The Carroll County (Indiana) Comet carries this interesting historical article, written by a pastor from one of the other Brethren groups involved in the recent 300th anniversary commemoration:
Celebrating a rich heritage
By Dr. Peter E. Roussakis Pastor, First Brethren Church, Burlington
For those of us who are members of one of the Brethren churches which dot communities of central and northern Indiana, 2008 is a year with particular significance; it marks the 300th anniversary of our church tradition.
There are several types of Brethren churches in our area that have a common heritage dating back to August 1708 in the little village of Schwarzenau, Germany, where eight persons, under the leadership of a miller named Alexander Mack, were baptized by believers’ immersion in the Eder River which runs through the town. What led to this? And why was it one that had special significance?
In 1708 in the Germanic provinces there were only three Christian faiths that were legal: the Catholic, the Lutheran and the Reformed. After a Thirty Years War, which was largely a dispute over the legality of tolerating more than one Christian tradition, a treaty of tolerance was signed in Westphalia in 1648 making those three church traditions the only ones allowed. Moreover, it was decided that whatever the Sovereign (Prince) of each province chose as his religion, all persons in that province were bound to worship as he did.
Before and during that period of time there were other Christian traditions that existed. There were those who disagreed with the three accepted church traditions regarding baptism. While the ‘big three’ baptized persons in infancy, Anabaptists, of which the Mennonites were a major example, believed that baptism was taught in the Bible as a response to one’s decision to become a Christian, reserved usually for youth and adults who understood what they were doing. Anabaptists, a word that means to baptize again, baptized those who made a commitment to be a follower of Christ even though they may have been baptized in infancy. Such an act was against the law, viewed as an act of treason to church and state, and punishable by imprisonment or execution. The Anabaptist persuasion was one of the two major influences on those who were the first Brethren.
The other influence was Pietism. Emerging as a sub-church movement in the 1600s, Pietists were those who emphasized the personal side of faith, rather than the ecclesiastical. They advocated having meetings for Bible study, prayer and singing. In those days this was unusual and unwelcome by the authorities, who labeled all who participated in such gatherings as law-breakers.
So when the eight persons in Schwarzenau, after a careful study of Scripture, decided adult believers’ immersion baptism following one’s profession of faith in Jesus was the Biblical pattern, and actually engaged in such baptisms in the Eder River, they were a marked people.
And yet, they had truly counted the cost of their decision, and were desirous of following Christ as they understood the Bible taught.
As with the Anabaptists before them, the early Brethren, and those who joined them and formed church groups in other towns, were persecuted. Some were put in prison, some sent to galleys, others were executed.
Eventually, Brethren migrated to Holland and finally to America. By the 1740s almost all of the Brethren in Germany had come to the Philadelphia, Pa., area. Just outside of Philadelphia the town of Germantown was a haven for these new immigrants. As the years passed, Brethren congregations were established eastward in New Jersey, southward in Virginia, westward in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and beyond.
Known as the German Baptist Brethren in the middle of the 1800s, Brethren were very cautious regarding taking on the ways of the world or other church traditions. Some, however, were more progressive and advocated having Sunday Schools, musical instruments in worship, a paid ministry, and outreach endeavors.
Differences of opinion on these matters grew to such a point in the early 1880s that formal divisions took place, leaving at that time three distinct groups of Brethren: the largest group, retaining the name German Baptist Brethren (who renamed themselves the Church of the Brethren in 1908), the progressive wing, which decided on The Brethren Church as their label, and the most conservative of the groups, called the Old German Baptist Brethren.
Over time, another group withdrew from the Church of the Brethren and is called Dunkard Brethren; and from The Brethren Church developed the National Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. Such is the way of church history.
It is interesting to note that one of each of the five Brethren groups with this particular heritage dating back to 1708 in Schwarzenau, Germany, exists in or near Flora, Indiana.