Church of the Brethren

Church of the Brethren
Church of the Brethren
A cross with branches of equal size made up of two parallel lines with the bottom-left corner dovetailing into a wave that connects as part of a circle. The words "Church of the Brethren" are written below.
The Church of the Brethren logo comprises three shapes with distinct meanings: the cross represents the crucifixion of Jesus, the circle is a symbol of unity, and the wave represents water in baptism, specifically its importance to Anabaptists.
Classification Protestant
Orientation Anabaptist
Theology Non-creedal
Organizational structure Congregationalist with districts that meet together in an Annual Conference
Distinct fellowships The Church of the Brethren, Inc. (ministry and administration), Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust (retirement fund), On Earth Peace (peace initiative)
Associations Brethren World Assembly, Christian Churches Together, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Church World Service, Historic Peace Churches, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Council of Churches, World Council of Churches
Geographical areas United States (headquarters) and Puerto Rico, with groups in Brazil; the Dominican Republic; Haiti; Nigeria and Oku, Cameroon; and Sudan; also present in Ecuador (United Andean Indian Mission) and India (Church of North India)
Founder Alexander Mack and the Schwarzenau Brethren
Origin 1708
Schwarzenau, Germany
Branched from Schwarzenau Brethren in the United States
Separations Dunkard Brethren (1926)
Congregations 1,047 (2010, United States and Puerto Rico)[1]
Members 122,810 (2010, United States)
Nursing homes 21 (Fellowship of Brethren Homes)
Aid organization Brethren Disaster Ministries, Brethren Service Center, Brethren Volunteer Service, Children's Disaster Services, Heifer International, SERRV International
Tertiary institutions 6 colleges and universities (Bridgewater College, Elizabethtown College, Juniata College, Manchester College, McPherson College, and University of La Verne), 1 seminary (Bethany Theological Seminary), see also Brethren Colleges Abroad
Official website

The Church of the Brethren is a Christian denomination (not to be confused with the Plymouth Brethren) originating from the Schwarzenau Brethren (German: "Schwarzenauer Neutäufer" or "Schwarzenau New Baptists") organized in 1708 by eight persons led by Alexander Mack, in Schwarzenau, Bad Berleburg, Germany. The Brethren movement began as a melding of Radical Pietist and Anabaptist ideas during the Protestant Reformation. The first of its churches in the United States was established in 1723. These church bodies became commonly known as "Dunkers," and more formally as German Baptist Brethren. The denomination holds the New Testament as its only creed. Historically the church has taken a strong stance for non-resistance or pacifism. Distinctive practices include believers baptism by trine immersion; a threefold love feast consisting of feet washing, a fellowship meal, and communion; anointing for healing; and the holy kiss.

The Church of the Brethren represents the largest body descending from Mack's Schwarzenau Brethren church. The German Baptist Brethren suffered a major division in the early 1880s, creating the three wings: traditionalists such as the Old German Baptist Brethren, progressives led by The Brethren Church, and the original majority known as conservatives later adopting the name "Church of the Brethren" in 1908. The latter body had 122,810 members as of June 2010[2] and 1,047 congregations in the United States and Puerto Rico as of August 2010.[1] There are six liberal arts colleges and one seminary (Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana) related to the Church of the Brethren. General offices and the Brethren Press are located in Elgin, Illinois.

In 1948 the Church of the Brethren joined the World Council of Churches as a charter member and was a forming member of the National Council of Churches in 1950.




The Brethren state that they have "no creed but the New Testament." If there is a single part of the New Testament that is most pointed to as a guide for members' lives it is The Sermon on the Mount. The early Brethren were very meticulous in applying the New Testament to every situation. For example, they baptize in a forward direction because "we are baptized into his death," and at the moment of his death, Jesus' head fell forward.

When disagreements arise regarding the correct interpretation of New Testament passages or general congregation issues, local congregations go to their regional district conference for resolution. If necessary, the final authority for settling such disputes is the Annual Conference. The minutes of Annual Conference give a clear picture of what matters have been in dispute and how Brethren interpret the New Testament. However, some congregations accept or even encourage individual interpretation of the Bible and their faith.

In keeping with egalitarianism and respect for the individual, evangelism in the Church of the Brethren is practiced by personal demonstration of good works (cf. karma) in the world community and by non-confrontational witnessing. An example is a recent statement in an official church publication: "Share the story of Annual Conference with someone else as a way to 'extend Jesus' table,' even inviting those people into the fellowship of the Church of the Brethren."[3]

Brethren espouse the basic beliefs of Christianity, such as the divinity of Christ. They emphasize peace, simplicity, the equality of believers, and consistent obedience to Christ. Community, both within and outside the church, is promoted and Brethren often describe themselves in terms of what they do rather than what they believe. Brethren also believe that "faith without works is dead", and have been heavily involved in disaster relief and other charitable work.


The Church of the Brethren is one of the historic peace churches. Historically, they have partnered with Quakers and Mennonites in their publications and other peace efforts. Its position is summarized in the phrase, "all war is sin" (Annual Conference, 1935). Many Brethren have declined to engage in military service. Some have been imprisoned for that stance.

During the American Revolution and the American Civil War, Brethren required their members to abstain from military service, believing that obedience to Christ precluded such involvements. Until the early twentieth century, baptismal applicants were required to promise to follow the church's teachings regarding "being defenseless."

During the Second World War, Brethren worked with the government to create a system of alternative service, which would allow conscientious objectors to serve their nation and humanity through non-violent service. Civilian Public Service was a result of the three historic peace churches collaborating with the U.S. Government. While the government provided tools and materials and their work was managed by agencies such as the Soil Conservation or Forest Service, "the historic peace churches funded all the expenses for the men, including food, administrative costs, and a tiny monthly stipend of $2.50."[4] Alternative service has evolved into "Brethren Volunteer Service," a church agency that places many young people and some older persons in volunteer human service jobs, usually for a one-year term.

Despite the church's official stance, many members of the Church of the Brethren do not agree with pacifism. This was made particularly evident when, during the Second World War 80% of the men in the Church of the Brethren entered active duty in the military. Another 10% served as noncombatants in the military with only 10% taking Conscientious objector status.[5] Recent national surveys of the Brethren suggest that only a minority of the current membership view military service as wrong,[6] though even the staunchly peaceful Old Order Amish historically admit the federal government's need to wage war.[4]

Priesthood of all Believers

Brethren follow a non-hierarchical pattern of church life. In the past, most congregations were served by multiple "free" ministers, who supported themselves through other occupations. Today, most congregations have paid pastors, but their function is still somewhat limited, with the laity still taking a very active role in ministerial work.


A photograph of the front of a stone and redbrick church.
Brethren have always emphasized simplicity in all aspects of their life. This church house from Hygiene, Colorado displays that simplicity and humility.

Brethren have been urged (and in earlier times compelled) to live a relatively simple life-style. At various points in their history, Brethren have been discouraged from attending fairs and carnivals, swearing oaths, driving motorized vehicles, attending secular colleges, joining secret societies, filing lawsuits, gambling, and using tobacco or alcoholic beverages.

Simplicity, or nonconformity as it was called until the early twentieth century, was once very noticeable in Brethren dress and grooming. Men would wear black coats with no collar, and hooks instead of buttons (often referred to as a 'Brethren Suit'). They would wear beards, but no mustaches. The mustache was seen as a sign of belonging to the military. Also, the beards were cut in a manner to avoid interference with the kiss of peace.

In addition, they wore broad-brimmed black hats. Women would wear long dresses in dull colors, and a "prayer covering". Today, the "Brethren Suit" still is worn in the most conservative congregations, although some men dress in a simple style by wearing a collared shirt in a single color without a tie, while women in these congregations may continue to practice the use of a prayer covering. The traditional Brethren plain dress is very similar to the clothing of the present-day Amish.

Most Brethren were well-acculturated by the second half of the twentieth century. Today, many members of the church take simplicity to mean living a more ecologically friendly lifestyle by consuming less and being aware of the effect of their choices on the earth and other people (see simple living).


The Brethren avoid the use of the term "sacraments," preferring the term "ordinances." This refers to the symbolic actions ordered by Jesus Christ and practiced by the early church. The Brethren ordinances are:

Anointing for healing

A supplicant is administered a small amount of oil on his forehead. This is followed by the laying on of hands and a prayer for wholeness. This is not to be confused with extreme unction (last rites), since healing is prayed for and expected. Healing is explicitly stated to include emotional and spiritual, as well as physical healing.

Anointing and laying on of hands have also been used for other purposes, such as consecrating someone for missions or other special service.

Believer's baptism

The Brethren believe that baptism is an outward sign of an inward experience of salvation. Hence, baptism is not performed until one is able to understand and accept the message of the gospel, typically at about age thirteen. In the early years of the denomination, the age at baptism was generally older. The mode of baptism is trine (three times) immersion in a forward direction in the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is followed by laying on of hands for the impartation of the Holy Spirit.

In the early years of the church, people coming into the Church of the Brethren from other denominations were expected to be re-baptized. Today, most congregations will receive members by reaffirmation of faith or by letter of transfer from another congregation or denomination.

Love feast

The Brethren love feast is a conscious imitation of Jesus' last supper with his disciples. It begins with foot washing symbolizing humility and service. They then share a meal, symbolizing fellowship. Finally, they share the bread and cup communion, symbolizing participation in Christ's suffering and death. There may also be hymns and a sermon, as well as a preliminary time of self-examination.

Congregations typically hold love feast on Maundy Thursday and again about six months later. Some congregations also have bread-and-cup communion periodically during regular worship services.

Changes over time


The group of Christians who organized themselves into a church at Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708 originally referred to themselves as the New Baptists (German: Neue Täufer). The name alluded to the use of the name Täufer (Baptists) by the Mennonites.

After reorganizing in America, Christmas Day 1723 marked the founding of first congregation (church) in Germantown, then a village outside Philadelphia. They were known as German Baptists (although this name was not officially recognized until 1836, when the Annual Meeting still called itself "The Fraternity of German Baptists"). In 1871, the denomination adopted the name, "The German Baptist Brethren Church." Until the early twentieth century, Brethren were colloquially called Tunkers or Dunkers (from the German for immersionists).

In 1728, Conrad Beissel, a Brethren minister at Conestoga (Lancaster County, PA) renounced his association with the Brethren and formed his own group at Ephrata, Pennsylvania. They came to be known as the Ephrata Cloister. Beissel practiced a mystical form of Christianity. He encouraged celibacy and a vegetarian diet.

The Great Schism

After the Beissel split, all later splits in the church were based on doctrinal differences.[7] The most conservative members emphasized consistency, obedience, and the order of the Brethren. They opposed the use of musical instruments, Sunday Schools, and worldly amusements. They promoted plain dress, simple lifestyle, and church discipline. The progressives in the church focused on grace and acceptance. They promoted higher education, salaried ministers, Sunday Schools, and revivalism. The majority of Brethren held a position between the two extremes.

In 1869 and again in 1880, a group of Brethren in the Miami Valley of Ohio submitted a petition to Annual Conference pleading for a halt to liberalization and a return to traditional Brethren values. On each occasion, a more moderately worded substitute petition was submitted to the delegates. The rewording was totally unacceptable to the Miami Valley group.

In 1881, they resubmitted their petition to Annual Conference. This time it was rejected on a technicality that it had not come through a district meeting. In November 1881, the conservatives met and formally split from the Church of the Brethren to form the Old German Baptist Brethren. They held their first annual meeting in 1882.

Meanwhile, Henry Holsinger—a leader of the progressives in the church—had published some writings that were called slanderous and schismatic. As a result, he was dis-fellowshipped from the 1882 annual meeting of the Brethren. He met with other progressives on June 6 and 7, 1883, and formed The Brethren Church.[8]

The remaining middle group—called "conservatives"—retained the name German Baptist Brethren. At the Annual Conference of 1908 at Des Moines, Iowa, the name was officially changed to the Church of the Brethren. The name change was precipitated by the predominant use of English in the church, the fact that the name "German Baptist" frustrated mission work, and to further distance themselves from the Old German Baptist Brethren.

Early twentieth century

During the early twentieth century, Brethren invested heavily in foreign missions in India, China, and other locations. They also embraced the American Temperance movement, which they had once dismissed as a manifestation of "popular Christianity."

Discipline for violating church teachings gradually subsided as the earlier emphasis upon unity of practice (the "order of the Brethren") gave way during the 1920s and 1930s to an emphasis upon individual moral autonomy. Martin Grove Brumbaugh—a Brethren minister and historian who became Governor of Pennsylvania in 1915—played a leading role in disseminating a more progressive vision of Brethren history. His questionable contention that "no force in religion" had been a Brethren teaching since their founding reinforced calls to relax church discipline.

During the 1940s and 1950s, expressions of global Christian service energized the denomination, the most well-known being Brethren Volunteer Service and Heifers for Relief, which incorporated independently in 1953 and is today known as Heifer International. The Brethren were also instrumental in establishing the Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP), which was originally housed at Bethany Biblical Seminary, the Brethren Seminary in Chicago. Well-known leaders of the Brethren Service initiatives were Dan West and M. R. (Michael Robert) Zigler.

Developments since the mid-20th century

Since the end of the Second World War, church and member positions on social issues have caused further disagreements between congregations, districts, and individuals within the church. Particularly difficult issues which have been the source of much debate and division include the authority of the Bible, the ordination of women, tolerance of homosexuality, and the promotion of ecumenicalism.

At the 1958 Annual Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, trine immersion was no longer required for all members, women were given an ordination status equal to men, love feast was opened to members of any church, and bread and cup communion was permitted without having love feast. In response, at the 1959 Annual Conference in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a group of conservative and evangelical Brethren joined to form the Brethren Revival Fellowship (BRF). It describes itself as a loyal concern movement within the Church of the Brethren. The BRF promotes simple dress, Biblical inerrancy, church discipline, and an evangelical understanding of faith. It has been critical of the church's involvement in political and social causes and its involvement with the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches.

Promoting the more liberal ideas—including changing the name of the church because it is seen to be exclusionary of women, acceptance of homosexuals as members and ministers, and increased social and political activity—are groups such as Womaen's Caucus, Voices for an Open Spirit, and the Brethren Mennonite Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests.

Although a great divide exists within the church on these issues, the official position of the Church is that the Bible is the Word of God and that covenant-relationships between homosexuals are unacceptable. However, the Church also affirms "unity in diversity", which generally allows for district and congregational autonomy.

Membership today and international presence

A line-drawing of a world map with the United States and Puerto Rico in black; Ecuador and India in violet; Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nigeria, and Sudan in cyan; and Argentina, mainland China, Denmark, France, Indonesia, Niger, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey in magenta.
A map of the worldwide scope of the Church of the Brethren:
  Headquarters of the Church (United States and Puerto Rico)
  Current overseas missions (Brazil; the Dominican Republic; Haiti; Nigeria and Oku, Cameroon; and Southern Sudan)
  Churches that are the result of mergers with other Protestant missions (Ecuador's United Andean Indian Mission and the Church of North India; a single Indian church still belongs to the Church of the Brethren)
  Foreign missions that have closed (Argentina, China, Denmark and Sweden, France and Switzerland, Indonesia, Niger, and Turkey)

In 2008, the Church of the Brethren had 124,408 members and 999 churches in the United States.[9] Membership increased in the first part of the twentieth century and peaked in the early 1960s at about 200,000.[9] Pennsylvania remains the hub of the denomination with over 200 congregations and over 50,000 members.[10] Other than Pennsylvania, the states with the highest membership rates are West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana, and Maryland.[10]

The Church of the Brethren—like many other mainline churches—has suffered a steady decline in membership since the middle of the twentieth century. Among possible reasons for the decline is that the Church of Brethren is not evangelical and often does not actively seek out new members. Despite the overall decline, there has been a noteworthy growth in the church in Puerto Rico (where it is called "Iglesia de los Hermanos"), since the late 1970s. It has also spread into other countries including the Dominican Republic and Haiti (as "Eglise des Frères Haitiens".)

In Nigeria, the Church of the Brethren is literally known as Church of the Children of the Same Mother (Hausa: Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria, or EYN.) Mission work began in Nigeria in 1923 and the membership of EYN, which must be renewed annually, reached 148,000 members in 2002,[11] surpassing the membership of the US-based church.[12] In 1965, the Brethren missionaries working in Ecuador since 1945, merged the churches they planted with those of the United Andean Indian Mission, to form the United Evangelical Church, now United Evangelical Methodist Church of Ecuador. In a similar way, in 1970 the mission in India merged with the Anglicans, Baptists, Disciples of Christ and Presbyterians to form the Church of North India, though some congregations have seceded since the merger.


The Brethren practice the "priesthood of all believers," and their structure is egalitarian. Some members still address each other as "Brother Smith" or "Sister Jones," for example. The practice is more common in the Eastern United States. Even the moderator of Annual Conference, the highest elected office in the church, is addressed as "Brother (or Sister) Moderator."


The term "minister" is understood as a functional role rather than an hierarchical position of authority. In the early days, most congregations had several ministers chosen ("called" or "elected") by the members of the congregation. The concept of a professional pastor (first explicitly permitted in 1911) has slowly become the predominant model, although many congregations still have "free" (nonsalaried) ministers and plural ministry.

There have been three degrees of ministry in the Church of the Brethren:

  • The first degree (now known as licensed minister) is bestowed on those who are considering serving as ministers. The first degree is a time for education and self-examination, after which the individual either advances to the second degree or returns to lay status.
  • The second degree minister or ordained minister is one who intends to continue serving in a ministerial role, usually, but not always as a professional pastor, teacher, counselor, or administrator.
  • The third degree of minister, also known as an elder, serves as a head minister and supervises other ministers in a congregation. Some elders were perceived as being arrogant regarding their position, and the Annual Conference of 1967 decided that no elders would be elected after that time. Some congregations in the Southern Pennsylvania and Atlantic Northeast Districts still elect elders.

The Brethren also select deacons in most congregations. They assist in ministerial functions, particularly by tending to the physical and spiritual needs of individual members. Often, a husband and wife will serve together as deacons.


The leading officers in the Church of the Brethren for business purposes are called moderators. Their principal function is to chair business meetings. There are congregational moderators, district moderators, and an annual conference (denominational) moderator. In recent years, the annual conference moderator has been elected a year in advance, and in the interim serves as "moderator elect."

Geographical structure

The church is divided into congregations that once had clear geographical boundaries. Since the 1930s, however, the boundaries have been indistinct and overlapping. Since 1856, congregations are collected into districts (23 as of 2010), whose boundaries are clear and usually correspond with state borders or county lines. The vast majority of present congregations are located east of the Mississippi. Fifty percent of the membership is located in just two states: Pennsylvania and Virginia.[13]

Each congregation also selects delegates to serve at an Annual Conference (sometimes called annual meeting), which is the final human authority in questions of faith and practice. Issues that cannot be resolved on a local level, or which have implications for the church as a whole are framed as "queries," which are submitted by a congregation to the district (since 1866), and then, if necessary, are passed on to Annual Conference. Typically, a committee is formed to study the matter, and an answer is reported and adopted by a vote of the delegates at a subsequent Annual Conference.

Boards, committees, and agencies

The Brethren have numerous boards and committees (sometimes called "teams") that can be either temporary or permanent and either highly focused on one issue (e.g. evangelism) or general in scope. There are also several agencies of the church, institutions given charge of carrying out the ministries of the church.

At the 2008 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, two of these agencies, the Church of the Brethren General Board and the Association of Brethren Caregivers were combined into a single entity, the Church of the Brethren, Inc., the ministry arm of which will be known as the Mission and Ministry Board.

Other Annual Conference agencies include Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust, and On Earth Peace.

Liberal arts colleges related to the Church of the Brethren


  1. ^ a b "Church directory". Church of the Brethren. Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  2. ^ Church of the Brethren Newsline;Church Of The Brethren Continues Annual Drop In Membership; Walt Wiltschek;(May 28, 2008); Elgin Il
  3. ^ Church of the Brethren, Tapestry [newsletter], Office of Interpretation, Elgin IL, April 2011, Vol. 9, Issue 3, p6. Also see [1]
  4. ^ a b The Amish and the State, 2nd Ed.; Donald B. Kraybill (ed); Military Service and Conscription; Albert N. Keim; (2003) Johns Hopkins University Press; pp.43–66
  5. ^ Durnbaugh, Donald F. (1997), Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren: 1708–1995, Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, p. 474. Also see Bowman, Carl, Brethren Society, Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 467.
  6. ^ Bowman, Carl (1987). A Profile of the Church of the Brethren. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press. See also Bowman, Carl (2008), Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press.
  7. ^ Cob-net article
  8. ^ Brethren Church homepage
  9. ^ a b "Historic Archive CD and Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches". The National Council of Churches. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  10. ^ a b "2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study". Glenmary Research Center. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  11. ^ Brethren missions in Nigeria
  12. ^ Nigerian membership
  13. ^ Bowman, Carl Desportes (2008). Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300. Brethren Press, Elgin. ISBN 978-0-87178-085-0.

Further reading

  • Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a Peculiar People, Carl F. Bowman (1995) Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. I–III, Donald F. Durnbaugh, editor (1983) The Brethren Encyclopedia Inc.
  • Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, Donald F. Durnbaugh and Dale V. Ulrich, editors, Carl Bowman, contributing editor (2006) The Brethren Encyclopedia Inc.
  • Encyclopedia of American Religions, J. Gordon Melton, editor
  • Fruit of the Vine, A History of the Brethren 1708–1995, Donald F. Durnbaugh (1997) Brethren Press
  • Handbook of Denominations, by Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood
  • Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300, Carl Desportes Bowman (2008) Brethren Press
  • Profiles in Belief: the Religious Bodies of the United States and Canada, by Arthur Carl Piepkorn
  • Religious Congregations & Membership in the United States (2000), Glenmary Research Center
  • The Believers' Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism, Donald F. Durnbaugh (1968) The Macmillan Company

External links

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  • Church of the Brethren — noun a Baptist denomination founded in 1708 by Americans of German descent; opposed to military service and taking legal oaths; practiced trine immersion • Syn: ↑Dunkers, ↑Dippers • Hypernyms: ↑Baptist denomination • Member Meronyms: ↑Dunker, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

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