The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/German Baptist Brethren

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The Encyclopedia Americana
German Baptist Brethren
Edition of 1920. See also Schwarzenau Brethren on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

GERMAN BAPTIST BRETHREN, known also as “Dunkards,” “Dunkers” or “Tunkers,” bodies of Christians of German origin, consisting of four divisions. (1) Conservative, (2) Old Order, (3) Progressive, (4) Seventh Day. The movement, a distinguishing feature of which is baptism by trine immersion (candidates are dipped at the utterance of each title in the Trinity — Father, Son, Holy Ghost — in the formula), arose in Swartzenau, on the Oder, in Germany, near the beginning of the 18th century (1708). Alexander Mack, a miller, being the founder. It was mystical and pietistic in character, and its members, rejecting formulated creeds, turned to the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice, and for nearly two centuries strict adherence to the letter of the Scriptures has been observed. Religion is carried into all the affairs of life and business and social relations, as well as into all church matters; and fellowship, worship, work, conduct as individuals in all things were regulated by decisions of the annual conference, based upon passages of the Word of God. Nonconformity to the world was applied as a principle to the whole body of the Brethren in the United States, until the last quarter of the 19th century, when the influence of other Christian bodies and of general education broke down exclusiveness, and let in some of the spirit of the world, giving rise to the first three divisions, Conservative, Progressive and Old Order, described below. Under the dominance of this principle, the costumes of both men and women, the manner of wearing the hair and beard were prescribed, and fashion's decrees set at naught. Bonnets for women, hats for men, carpets for the floors, pianos or organs in the house, and many other things were resisted successfully for many years, in one way or another. When articles of wear and use became common the rule was gradually relaxed. At first colleges were forbidden and for a time high schools were under the ban, the text supporting it being Romans xii, 16, “Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.” Nevertheless, high schools and colleges came a little later, and are carried on both in the Conservative and Progressive branches. Like the Mennonites and Friends, the Brethren are opposed to war and to the taking of juridical oaths and restrain their members from litigation.

The Dunkards suffered persecution in Wittgenstein and removed to Crefeld and to other places in Germany, Switzerland and Holland. But their practices differing from those generally prevailing, the atmosphere became unfriendly almost everywhere, and emigration to the United States, beginning in 1719, soon brought large companies of the Brethren to this country. Most of them settled in Pennsylvania, whence they found their way gradually to the South and West. One of their number set up a printing house in Germantown, Christopher Saur, from whose press was issued the first Bible in German printed in America.

Among the peculiarities of the Brethren is the observance of the communion as an evening meal, accompanied by the ceremony of foot-washing, the giving of the holy kiss, and the use from the first of unfermented wine. Participation in slavery, in the making, selling or drinking of intoxicants, was forbidden before the close of the 18th century; also the use of tobacco, membership in secret societies, the taking of juridical oaths, and activity in politics.

The Brethren are simple, plain-living, devout Christians of the evangelical type, carrying on their church work in much the same way as other denominations, their form of church government being congregational among the Progressives and Old Order Brethren, with some modification among the Conservatives, who give some ecclesiastical power to the annual conference.

The customs, manners and methods of life of the communities of which the Brethren formed a part, gradually took effect among them, giving rise to differences of opinion on questions relating to nonconformity, and finally precipitating divisions into Progressive, Conservative and Old Order branches. The Old Order Brethren, the strictest of the three in matters of discipline, withdrew in 1881 as a protest against relaxation; the next division occurred in 1882 when the Progressive Brethren withdrew because the main body was not sufficiently liberal in discipline, according to their thinking, and especially because it had departed from the congregational principle of church government.

The Conservatives, calling themselves German Baptist Brethren, who became a separate body in 1881, are by far the most numerous branch. In addition to the annual conference, a great event among them, there are 40 or more district conferences, whose business is local in character. They have colleges and collegiate institutes, carry on home and foreign missions, conduct Sunday schools, and have a large publishing business. In 1916 it reported 100,000 members, with 980 churches and over 3,000 ministers, including deacons, elders and bishops. The bishops are local church officials of the highest order. The territory covered by the Church embraces 35 States, stretching from New York west to the Pacific and from the Canadian border to the Gulf.

The Progressives, who have adopted the name Brethren Church for their organization, differ from the Conservatives in the stress they lay on the congregational system and in matters of discipline. All ecclesiastical power is lodged with the local church. They have district conferences and a general conference, which have no ecclesiastical functions. This body maintains a university at Ashland, Ohio, is active in missionary work, promotes Sunday schools and has societies of Christian Endeavor. It had in 1916, 24,794 members, 230 churches and 314 ministers. It is increasing slowly.

The Old Order Brethren, dating from 1881, were organized to preserve, from the inroads of modern social life and customs the church of the fathers. They insist upon non-conformity, hold that marriage is indissoluble, and observe the simple life, dressing plainly and living quietly. They are not growing in numbers. They reported in 1916, 3,500 members, 70 churches and 219 ministers. They do not conduct missions, nor Sunday schools.

The German Seventh-Day Baptists began their history when John Conrad Beissel withdrew from the Brethren because he had been led to adopt the Seventh day as the Sabbath and the principle of celibacy. This was in 1728. Four years later, he took up the life of a hermit at Ephrata, Pa., where he organized a celibate community, known as the Ephrata Society. Two houses were built, one for the sisters, with a prioress in charge, and one for men, with a prior. A school was established in 1735 and a printing house in 1750. As a celibate community the society began to dwindle, celibacy was dropped and by 1830 the members had been scattered and community life was abandoned. In belief, these churches are in general harmony with the other bodies of Brethren, differing somewhat in practice. In 1906 they reported 167 members; in 1916, 300, with 15 ministers, and 6 churches.

The four bodies had in 1916 a total of 3,645 ministers, 1,295 churches and 128,594 members. Consult Brumbaugh's ‘History of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America’ (Elgin, Ill., 1899), Falkenstein's ‘History of the German Baptist Brethren Church’ (Lancaster, Pa., 1906).

H. K. Carroll.