Newsline Special for August 3, 2008

“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008”

“And you have come to fullness in Him…” (Colossian 2:10).


Close to 1,000 people gathered in Schwarzenau, Germany, on Aug. 3 for the second day of international celebrations of the 300th Anniversary of the Brethren movement. The observance has been held in the village on the banks of the Eder River, where the first group of eight Brethren, led by Alexander Mack Sr., were baptized in 1708.

Schwarzenau, “that small town at the edge of the wood…has attained a reputation” for tolerance and the free exercise of religion, said the keynote speaker for the day in his address at an afternoon Anniversary Program in Schwarzenau’s Riding Hall.

Keynote speaker Marcus Meier is a research fellow at the Institute for European History in Mainz, and a German academic authority on the early history of the Brethren. His presentation went on to outline in great detail the influence of Pietism and Anabaptism on the early Brethren.

The village of Schwarzenau is firmly anchored in the memory of Brethren around the world, Meier said. The baptisms in Schwarzenau are “the primal seal for the today many-branched Brethren movement…. Here a group of eight people first counted the cost,” he said, quoting a phrase from a hymn by Alexander Mack.

A unique Sunday morning service celebrating the 300th Anniversary began the day. Preaching for worship were Fredric G. Miller Jr., pastor of Mount Olive Brethren Church in Pineville, Va., and James Beckwith, the 2008 moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference and pastor of Annville (Pa.) Church of the Brethren.

Prayers, litanies, and scriptures were read by representatives of five of the six major Brethren bodies: the Church of the Brethren, the Brethren Church, the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, the Dunkard Brethren Church, and the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (the representative from the sixth major body, the Conservative Grace Brethren Churches International, was unable to be present).

The McPherson (Kan.) College Choir sang two anthems. The first was one of the pieces of music commissioned by the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary Committee: “Speak, O Lord,” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, arranged by John Ferguson (see for more information).

Speaking on Matthew 3:13-17, Miller gave a message titled, “The Beautiful Rewards of Immersion.” He spoke of the first Brethren baptisms as “the echo of the splash of Jesus being dunked in the water of the Jordan.”

Dropping a 300-year-old German coin, made in 1708, into a small glass bowl set on the podium, he asked the congregation to listen for the echoes of its fall. “Hear the echo of a church that was formed here 300 years ago. I believe God is well pleased when he sees the results of the work of the Brethren,” he said. “We are 300 years young and still feel the passion for mission.”

He complimented the Church of the Brethren for its work in founding Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), which has grown to be the largest Brethren denomination in the world. He also lifted up the success of the Brethren Church, which has only some 120 congregations in the United States, he said, but has planted 2,000 churches around the world.

Miller encouraged Brethren today to have “hearts immersed in love, and hands immersed in service,” and emphasized that the story of Jesus Christ is only discovered through immersion in the word of God. He added that the Brethren heritage also calls for an immersion in prayer. “There will be no Brethren church without fervent prayer,” he said.

He closed with a call for Brethren to continue to listen for and hear the echoes of their heritage. “The next time you swing a hammer or attend an anointing service, I pray that you might hear an echo of the early church and the early Brethren,” Miller said. “And the next time you attend a baptism…hear the Father say, This is my church which I love, with the Brethren I am well pleased.”

Beckwith preached a sermon titled, “Shaped by the Love Feast,” on the text John 13:1-17 and 34-35. The Schwarzenau Brethren “washed one another’s feet simply because Jesus said so,” Beckwith said, as he began his comments about the lasting influence of the Love Feast on Brethren practice and community. The witness of the Love Feast has been “that Brethren take Jesus seriously and seek to follow him closely.”

The Love Feast “makes us appreciate the gritty needs of the world,” with its requirement for self examination, and the act of footwashing that makes so many people uncomfortable. “It still expresses faithfully the love and care of belonging in God’s family,” he said.

Beckwith characterized the Brethren practice of Love Feast as not just a personal or congregational preparation for partaking in the service of Communion, but as a way for the church to prepare to engage in service to the world as an act of communion with God. “Three hundred years of Love Feasts have shaped us to express mutual care and understanding,” he said. “The Love Feast has been the spiritual antidote to the violence of the world.”

“It is serious business to declare a loving fellowship, to declare ourselves Brethren,” Beckwith said. “It is a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God.”

The afternoon’s program acknowledged the debt that the Brethren owe to Schwarzenau, its people, and its leaders over the centuries. Greetings were brought by many dignitaries including Bernhart, Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein, who is considered the patron of the celebration. Prince Bernhart offered the use of his grounds and facilities for the Anniversary meeting area, including his residence, the Manor House in Schwarzenau.

On behalf of the Encyclopedia Board, Dale Stoffer thanked the Prince for continuing the hospitality shown by his forebear, Count Henrich Albrecht, who offered the first eight Brethren refuge in Schwarzenau.

The mayor of the town of Bad Berleburg and the village mayor of Schwarzenau also brought greetings, as did ecumenical guests representing districts of the Protestant Church, and Oliver Lehnsdorf, pastor of the church in Schwarzenau–the Protestant St. Luke Parish in the valleys of the Eder and the Elshoff.

Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, introduced the five leaders of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) who were present; and Dave Guiles, executive director of the Grace Brethren International Missions, introduced more than 20 delegates from several different countries who were gathering in Schwarzenau to begin a six-day planning meeting for future mission endeavors. Organizers reported that as many as 18 nations were represented at the celebration today.

The Encyclopedia Board gave a number of gifts of appreciation to the community of Schwarzenau, and also received a number of gifts from the village and the visiting dignitaries. The board also gave gifts specifically to the Schwarzenau Celebration Committee, and the Heimatverein Schwarzenau, a heritage association that is responsible for and maintains the Alexander Mack Museum. Among the gifts, a stack of newly published books about the Brethren were presented for the museum’s collection, including a number from Brethren Press, and a peace pole was presented to the community.

“The people of Schwarzenau have been tireless” in their preparations for the Anniversary, said Dale Ulrich, a member of the board of the Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., which planned and organized the international celebration along with a Schwarzenau Celebration Committee of local residents. Ulrich has served as primary coordinator for the logistics of the event.

The village of Schwarzenau has a population of only 800 people, Ulrich said, and at least 260 of them helped with the difficult task of converting the Riding Hall temporarily from a horseback riding arena into a meeting place with seating for 1,000 people. The conversion included the laying of a wood plank floor, and installation of a stage, sound system, and lighting equipment. Schwarzenau’s volunteer fire department stood by throughout the weekend, and helped control bus and car traffic. A local catering company served the meals in a large tent between the Riding Hall and the river.

Villagers also offered an outdoor cafe selling cold drinks and homemade baked goods, made warm waffles for the Brethren on Sunday morning, and sold commemorative bottles of Eder River water, that came complete with certificates of authenticity.

The Schwarzenau Celebration Committee was co-coordinated by Bernd Julius and Otto Marburger, and also included members Bodo Huster, Peter Kanstein, and Karin Zacharais. Johannes Haese served as liaison between the Schwarzenau Celebration Committee and the board of the Brethren Encyclopedia.

The Brethren Encyclopedia board is made up of members representing the six major Brethren bodies. Its president is Robert Lehigh; vice president Dale Stoffer coordinated the afternoon Anniversary Program; secretary Dale Ulrich served as a main coordinator for the Schwarzenau events; Terry White is treasurer; and Michael M. Miller and Jeff Bach are members of the board. Consultants to the board for the Schwarzenau events were Ken Kreider and Ted Rondeau.

A short gathering for worship at the river closed the day’s events. People gathered on both sides of the Eder River and on the bridge over the river, to participate in the short time of hymns and prayers led by a group of Old German Baptist Brethren. A brief meditation was brought by Michael Miller, a member of the Encyclopedia Board representing the Old German Baptist Brethren.

“So we come to the banks of this quiet river to say goodbye,” Miller said. The earth has listened to so much pain and suffering, he commented, but the earth also has heard the 24 splashes as the first eight Brethren were lifted from the waters of baptism. He closed with a blessing for the place, the people of Schwarzenau, and their children and descendants. Coming close to tears, he said, “May God bless you here in Schwarzenau.”

To the Brethren, Miller offered this blessing: “May we go with the same joy, peace, and hope that those eight people had 300 years ago…. Our prayer is that 300 years from now, we will all stand together again in the Kingdom of God.”

Worship ended with the singing of the Doxology, the Lord’s Prayer, and a hymn.

After the dismissal, many people still stood for some time along the banks of the river and on the bridge, in what became a moment of appreciation for the solemnity of the occasion. Some took the opportunity to dip their feet or hands in the river.

A comment made by Meier during the afternoon program was affirmed: For the Brethren, “the act of baptism…laid the cornerstone.”


Two Church of the Brethren youth were baptized in the Eder River in Schwarzenau in the late afternoon, following the closing worship service of the 300th Anniversary weekend. Lauren Knepp and John Michael Knepp–who are sister and brother–were part of a tour group from the United States led by Dana Statler of Lancaster, Pa., and were traveling with their family.

Through their baptisms, the two have become members of Curryville Church of the Brethren congregation in Pennsylvania.

“They wanted to be baptized,” Statler said, adding that their families gave agreement to the ceremony prior to the trip. Statler, who is associate pastor of Brethren Village in Lititz, Pa., decided to perform the service after receiving permission from the pastor of the Everett church, and after contacting the planning committees for the Schwarzenau events.

Otto Marburger, a co-coordinator of the Schwarzenau Celebration Committee, lent his pasture along the river as the place for the baptism. Marburger even got up early this morning to mow and trim a tree in order to prepare the site.

“From my perspective as a pastor, to baptize someone in the Eder River is an honor,” Statler said.

He added, however, “The important thing is the decision, not the place. It’s not just a show in Schwarzenau, it’s a decision.”

Following the baptism of the two youth, two more men entered the water to experience re-baptism in the waters of the Eder. Standing knee deep in the water for prayer, each man then baptized the other.

An invitation to the baptisms had been issued during the afternoon Anniversary Program, and they were witnessed by a small crowd gathered on each side of the river, many with cameras in hand. As the baptismal candidates rose from the river water, after prayer, the Brethren responded with applause.

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