For a closer look at the Brethren Heritage center, click here.
Tucked away in a shopping center in Brookville, Ohio, is a repository of all things Brethren. Founded in 2001, opening in 2003, the Brethren Heritage Center is a haven for the various historical records and artifacts of Brethren groups that trace their spiritual roots to 1708 in Schwarzenau, Germany. It’s not only evidence of the common history of the groups, but a testimony of their ability to work together in spite of a variety of theological and functional distinctives.
Recognizing those differences, the organizers insisted that the center focus only on heritage. As a result, the Center is a diplomatic celebration of the roots that bind the groups together. With an eye to preservation, there are more than 12,000 catalogued books in its 7,000 square feet. In addition to the library, there is a store with new and used books about Brethren, Anabaptist, Pietist, and related history and a one-room museum of Brethren memorabilia.
“As I study the history of the (Brethren) church, I see the continuity of faith and practice,” says Dale Savage, chair of the board and a member of the Old Brethren Church.
“I take comfort in that continuity and that the faith is still a living faith,” he adds. “I want to show that continuity and faith, and pass it on to future generations.”
One of the visible symbols of that continuity is the set of murals that depict Brethren history from 1708 to 2008 and circle the reading room. At five-feet long by two-feet high, each of the 12 panels is one third the size of the original murals that were painted by Medford D. Neher in 1949 and installed at Camp Mack in Milford, Ind.
The collection includes five rare Sauer Bibles (Sauer was an early Brethren printer); the personal Bible of Daniel Miller, one of the earliest Brethren leaders in the Dayton, Ohio, area; and a variety of meeting house furnishings, communion ware, clothing, and photographs. The only Grace Brethren artifacts presently in the collection are a unique early 20th century communion tray of glasses from the First Grace Brethren Church in Dayton and a girding towel from the Englewood, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church.
Jean Rogers, a member of the Brookville, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church, is the sole Grace Brethren member on the group’s board. As a member of a group of churches that more often looks ahead than back, she sees value in being a part of the Center. “If you want to know about your spiritual heritage, you can find it there,” the former church librarian says.
She is also one of many volunteers who have logged more than 20,000 hours working in the collection, often researching history or genealogical questions for interested individuals.
Both Rogers and Savage encourage Grace Brethren people to consider volunteering at the Center. “It’s important to tell the story of the Grace Brethren,” says Savage. “If they are here to be able to narrate that story, it’s even better.”
The Center is the result of a conversation between Larry Heisey, Fred W. Benedict, and Don Bowman, all members of two of the different distinct Brethren groups. They talked at a Dayton area auction, where they had watched the sale of a variety of items related to their joint spiritual heritage.
“It seemed like there should be a place to keep those,” recalls Heisey, a Church of the Brethren layman who now serves as the volunteer director of the center.
In fact, members of Church of the Brethren congregations in the Dayton area under the leadership of Don Bowman had been accumulating books, historical records, and artifacts from churches in the Miami Valley region, the southwest corner of Ohio where many Brethren people had migrated in the early 1800s. This collection was housed in a former church building that Heisey remembers as not being the best facility for storing historical documents, plus it was difficult to access because of irregular hours.
Benedict, a member of the Old German Baptist Brethren, had been collecting documents on his own, as had many other Brethren folks in the area. Several existing libraries around the country housed historical documents for individual groups, but for some, including the Dunkard Brethren, Old Brethren, and the Old German Baptist Brethren, there was no central archive.
Patterning their efforts after the Brethren Encyclopedia Board, an existing cooperative venture among the various groups, the three men called a meeting in Union, Ohio, that included representatives of seven Brethren groups located in the Miami Valley. (Prior to the Union, Ohio meeting nearly 30 people of the Old Order groups of Brethren attended a meeting in Greenville, Ohio, at which they concluded that they should participate with the others in the combined venture.)
As a result of this historic meeting in Union, Ohio, the existing Church of the Brethren collection was combined with materials donated by Benedict, Bowman, and others as a foundation for the new center, which found a home in donated space on the lower lever of the Brookside Plaza, a shopping center that is easily accessible off Interstate 70.
While based in southwest Ohio, the not-for-profit, volunteer-run organization sees its mission as a nation-wide effort to preserve Brethren heritage. It has welcomed visitors from all over the world and encourages involvement by Brethren people from outside their area. The denominations it represents include: The Brethren (Ashland) Church, Church of the Brethren, Conservative Grace Brethren International, Dunkard Brethren, Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, Old Brethren, and Old German Baptist Brethren.
A Closer Look
The Brethren Heritage Center is located at 428 Wolf Creek Street (P.O. Box 175), Brookville, Ohio 45309-0175. It is open Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed all major holidays. It is easily accessible from Interstate 70. For more information, see www.brethrenheritagecenter.org.
To volunteer or to donate items, call 937-833-5222.