Old Order River Brethren

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The River Brethren in eastern Pennsylvania experienced a three-way division in the 1850s. According to tradition, the conservative element (The Old Order River Brethren) felt that the moderate majority (the Brethren in Christ) did not properly discipline Bishop Matthias Brinser and his followers for constructing an unauthorized meetinghouse (Brinser founded the United Zion Church). The exact date the Old Orders withdrew from the larger body is unknown but an official letter sent to Matthias Brinser in 1853 lists the names of ministers who later identified with either the Old Order or the Brethren in Christ. This would indicate the split had not yet taken place.

The majority of the River Brethren in York County, Pennsylvania, sided with the Old Order. Thus the Old Order River Brethren have often been referred to as Yorker Brethren. Jacob Strickler, Jr. (1788-1859), was the first Old Order bishop in York County. Bishop Joseph Strickler (1797-1879) was sent from York County to shepherd the flock in Lancaster County that was organized soon after the group's formation. An Old Order church had emerged by 1857 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Bishop Christian Hoover (1793-1867).

Other Old Order River Brethren congregations were established in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (in 1987 a few members remained); Bedford County, Pennsylvania (extinct 1902); Stark County, Ohio (extinct ca. 1920); Darke County, Ohio (extinct 1984); Noble County, Indiana (one member was living at Winona Lake in 1987); and in the Waterloo and Markham areas in Ontario (extinct 1961). A settlement started in Dallas County, Iowa. in 1876 still exists. The York County Church gradually dwindled to a few members and ceased to be an independent congregation.

In 1919 the Old Order River Brethren made the nonuse of automobiles a test of membership. When some bishops refused to enforce this decision Bishop Simon Musser (1878-1978) of Lancaster County withdrew to form a separate group in 1921. The larger Old Order River Brethren Church continued to discourage automobile use, and when Bishop Jacob Keller (1862-1934) in Dallas County, Iowa, openly allowed cars he was expelled in 1930. All the Iowa church sided with Keller as well as half the Ohio church and a few members from Franklin and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania. Tension between Bishop Simon Musser and Minister John Strickler (1885-1976) resulted in a division in 1948. Bishop Jacob Horst (1885-1975) of the "Old" church in Lancaster County felt that automobiles should be allowed. This resulted in a gradual division about 1960-1963. Most of the Franklin County Church sided with Horst; Seth Meyers became the bishop there in 1962.

Many members and leaders began to see the divided condition of the Old Order River Brethren Church as detrimental to the cause of Christ. In 1969 the Keller group and the Strickler group merged. In 1977 the Musser group joined this union. The combined group (often referred to as the Strickler group) in 1986 had 94 members in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 44 members in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and 34 members in Dallas County, Iowa. The Horst group had 109 members in Franklin County and 12 in the Lancaster district. Nearly all of the 34 members of the "Old" church or horse-and-buggy group resided in Franklin County

The three groups of Old Order River Brethren were very similar in most respects in 1987. Meetings for worship were traditionally held in the homes of the members. This practice continued, but meetinghouses and public buildings were also used for church services. The ministry was un-salaried and preachers received no formal training. A bishop, two ministers, and one or two deacons were the traditional body of ordained men for each congregation. The English language has been used exclusively in Old Order River Brethren services since about the 1940s. In the 1980s few members could speak Pennsylvania German. Singing is from small books without musical notation (Spiritual Hymns, originally used by the Brethren in Christ from 1874 to 1902; a revised version was published by the "Strickler" group in 1980). Traditional slow tunes designated by meters were usually used. The experience or testimony meeting was an integral part of every worship service. There was no Sunday School. The two-day love feast observance of communion is practiced which includes feetwashing. Baptism was by trine immersion. Very conservative plain clothing (dress) has been a distinctive of the Old Order River Brethren. All brethren wear full beards, sometimes with a mustache. Opaque white headcoverings were peculiar to the sisters. Children did not wear the traditional garb until conversion. In the "Old" church the use of horse-drawn vehicles was maintained. The Musser group permitted car ownership in 1951 and the Strickler group in 1954. Electricity and telephones was accepted in all the groups for many years, but television was forbidden. A newsletter called The Golden Chain was published monthly and is now (2013) published quarterly. Sonlight River Brethren School was started in Lancaster County in 1984. 

See also Conservative Mennonites.


Brechbill, Laban T. History Old Order River Brethren. Brechbill and Strickler, 1972.

Dietz, Myron. "The Old Order River Brethren. Brethren In Christ History and Life 6, no. 1 (June 1983): 4-34.

Hostetler, Beulah S. "An Old Order River Brethren Love Feast." Pennsylvania Folklife 24, no. 2 (Winter 1974-­75): 8-20.

Mennonite World Handbook Supplement. Strasbourg, France, and Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1984: 146.

Scott, Stephen. "The Old Order River Brethren." Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 1, no. 3 (July 1978): 13-22.

Scott, Stephen and Harriet. Directory of the Keller-Strickler Group of Old Order River Brethren (1974, 1978; Lancaster: Sauder Printing, 1984).

Thomas, Dwight W. "Old Order River Brethren Hymn Tunes." Brethren In Christ History and Life 5, no. 1 (June 1982): 65-95.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978.

Additional Information

"Plain People of Pennsylvania." Penn State On Demand panel discussion moderated by Patty Satalia with Donald Kraybill, Richard Page, David Weaver-Zercher, Stephen Scott and Julia Kasdorf. 58:45 minute streaming video in QuickTime or WindowsMedia.

Author(s) Stephen E Scott
Date Published 2013

Cite This Article

MLA style

Scott, Stephen E. "Old Order River Brethren." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2013. Web. 27 Feb 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Old_Order_River_Brethren&oldid=76617.

APA style

Scott, Stephen E. (2013). Old Order River Brethren. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 February 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Old_Order_River_Brethren&oldid=76617.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 655. All rights reserved.

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