Editor’s Note: August 2008 will mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Brethren movement. A group of eight people braved the waters of the Eider River in Schwarzenau, Germany (and possible persecution), to begin a new congregation patterned after the New Testament church. For the next few issues, FGBC World will look at some of the people and organizations that have shaped the Grace Brethren branch of that movement.
It was a radical thing to do. The law forbade it, and other religious people didn’t approve. But it didn’t stop
Alexander Mack from opening his home for others to study the Bible.
Not only was it extreme, it was dangerous. Throughout the German countryside, people were being persecuted, even murdered, for their beliefs. But Mack was becoming increasingly disaffected with the local state church. The sermons were sterile, the services coldly formal, and clergy and lay leaders lacked integrity.
One night as he led a worship service in his family’s mill in an obscure village near Heidelberg, local authorities knocked on the door and dispersed the group. One historian wrote that the county clerk who accompanied the police officer was so angered by the illegal gathering that he threatened to call in a regiment of soldiers to put them all under arrest.
While they weren’t arrested, the event was enough to force Mack, his wife, Anna Margaret, and their two children to flee. They found refuge in the village of Schwarzenau in the province of Wittgenstein, a principality known as a sanctuary for religious dissidents.
In Schwarzenau, Mack continued to study the Bible and church history. Though only in his 20s, he was respected for his knowledge of the Word and his ability to teach it. Regarded as a natural leader, he soon was conducting a small Bible study in his home.
The more Mack studied, the more convinced he became that the word baptism meant immersion, not sprinkling or pouring, as was the manner of the day. He realized that baptism was for believers, not infants, and that the New Testament church was a community that had clear moral expectations for its members. He believed that the local gathering of believers should be modeled on the New Testament church.
By 1708, the question of baptism was increasingly discussed in the Schwarzenau gatherings. The believers had come to understand that the only meaningful baptism was immersion by individuals who were old enough to understand its significance. So Mack and seven others, who had been baptized as children, decided to act.
Early one August morning, eight people gathered on the banks of the Eider River to establish, in Alexander Mack, Jr.’s words, “a covenant of good conscience with God.” After he was baptized by one of the others, Mack baptized the rest. Five men and three women took part in the first baptismal service, unknowingly becoming the charter members of the Brethren movement.
The movement grew. Mack insisted that followers of Christ must count the cost. They must be prepared to suffer the loss of everything for the Lord. At love feasts, they would sing hymns, examine their consciences, and wash one another’s feet. This was followed by a simple meal. The Brethren would thrive in Schwarzenau until 1720 when serious persecution again threatened. Mack eventually led a group of believers to Pennsylvania in 1729, but not before they had spent several years in the Netherlands, where Mack’s wife and young daughter died.
Alexander Mack most likely would not have considered himself a rebel. By all accounts, he was a humble man who was determined to follow Christ at all costs.
He was not formally educated. He had hoped to study at the University of Heidelberg, but the sudden death of his older brother forced him to work in the family mill, abandoning his plans for higher education. An avid reader, he never stopped pursing knowledge.
He came from a wealthy family, but was not hesitant to give of his inheritance to others in need.
He did not seek personal honor, so he wrote little about himself and he did not want to be elevated as the founder of a denomination. Before his death in 1735, he asked his sons not to mark his grave “or they might sometime want to erect a monument.” His sons protested and finally Mack agreed to allow them to mark the site with a small slab. (The community cemetery where he was buried was later abandoned and his remains were moved to a church cemetery in Germantown, Pa., in 1894.)
At a time when he could have followed the easy path, Mack chose to follow the teachings of Christ. He could have lived a comfortable life, but his pilgrimage of faith placed him at the head of a movement that is known for placing its foundational truths on the Bible.
Mack and the little band of believers risked all when they stepped into the waters of the Eider River. Little did they know they were the beginning of a world-wide movement that would grow to include the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, along with the Church of the Brethren, the Brethren Church (Ashland), the Conservative Grace Brethren International, Dunkard Brethren, Old Brethren, and Old German Baptist Brethren. Their radical steps have spawned groups of individuals who are committed to discipleship in Christ with a willingness to be guided by the Spirit to understanding their faith.
Want to visit the village of Schwarzenau and the river where Alexander Mack baptized the first Brethren? See Heritage Tour to Visit Early Sites of Brethren Movement.