Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Hidden gems: Prodigal preacher—The life of Alexander Mack, Jr.

by Keith S. Morphew

Everyone in the Church of the Brethren knows the name Alexander Mack. His legacy is one of the pillars of the Brethren identity, and any member can give at least a bare-bones recital of the first Brethren baptism in the Eder River. Much less well known is the story of his eldest son, Alexander Mack, Jr., whose 300th birthday was just recently commemorated by the Young Center with a conference titled “Pietist and Anabaptist Intersections in Pennsylvania: The Life and Influence of Alexander Mack Jr.” held June 6-8th this year. Mack Jr.’s lack of significant recognition stands in stark contrast to the many contributions he made to the early church, and it would not be unrealistic to say that he was the first unsung hero of the Brethren.

Ephrata Cloister

“Sander,” as he would later call himself, feeling that his birth name was “too dignified,” was born in Schwarzenau, 1712, nearly four years after the initial founding of the church. He was baptized in 1728 at the age of 16, and left with his father and brothers (their mother and sisters had died previously) for Germantown, PA in 1729. His life in Germantown was unremarkable until the death of his father in 1735, whereupon he appears to have fallen into depression, and left the Germantown settlement to live in seclusion with a few others along the Wissahickon Creek for a few years before joining the Ephrata Community in 1738. Sander remained in Ephrata for ten years before returning to Germantown in 1748, where he was given joint responsibility for the congregation with Christopher Saur II. By all accounts the two men became good friends; Saur II officiated Mack’s marriage to Elizabeth Neiß, and later Mack reciprocated by baptizing Saur’s wife to be, Catherine Scharpnack in 1750, and officiating their marriage in 1751.

Alexander Mack seal

In addition to being a spiritual leader, Sander was also an accomplished writer and poet; many of his letters and poems remain preserved today, and he is currently credited with the creation of the seal that we now use as a symbol of the Brethren faith. Additionally, Mack Jr. was a leading Brethren apologist, writing several works which describe the Brethren faith to outsiders clearly and with great detail. He was likely the first Brethren historian, having written a detailed account of the church’s founding and attempted to produce a listing of everyone who had joined the church in Europe. Were it not for his efforts, a great deal of Brethren history would have been lost to the passage of time, leaving the church’s origins a mystery.

Sander Mack outlived all of his contemporaries, and as he neared the end of his life his thoughts began to be more and more focused on his death. So convinced was he of the date of his death that he composed his own epitaph and noted on it the year of his death, leaving the day and month blank:

GOD
WHO US OF DUST DID MAKE
AND US AGAIN TO DUST WILL TAKE
HIS WISDOM, LIKE THE SUN, SHALL BREAK
WHEN IN HIS LIKENESS WE AWAKE
ALEXANDER MACK WAS BORN 1712
AND DIED 1802 (1803)
AGED 90 YEARS (91 YEARS 1 MONTH AND 20 DAYS)

But as many who came before and after him have found, when you try to guess God’s plan you almost always guess wrong. Sander Mack lived until March 20, 1803 and his tombstone reflects that, as indicated by the parenthesis. His last words were “Now journey I toward the morning; who will accompany, let him prepare himself hastily.”