By Dr. Todd Scoles
The Brethren movement was born into a hostile environment. The Elector of the Palatinate region in Germany had declared that anyone who broke from the authorized church would be guilty of heresy and subject to harsh punishment. He called it a “gracious decree,” but its terms were hardly gracious.
They are to be put in prison, and as many of them as there are must be locked to wheelbarrows and kept on public work on the fortifications or at other common labor. They are to be separated from one another in various places, and put on a bread-and-water diet. (1)
Alexander Mack and a small group of companions had settled within the lands of the Count of Wittgenstein, who had granted religious toleration. Having made their decision to leave the Reformed Church, they issued an Open Letter to state their reasons and intentions.
We have left all sects because of the misuses concerning infant baptism, communion, and church system, and unanimously profess that these are rather man’s statutes and commandments, and therefore do not baptize our children, and testify that we were not really baptized. (2)
In August 1708, Mack and seven others were baptized in the Eder River near Schwarzenau, immediately marking themselves as traitors to the state and rebels to the church.
The new movement grew and spread. Temporary havens were established under the protection of sympathetic local rulers, but soon pressure came from more powerful officials, and the space for religious freedom narrowed. The Brethren began to look across the ocean.
There, in Pennsylvania, William Penn’s “holy experiment” offered hope. Penn had established a territory for religious dissidents, promising, “I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person. God has furnished me with a better resolution and has given me his grace to keep it.” (3)
The territory’s charter guaranteed,
No person or persons, inhabiting this Province or Territories . . . shall be in any case molested or prejudiced, in his or their person or estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their mind, or to do or super any other act or thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion. (4)
It was an amazing statement of freedom and between 1719 and 1735, most of the Brethren emigrated to America.
The Brethren found religious liberty in America, but their past experiences made them very jealous of that liberty and alert to anyone who might threaten it. When Count Zinzendorf attempted to unite the German sects through a series of synods, the Brethren feared the formation of a new national church. The bond of shared oppression that had united these groups in Europe was replaced by suspicions of their differences.
The Revolutionary War raised sleeping doubts about civil authorities as Pennsylvania adopted the attest, an ordinance that required citizens to renounce allegiance to the King and transfer it by oath to the State. The Brethren responded with a statement of noncompliance.
Inasmuch as it is the Lord our God who establishes kings and removes kings, and ordains rulers according to his own good pleasure, and we cannot know whether God has rejected the king and chosen the state, while the kings had the government; therefore we could not, with a good conscience, repudiate the king and give allegiance to the state. (5)
These twin fears of denominationalism and nationalism contributed to the isolationism that plagued the Brethren during the nineteenth century. Peter Nead, Brethren theologian, worried about the proliferation of denominations.
The sects have long been struggling for the mastery and it is now made manifest, (as respects America) that none can succeed, their jealousy will be subsided, and no doubt a great and mighty struggle will be made to unite them all under one head. And they will no doubt be successful in bringing about a union, (if not under one creed) of one mind, to persecute unto death the true church of Christ. (6)
Nead proceeded to implicate the role government might play in such a disaster.
And from what source will the false church obtain power to persecute and kill the people of God? We answer from the civil government, the same source from whom the Jews obtained power to crucify Christ. In those times there will be a union of Church and State. At this time we have great, and honest hearted men, at the head of government, who by no means would give their vote to suppress the rights of speech, and of the press, to trample under foot the rights of God and man. But a certain majority of the votes of these United States, can make a change in these matters. (7)
Religious liberty presented the Brethren with unparalleled freedoms to practice and proclaim their beliefs, but fears of losing those freedoms led to a protective stance that focused on shutting out rather than reaching out. The result was a centralization of control and legalism followed by internal discord and division in the 1880s. More importantly, the result was a retreat from the mission of the church to risk the dangers of this world for the sake of the gospel.
(1) From Edict of the Elector Palatine. 1706.
(2) From Open Letter to the Pietists of the Palatinate. 1708.
(3) From Letter to those Already Residing in Pennsylvania. 1681.
(4) From Charter of Privileges Granted by William Penn, Esq., Article 1. 1701.
(5) From Minutes of 1779 Annual Meeting, Article 1.
(6) Peter Nead. 1866. Theological Writings on Various Subjects. Dayton: New Edition. pp. 353-354.
(7) Ibid., p. 354.