Friday, September 15, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we take a look at the history of the Brethren movement.

It is the 15th of September, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It is the anniversary today for the Christians known as the Brethren, or some offshoot thereof- it was on this, the 15th of September in 1729, that Alexander Mack and 30 families, 126 people in total, arrived in Pennsylvania on the good ship “Allen”. They joined 20 families that had previously fled Europe on account of persecution and formed the group that would go by a few names, perhaps most predominantly the German Baptists or German Baptist brethren.

If you’re familiar with the meme of three spidermen all pointing in confusion at one another, you get what it might be like to be a member of the Brethren Church as it is a church name used by numerous groups. This group is that which today is known officially as the Church of the Brethren. Some offshoots are Grace Brethren or “Old German” Brethren.

The movement began in Schwarzenau with 8 Christians looking for a church body that fit their particular strain of Pietism and Anabaptism with an emphasis on adopting what they believed to be a New Testament model of church. The first eight were baptized in 1708 in the Eder River in Schwarzenau- being that all were baptized as infants, this was an illegal act. The first group came over to seek refuge in William Penn’s experiment in religious toleration in 1719 and found the surroundings agreeable.  

They not only practiced believers' baptism but a baptism that must be done via immersion three times, bowing forward into the water. The argument is that we are baptized into Christ’s death, and on the cross, when he gave up his spirit, he bowed forward. As part of the peace tradition, they all took vows of non-violence. They would find trouble with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War as some were pro-royalists in response to being afforded a freedom they didn’t have back home. But the British who had asked for loyalty oaths were upset that this group would not swear oaths.

They were keen on sending out missionaries from their arrival in the New World- they would spread into the frontier, eventually settling in the Pacific Northwest and up the Pacific coast. The group initially was committed to simplicity- think “Amish,” but the group splintered over just how strict they needed to take that. Some splinter groups dropped the “German” in their names to attract more people. Some splinter groups would later add “Old German” to convey their traditional positions on the questions at hand. Questions such as: To what extent should instrumentation be used in worship? Should there be ministers trained in denominational schools and given full-time status? What about revivals and Sunday schools? Like all immigrant churches in 19th century America, they had to decide to what extent they would follow new practices.

What unites the Brethren is a generally simple worship service- readings, singing, and a message from either a full-time minister or from bi-vocational church officers. Some will celebrate Communion in the common form of bread and wine (or juice in most Brethren contexts). But traditionally, they had a practice they believed followed the New Testament more closely. These were their “love feasts”- they were a meal at night, as the Lord instituted it after dinner. They began with a foot washing and then a common meal and blessing. They also emphasized the laying on of hands for the sick and greeting one another with a holy kiss. They are a great answer to the question: no one does that part still, right? Some Brethren have stopped, but not all (you gotta give them credit for their commitment to a literal interpretation of Scripture).

During World War II, it was members of the Brethren who helped the United States develop alternative services for conscientious objectors.

Today, the Church of the Brethren is the largest denomination from the tradition that came to America- they count some 100,000 members in 1,000 congregations in the United States. Their emphasis on missions has bore fruit in Africa, especially Nigeria, where the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria has an estimated 1 million members. Today, we remember the Schwarzenau brethren who celebrate the anniversary of their migration to America on the 15th of September in 1729


The last word for today is from Exodus 14- a famous story and foreshadowing Baptism:

13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of September 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose every kiss is holy- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man wondering if Hulk Hogan was Brethren… all that “brother” talk I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.

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