This overview of Church of the Brethren history was written and performed by pastors Frank Ramirez and Jennifer Keeney Scarr at the 2022 Annual Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. Music is by Steve Engle.
Jen Houser, director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, and Ashley Scarr, BHLA archival intern, researched and wrote the additional text.
Part 1 – The beginning (1708)
Joanna and Johannes Kipping were founding members of the Church of the Brethren. Johannes Kipping was a Lutheran, a mason from Oberstenfeld, Wurttemberg, Germany. He adopted dissenting views and refused to baptize his child as was part of the Church-State laws. As punishment, in 1706 Johannes was expelled from his home while Johanna was able to stay at home with their children. They were reunited by 1708 and participated in the first baptism at Schwarzenau. They migrated to Pennsylvania in 1729 with their children at the lead of Alexander Mack Sr.
Andreas Boni (1673-1741) a Switzerland native was one of the founding eight members of the Church of the Brethren. He moved to the Palatinate area in Germany where he met his wife, Maria Sarah and became citizens in 1702. When his wife died in 1704, he moved back to Switzerland and his radical religious views gained attention of authorities. He made his way to Schwarzenau and participated in the 1708 baptisms along with his second wife, Johanna Noethiger. He and his wife arrived in Germantown with Alexander Mack Sr. in 1729.
In early August 1708, the first recorded baptism took place in the Church of the Brethren. The founding eight members risked banishment or even death to follow the teachings of Jesus and baptized each other in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany. Five men and three women participated in the act. Alexander Mack Sr. was baptized first by one of the members, then he baptized the unnamed person and the rest of the members following.
Part 2 – The division (1880s)
Henry Holsinger (1833-1905) was a pastor, publisher, and leader of the Brethren Church. He married Susanna Shoup in 1864 and they had two daughters. Henry became a minister in 1866 and became an elder at Berlin, PA. He was an apprentice to Henry Kurtz, working on the “Monthly Gospel Messenger” in 1856. From 1863-1865, he published “The Tyrone Herald” newspaper from Tyrone, PA. In 1865, he began publishing “Christian Family Companion”. He became the spokesperson for the Progressive Brethren, speaking in favor of dress reform, higher education and Sunday School, and salaried ministry. He aggressively wrote in support of these beliefs and others which got him in trouble with Annual Conference. Holsinger was “disfellowshipped” or removed from the Church of the Brethren at the 1882 Annual Conference in Milford, IN. This led Holsinger and his supporters to organize a new denomination called the Brethren Church at Dayton, OH on June 6-7, 1883.
From 1881-1883, the Church of the Brethren experienced a three-way split. Folks could not agree on issues over dress reform, salaried ministry, higher education, and others. The Old Order German Baptist Brethren broke off because they wanted to keep the traditional garb, they thought higher education belonged in the secular world, and that ministry should not be paid. The Brethren Church broke off because they wanted salaried ministry, higher education, and to be rid of the traditional garb. The German Baptist Brethren (Church of the Brethren) attempted to hold all these views in tandem with one another, relaxing the dress code, allowing for Sunday Schools, and other steps forward.
Part 3 – Civil War
John Kline (1797 – 1864) was born June 17th in Dauphin Co., Pennsylvania and was married to Anna Wampler in 1818. It’s estimated that he traveled around 100,000 miles in the mountains of Virginia, ministering to both spiritual and physicals needs, as he was a follower of Dr. Samuel Thompson of Vermont and learned the medical practices of his time. Throughout the 1850s, Kline served on several special committees assigned by the Annual Meeting, eventually becoming moderator in 1861. Vigorously opposed to slavery and military service, Kline urged Gov. John Letcher of Virginia to exempt Brethren from military service when the American Civil War broke out (which was eventually secured with a fee of $500). Even though he was imprisoned for 2 weeks in 1862 under suspicion of sympathizing with the Union, Kline crossed military lines in order to attend the Annual Meetings held in the north and willingly lent medical aid to both sides. Unfortunately, on June 15th, 1864, Kline was ambushed and killed near his home. The Harrisonburg newspaper observed Kline “was highly esteemed in his church whose membership will mourn his death as the removal of one of the pillars of the church.” Today, he is recognized as the most significant martyr in the history of the Brethren.
Ann Rowland (1811-1888) and her family lived in Maryland during the Civil War. In 1863, Rowland and her husband Jonas donated land and built the Longmeadow meetinghouse. For one week during the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee used the Longmeadow building for his headquarters. Through Sister Rowland’s mediation, the general instructed his soldiers to leave the property intact. She even allowed Lee and his men to use their church bible for devotions. She was very influential in the church in Maryland.
Peter R. Wrightsman (1834-1908) was born in Montgomery Co., Virginia, and later moved to Limestone, Tennessee. During the Civil War, he successfully presented a petition to the Confederate Congress asking for exemption from military service for the Brethren. He traveled to Richmond to present their argument and the Confederate Congress agreed to allow Brethren to be exempt from fighting in the war if they paid $500. Though many Brethren paid, some were still arrested, and others killed. He often evangelized to Confederate soldiers. Wrightsman studied medicine and practiced medicine in Indiana, Kansas, Texas, and Georgia. He was also an active minister or elder in many Brethren congregations and a farmer.
Part 4 – Lovefeast
Sarah Righter Major (1808 – 1884) was first inspired to preach after attending a service where Harriet Livermore preached. Supported by her father, John Righter, Pastor Peter Keger, and Israel Poulson, she began her journey as a preacher. Although the 1834 Annual Meeting responded negatively to the idea on female preachers, she was not discouraged and defended her right in 1835, saying “I conceive it would be very inconsistent in an apostle who laid his hands on men and women and prayed over them that they might receive the Holy Ghost, to quench the gift of the Spirit of God because it was given to a woman …” Soon after she was introduced to Thomas Major, a Brethren minister who supported her preaching, and the two married in 1842, moving to Highland Co., Ohio a year later where the couple opened their home as a station in the Underground Railroad. Righter-Major preached in churches, homes, infirmaries, and prisons in Ohio and Indiana, and wrote poems and letters that were published in the Monthly Gospel-Visitor. Even the Annual Meeting committee member sent to convince her to remain silent admitted “I could not give my vote to silence someone who could out-preach me,” and eventually she preached at the 1878 Annual Meeting. After a brief illness, Righter-Major passed away September 18th, 1884, and was remembered as an able and inspirational speaker.
Samuel Weir (1812-1884) was born enslaved in Bath County, VA. He was sold to Andrew McClure at age 12. One of the sons of McClure was thrown from a horse and killed which moved the family to join the Dunkard Brethren Church. They were not allowed to join if they owned slaves, so they freed Samuel, although he continued to live with and work for them until he was able to be sent to a freed state. He was baptized by Peter Nead and made his way to Ohio where he became a member of the Painter Creek congregation. In 1849, he was permitted to preach for the congregation and was licensed to minister to Black folks in that area. In 1872, Weir was elected a minster in the Fairview congregation. On February 9, 1881, he was ordained an elder for Black members in the Scioto Valley.
The first Love Feast in the American Colonies was held on Christmas Day in 1723. On this day, six Brethren were baptized in the Wissahickon River near Germantown, PA with the first Love Feast to follow. Over the centuries, the Brethren Love Feast has evolved but has usually included a simple meal, footwashing, and communion. For more information, visit: https://www.brethren.org/about/practices/#lovefeast
Part 5 – Heifer Project
Dan West (1893 – 1971) was an educator, peace activist, and the originator of the Heifer Project. West’s advocacy for peace began during World War 1 where he insisted on noncombatant service. After his discharge in the 1920s and 1930s, he emphasized peace education, encouraged Brethren Volunteers to serve in Work Camps and Peace Caravans, and helped organized the 1932 movement “20,000 Dunkers for Peace,” which aimed at soliciting commitment to not engage in war. Beginning in September 1937, West went to Spain to assist with relief programs aiding both sides of the Spanish Civil War. The experience led to his encouragement of developing alternative military service in relief programs and inspired Heifers for Relief. In the next 20 years, he was a member of denominational staff where he served in various positions on three different boards and promoted volunteer service and regularly helped with training Brethren Volunteer Service participants. He also became the first lay moderator of Annual Conference in 1966. After Dan West passed away on January 7th, 1971, W. Harold Row said: “Dan West provided the ideological base and first practical demonstration on which others have established programs. In a genuine sense [he was] our architect of brotherhood.” For more information about Heifer International, visit: https://www.heifer.org/about-us/our-history.html
The Seagoing Cowboys were a group of folks who volunteered after World War II to accompany farm animals that were being shipped to folks in need around the world by Heifer Project and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. For more information, visit: https://seagoingcowboys.com/
Durnbaugh, Donald. 1997. Fruit of the Vine. Elgin: Brethren Press.