7th Brethren World Assembly celebrates spiritual kinship, examines early years of Brethren in the Americas

By Frank Ramirez and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

The 7th Brethren World Assembly on July 26-29 in Pennsylvania gathered a variety of people from denominations that are part of the Brethren movement that began in Germany in 1708. On the theme “Brethren Faithfulness: Priorities in Perspective,” the event was held at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. A culminating day at Germantown Church of the Brethren in Philadelphia celebrated the 300th anniversary of the first Brethren congregation in the Americas.

It was the seventh in a series of assemblies held every five or six years since 1992 by the Brethren Encyclopedia Board. Assemblies have focused on Brethren history and the presentation of academic papers, daily worship and opportunities for fellowship, and the building of relationship among the Brethren bodies.

For photo albums of the 7th Brethren World Assembly and the day celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Germantown Church go to www.brethren.org/photos.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

Assembly celebrates spiritual kinship among Brethren

Throughout the 7th Brethren World Assembly, leaders spoke–at times emotionally–about the spiritual kinship of those present, despite divisions and schisms that have occurred in the Brethren movement over its more than 300 years.

Steven Cole, executive director of the Brethren Church, was one of those bringing morning devotions. He emphasized the traditional Brethren concept expressed in German as gemeinschaft, explaining it as “an intimate sense of union among people that show deep commitment.

“We became known as Brethren because of the spiritual bonds we share,” Cole said. “We live in a world where people are fragmented, pulled…and they don’t feel like they’re part of the people of God.” The Brethren way may offer a spiritual alternative. “Our faith in Jesus begins in our relationship. Our way of discipleship is ‘Please come along with us.’ This is our family. This is the way we follow Jesus. We’re the people with a relationship for a name: Brethren.”

Recalling early meetings of the Brethren Encyclopedia Board, Robert S. Lehigh of the Dunkard Brethren Church told the assembly that many people thought such a group couldn’t possibly work together. But members of the board have been sensitive to the concerns of others and work hard to achieve consensus.

Said Dale Stoffer, who represents the Brethren Church on the encyclopedia board, “We remind ourselves in these gatherings that we have more in common than we have separately.”

Many Brethren groups were represented

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

Attending alongside Brethren from various bodies that share the faith heritage founded by Alexander Mack Sr. were members of the Church of the Brethren from the US and Africa–including a delegation from Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN) and a church leader from Rwanda.

People involved in planning and leading the assembly were from
— Church of the Brethren in the US
— EYN in Nigeria
— Brethren Church
— Charis Fellowship (formerly the Fellowship of Grace Brethren)
— Conservative Grace Brethren Churches International
— Covenant Brethren Church
— Dunkard Brethren Church
— Old German Baptist Brethren, Original Conference
— Old German Baptist Brethren, New Conference

The program book also included descriptions of various Old Order Brethren bodies including
— German Baptist Brethren Church
— Old Brethren
— Old Brethren German Baptists
— Old German Baptist Church
— Old Order German Baptist Church

Focus on the first Brethren in the Americas

Presentations and panel discussions focused on the early history and experience of the Brethren in the Americas, with attention to the lives of particular church leaders of the time.

Dale Stoffer, professor emeritus of Historical Theology at Ashland (Ohio) Theological Seminary, opened with a paper on “What Led the Brethren to America?”

He outlined the context out of which the first Brethren emerged in Europe in the early 1700s. “Historians must pry into the context of the people and historical elements of a particular time period in order to truly understand what led people and nations to act as they did.”

Important factors in the historical context of the first Brethren included the framework of Germany in the decades preceding 1708, the political context of a myriad of small political units, the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the religious context in which political rulers determined the religion of their territory, the accompanying hardening of religious creed and persecution of those who dissented. This was the context in which Alexander Mack Sr., born in 1679, found himself, Stoffer said. “Each sovereign or city could determine the religion for their subjects. Individuals had no choice in this matter.”

Free expression of religion in Pennsylvania beckoned the early Brethren. Economic factors in Europe, including extreme poverty, made Brethren open to glowing reports from earlier emigrants, Stoffer said. He also named dissension among the early Brethren in Europe, especially in the Krefeld congregation, as an important factor leading to their decision to leave. A group of Brethren from Krefeld, led by Peter Becker, moved to Pennsylvania in 1719. Another group, led by Mack, moved in 1729. By 1735, the Brethren movement had fully transplanted to the American colonies.

Dale Stoffer

Denise Kettering-Lane

Denise Kettering-Lane of the Church of the Brethren, associate professor of Brethren Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., spoke on “Restarting in America: What Factors Delayed or Promoted the Resumption of Brethren Activity in Colonial America?”

“Several mysteries exist in the annals of Brethren history,” she said. The great mystery is which of the first Brethren was selected by lot to baptize the founder, Alexander Mack Sr. Kettering-Lane addressed the second mystery, why the Brethren took so long to re-establish the church after they first arrived in Pennsylvania in 1719. They apparently did not start exploring the need to meet together as a group until 1722, and did not hold baptisms and love feast until late in 1723.

One cannot assume individual Brethren and families were not doing Bible study and praying in their homes, she said. But compared to other German immigrants of the era who took up religious practice fairly quickly after arrival, the Brethren took much longer to become established as a worshiping community.

There is a lack of direct evidence, so Kettering-Lane shared her speculation on factors for the delay: dissension in the Krefeld congregation that pre-dated the move to Pennsylvania, conflict on board the ship during the difficult living conditions of a long trans-Atlantic voyage, challenges in Germantown including how to establish new livelihoods, and the fact that overland travel at the time was difficult. Pennsylvania offered new economic opportunities, and many Brethren changed careers. Those who chose farming moved out into the countryside, where agriculture would have been hard work. “The degree of construction that settlers had to engage in upon their arrival is staggering, time consuming, and exhausting,” she said. In addition, the Brethren were busy having children. “Children take time and attention.” In the end, she concluded, “The act of gathering was difficult, and so the Brethren didn’t do it.”

What brought them together finally? Some inspiration for reassembling may have come from additional Brethren arrivals from Europe, and from people who wanted to be baptized. “While aspects of this story will seem mysterious…we can be thankful that the early Brethren solved the mystery and got together on a cold and wintry Christmas morning.”

Stephen Longenecker

Stephen Longenecker of the Church of the Brethren, professor emeritus of history at Bridgewater (Va.) College, presented on “The Challenge of the American Revolution and the Influence of Christopher Sauer II, Printer and Elder.”

Longenecker reviewed the life and work of Sauer Jr., examining his influence in the larger society, his commitment to his church, his public witness to deeply held values–both religious and political, and the tragic impact of the Revolutionary War on his life.

In a look at his early years, Longenecker emphasized the incident in which Sauer Jr.’s mother left the family to live at the break-away Ephrata Cloister, when her son was 10 years old. Longenecker speculated that she joined the celibate community to escape from the perils of childbearing, as she returned to her family when she was in her 50s. “It must have traumatized the son,” he said.

Longenecker went on to speak about how Sauer Jr.’s work to publish a newspaper, an almanac, hymnals, and other publications, as well as the first German language Bible printed in the Americas, related to his involvement in politics.

“The Sauer publishing house was formidable, with a large readership,” and Sauer II “charged into the public square” to uphold his values. He “engaged in raw politics,” Longenecker said. Sauer Jr. also made enemies, including rival printer Benjamin Franklin. At times, Sauer Jr. “pleaded for peace but his words inflamed.” His deeply held values that were inflammatory at the time included his position against slavery, and he bemoaned the suffering caused by war and poverty, Longenecker said.

Sauer Jr. deserves credit for a public, faith-based position. “We need more believers like Sauer,” said Longenecker. “May we all be as faithful and nonconforming…. For wearing his faith on his sleeve in public, Christopher Sauer is a role model.”

Sauer Jr.’s story ended tragically–he lost his business, his influence, everything he owned, and almost his life, during the Revolutionary War. It is not clear if he had loyalist sympathies, Longenecker said, but he was not alone in opposing the war at a time when many in the colonies questioned the wisdom of armed conflict and Brethren rejected taking an oath of loyalty. Sauer Jr. was arrested by revolutionary soldiers but escaped execution. He lived the rest of his life in poverty despite continuing to be held in high regard in Germantown. He died in 1784 at age 63, after suffering a stroke.

A paper on “Ephrata: The First Brethren Division and the Impact of the Division” written by Jeff Bach, who was unable to attend the assembly, was read by Dave Fuchs. Bach retired in 2020 as director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, and formerly taught at Bethany Seminary.

The paper reviewed the story of the Ephrata Cloister, a break-away intentional community led by Conrad Beissel, who separated from the Brethren leadership in Germantown. December 1728 was the date of the dramatic scene in which Beissel and six members of the Conestoga congregation performed baptism by immersion in order to “give back” the baptism they had received from the Brethren.

The paper examined factors in the division between Beissel and the Brethren, including Beissel’s charismatic leadership and the beliefs Beissel had already formed before he became a Brethren minister–mystical views learned from radical Pietists in Europe, convictions about Sabbath worship, and views on the benefits of celibacy, among others. Beissel was regarded by his followers as a divinely inspired prophet. The Brethren, who had themselves earlier experimented with celibacy, were unable to accept his extreme beliefs. For some years there were families and congregations who were torn apart by the religious competition between the Brethren and the cloister.

Robert Matthews, an elder of the Little Swatara (Pa.) congregation of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, Original Conference, gave a paper titled “Development of the Brethren, 1735-1780: Events and Expansion Westward and Southward.”

His wide-ranging presentation shared numerous stories of individual church leaders and congregations who were part of an expansion from Germantown and Pennsylvania into new areas, including the Carolinas. The sobriety and frugality of the Brethren contributed to their success in farming communities, he said. “We find the Brethren were very busy.”

In addition to published histories, Matthews drew from his own experience of the landscape and location of various Brethren congregations and personalities, sharing knowledge gained as he has led many Brethren heritage tours. He outlined a history of unrest and confusion, centering around the Ephrata Cloister and Conrad Beissel, exacerbated by the death of Brethren founder Alexander Mack Sr. in 1735.

Matthews also recounted the history of Count Zinzendorf’s attempt to unite the German-speaking churches of America through a series of meetings, and how the Brethren eventually declined to participate and instead began holding their own annual meetings. “The Brethren began to hold a synod for themselves. They were going to determine who they were and who they were not,” he said.

“We can learn a lot from the struggles, the sorrows, the joys, and the successes of those who laid the foundation for the church of today.”

Robert Matthews

Sam Funkhouser of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, New Conference, executive director of the Brethren and Mennonite Heritage Center in Harrisonburg, Va., addressed the topic “The Stabilizing Years 1780-1810: Expansion, the Influence of Elders and Annual Meeting.” Onscreen, he crossed off the word “Stabilizing” and replaced it with “Golden,” adding a question mark.

He challenged the notion that the Brethren had already experienced their “Golden Age,” and that after the Revolutionary War the Brethren went through a “Wilderness Period.” Funkhouser acknowledged that by 1780, the first generation of Brethren leadership was gone, the Sauer press was destroyed, and with it an era of Brethren printing and publishing ended–and by 1810 most of the significant events of the next century of Brethren history had not yet begun. And although the German-speaking Brethren had started using English in their preaching, it was nowhere near becoming their primary language.

Sam Funkhouser

Funkhouser traced the migration and growth of the Brethren in this period through maps showing where new congregations and communities sprang up. He also traced the development of new roles of leadership and the yearly meeting.

The types of queries and decisions made by yearly meetings indicate themes in Brethren life in these years, he said: the church-state relationship and the “two kingdoms” concept, how to address practical implications of being a church against slavery, distilleries and the selling of alcohol, church discipline, ordinances, dress and styles of beards and hair, finances, marriage, youth (“The eternal question, what are we going to do with our young people?”), and universalism.

Funkhouser made a distinction between universalism, which the main body of the Brethren eventually rejected during this time period, and universal restoration, which he said was a longstanding belief of most if not all Brethren leaders of the 1700s to early 1800s.

Funkhouser concluded that the time period was certainly not a wilderness, nor a dark age. He also commended the Christian nature of the yearly meeting minutes of the time, saying of one, “This is a very kind minute. Love is every other word. Love, unity, peace, a relational approach.”

Jared Burkholder

Jared Burkholder, professor and program director for history and political science at Grace College in Winona, Ind., presented a paper on “The Legacy and Spiritual Sentiments of Alexander Mack Jr.” He reviewed Mack Jr.’s life, calling him “Sander”–a nickname he often went by.

Burkholder then analyzed Mack Jr.’s poetry to gain insight into the internal spiritual life of one of the most significant and intriguing figures of Brethren history. Sander Mack “was a high-profile person because he was a member of his family,” he said. “Sons of founders have often felt the weight of their father’s work.”

Mack Jr. was born in Schwarzenau, Germany, in 1712. After the family moved to the Netherlands–like many Brethren of the time, fleeing areas of economic distress and persecution–his mother and sister died within a week of each other. Nine years later he moved with his father to Germantown. Just six years after that, his father died. Along with the rest of the Brethren, Sander faced what comes after the founder of a movement is gone. For him, it seems to have forced a personal crisis, and at age 26 he joined the break-away Ephrata community.

He returned to Germantown in 1747, was called to the ministry in 1748, married in 1749, and ordained an elder in 1753. He then spent decades as a respected elder in the church. “He would live another 50 years after ordination,” Burkholder said. Mack Jr. died in his 90s, far outliving his friends and contemporaries.

Already a prolific hymnwriter, and the author of many other writings, in 1772 at age 60 he began the practice of writing a poem on every birthday–not for publication, but for himself.

To search for clues in this poetry, Burkholder used an analysis of “spiritual personalities” from the writings of W. Paul Jones under the rubrics “Separation and Reunion,” “Conflict and Vindication,” “Emptiness and Fulfillment,” “Condemnation and Forgiveness,” and “Suffering and Endurance.”

What spiritual personality is revealed? Burkholder found that Mack Jr.’s spiritual personality is reflected most strongly in “Separation and Reunion.” “His life was a pilgrimage,” Burkholder said. Sander identified as a stranger to the world, longing for what is beyond. In part, his poetry echoed the contemplative tradition and mystical understandings of radical Pietism and the Ephrata Cloister, Burkholder said. Later in his long life, Mack Jr. wrote about the flow of time, and there were musings on suffering and endurance, that became more numerous with age. The least evident of the traits posited by Jones was emptiness and fulfillment. However, “an awareness of injustice is clear.”

Burkholder concluded that “Sander’s life and writings demonstrate it is possible…to integrate a variety of theological impulses in our own personal lives…. Even in the midst of a busy career as a prominent elder, the contemplative stream…[was] never far from his thoughts and yearnings.”

A panel discussion on “Slavery and Race Relations in the Early American Brethren Church: A Scriptural Answer to Antebellum America’s Most Divisive Social Problem” featured Sheilah Elwardani and Dave Guiles, moderated by Dale Stoffer.

Elwardani is a historian of American religious and Appalachian history with a focus on the antebellum period and the Civil War, holding a doctorate in American history from Liberty University.

Guiles has been coordinator of the Charis Alliance and executive director of Encompass World Partners.

Elwardani focused on the minutes of the Brethren yearly meeting addressing slavery, pointing out that they did not address theoretical questions. She wondered if the decision of 1782 represented an already defined stance against slavery. “I think the great question would be starting at the beginning,” she said. “Did the Brethren have a very clearly defined, fully developed perspective on relationships of integration and slavery, or is this a continual process?”

A panel discussion featuring (from left) Dave Guiles, Sheilah Elwardani, and moderator Dale Stoffer

She pointed out that “each time a question comes up it is because there is a real-world problem. They [the yearly meeting] have to address it time and again.” She admitted that at times the Brethren were not exemplary, citing an instance when the yearly meeting had to scold the same minister twice because he insisted on preaching that slavery is sanctioned by God and scripture.

The panelists at points expanded into conversation about how slavery and race relations have shaped American culture and society today. Guiles, who has lived outside the United States for many years, expressed surprised at the current state of race relations in America. “My life has been engaged in cross-cultural ministries,” he said. “When I came back to the US, I discovered the degree you love people is different than us overseas.”

Later in the conversation, he said, “I would like to more deeply [ask] how can a movement ready to pay such high praise for standing up against slavery do so poorly when it comes to integration?”

In her concluding statement, Elwardani spoke passionately about the sacredness of all humanity: “We are sacred, we are created by our God…. We need to apply that to everyone we meet regardless.” If we cannot do that, she said, “we need to question our salvation.”

The topic was so complex that the panelists could not cover it, and more time was clearly needed for a full sharing of Elwardani’s expertise.

A panel discusses the Brethren ordinances

A panel discussion about Brethren ordinances focused mainly on the love feast or the “three-fold communion” that includes a meal, a service of communion, and feetwashing. Also discussed were practices around baptism, the annual visit, and the prayer covering.

On the panel were six representatives of various Brethren bodies, with Dan Thornton of the assembly planning team as moderator. Introducing the topic, he noted that the Brethren ordinances have been sources of dispute and division as well as sources of shared commonality. They have been sources of attraction into the Brethren movement, but sometimes have been difficult for newcomers, and at times have posed barriers to acceptance, understanding, and involvement in the church.

The panelists each responded to questions about how ordinances have been used and are currently a part of their church practice. They also shared opinions about how to shore up and maintain ordinances like the love feast. “Dealing with other people’s feet is not at the top of everybody’s list!” said one.

Summing up the conversation, Thornton said, “Let’s move forward together in a strong way, and learn from each other.”

Samuel Dali

Samuel Dali, past president of EYN who currently co-pastors Panther Creek Church of the Brethren in Adel, Iowa, with his wife, Rebecca Dali, presented a history of EYN as part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Nigerian church.

Remarks were also brought by current EYN president Joel Billi, who attended with his wife, Salamatu Billi, and colleagues Elisha and Ruth Shavah.

Dali reviewed the 100 years of EYN history, asking how EYN grew to have more than 1 million members from its start in the small village of Garkida in northeast Nigeria.

An understanding of the pre-colonial history of Nigeria and the colonial context is needed, as well as an understanding of how the Church of the Brethren mission differed from others. It is important to understand that these 100 years of EYN are the fruit of servants, he said–Nigerian and American mission workers and others–who answered the call of God. Nigerians at all levels of work in the mission and in the church contributed. These ordinary members and church groups are often ignored in church history, he said, but the missionaries couldn’t have succeeded without them.

Dali reviewed in detail events that preceded the founding of EYN, and told stories from the first years of the mission and how it became established and accepted by the surrounding community. He also reviewed the recent decades in which EYN became the Nigerian church most affected by Boko Haram and insurgent violence in northeast Nigeria. Since then, he said, EYN has rebounded, with help from the Church of the Brethren in the US who said, “We are together with you.”

Today, EYN is recovering, growing, and flourishing, he said. The secret of EYN’s progress all along has been all the “little people” who have contributed.

“What is the typical Brethren like?” asked Church of the Brethren Global Mission executive Eric Miller, as he introduced the Nigerian delegation. Given current membership numbers of Brethren bodies around the world, the typical Brethren person is African, and most likely Nigerian, he said. African churches actually represent the vast majority of Brethren around the world, he said, and the gathering at the assembly does not represent the majority of Brethren today. He went on to pose related questions, including “What is the typical Brethren practice?… What the [African Brethren] do is typical,” he said, when we think “mathematically and globally.”

Questions about the women’s experience

Each presentation was followed by an opportunity for questions from the audience. Most questions directly followed on specific topics presented, with a few also asking about the relationship of the early Brethren with indigenous people–a topic that was not addressed specifically in the presentations. A persistent thread of questioning, however, called for more attention to the experience of women among the early Brethren.

Presenters were asked to speak about the lives of the wives of the early Brethren leaders. One person asked if women had a voice among the early Brethren. Several comments from the audience focused on possible motives of Brethren women who left their families to join the breakaway community at Ephrata. It was pointed out that women may have seen the cloister as an opportunity to engage in the arts in a way they could not do on the farm or in Germantown. Joining the cloister may have been a very courageous act for a woman at the time, said another person, in a comment that hinted at a concern about how early Brethren women were treated in their marriages.

“Historical sources are not equitable with regard to gender,” said Burkholder, responding to questions following his presentation on Alexander Mack Jr. “This was a patriarchal sort of environment and community. This means that sources…give short shrift or don’t do justice to women’s voices.” Wives of the early Brethren leaders “are equally important,” he said. “We just don’t have the sources.”

Daily worship

Morning devotions and evening worship services featured messages brought by preachers from various Brethren traditions including Steven Cole, Samuel Dali, Dave Guiles, Robert LeHigh, and Glen Landes and Michael Miller of the Old German Baptist Brethren, New Conference.

Find out more about the Brethren Encyclopedia and its board at www.brethrenencyclopedia.org.


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