called The Brethren House was located at Elgin, Illinois. The official journal of the brotherhood was The Gospel Messenger.

The Brethren Yearbook for 1949 listed for the United States and Canada 1,023 congregations with 185,799 members. The mission fields reported 13,597 members. Of the churches, 392 reported full-time pastors and 394 reported part-time pastoral service. The free or voluntary ministerial service was not extinct, although the trend seemed to be in the direction of the professional ministry.

The church uniformly maintained that its only creed was the New Testament. In a non-liturgical church such as the Brethren, cultural inheritance and geography will inevitably, with the passage of time, cause some differences in local customs. Yet the Brethren have preserved a remarkable homogeneity, the great annual meeting, which was an annual reunion as well, being a definite element in preserving unity of outlook.

There is no binding creed other than the New Testament itself, yet the following widely circulated statement may be regarded as a fair presentation of Brethren doctrine.

  1. This body of Christians originated in the 18th century, the church being a natural outgrowth of the Pietistic movement following the Reformation.
  2. Firmly accepts and teaches the fundamental evangelical doctrines of the inspiration of the Bible, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the sin-pardoning value of his atonement, his resurrection from the tomb, ascension and personal and visible return, and resurrection both of the just and unjust (John 5:28, 29; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
  3. Observes the following New Testament rites: Baptism of penitent believers by trine immersion for the remission of sins (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38); feetwashing (John 13:1-20; 1 Timothy 5:10); love feast (Luke 22:20; John 13:4; 1 Corinthians. 11:17-34; Jude 12); communion (Matthew 26:26-30); the Christian salutation (Romans 16:16; Acts 20:37); proper appearance in worship (1 Corinthians 11:2-16); the anointing for healing in the name of the Lord (James 5:13-18; Mark 6:13); laying on of hands (Acts 8:17; 19:6; 1 Timothy 4:14). These rites are representative of spiritual facts which obtain in the lives of true believers and as such are essential factors in the development of the Christian life.
  4. Emphasizes daily devotion for the individual and family worship for the home (Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:8, 9); stewardship of time, talents and money (Matthew 25:14-30); taking care of the fatherless, widows, poor, sick and aged (Acts 6:1-7).
  5. Opposes on Scriptural grounds: War and the taking of human life (Matthew 5:21-26, 43, 44; Romans 12:19-21; Isaiah 53:7-12); violence in personal and industrial controversy (Matthew 7:12; Romans 13:8-10); intemperance in all things (Titus 2:2; Galatians 5:19-26; Ephesians 5:18); going to law, especially against our Christian brethren (1 Corinthians 6:1-9); divorce and remarriage except for the one Scriptural reason (Matthew 19:9); every form of oath (Matthew 5:33-37; James 5:12); membership in secret, oath-bound societies (2 Corinthians 6:14-18); games of chance and sinful amusements (1 Thessalonians 5:22; 1 Peter 2:11; Romans 12:17); extravagant and immodest dress (1 Timothy 2:8-10; 1 Peter 3:1-6).
  6. Labors earnestly in harmony with the Great Commission, for the evangelization of the world, for the conversion of men to Jesus Christ, and for the realization of the life of Jesus Christ in every believer (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, 16; 2 Corinthians 3:18).
  7. Maintains the New Testament as its only creed, in harmony with which the above brief statement is made.

Except for the mode of baptism by immersion and the requirement of wearing the beard by ministers, which was long maintained, Mennonites and Brethren as denominations had so much in common in their earlier history that they were often confused by outsiders. In dress the Brethren dressed as "plain" as the Mennonites until the first half of the 20th century, and in Eastern Pennsylvania many Brethren still dressed "plain" at that time. More recently the tendency of the Brethren to revise or abandon certain earlier distinctive Brethren practices created a wider gap between the two groups.

The Brethren were in their earlier history much more aggressive than the Mennonites, hence grew more rapidly and secured a larger proportion of members from the "outside." Numerous Mennonites were won by early Brethren evangelistic efforts and many names in the Brethren Church of today are Mennonite in origin; e.g., Bowman, Moyer, Ziegler. The original number of Brethren immigrants was about 200, compared to the Mennonite immigrants numbering 3-4,000 during the colonial period.

In numerous cases the Brethren and Mennonites have settled in the same general areas; e.g., Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and Elkhart County, Indiana. However, little fraternization has taken place on the local level, largely because of the earlier sharp Brethren emphasis on immersion. After World War II, Mennonites and Brethren have had considerable contact and cooperation through their national organizations for conscientious objectors and alternative service, they being two of the Historic Peace Churches. The National Service Board for Religious Objectors, after the withdrawal of the Friends in 1945, was constituted by the Brethren Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee.


Brethren Builders in Our Century. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1952.

Brumbaugh, M. G. A History of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America. Mt. Morris, 1899.

Dove, F. D. Cultural Changes in the Church of the Brethren. Philadelphia, 1932.

Holsinger, H. R. A History of the Tunkers and the Brethren Church. 1901.

Miller, J. E. The Story of Our Church. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1941.

Moyer, E. S. Missions in the Church of the Brethren. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1931.

Nieper, F. Die ersten deutschen Auswanderer von Krefeld nach Pennsylvanien. Neukirchen, 1940. Treats in detail the pietistic background of the Brethren and their early relation to the Mennonites.

Sharp, S. Z. Educational History of the Church of the Brethren. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1923.

Winger, Otho. History and Doctrines of the Church of the Brethren. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1919.

Ziegler, J. H. The Broken Cup, Three Generations of Dunkers. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1942.

Additional Information

Website: Church of the Brethren

Author(s) Floyd E Mallott
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Mallott, Floyd E. "Church of the Brethren." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 14 May 2021.

APA style

Mallott, Floyd E. (1953). Church of the Brethren. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 14 May 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 421-424. All rights reserved.

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