The Brethren Church

2002 Church of the Brethren Resolution

The Committee on Interchurch Relations, through the General Board, calls upon the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, June 30 – July 4, 2001, to celebrate and make good use of our opportunities for partnership in Christ’s service with the Brethren Church (Ashland). 

Dr. Emanuel “Buzz” Sandberg, executive director of the Brethren Church brought greetings at the Ecumenical Luncheon, sponsored by the Committee on Interchurch Relations at the 2000 Annual Conference. He spoke about his experiences in Schwarzenau, where the first Brethren (forebears of both denominations) remained faithful despite persecution. He reflected on the conflicts that divided the Brethren family in 1883 and how stubbornly each side has clung to its own ways for over 100 years, perpetuating the fragmentation of the Brethren family. 

In an article published in the December 2000 Agenda, Dr. Sandberg wrote, “I do not believe that God is happy with the Brethren and our continuing efforts to justify our stubborn positions. I do not believe that God will bless the Brethren until we admit our wrongdoing and humbly ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those we feel have trespassed against us.” In that article, as he had done in person at the Ecumenical Luncheon, Dr. Sandberg expressed his personal desire that Brethren might repent of our continuing efforts to justify our stubborn positions. He has asked God to forgive his denomination for not making the needed effort to heal the break in the family, a break which has damaged each of our denominations in numerous and major ways. Dr. Sandberg asked us, the Church of the Brethren, to forgive the Brethren Church branch of the family and to join with them as a renewed family to serve God together, to work together in harmony and love. 

Such an humble expression of repentance and of the desire for forgiveness and for renewed partnership in serving the Lord together has had a powerful effect upon those of us who were privileged to hear Dr. Sandberg’s message. The Committee on Interchurch Relations wants the Church of the Brethren as a whole to be aware of this overture inviting reconciliation and cooperation between our denominations. Further, we desire that the Church of the Brethren officially respond to the Ashland Brethren with similar repentance and eagerness to pursue working together in Christ’s service wherever possible. To that end, we ask the Annual Conference to affirm the following statement: 

In response to Dr. Sandberg’s request for forgiveness and for renewed partnership in serving the Lord, the Church of the Brethren also repents of the stubbornness that has caused brokenness between our denomination and the Brethren Church over the past 120 years. We ask the Brethren Church to forgive us for attitudes and actions that have kept us from serving Christ together. We desire reconciliation and want to work together wherever possible. We celebrate our previous mission partnership in Nigeria, our current work together in New Life Ministries and in Brethren World Assemblies, and other ventures. We look forward to all that the Lord will yet lead us to do together! 

Committee on Interchurch Relations: 

Joseph L. Loomis, Chair
Barbara G. Cuffie
James M. Beckwith
Timothy A. McElwee
Steve D. Brady
Belita D. Mitchell 

Background on the Division Between the Brethren Church and the Church of the Brethren 

Adapting to Change 

After the Civil War rapid changes in U.S. society fueled tensions among the Brethren as they expanded across the continent. For example, increased communications through periodicals made it possible for Brethren to know more about the larger world and about Brethren in other parts of the country. Various groups of Brethren adapted to change in different ways. By 1880 there were three primary groups within the church. One group (the progressives) welcomed change; another group (the conservatives) sought to preserve tradition; and a third group (today known as the Church of the Brethren) approached change cautiously and described themselves as both conservative and progressive. 


The first formal division occurred in 1881 when the conservatives withdrew from the main body to become the Old German Baptist Brethren (sometimes called the Old Order Brethren). A second division occurred in 1883 when the progressives formed the Brethren Church (sometimes called Ashland Brethren) after their leader was expelled by the 1882 Annual Meeting. It is sometimes said that the 1881 division was unavoidable but the 1883 division might have been avoided if both sides could have been more patient with each other. 

Henry Holsinger and the Progressives 

The leader of the progressives was Henry R. Holsinger, a minister and publisher, from Middle Pennsylvania District. He learned the publishing business by working for a year with Henry Kurtz on The Monthly Gospel Visitor. Holsinger went on to publish the Christian Family Companion (1865-1873) and The Progressive Christian (1878-1883). In these papers he advocated reforms such as higher education for ministers; the salaried ministry; Sunday schools; evangelism by means of revival (protracted) meetings; foreign missions; and relaxation of the uniform dress code. Holsinger also challenged the authority of Annual Meeting. For him “the problem with the Brethren was that they were held back by the dead hand of the past, seeking to perpetuate the rulings of past leaders set out in minutes of the Annual Meetings and refusing to adopt or adapt new methods to move the church forward (Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, p. 303). Those who supported such reforms rallied around Holsinger as their leader. 

Brethren Church Organized

Holsinger has never been described as a tactful person. Articles in his papers often offended people, such as the dress reform article titled “Idolatrous Clothes Religion” and the article comparing Standing Committee to a secret society. Queries began coming to Annual Meeting complaining about Holsinger and his papers. The 1881 Annual Meeting sent a committee to visit him because of articles that disrupted the order of the church, questioned nonconformity, and criticized Annual Meeting. Because the committee met with Holsinger at his home church in Berlin, Pennsylvania, the meeting became known as the Berlin Trial. When the committee and Holsinger could not come to agreement on how the meeting was to be conducted, the committee left and recommended that Holsinger be disfellowshipped. Their recommendation was upheld by the 1882 Annual Meeting in spite of appeals for reconciliation. Holsinger and his supporters waited a year before organizing the Brethren Church in the hope that the 1883 Annual Meeting might relent, but no olive branch was forthcoming. 

Later Developments 

In the aftermath of the 1883 division, there were disputes over property in some local congregations as members chose between the Brethren Church and the Church of the Brethren. Sometimes one group locked the other group out of the meetinghouse. Sometimes ownership of the meetinghouse had be settled in court. And sometimes issues of property were settled amicably. It is worth noting that in the years following the 1883 division, the Church of the Brethren embraced all of the reforms espoused by Holsinger. But in the nearly 120 years since the division, each group has developed its own history, identity, and theological viewpoints. Today it is generally said that the Church of the Brethren is theologically more liberal than the Brethren Church. Occasionally the two groups have cooperated on projects. For example, they cooperated as mission partners in Nigeria, and the Brethren Church has cooperated with the Brethren Disaster Network. In the 1980s there were discussions between the two groups about nurturing cooperation on the local level. 

Written by Kenneth M. Shaffer, Jr.
Brethren Historical Library and Archives 

Action of the General Board

At its March, 2001 meeting, the General Board voted unanimously to recommend that Annual Conference receive the resolution and historical overview as a study paper in 2001–with special attention given to prayer and seeking an awareness of God’s Spirit of grace and forgiveness–and to consider approval of the resolution in 2002. 

Mary Jo Flory-Steury, Chair
Judy Mills Reimer, Executive Director 

Action of the 2001 Annual Conference

Jim Hardenbrook, Standing Committee member from Idaho/Western Montana, presented the Standing Committee recommendation that the 2001 Annual Conference receive the resolution and historical overview as a study paper in 2001—with special attention given to prayer and seeking an awareness of God’s Spirit of grace and forgiveness—and to consider approval of the resolution in 2002. The delegate body unanimously adopted the Standing Committee recommendation. 

Resolution on the Brethren Church – 2002 

The 2001 Annual Conference accepted the “Resolution on The Brethren Church” as a study paper with consideration of approval in 2002. Standing Committee then asked the General Board to prepare study resources for the resolution. A committee consisting of General Board staff (Judy Mills Reimer, Howard Royer, Kenneth Shaffer, and Jon Kobel) were given the assignment. The committee prepared a packet consisting of the following: (1) introductory letter; a copy of the resolution; a plea for forgiveness and hope for the future titled “Can We Brethren Heal the Break?” by Emanuel “Buzz” Sandberg, executive director of The Brethren Church Offices; an examination of three biblical principles titled “Can We Confess the Sins of the Past?” by Galen Hackman, Church of the Brethren pastor and Standing Committee delegate; a summary of the Progressive Brethren’s response to cultural change after the Civil War titled “1880s: Keeping Pace with the Times” by Dale Stoffer, a Brethren Church member and professor at Ashland Theological Seminary; a look at points of dissension and cooperation titled “Developments after the 1883 Division” by Kenneth Shaffer, archivist for the Church of the Brethren; a profile of The Brethren Church by Richard Winfield, editor The Brethren Evangelist; a listing of Brethren Church congregations by state; some “Questions for Discussion” prepared by Howard Royer, staff for interpretation for the Church of the Brethren; and a short list of study resources. On November 16, 2001, a copy of the packet was mailed to the pastor of each congregation, associate pastors, district staff, national staff, Standing Committee members, and the officers of Annual Conference. In all, over 1400 packets were mailed. 

Action of the 2002 Annual Conference

Judy Mills Reimer presented the resolution. 

The delegate body adopted the resolution unanimously. 

Greeting from Dr. Emanuel Sandberg 

A guest at the luncheon, Dr. Emanuel “Buzz” Sandberg is the Executive Director of The Brethren Church Offices, headquartered in Ashland, Ohio. He currently serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees at Ashland University. Previously he spent seven years in higher education as head of the Business Department at Colorado State University, and taught as well at the University of Colorado. He also served as Deputy Governor of Colorado; assistant administrator of the Small Business Administration; consultant to the 

U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and was the head of three private health care management companies prior to his retirement from private business. He holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of Colorado and retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Captain. 

During his greetings at the luncheon, Dr. Sandberg voiced an appeal for unity in the Brethren family. 

A Millennium Year Journey
By Emanuel Sandberg 

Earlier this year, Ann and I had the great opportunity to visit Europe on a team led by Dr. Fred and Holly Finks. The trip was truly memorable and of the many special days, two will always stand out for me, for they deeply affected my heart and mind, and my appreciation of the Brethren Church family. 

Everybody on this travel team were Christian believers and most of us were Brethren. On Friday, June 30 we spent the day visiting Schwarzenau, the small Black Forest town in which the Brethren Church had its beginning. We walked the streets and visited the homes where the earliest Brethren lived. The man who was the guiding spirit for the early Brethren, was Alexander Mack. Under his leadership a handful of followers committed themselves to the establishment of a “New Testament church”. Their doctrines featured the Anabaptism concept of believers baptism, by triune immersion. The young church flourished in Schwarzenau and spread to several locations in Germany. Under Mack’s pastoral leadership, a small flock of Brethren migrated to America bringing with them a sense of community and direction. We visited the Mack home, the Mill operated by Mack, the museum erected in his memory, and the school named in his honor. 

We sat by the river Eden at the spot where in August 1708, Alexander Mack and seven followers were baptized by triune immersion. News of the “believers” baptism spread through political and religious circles. Rulers in the area looked on Mack and his followers as “Anabaptist fanatics”, and as a threat to law and order. The Brethren were criticized and ridiculed, and life became very difficult for them in the Schwarzenau area. Economic problems and internal controversy caused the emigration to America of several Brethren families in 1719 under the leadership of Peter Becker. Critics continued to make life difficult for Brethren to find work, and physical threats were also common, and occasionally carried out against Brethren believers. Internal and external difficulties caused the Brethren to shift the focus of their movement from Germany to America by 1729.The Brethren, according to current Schwarzenau residents were hounded, threatened, economically punished, and physically abused over their Brethren beliefs and practices. At the time of our visit there were no Brethren churches or Brethren believers in Schwarzenau. Walking the streets of Schwarzenau, I couldn’t help but think of the hardships endured by the early Brethren, and the tenacious way they clung to their beliefs in the face of criticism and attack. They protected the Brethren family and stood firmly behind their Anabaptists ideas. As we left Schwarzenau, I wondered—would we as modern day Brethren do as well? I think not! 

After touring Germany and Austria we traveled to Oberammergau to attend the famous Passion Play presented annually by the residents of that city. The play which depicts Christ’s last week before His crucifixion, was exceptionally well done. The performance takes over seven hours to present, and is presented as if the setting was in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and the characters on the stage were not actors reading lines, but really the disciples, Mary and Jesus and all of the personalities revealed in the gospel accounts of that time. You saw before you the crowd calling for Jesus – first to be the King and then–to be crucified. I had the feeling that I was there watching as (predicted) history, was lived out by the followers of Christ. Of course we knew how the story would end, but I think that heightened our frustration and our desire to say–no! You guys have got it all wrong! 

As we sat there watching the bible come alive before us–challenging our senses to see, hear, feel and smell the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, I was struck by the realization that God sent His Son to live with us and to die on the cross, to reestablish relations with His children here on earth. What a price to pay! 

In my sorrow and shock at Jesus’ crucifixion, I wondered, could I–could any of us carry our cross with Jesus to our death on calvary? 

As Ann and I walked to our hotel, I said to her, “you know, God just wants to bring His children closer to Him, why do we still rebel and pull away?” She said, maybe it’s human nature to rebel. I got to thinking about the family of man and more particularly about our Brethren family, the early Brethren paid a great price to develop the Brethren organization, creating a body of disciples committed to Christ and each other. The Brethren family flourished after their arrival in America in 1719, building churches coast to coast in America, and mission programs in many areas of the globe. However, conflicts arose within the family over a series of issues: paid ministry, Sunday schools, evangelism, manner of dress and variations in the practice of feet washing. On one hand, were the advocates for “maintaining the ancient order of the Brethren” and on the other those who argued the Brethren should change to keep pace with the times. Many did not agree with either side, but tensions continued to mount. Finally, in 1883 the Brethren family was split and the Progressives organized The Brethren Church at a convention in Dayton. 

Who was right? I think it is fair to say in some respects both sides were right. Who was wrong? In my opinion both sides were stubborn and ill advised in their actions. The Brethren family who had become a growing evangelical body were seriously injured. The family has been fragmented since then–over a hundred years ago. I do not believe that God is happy with the Brethren and our continuing efforts to justify our stubborn positions. I do not believe God will bless the Brethren until we admit our wrong doing and humbly ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those we feel have trespassed against us. On a personal basis, I have admitted to God the stubbornness of the Ashland Brethren and the sin of our separation and failure to work with all segments of the Brethren family. I have asked God to forgive us for not making the needed effort to heal the break in the family and once again to work together in harmony and love. I feel like our failure to heal this break has damaged each of our denominations in numerous and major ways. I ask the Church of the Brethren branch of our family to forgive us and join with us as a renewed family to serve God together. There is much we can do together! 

As a closing note: Jesus in his last days gave us these simple commandments:

I. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is like it: 

II. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hand on these two commandments. (NIV) 

As a believer, I believe God was saying something simple but profound to me, and to the Brethren. I love the Brethren – all of them!