1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/German Baptist Brethren

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GERMAN BAPTIST BRETHREN, or German Brethren, a sect of American Baptists which originated in Germany, and whose members are popularly known in the United States as “Dunkers,” “Dunkards” or “Tunkers,” corruptions of the German verb tunken, “to dip,” in recognition of the sect's continued adherence to the practice of trine immersion. The sect was the outcome of one of the many Pietistic movements of the 17th century, and was founded in 1708 by Andrew Mack of Swartzenau, Germany, and seven of his followers, upon the general issue that both the Lutheran and Reformed churches were taking liberties with the literal teachings of the Scriptures. The new sect was scarcely organized in Germany when its members were compelled by persecution to take refuge in Holland, whence they emigrated to Pennsylvania, in small companies, between 1719 and 1729. The first congregation in America was organized on Christmas Day 1723 by Peter Becker at Germantown, Pennsylvania, and here in 1743 Christopher Sauer, one of the sect's first pastors, and a printer by trade, printed the first Bible (a few copies of which are still in existence) published in a European language in America. From Pennsylvania the sect spread chiefly westward, and, after various vicissitudes, caused by defections and divisions due to doctrinal differences, in 1908 were most numerous in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota.

There is much uncertainty about the early theological history of the sect, but it is probable that Mack and his followers were influenced by both the Greek Catholics and the Waldensians. P. H. Bashor in his historical sketch, read before the World's Fair Congress of the Brethren Church (1894), says: “From the history of extended labour by Greek missionaries, from the active propaganda of doctrine by scattered Waldensian refugees, through parts of Germany and Bavaria, from the credence that may generally be given to local tradition, and from the strong similarity between the three churches in general features of circumstantial service, the conclusion, without additional evidence, is both reasonable and natural that the founders of the new church received their teaching, their faith and much of their church idea from intimate acquaintance with the established usages of both societies, and from their amplification and enforcement by missionaries and pastors. . . . In doctrine the church has been from the first contentious for believers' baptism, holding that nowhere in the New Testament can be found any authority even by inference, precept or example for the baptism of infants. On questions of fundamental doctrine they held to the belief in one self-existing supreme ruler of the Universe — the Divine Godhead — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — the tri-personality.” Hence their practice of triple immersion, which provides that the candidate shall kneel in the water and be immersed, face first, three times — in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (From this practice the sect received the less commonly used nickname “Dompelaers,” meaning “tumblers.”) They accept implicitly and literally the New Testament as the infallible guide in spiritual matters, holding it to be the inspired word of God, revealed through Jesus Christ and, by inspiration, through the Apostles. They also believe in the inspiration of the Old Testament. In their celebration of the communion service they aim exactly to imitate the forms observed by Christ. It is celebrated in the evening, and is accompanied by the ancient love feast (partaken by all communicants seated at a common table), by the ceremony of the washing of feet and by the salutation of the holy kiss, the three last-named ceremonies being observed by the sexes separately. They pray over their sick and, when so requested, anoint them with oil. They are rigid non-resistants, and will not bear arms or study the art of war; they refuse to take oaths, and discountenance going to law over issues that can possibly be settled out of the courts. The taking of interest was at first forbidden, but that prohibition is not now insisted upon. They “testify” against the use of intoxicating liquor and tobacco, and advocate simplicity in dress. In its earlier history the sect opposed voting or taking any active part in political affairs, but these restrictions have quite generally disappeared. Similarly the earlier prejudice against higher education, and the maintenance of institutions for that purpose, has given place to greater liberality along those lines. In 1782 the sect forbade slave- holding by its members.

The church officers (generally unpaid) comprise bishops (or ministers), elders, teachers, deacons (or visiting brethren) and deaconesses chiefly aged women who are permitted at times to take leading parts in church services. The bishops are chosen from the teachers; they are itinerant, conduct marriage and funeral services, and are present at communions, at ordinations, when deacons are chosen or elected, and at trials for the excommunication of members. The elders are the first or oldest teachers of congregations, for which there is no regular bishop. They have charge of the meetings of such congregations, and participate in excommunication proceedings, besides which they preach, exhort, baptize, and may, when needed, take the offices of the deacons. The teachers, who are chosen by vote, may also exhort or preach, when their services are needed for such purposes, and may, at the request of a bishop, perform marriage or baptismal ceremonies. The deacons have general oversight of the material affairs of the congregation, and are especially charged with the care of poor widows and their children. In the discharge of these duties they are expected to visit each family in the congregation at least once a year. The government of the church is chiefly according to the congregational principle, and the women have an equal voice with the men; but annual meetings, attended by the bishops, teachers and other delegates from the several congregations are held, and at these sessions the larger questions involving church polity are considered and decided by a committee of five bishops.

An early secession from the general body of Dunkers was that of the Seventh Day Dunkers, whose distinctive principle was that the seventh day was the true Sabbath. Their founder was Johann Conrad Beissel (1690-1768), a native of Eberbach and one of the first emigrants, who, after living as a hermit for several years on Mill Creek, Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, founded the sect (1725), then again lived as a hermit in a cave (formerly occupied by another hermit, one Elimelech) on the Cocalico Creek in Pennsylvania, and in 1732-1735 established a semi-monastic community (the “Order of the Solitary”) with a convent (the “Sister House”) and a monastery (the “Brother House”) at Ephrata, in what is now Lancaster county, about 55 m. W. by N. from Philadelphia. Among the industries of the men were printing (in both English and German), bookbinding, tanning, quarrying, and the operation of a saw mill, a bark mill, and perhaps a pottery; the women did embroidery, quilting, and engrossing in a beautiful but peculiar hand, known as Fracturschrift.[1] The monastic feature was gradually abandoned, and in 1814 the Society was incorporated as the Seventh Day Baptists, its affairs being placed in the hands of a board of trustees. More important in the history of the modern church was the secession, in the decade between 1880 and 1890, of the Old Order Brethren, who opposed Sunday Schools and the missionary work of the Brethren, in Asia Minor and India, and in several European countries; and also in 1882 of the radicals, or Progressives, who objected to a distinctive dress and to the absolute supremacy of the yearly conferences. Higher education was long forbidden and is consistently opposed by the Old Order. The same element in the Brethren opposed a census, but according to Howard Miller's census of 1880 (Record of the Faithful) the number of Dunkers was 59,749 in that year; by the United States census of 1890 it was then 73,795; the figures for 1904 are given by Henry King Carroll in his “Statistics of the Churches” in the Christian Advocate (Jan. 5, 1905): Conservatives, or German Baptist Brethren, 95,000; Old Order, 4000; Progressives or Brethren, 15,000; Seventh Day, 194; total, 114,194. In 1909 the German Baptist Brethren had an estimated membership of approximately 100,000, and the Brethren of 18,000. The main body, or Conservatives, support schools at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; Mt. Morris, Illinois; Lordsburg, California; McPherson, Kansas; Bridgewater, Virginia; Canton, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; North Manchester, Indiana; Plattsburg, Missouri; Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania; Union Bridge, Maryland; and Fruitdale, Alabama. They have a publishing house at Elgin, Illinois, and maintain missions in Denmark, Sweden, France, Italy, India and China. The Progressives have a college, a theological seminary and a publishing house at Ashland, Ohio; and they carry on missionary work in Canada, South America and Persia.

Authorities. Lamech and Agrippa, Chronicon Ephratense, in German (Ephrata, Penn., 1786) and in English (Lancaster, 1889); G. N. Falkenstein, “The German Baptist Brethren, or Dunkers,” part 8 of “Pennsylvania: The German Influence in its Settlement and Development,” in vol. x. of the Pennsylvania German Society, Proceedings and Addresses (Lancaster, Penn., 1900); Julius Friedrich Sachse, The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, 1742-1800: A Critical and Legendary History of the Ephrata Cloister and the Dunkers (Philadelphia, 1900); and John Lewis Gillin, The Dunkers: A Sociological Interpretation (New York, 1906), a doctor's dissertation, with full bibliography.


  1. Beissel (known in the community as “Friedsam”) was their leader until his death; he published several collections of hymns. The stone over his grave bears the inscription: “Here rests an outgrowth of the love of God, ‘Friedsam,’ a Solitary Brother, afterwards a leader of the Solitary and the Congregation of Grace in and around Ephrata . . . Fell asleep July 6, 1768, in the 52nd year of his spiritual life, but the 72nd year and fourth month of his natural life.” The borough of Ephrata was separated from the township in 1891. Pop. (1900) of the borough, 2451; of the township, 2390. The “Brother House” and the “Sister House” are still standing (though in a dilapidated condition). In 1777, after the battle of Brandywine, many wounded American soldiers were nursed here by the Sisters, and about 200 are buried here.