The Brethren resemble Mennonites in many ways, including their belief that baptism is for believing adults only, but they have their differences, beginning with the way they baptize. They traditionally do it by trine immersion, and historically that often happened in the dead of winter, once they broke the ice in the stream. Seriously.
Much of my ancestry on my dad’s side were Brethren, as I explain on my Orphan George blog.
Here’s a brief introduction to the faith.
- Alexander Mack (1679-1735) was the leader and first minister of a Pietist community that broke with the three state churches in Germany in 1708. Persecution sent them fleeing to the Netherlands and then, beginning in 1719, to Pennsylvania. Mack arrived with about 30 families ten years later, essentially completing the migration to the New World.
- They often resembled the Amish – and some still do – including the German-speaking identity. Like the Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers, they have upheld a peace testimony that rejects participation in war.
- They also led lives modeled on simplicity and a non-creedal belief, “No creed but the New Testament.”
- They were active on the American frontier and grew in numbers.
- There has often been an identity problem. They were often called Dunkards or Dunkers, for their mode of baptism, which some found offensive, or German Baptist Brethren – but please don’t confuse them with the Baptists or the United Brethren in Christ, which I was raised in, or the Brethren in Christ, an offshoot of the Mennonites. Or the Plymouth Brethren in Garrison Keillor’s past, who broke off from the Anglicans.
- Tensions between conservatives and progressives led in the 1880s to a separation that split off the Old German Baptist Brethren, on one side, and the Brethren Church, on the other, from the central body, now known as the Church of the Brethren.
- The Heifer Project began as a Brethren peace and social justice initiative in the 1950s.
- Denominational polity is through Annual Conference.
- The annual love feast includes foot washing.
- What others call sacraments the Brethren call ordinances. Among them are the laying on of hands and anointing for healing or for consecrating an individual for service.