The Early Brethren and Celibacy in Marriage

Photo by Regina Holmes
H. Kendall Rogers presents the insight session on early Brethren and celibacy

Generations of ministers under the tutelage of Brethren historian Floyd Mallot remember how he would write the first and last year under which the earliest Brethren purportedly practiced celibacy, having found the warrant for it in their scripture study. Then, smack dab in the middle, he wrote the year that Alexander Mack Jr. was conceived, usually to general laughter as all reflected how hard it can be to practice what is preached.

H. Kendall Rogers of Bethany Theological Seminary attempted to separate legend from myth from fact in his Friday evening insight session, “The First Brethren and Celibacy within Marriage.”

Rogers reiterated some of the central facts of Brethren history. Alexander Mack and the rest of the first Brethren bumped elbows with Radical Pietists, Anabaptists–both on the page and in real life–as well as the orthodox legal churches of the region. So in addressing the question regarding whether the first Brethren practiced sexual abstinence even within marriage, he suggested there are three possible answers:

1) Yes, because they were thorough Radical Pietists.

2) No, as Anabaptists their faith was firmly rooted in the physical world as well as the spiritual realms.

3) There’s something wrong with the question!

According to the Ephrata Chronicles, written in 1786 decades after the facts, the Brethren practiced celibacy within marriage from 1708-1715. Alexander Mack Jr. was conceived in 1711 and born in 1712. Other Brethren also bore children during this period.

The late Brethren historian Donald F. Durnbaugh insisted that the Chronicles might be flawed. They were published decades later, and Conrad Beissel was an advocate of celibacy, so Durnbaugh suggested the accuracy of the records might be called into question.

But those who would answer “Yes!” would say, according to Rogers, that Radical Pietists with whom the first Brethren were closely affiliated, believed that humanity was originally androgynous, that the desire for the physical world led to the fall, and to the differentiation between men and women. With the return of Jesus imminent, upon which a thousand-year reign on earth would begin, true Christians–they believed–would prepare to be the bride of the Christ who would reign upon the earth.

Those who would answer “No!” (including Durnbaugh), would suggest that the influence of the Pietists waned as Brethren, inspired by Anabaptist writings as well as visitors, made a clean break as they instituted Love Feast, the Ban, and baptism by immersion. Anabaptist texts like Golden Apples and Silver Bowls were especially influential, as well as the teachings of Menno Simons. The Brethren had no intention after the first baptism of being an invisible church. They chose a different path by choosing visible ordinances and discipline. Celibacy, prized by the Pietists, was “at most a three year anomaly.”

Rogers suggested that the third option, “There’s something wrong with the question,” might provide better insight into the question of Brethren and celibacy. The break with Radical Pietism did not occur immediately with the first baptism in August 1708. Hochmann von Hochenau, a Radical Pietist leader with whom Alexander Mack traveled, gave approval through a letter from prison for baptism if the Brethren felt they were led by the Spirit, and counted the cost.

Rogers believes there is evidence the Brethren practiced celibacy within marriage for a three-year period between 1708-1710. Gradually over that time the influence of the Radical Pietists waned, and the influence of Anabaptist writers increased.

Even so, Rogers warned, it’s hard to know what really happened. “The presence of a child implies that there was sexual activity,” he said, “but the absence of a child does not imply no sexual activity.”

Four Brethren couples bore children during the seven-year period that the Brethren were supposedly celibate. The most significant thing about the whole matter, Rogers asserted, was, “The Brethren could change their minds on a very important issue.” Having used a mystical interpretation of Genesis 1-2 as well as verses from 1 Corinthians 7 to justify celibacy within marriage, the Brethren seemed to have revisited scripture and to have chosen a different interpretation for their lives together.

— Frank Ramirez provided this report.

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