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European Origin ~ Church of the Brethren

Written by Ronald J. Gordon ~ Published February, 1996 ~ Last Updated: September, 2020 ©
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Letter The Church of the Brethren originated in the Wittgenstein district of Seventeenth Century Germany, under the protection of Count Henrich Albrecht's promise of refuge to all persons experiencing harm for religious beliefs or activities. Responsible only to a war torn imperial government distressed with bureaucratic ineptitude, Albrecht extended freedom to anyone suffering religious oppression, much to the consternation and unending protests of neighboring districts. Like a few other nobles, he saw the wisdom in granting protection to refugee craftsmen and farmers who would assist the rebuilding of his district. Years of war and disease had left central Europe sparsely populated and heavily destroyed, starting with the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century and followed in the 17th Century with the Thirty Years' War, the French Wars, and the Wars of Frederick the Great. The cumulative effects destroyed millions of people, farm lands, cities, and national economies. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the Thirty Years' War, but allowed the three main state churches, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed (known as the Big Three) to become a new monolithic force of domination and persecution to all other would be religious groups. In the wake of years of devastation, German Pietism arose. It was essentially a 'religion of the heart' that decried ecclesiastical control by the Big Three, and sought to redefine the basic personal religious experience. Alexander Mack of Schriesheim would seek refuge from religious persecution in the district of Wittgenstein near the village of Schwarzenau and organize a new religious group in 1708, founded on the principles of Pietism and Anabaptism . Over the centuries, this original group would eventually separate into many different Brethren Groups. Here are some of the historical developments that contributed to this originating call to the Brethren.

Reformation Awakens a Sleeping Church
Anabaptism Challenges the Reformers
New Interpretations of Theology
Rise of Pietism in Germany
New Breed of Reformers
Hochmann in the Palatinate
Alexander Mack of Schriesheim
Marienborn to Krefeld
Where Is Schwarzenau
Brethren Bibliography
The Reformation Awakens A Sleeping Church

Letter Christ stated that the "gates of hell" would not prevail against His church. So very true has history validated this statement. The monolithic Roman Empire which attempted to stamp out the Gospel of Jesus gradually receded into the two rising arms of the Christian Church: Latin in the West and Greek in the East. The dominance of the Church at Rome suppressed literacy and free expression for a thousand years, but the culture of the Eastern Orthodox flourished. Most of what we know of the ancient world is derived from Eastern manuscripts. The Dark Ages aptly describes a Europe wherein the common populace was deprived of basic educational skills. Excluding nobility, the clergy were the few persons who knew how to read and write; in fact, the very word clerical (occupational reading and writing) is derived from the word clergy. Under the ecclesiastical administration of the Roman Catholic Church, illiteracy was unfortunately too prevalent. The privilege of reading and writing was generally denied to the common populace, for an unlearned citizenry was easier to govern. Additionally, were they also denied access to personal use of the Bible, since individual interpretation would enhance ones personal determination, and further undermine Rome's ability to govern. Without basic educational skills and resources to advance intellectual exploration by the ordinary citizenry, the general populace of Europe acquiesced into a cultural slumber that would last for centuries. Only through the invasion of foreign merchants and scholars from the east would this stupor be broken, and produce a momentous cultural awakening with few historical parallels.

In later centuries, with the threat of invasion to Eastern capitals, merchants and scholars moved to the Latin West, bringing along their Eastern Greek culture, and a profusion of documents (in some cases, the only surviving documents) of many Old World classics, including biblical manuscripts in the original language of the New Testament. This produced a storm of interest in learning. With this new influx of culture into the West, in the space of little more than one century, history spawned these great events--the Renaissance, the Bible in Greek, an explosion of learning, the printing press, the Reformation, an explosion in art (Michelangelo, Raphael), resurgence of astronomy (Copernicus), scientific experimentation (Galileo), world exploration, and the discovery of the America continent. Western Europe was punctually awakened from a thousand years of cultural slumber. It was a seminal moment for Christianity as great men of intellect and theology such as Tyndale, Luther, and Beza were driven, as Wycliffe before them, to place Holy Writ in the hands of the common populace to read and appreciate for themselves. They used Byzantine cursive manuscripts, newly arrived with scholars from the east, which possessed a greater consistency than the dissimilar Alexandrian unical manuscripts that were the basis of the Old Latin, a precursor to Jeromes Latin Vulgate. A profusion of Translations in common languages seriously challenged the authority of Rome to solely interpret the scriptures. Using the threat of excommunication, horrid imprisonments, and public executions, the Roman Church profoundly endeavored to destroy the efforts of the Reformers, in an attempt to maintain control and deny the citizenry any personal knowledge of the Bible. However, the proem of reform was unalterably set when Tyndale evoked this now famous statement to one of his detractors: "I defy the Pope and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost."

Martin Luther's pounding on the Wittenberg church door still echoes with us today. Renewal and reform are continuing processes for the modern church, but in the time of Luther, reform was tantamount to heresy. Encroaching on centuries of papal decisions was a serious breach of church order for which many burned at the stake. Luther wanted to reform the church because of numerous unscriptural practices, and foremost was the sale of Indulgences. This was a means of "buying" relief from temporal or eternal punishment. In exchange for money, a church official would then issue a paper granting assurance that future punishment had been mitigated. It was not the price being charged for an Indulgence, but the very concept of expiation by commerce that precipitated Luther's main argument. He was a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg which also used the castle church door as the university bulletin board. Hoping for intellectual sympathy, on October 31, 1517, Luther posted Ninety-Five such arguments for immediate discussion. Ultimately, his desire was reform that would improve and strengthen the church, not secession.

This was the age of Raphael, Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel, and Pope Leo X who was in the process of renovating the basilica and remodeling adjacent buildings. Naturally, such a building endeavor requires a building fund and money was going to Rome from many parts of Europe specifically because the Pope was encouraging the sale of Indulgences to raise the money. What surprised Luther, his followers, and Rome was the unexpected alliance of German nobility to Luther's cause. Seizing an opportunity to cut off the steady flow of much needed currency at home, German princes began protesting Rome's financial expropriation under the guise of theological sympathy. Although most people consider the word Protestant an appellation for Luther's followers, it actually describes this occasion of protestation from German nobles. It began at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 when the Roman Catholic majority rescinded its earlier decision of granting tolerance to Lutherans. A formal protest was returned by six Lutheran princes and the leaders of fourteen free cities of Germany. The Vatican staggered in the turbulence, knowing all too well that once the inviolate walls of her authority had been breached, the path would lay open for others to walk through, and they did. The British monarch Henry VIII was simultaneously agonizing over the inability to produce a male heir through his wife Catherine. Seeking to have the marriage annulled by Rome would prove futile because she was also the aunt of Emperor Charles V, who in turn was vigorously allied to the Pope. Friction between London and Rome grew intense until 1534 when Henry VIII threw the papacy out of Britain with the Act of Supremacy. This maneuver designated English kings to also be head of the Church of England which predictably incurred the wrath of both Pope and Emperor. A wrath that would later burn furiously against the popular Anabaptist movement. Rome was losing its grip on kings and commoners.

Anabaptism Challenges The Reformers
Diet of Augsburg
Augsburg Confession before Charles V

Letter The enthusiasm of the Reformers was finally given vent for expression at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, when Emperor Charles V required a formal presentation of specific justifications surrounding their activities. Pope Leo X had excommunicated Martin Luther in January of 1521 and Charles declared him an outlaw the following May, but in just nine brief years the political and religious stage of Europe had been greatly rearranged. Central Europe was slowly becoming a tempestuous sea of conflict. The Ottoman Turks had successfully invaded most of the eastern territories and stood ready to overthrow the city of Vienna. To face this situation, Charles desperately needed the support of a united Empire that was weakening from growing religious and political fragmentation. Luther was invited to the Imperial Diet but could not attend since he was technically still an outlaw. Philipp Melanchthon, his comrade and fellow professor in theology at Wittenberg, brilliantly articulated the justifications for reform in a Confession that was delivered before the Emperor by Christian Beyer, then chancellor of Saxony. So masterfully did Melanchthon define the basic articles of faith undergirding reform that Lutherans still regard the Augsburg Confession one of their primary declarations of faith. Enthusiasm for reform was not limited to Germany, for just a few years after Luther posted his church door arguments, Ulrich Zwingli had found himself in trouble with a Catholic bishop in Zurich, Switzerland, over matters pertaining to the observance of Lent. He had previously started a small cultural study group of several men, especially including Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz, but their focus gradually turned more to biblical matters. Each was proficiently skilled in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek; and they concluded from a scrupulous examination of the New Testament that infant baptism was scripturally groundless, that only believers with a mature comprehension of their decision should receive baptism. After corresponding with Luther on numerous issues, he gradually decided in 1522 to leave the priesthood. Zwingli believed that ultimate authority in the church belongs in the local community of believers, not a distant ecclesiastical body. In the Disputations of 1523, Zwingli sought to become responsible under the cantonical government, which was a distinct signal of his break with Rome. Subsequently, the city of Zurich removed themselves from papal authority to become an evangelical city. Grebel and Mantz were passionate about reform and wanted to actively pursue their new conclusions, but Zwingli protested that it would incite an uproar and he gradually began to distance himself from them. Three years later, in January of 1525, Zwingli disputed his former companions before the Great Council of Zurich, in which the Council sided with him and declared Grebel and Mantz to be radicals. Nevertheless, they were not deterred from pursuing their convictions, and they soon gained the companionship of Georg Blaurock, a priest who shared their theological views, and likewise eschewed the power of Rome. During one of their meetings involving a spirited discussion of believer's baptism, Blaurock requested to be "re-baptized" since he was first baptized as an infant. Grebel baptized him, and Blaurock, in turn, baptized Grebel and Mantz. Anabaptism was formally born on January 21, 1525. Additionally, it should be noted that Conrad Grebel was a lay person - not an ordained priest, minister, or the holder of an important ecclesiastical office. This is an interesting departure from the normal caste of the Reformers.

Others soon joined their company and adult "re-baptism" or ANA (Greek for 'again') BAPTISM was born, since each follower was initially baptized as an infant. Resistance from the state was immediate with Felix Mantz being executed by drowning at Zurich, and fellow companion Wolfgang Uliman, along with others were burned at the stake in Waldsee. Zwingli turned from the movement and began to write and teach with zeal, bordering on fanaticism, that Anabaptism was false and intolerable. He later imprisoned Anabaptists in the tower of Zurich, allowing men and women to die until the last, enduring the stench as their dead were not removed from among them. As the early church thrived during periods of state persecution, so also would Anabaptism grow and spread throughout Europe. An old truth was being validated once again; "Turmoil from without spreads a movement while turmoil from within destroys it." Protestant refugees would soon find a haven in the independent French Swiss city of Geneva where Jean Cauvin, known better in the Latin form of Calvin would soon turn Geneva into a Protestant Rome. He was educated as a lawyer and created a faith system with logic that gave it strong conviction. The rigor and depth of Calvinism would spread as far as Scotland where it was promulgated by the illustrious preacher and organizer John Knox.

These dedicated recipients of persecution and death from the European church-state alliance of the Catholic and Lutheran churches were the most resolute product of the Reformation. They did not pause with Luther or Calvin, but sought to change the dual hand of church and state forever. "No exercise of force in religion" was their proclamation. During this time, citizens were forced to belong to the religion of their district, and in times of war or domestic unrest, changes in nobility and their religious disposition could be frequent. Anabaptism was properly a grass-roots movement by disaffected commoners who did not find early leadership in any personage of significant notoriety such as Luther or Calvin. For this reason, Anabaptists did not win intellectual respectability as the larger reform movements whose figureheads were men of education who produced thoughtfully reasoned arguments that were persuasive to thinking minds. Disunited groups of Anabaptists were not privileged with many leaders of academic proficiency, certainly because their fundamental appeal was more to emotional practicality than intellect. Possibly due to the precedent setting activities of the major Reformers who challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church with the Bible itself, and especially since Luther translated Holy Writ into German, the scriptures were no longer the exclusive property of bishops. Interpretation now enjoyed a wider audience. The great majority of Anabaptists were peaceful, constructive, and in some ways nearly ascetic. They adhered to strict ethical standards, avoidance of immorality, and fundamentally believed that faith was something to be 'demonstrated' through daily activity. Regretfully due to their social origin and radicalism, they were regarded as extremists and their excesses stayed in the public mind. For example, in the 1530's, one group of Anabaptists under the leadership of John of Leyden gained control of the German city of Munster where they attempted to institute a government that repulsed even the sympathetic. They pushed the doctrine of justification by faith to an extreme form of anarchism, i.e., people determining law according to conscience instead of a written code. The "mayhem in Munster" disallowed private property, class distinctions, and permitted a few to engage in polygamy. They had disturbed an established order that was astonished at their fanaticism and intent on crushing them. Unfortunately, the dual hand of church and state released its severest form of tyranny on the Anabaptists. The Rhine Valley in the mid 1500's witnessed nightly torches of burning saints. They were mocked and scorned by angry crowds as they were led to their executions. It is ironic that the very entity that suffered the initial pain of affliction in the Roman arena now became the Afflicter. Doubly ironic is that many of the Reformers who enjoyed their newly gained freedom from the Roman Catholic Church, likewise chose to be Afflicters. The wanton slaughter of Anabaptists was severe, vitriolic, and offered as entertainment in some locations; but still they grew in number, and became even more resolute in their convictions and activities. History has witnessed few movements whose participants were as intractable as those of Anabaptism. The nobility of Europe pronounced death to all Anabaptists at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, and within a few years most of the original leaders met with violent deaths.

New Interpretations Of Theology

Letter Anabaptism introduced a new form of worship service that was distinctly emotional. Whereas liturgical services were historically generous in ritual and pageantry before quiet worshipers, these new services were frequently loud with participants shouting and dancing. Sermons were electrified with hopes of heaven and terrors of hell. It is not over-simplification to describe them as the 'holy rollers' of their day, because the emotional appeal was captivating to congregations that were accustomed to sitting and watching. This was interactive, new - revolutionary. Preaching styles contained energy. Most groups expected Christ's immediate return. Anabaptists gave new interpretations to historic traditions of the church, and invented a few new traditions of their own. Their distrust of government was obvious, and they would not take oaths. A few practiced what can only be described as combative pacifism. In other words, they were willing to respond aggressively in the most vociferous manner without actually becoming physical. One such person was Jacob Hutter who is recognized as the founder of the Hutterites.

"Woe, woe! unto you, O ye Moravian rulers, who have sworn to that cruel tyrant and enemy of God's truth, Ferdinand, to drive away his pious and faithful servants. Woe! we say unto you, who fear that frail and mortal man more than the living, omnipotent, and eternal God, and chase from you, suddenly and inhumanly, the children of God, the afflicted widow, the desolate orphan, and scatter them abroad...God, by the mouth of the prophet proclaims that He will fearfully and terribly avenge the shedding of innocent blood, and will not pass by such as fear not to pollute and contaminate their hands therewith. Therefore, great slaughter, much misery and anguish, sorrow and adversity, yea, everlasting groaning, pain and torment are daily appointed you."

J.T. Van Braght, "Martyrology: Letters of Jakob Hutter," Vol I, p. 151-153
R.J. Smithson, "The Anabaptists," London, 1935, p. 69-71
Also see "History of Civilization," Prentice-Hall, 1967, p. 481

Menno Simons

The great majority of Anabaptists were quiet and very respectful. Everyday living was peaceful, simple, and demonstrably pious. They emphasized community responsibility and economic egalitarianism. Most were shocked by the activities of their own extremists who over took a city government and tried to run it according to theological principles. Their excessive abuses garnered the appellation: 'Mayhem in Munster,' and unfortunately destined them to bare the stigma of a few radicals. After the systematic execution of most leaders, their most inspirational figurehead was Menno Simons, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and contemporary of Zwingli, Grebel, and Mantz. He had many quiet doubts about church doctrines such as transubstantiation and infant baptism. Following a careful study of the New Testament and Luther's writings, he left the Catholic Church, adhering only to orthodox Christian doctrines and excluding those beliefs not clearly articulated in the New Testament. He strongly opposed the Mayhem in Munster, but was forced to go into hiding for a year because of his offers of minor assistance to them . Simon's followers later became known as Mennonites. Due to it's grass-roots origin, Anabaptism would heavily influence religious thought far beyond the century of its birth, including the Schwarzenau Brethren who would rebaptize themselves in the Eder River in 1708. Anabaptist beliefs and practices are so compelling and attractive that it has endured, with minor changes, into the modern era.


Fallen Church

Beginning with Martin Luther and continuing with most of the primary reformers (including the Anabaptists) is the doctrine of a "fallen church," where a good and true earthly vessel of God had slipped from it's manifest purpose. Abuses of the clergy and the pope were easily exposed, and reform became the vehicle whereby the reformers sought to transport the church back to its original purity. This was another new interpretation. If an entity has fallen, then it logically had a point of time when it began to decline. Interestingly, the date at which each reformer places the moment of it's descent is remarkably different. Zwingli opposed the rise and powerful ascendancy of the papacy and saw this as the beginning of the fall. Luther accepted the papal state, but not its abuses. He did not disagree with it's administrative structure, only the abuses of power and influence from it's leaders. The differences in time lines between the primary reformers was minimal except for the Anabaptists who regarded the fall to have started with the emperor Constantine who married state and church together. This was the commencement of the rise of evil in the church, and the beginning of the fall. Contrariwise, both Luther and Zwingli admired this historical event. It was a crowning achievement for them.

Church Going Political

The earliest form of Christianity describes scattered house fellowships of believers who viewed the state as evil. They boldly served one greater than Caesar, and unapologetically proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Lord of their kingdom. New Testament writers made a clear distinction between the church and the world. Apostle John stated: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” - 1 John 2:15. When the church became espoused to the state under Constantine, the Anabaptists saw an unrelenting series of compromises in principles of faith. Although the Edit of Milan (313) only legalized Christianity, the emperor Theodosius made it the state religion on February 20, 380, and required everyone to be baptized. This meant that all soldiers where now Christians; a new twist for believers who previously desisted military service because of their allegiance to a greater emperor. Anabaptists saw this historical event as the beginning of a spiritually injurious domino effect which progressively compromised spiritual principles - century after century.

Infant Baptism Imprison's The Individual

The joy of New Testament baptism through repentance and conversion of adult believers had been lost in this practice which originated in about the Fourth century. Anabaptists reserved their strongest criticism for this practice, because they esteemed it to have repudiated the foundation of salvation by grace. No longer did people have the opportunity to turn from their evil ways and join a community of believers through their own recognition of their sinfulness. Their lives and destinies were imprisoned by the Church from near the moment of their birth. Salvation lost it's majesty. Grace became only a distant memory. It was no longer a quality to be cherished, for it had become a regulated state of existence. A challenge to the Church was equivalent to a challenge of one's own eternity. This powerful hold on souls by the church was a theological road block to understanding the very joy of the Christian experience. Rebaptizing adult believers was therefore a political statement, an act of dissent, or perhaps a medieval burning of one's Draft Card.

Sacraments Become Weapons

Originally, the church received the Sacraments through a celebratory occasion that remembered the Lord's sacrifice. As the church became political, so did the sacraments. Instead of being symbols of a festive occasion, they were seen as a vehicle for maintaining power over individuals by the church. Persons barred from receiving the Sacraments became persons denied salvation. Objects of love became weapons of war. This was a fundamental change in New Testament doctrine, for Anabaptists believed that upon conversion, people should be released from bondage through the church. Infant baptism and sacramental leverage obfuscated the opportunity for freedom, by imprisoning a person under the captivity of an ecclesiastical power. Early believers were a 'called out' assembly, originating from the Greek word ekklesia (those called out). Medieval believers were an imprisoned assembly held captive under the bondage of church power. There was no opportunity for them to experience a 'calling out' for the administration of the Sacraments was the churches method of keeping them inside and under control.

True Reform Means Starting Over

Whereas most 16th century reformers understood the word reform to mean that a fallen church structure needed restoration to it's original purity. Anabaptists rejected the churches contemporary structure because they believed that it had become too corrupt. Purity could only be achieved by starting over. It was this concept which invited severe persecution from the Church which saw it's very existence in jeopardy. Anabaptists were viciously dealt with by the main three church denominations in league with their state-aligned officials, because they were viewed as subversives who intended to alter the very face of society. Luther and other reformers believed that abuses by the church, such as the temporal authority of the pope or the immoral excesses of the clergy should be corrected while still retaining the historical legacy of the church structure. They viewed themselves as protectors of the historically true church. If the medieval church structure may be viewed as a wall of bricks, Luther wanted to realign and replace those few bricks that would preserve the integrity of the wall. Anabaptists saw these same bricks as indicative of a foundation that had shifted. Repair meant changing the position of the foundation, no matter what happens to the bricks. Not even mainline reformers could accept the magnitude or the consequences of such radical change.

In Summary...

In summary, Anabaptism was a new movement that was perceived as a radical departure from the established church, even by other reformers who desired to restore and maintain a fallen structure. In civil matters, Anabaptists rejected public office and would not serve in the military. Their disdain for materialism also brought contempt from a weak but rising middle class that was just discovering primitive capitalism. Persecution from many sides was resolute throughout Europe because nobility, church officials, and merchants viewed Anabaptism as a fundamental threat to their own destinies. Thousands were drowned, tortured or burned at the stake, but martyrdom only fortified their belief that suffering was a touchstone of their true faithfulness.

Toleration for this fledgling movement came first in the Netherlands where the Catholic priest Menno Simons had already renounced his allegiance to Rome, but may have retained a closer adherence to the mainstream reform idea of preserving church structure. Other havens gradually appeared when nobles realized that most Anabaptists were hard working farmers and craftsmen who quickly contributed to the local economy. Following the Thirty Years' War that left feudal economies in ruin, many were actually invited to settle in the Palatinate district of Germany, in order to rebuild a war stricken landscape. Hutterites also found refuge in Moravia. Numerous attempts were made to formally record a basic consensus of Anabaptism by it's followers, and the most notable is the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, named after the German city where their early leaders met. Although intellectual disagreement remains over the full effect of Anabaptism on the Schwarzenau Brethren (later Church of the Brethren), a distinctive imprint is visible as they initiated their faith community through rebaptism of believing adults.

Rise Of Pietism In Germany

Letter Crom 1616 to 1748, the Rhine Valley was a continuous scene of bloodshed and enormous property damage from a series of wars including; the Thirty Years' War, the French Wars, and the Wars of Frederick the Great. Each conflict progressively weakened the fabric of social enterprise. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the Thirty Years' War, but allowed the big three state churches, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed to become a new monolithic force of domination and persecution. These prolonged conflicts left Germany in a quilted patchwork of local districts, knitted together by varying political relationships between the numerous governing princes. The new Big Three ecclesiastical bodies (Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed) forthrightly denied all other religious groups the right to exist within the Empire, and the citizens of each local district were forced to join whichever church was recognized by the local nobility, an administrative carry-over from the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. It is not over-simplification to frame the position of the Big Three churches to all other groups as: “Convert, leave, or die.”


Although this tri-laterial body was united against other groups, each were still ardent enemies of one another; thus proving the adage: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Since wars changed political control in some districts frequently, it was entirely possible to be Lutheran one year, Reformed the next year, and perhaps even Catholic the next. People had become weary of political wars, church-state maneuverings, and persecution. Repeated invasions had left the commoner with no real sense of identity or stability. Because armies subsisted on what they could take from local citizenry, it mattered very little to the populace whether the soldier was friend or foe. At the end of the century, while the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was defending Vienna from the Ottoman Turks in the east, French king Louis XIV grasped this opportunity to invade the Palatinate district in the west. Known as the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-97), this war and the later War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) again devastated central Germany, especially the Palatinate. Economic burdens on local nobility were immense. Farm lands were not replanted due to constant invasion, and people were often forced into thievery and immorality in order to survive. Additionally, lingering effects of the Black Death or bubonic plague reminded people of this horrid period of European history. The future appeared to offer no hope or relief, only despair and gloom. But then something new happened which took the Big Three by surprise. On the soil of bloodshed and inter-faith disunity another religious movement sprung forth. Pietism would also became the next receptor of state imprisonment and execution. It was a logical outgrowth of a religious populace that was exhausted of both war and the insensitivity of church leadership; a clergy that physically enforced attendance at worship and obeisance before dignitaries. Because worship had become dull and insensitive (more of a political tool) people naturally turned inwardly for spiritual renewal. Originally content to remain as a sub-group within the Big Three state churches, Pietists endeavored to substitute devotional formalism with a more genuine intellectual and emotional experience. Adherents stressed that faith, regeneration, and sanctification were qualities to be experienced rather than being explained by a church official. Local governments, overwhelmed with administrative disruptions and economic recovery from war, took little notice of Pietism in its earliest form. However, when the Separatists evolved, that would all change for this new sub-group desired to clearly take the movement outside of the Big Three, and possibly exist as free independent groups without denominational structure.

Pietism was birthed in Germany through spiritual pioneers who wanted a deeper emotional experience rather than a preset adherence to form (no matter how genuine). They stressed a personal experience of salvation and a continuous openness to new spiritual illumination. They also taught that personal holiness (piety), spiritual maturity, Bible study & prayer were essential towards "feeling the effects" of grace. Many early Pietists were content to remain in established churches, but in the late 1600's awakened souls risked the danger of separating from all state churches, and these Separatists were branded as radicals and fanatics, if not outright heretics. They were severely persecuted, imprisoned or executed for simply going too far. Separatists went beyond the Anabaptist focus on mere conduct reflecting saving grace, because they stressed the need to "feel" the effects of grace. Separatists or Awakened Souls, these new Reformers became intent on waking everyone else from the complacency of mechanical religiosity with it's pageantry. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to compare their fervency and dedication with the Jesus Movement of the 1970's because their noticeable differences from mainstream Christianity resulted in a mix of theological confusion, intellectual aloofness, cultural misunderstanding, and prolonged suspicion.

New Breed Of Reformers
 Philip Jacob Spener
Philip Jacob Spener

Letter Che most famous Pietists emerged from the Lutheran Church with Philipp Jakob Spener being the father of Lutheran Pietism. His publication of Pia Desideria (Pious Desires) called for church reform by identifying both the laxity of the clergy and the shortcomings of the established church system. His six point prescription for reform would be rather tame if not ho-hum by today's standards, but in the Seventeenth Century it was radical. Perhaps influenced by early Pietist works from Johann Arndt (Six Books of True Christianity), Spener called for a re-introduction of primitive Christianity that would challenge the institutional stability of Lutheranism. As the logical implications of Pia Desideria became more clear, predictably, church leadership felt threatened as the laity would have a greater role of participation in church life, and perhaps even the opportunity for new interpretations of church symbolism. Naturally the leadership would resent the intrusion of outsiders into their comfortable academic domain, knowing that once this door is opened, it shall not easily be closed.

August Hermann Francke
August Hermann Francke

Extremists in this new movement believed that in order to truly achieve piety or inward perfection, no less than a total separation from the wickedness of an immoral society would be necessary. And because some of this evil was perceived to exist in the church, this would mean a separation from the main three denominations, an interpretation which precipitated fervent disagreements. Pietism was now evolving into different forms along lines of theology and logical interpretation. August Hermann Francke was a theological associate of Spener who gained enough acclaim in biblical studies at the University of Leipzig, to be expelled by jealous senior faculty members. He was then assisted by Spener in acquiring a professorship of theology at the University of Halle; an institution which soon became a focus of Pietist activity. Touched with compassion over the ubiquitous human misery resulting from the Thirty Years' War, Francke decided to teach the way of Christ outside the classroom, as well as from the university lectern. Orphans were everywhere, living in the streets and indulging in crime to survive. Francke established orphanages to care for young children, hospitals to care for the sick, and schools to educate pupils for the ministry and the sciences. Many of these institutions still exist in modern Germany under the direction of the Francke Foundation. At his death in 1726, nearly three thousand people were involved at the Foundation with his students becoming pastors, government officials, nurses, and professors. Francke and Spener were both content to reform the abuses of the church from within; a quality not true of the Awakened Souls who later became known as the Separatists.

One of the most influential Pietists of the Separatist wing was Gottfried Arnold who earned his way through the University of Wittenberg by tutoring private families. It was here, as a law student, that he experienced his own spiritual "awakening" while also a disciple of Spener. Through exceptional learning skills, Arnold gained himself a master's degree by the age of twenty. Possessing a laudable understanding of early church writings, he began his own career of writing about early church life, and later published “Wahre Abbildung” (Real Images or True Pictures) of early Christians in 1696. This major work gained him a professorship the very next year at the University of Giessen, and it was here that he befriended Ernst Christoph Hochmann who became the most virulent spokesperson for the Separatist wing of the Pietist movement. As their friendship intensified, so also did their respective spiritual gift begin to compliment each other with Arnold possessing the Separatist intellect and Hochmann being it's publicist. Arnold resigned shortly after he began teaching at Giessen, arguing that university life is too pagan for devout Christians. The hallmark of his literary accomplishment is his defense of early historically repressed Christian groups whom he called "true" Christians, and believed they should be models for Christian living, along with a proper study of the teachings of Jesus. His books even influenced sectarians such as the famous scholar Goethe, because he praised early Christians by reason of their not possessing hierarchical encumbrances or contentious theological engagements; only the pure work of discipleship and the fruit of souls.

Hochmann In The Palatinate

Letter Befriended by Arnold in 1697, Ernest Christopher Hochmann von Hochenau also experienced his "awakening" at the University of Halle through August Hermann Francke. In the previous year, he had been arrested and expelled for openly preaching Christ and forcefully excoriating the three state churches. These incidents prompted him to abandon a promising career in law for that of an itinerant preacher. He was a persuasive speaker who roamed the countryside preaching to both nobleman and commoner with the power of the gospel. Also following the path of his mentor (Arnold), he proclaimed that the only true church was a spiritual one that was "separated" from denominationalism and especially from governmental interference. He later settled in the district of Wittgenstein (map) under the protection of Count Henrich Albrecht's (var. Henry Albert) promise of refuge to all persons experiencing harm for religious beliefs or activities. Responsible only to a weak imperial government distressed with bureaucratic ineptitude, Albrecht extended freedom to anyone suffering religious oppression, much to the consternation and unending protests of neighboring districts. Like a few other nobles, he saw the wisdom in granting protection to refugee craftsmen and farmers who would assist the rebuilding of his district, since war had left it sparsely populated and heavily destroyed. Religiously devout people also tend to be hard working and their skills much needed, thus the forbearance of Count Henrich Albrecht may not have been entirely spiritual in nature. Much earlier, his father Count Gustav had married a French Huguenot daughter, and some Huguenots fled to Wittgenstein at the invitation of Gustav when the Edit of Nantes, a guarantee of tolerance to French protestants was repealed by Louis XIV in 1685. Wittgenstein (history) was of the Reformed faith since 1555, but Albrecht was inclined toward Pietism. He praised the work of Hochmann who built a small hut near Schwarzenau called the Castle of Peace, and each of Albrecht's four younger sisters would later marry Pietists. In 1708 Alexander Mack, friend of Hochmann and founder of the Schwarzenau Brethren also called Neu-Täufer (new baptists, to distinguish them from old-anabaptists) would publically and illegally baptize his small community under the Count's unassuming watch. Henrich Albrecht effectively preserved the safety of his refugees until his death in 1723.

In 1702, Hochmann was incarcerated in the prison of Detmold castle for his Pietistic activities, with a condition of his release being to articulate his religious beliefs in a formal written statement to his jailor. The Detmold Confession expresses not only Hochmann's own theology, but also gives us a window of opportunity to more clearly understand the Brethren during their early formation, because this document was used by Alexander Mack to undergird the practices and ordinances of his Schwarzenau congregation. It nearly became a creed for a body that denounced the use of creeds, and represented for the colonial Brethren what the Augsburg Confession had meant for Lutheranism. Even the press at Ephrata Cloister reproduced a version of it.

The Palatinate was an area of the Rhine River valley to the south-west of Frankfurt Am Main. Separatists had come to this part of Germany just after the turn of the century, but they proved to more of a nuisance to the local government than an imposing threat. However, that would change with the arrival of Ernest Hochmann about 1706. His eloquent preaching mixed with spiritual fervency intoxicated a multitude of listeners. People experienced inner heartfelt promptings for spiritual renewal and more edifying worship that was grossly lacking in the established churches. So effective was the ministry of Hochmann in converting people and establishing fellow missionaries that the Elector (ruler) of the Palatinate ordered their imprisonment without trial. As the Pietist leaders continuously fled from town to town, often narrowly escaping the authorities, their message effectively spread to a greater mass of people. The ruthlessness of the government in suppressing Pietism eventually resulted in a large Departure of the Electors own citizenry.

Alexander Mack Of Schriesheim
Alexander Mack
(assumed likeness)

Letter One of these subjects was Alexander Mack, the son of a German miller, born in the town of Schriesheim in 1679. This town was in the heart of the Palatinate and experienced the earliest influence of Separatist activity. Records in the local Reformed Church indicate that he was baptized as an infant on July 27, 1679, and later married Anna Margaret Kling on January 18, 1701. Over the years, they had three sons and two daughters: Alexander, John, John Valentine, Christina, and Anna Maria. Mack's father was an elder in the Reformed Church and briefly served as mayor of Schriesheim in 1690 and 1696; and when he died in 1706, the mill was bequeathed to Alexander and his brother John Philip. Alexander was greatly influenced by Pietism and extended a personal invitation to Hochmann to come and minister in Schriesheim, who then used Mack's property for Pietist meetings. Although inconclusive, there is convincing evidence from some historians that Alexander even accompanied Hochmann on several preaching tours. When Pietist activity in Schriesheim became intolerable for local authorities, Hochmann was sentenced to hard labor, the Klings were excommunicated (Mack's in-laws), Alexander and Anna Mack sought refuge at Schwarzenau in the district of Wittgenstein. Many other Palatinates with Pietist leanings were also expelled. Feeling secure under the protection of County Henrich Albrecht, Mack sold the remainder of his property in the spring of the following year (1707), and ministered to the needs of other refugees, as well as pay the legal fines of close friends. In the summer of 1708, he contemplated organizing a small community of believers, who would attempt to implement Pietist experiential faith by communal practice, involving believer's baptism, sharing all goods as common, confession of sins, and diligently spending vast amounts of time in prayer in order to advance personal holiness. One mentionable difference existed between Mack and Hochman. The latter being one of the more extreme Separatists in Pietism, he did not believe that an organized church was necessary. Hochmann considered the pure Church to be spiritual, without formal clergy, ritual, the need of sacraments or buildings, whereas Mack held to the former. Living in the company of a few other, like-minded believers they began to evaluate their mutual circumstance, particularly their unbaptized state (having repudiated infant baptism). If spiritual progress was to be made, it would be necessary to resolve these two hindrances through organizing and baptizing themselves.

Schwarzenau & Eder River

Mack frequently sought advice from his radical Pietist friend and mentor Ernest Hochmann who was schooled not only in the power of oratory, but also as frequent recipient of the wrath of the authorities. As Mack continued to dream of his own "separatist-communal experiment," he penned a letter seeking advice, guidance, and prayer from Hochmann, who was then imprisoned at Nurnberg. In Hochmann's reply dated July 24, 1708, he guided the young visionary to ponder carefully the words of Jesus in Luke 14:28 - "count the cost!" A few months later, the twenty-nine year old idealist and seven others went to the Eder River at Schwarzenau and proceeded to inaugurate their group through trine immersion baptism according to their interpretation of Matthew 28:19. Alexander Mack, Jr. later recalled that one person baptized his father who in turn baptized the others. They were five men and three women; Alexander Mack, George Grebi, Lucas Vetter, Andrew Boni, John Kipping, Joanna Kipping (wife of John), Joanna Noethiger, and Anna Mack (wife of Alexander). First known as the Schwarzenau Täufer (German, baptists), they would later adopt the separatist, anabaptist title of German Baptist Brethren. In the quietude of the district of Wittgenstein, Alexander Mack would attempt to institute a spiritual experiment in communal living, vigorously patterned after the New Testament account of early believers. His inherited wealth largely contributed to their ability to live under common ownership, a noteworthy state that later dissolved in almost direct correlation to the expenditure of the wealth. Enjoying a brief respite from persecution, Mack would galvanize his social ideas and theology to practical living, and his writings reflected and defended the Anabaptist Pietist heritage. He traveled extensively into the surrounding country which resulted in small congregations at Eppstein, Frankenthal, and Marienborn. The early Brethren message was evangelistic and centered on the basic New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ.

Marienborn To Krefeld
Alexander Mack Seal
Alexander Mack Seal (colors added)

Letter In the neighboring district of Marienborn, Count Ernest Casimer also extended religious protection, especially to craftsmen with the hope of rebuilding his war-torn district. Brethren settled there (modern town of Büdingen) and Mack frequently ministered to them until 1712. After baptizing several adults into the faith, he was expelled by the Count who had not anticipated that protection would later result in illegal adult baptisms. On a summer day in 1711, the Brethren publicly baptized several candidates near Düdelsheim in the Seeme Brook which enraged local church authorities who then appealed to Count Casimer over the immersions. In spite of the unrest, baptisms continued infrequently until 1714, when the Count enjoined the Brethren from their baptismal activities with a direct threat of expulsion, since he now regarded them as criminals and troublemakers. Compounding the situation was a parallel effect from the Inspirationists who also enjoyed sanctuary in Marienborn, and later emigrated to America where they founded the Amana colony in the state of Iowa. Moravian leader Count Zinzendorf also found temporary refuge here before leaving for America. Two notable Brethren personages came from the Marienborn district: John Naas, born 1669 in Nordheim, a tall robust figure who assumed the leadership, and Peter Becker, born 1687 in Dudelsheim, who later brought the first group of Brethren to America. When pressure from authorities in Marienborn later increased, Naas moved the peace desiring Brethren in 1715 from Marienborn to the Rhine River city of Krefeld, which was under the King of Prussia and a haven for Mennonites.

The city of Krefeld was an industrial textile center, which first exposed the more agriculturally minded Brethren to the influence of urban industrialism. Three experiences at Krefeld would prove to be internally damaging, and eventually lead to the first Brethren migration to America. John Naas, the gentle giant, was pastor, assisted by Christian Libe who may be described in the very least as temperamental, a strident evangelist who had been imprisoned (1714) for two years in the galleys for preaching in Switzerland. The first incident occured when six members of the Reformed Church were baptized through immersion near Solingen, and imprisoned by the authorities in the imposing fortress at Juelich (1717). Their four year ordeal of suffering remains a centerpiece of Brethren history. The second ordeal arose through fraternization between Brethren and Mennonites which spawned an inter-faith marriage of a Brethren man named Hacker with a Mennonite women. This caused minor friction for both sides who typically did not marry outside of their own faith. Naas tried to moderate the situation with patience by stipulating that Hacker be suspended from communion, but Libe consorting with others placed him under the Ban (near excommunication). His extremist approach dispirited the congregation, resulting in the departure of several families. Naas and Libe quarreling openly further weakened the congregation. In the hope of defusing the tense situation, Naas temporarily left, allowing Libe to supervise an unresponsive congregation. Libe was a gifted and powerful speaker, but his skill at oratory was not enough to mend the brokenness; although unwittingly, Libe's fame of oratory would later contribute to the organization of the first Brethren congregation in American. In the emotional wake of bitterness, Peter Becker tried to assuage the injured with the patient healing of love. When the matter lacked significant resolution, he along with about (forty families - Brumbaugh, Malott) (twenty families - Durnbaugh, Bittinger), sailed for Pennsylvania where Mennonites from Krefeld, at the invitation of William Penn in the 1680s, had established a settlement called Germantown (northwest of Philadelphia). Finally, the Brethren would attain their elusive haven from persecution, and here they would flourish.

The membership of the church at Schwarzenau enlarged until about 1720 when renewed dangers of persecution from authorities forced Mack to take his party to a village in northeast Holland called Surhuisterveen. Nine years later Mack would again seek protection from religious intolerance by taking his Wittgenstein refugees to Pennsylvania where the guarantee of religious expression seemed certain at last. Embarking on the Allen from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, they would arrive in Philadelphia on September 11, 1729. Here they reunited friendships with the Marienborn/Krefeld Brethren who had formally organized themselves on Christmas Day in 1723, with public baptisms in the nearby Wissahickon Creek. John Naas would eventually join them in 1733, and generally bring to a close the European period of the German Baptist Brethren.

The Brethren were conceived at a time when German Enlightenment accented reason and Pietism stressed emotional involvement. As the Brethren gradually moved from Europe to America they began to borrow from several other evangelical traditions. Their sermons and expository style of preaching was more like the Methodists (British version of Pietism) and their prayer meetings were more like German Pietists. The Brethren emphasis upon experience is also Congregational, and the stress on votive membership reflects modern Baptists.

Continue with the Brethren story ...
Brethren Migrate to America & Congregational Expansion

Where is the village of Schwarzenau?

The Church of the Brethren had its origin in this tiny village located on the Eder River when eight people were baptized in 1708 to form a new community of believers. It is located in the extreme eastern part of the modern German state of North Rhine / Westphalia, and the district of Siegen. Although the town of Schwarzenau ("black-meadow") is not found on most travel maps, it can be located by identifying the curvature of the Eder river where a unique double curve in the stream easily resembles the letter "M" with the village situated on the north-east side of the second (eastern) curve.

Global Positioning System (GPS): Latitude 51º 01'28.02 North / Longitude: 8º 28'24.73 East
Schwarzenau & Eder River (1974)


““For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and ‘counteth the cost’
whether he have sufficient to finish it?”
Luke 14:28

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