Brethren a German Baptist religious group. They were popularly known as Dunkards, Dunkers, or Tunkers, from the German for “to dip”, referring to their method of baptizing. The Brethren evolved from the Pietist movement in Germany. Alexander Mack, a miller who had been influenced by both Pietism and Anabaptism, organized the first congregation in the town of Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708.
Though the early Brethren shared many beliefs with other Protestants, issuers which separated them from the state churches included discipleship and obedience, reinstitution of the New Testament church, church discipline, biblicism, and nonresistance. They also shared their faith enthusiastically with others, sending evangelists to other parts of Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Due to growing persecution and economic hardship, Brethren began migrating to North America in 1719 under the leadership of Peter Becker. Most Brethren left Europe by 1740, including Mack, who brought a group in 1729. The first congregation in the New World was organized at Germantown, Pa., in 1723. Soon after this formation, the Germantown congregation sent missionaries to rural areas around Philadelphia. These missionaries preached, baptized, and started new congregations.
Their zeal, honesty, and hard work drew many new members into the Brethren faith community through the 1700s. New congregations were formed in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. With the promise of inexpensive land, they moved into Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri after the Revolutionary War. By the mid-1800s Brethren had settled in Kansas and Iowa and eventually the West Coast.
Expansion across the continent and changes due to the Industrial Revolution caused strain and conflict among the Brethren. In the early 1880s a major schism took place resulting in a three-way split. The largest branch after the schism was the German Baptist Brethren, who changed their name to the Church of the Brethren in 1908.
From the Church of Brethren there have been separations into the Seventh-day Baptists, German Baptists, Church of God, Old German Baptist Brethren, and the Brethren Church. The local churches are united by an annual conference that elects a general board to supervise the national church program.
During the 20th century the focus areas of Church of the Brethren have included educating its young people by developing Sunday schools, camping and youth programs; strengthening its emphasis on service, foreign and home missions, and peacemaking; increasing its ecumenical involvement; and developing a new denominational structure. Today the Church of the Brethren maintains the basic beliefs of the first Brethren and seeks to find new ways to continue the work of Jesus in the world.
While the Church of the Brethren started in Germany, it has no congregations in Europe today. Instead, the denomination’s congregations stretch from coast to coast across North America, with especially strong concentrations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. In all, more than 1,000 churches can be found in 38 states and Puerto Rico. There are also nearly 20 international churches in the Dominican Republic, and a large sister denomination in Nigeria.
There are four key locations in the denomination. One key location is Elgin, ILL. This city is home to the denomination’s headquarters and General Offices. It houses the main offices of the Church of the Brethren General Board, Brethren Benefit Trust, the Association of Brethren Caregivers, the Annual Conference, and the Brethren Employees Credit Union.
Another key location is New Windsor, MD. This small town is the location of the Brethren Service Center, known for hospitality and service ministries. On its grounds, a former college campus, are the New Windsor Conference Center, Church of the Brethren Emergency Response/Service Ministries, and other ecumenical and independent church-related programs. The New Windsor distribution center sends goods across the US and around the globe for many church agencies.
The Church of the Brethren Washington office, near Capital Hill, helps to give the denomination a voice in national and international policy-making, provide interpretation of Annual Conference statements and General Board resolutions, and keep members current on issues.
Brethren truly span the nation and the globe, with field staff in five regions across the US, and volunteers working at a projects in many states and countries through Brethren Volunteer Service. Brethren also have mission workers in Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, the Dominican Republic, Central America, and elsewhere.
Six colleges are affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Two of them are Elizabethtown and Juniata are located in Pennsylvania. Others are Bridgewater (Va.) College, Manchester College (Ind.) McPherson (Kan.) College, and the University of La Verne (Calif.). In addition, Brethren Colleges Abroad, also located in North Manchester, Ind., sends students overseas for study abroad programs and brings international students to Brethren colleges.
Though the Brethren as a group have existed for nearly three hundred years, they subscribe to no formal creed or set of rules. They simply try to do what Jesus did. Jesus brought a message of life, love, and hope. But he offered much more than inspiring words: He understood that people’s spiritual needs also include day-to-day human ones, such as food, health, rest, comfort, friendship, and unconditional acceptance. “I am the way, “ he told his followers. He showed them how to trust, how to care, and how to help. Steadily, lovingly, even radically, Jesus went about saving the world by serving its people. The brethren believe in his message, and they seek to do the same.
Whether the conflict involves warring nations, radical discord, theological disputes, personal disagreement, or mere misunderstanding, Brethren listen conscientiously, seek guidance in the scriptures, and work toward reconciliation. Brethren practice peaceful living.
Brethren’s longstanding commitment to peace and justice includes a deep regard for human life and dignity. Brethren reach worldwide to help repair the ravages of poverty, ignorance, exploitation, and catastrophic events. Along with their faith, they bring food, books, classes, tools, and medicine. Living peacefully, to the Brethren, means treating each person with the attentive, compassionate respect that all human beings deserve.
Years ago, all Brethren were immediately recognizable because of their plain dress and reserved ways. Today’s Brethren live very much in the world, work in a broad range of occupations, and make use of the latest technology.
Continually, though, they try to simplify their lives. Practicing a modest nonconformity, they think carefully about their daily choices. The ideal of simplicity guides their decisions: How will they conduct their business, raise their children, spend their leisure time, tend to their natural resources? How will they use their money? How they can live comfortably, but without excess?
For the Brethren, such considerations are not a requirement, but a privilege. As they seek to live intentionally, responsibly, and simply, they find a deep sense of purpose and find joy.
Whether worshiping, serving, learning, or celebrating, Brethren act in community. Together, they study the bible to discern God’s will. They make decisions as a group, and each person’s voice matters. During their traditional love feast, they gather at the table of the Lord, and each summer at Annual Conference they convene as a denominational family. Because Jesus urged unity, Brethren work alongside other denominations, at home and abroad, in worldwide missions and outreach.
Their congregations welcome all who wish to share with them in another way of living: the way of Christian discipleship, life in community, and fulfillment in service.