Founded in 1708 by Alexander Mack and seven others in Schwarzenau/Eder, Germany, as an Anabaptist/pietist sect, by 1719 persecution had forced a group to immigrate to Pennsylvania under the leadership of Peter Becker. It was not until 1729 that Mack arrived in Germantown, along with a group he had led to Holland in 1720, and assumed leadership of the Brethren in America. By the late eighteenth century the Brethren had followed the westward movement and settled in eastern Missouri, and by the mid-nineteenth century they could be found on the Great Plains and West Coast. By 1948 the Brethren had become an ecumenically oriented Free Church known for its service outreach and peace emphasis. In 1986 the Church of the Brethren had about 170,000 adult members in over 1,000 congregations in the U.S., with a rapidly growing daughter church in Nigeria (c. 40,000 members) created by missions efforts. Congregations in other former mission areas have joined united churches in India, China and Ecuador.

Called an historic Peace Church since 1935, Brethren organized in 1941 a service committee that developed worldwide activity in relief and rehabilitation programs. Among the Brethren-initiated projects that found interdenominational support were the Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP), Heifer Project International and International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE).

Brethren resist creedal statements but accept basic Protestant doctrines. In patterning church life after the early Christians, they practice several ordinances. These include: believer’s baptism by threefold immersion (earning them the nickname “Dunkers”); the love feast (following Jn 13), incorporating a time of examination, foot washing, a fellowship meal and partaking of bread and cup; affirmation instead of oathtaking; and the laying on of hands. Brethren teach a simple, nonconforming way of life; until 1911 the church required a prescribed plain dress.

Brethren polity combines congregational and presbyterian elements, with an authoritative annual conference. Staff workers located at Elgin, Illinois, and New Windsor, Maryland, carry out church programs under the direction of an elected General Board. The denomination was a charter member of the National Council of Churches of Christ in 1950 (having joined the Federal Council in 1941) and of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

See also Free Church Tradition in America.

Bibliography. D. F. Durnbaugh, ed., The Brethren Encyclopedia (1983); D. F. Durnbaugh, The Brethren in Colonial America (1967); D. F. Durnbaugh, ed., Church of the Brethren: Yesterday and Today (1971); R. E. Sappington, Brethren Social Policy, 1908–1958 (1961).

D. F. Durnbaugh

Fuente: Dictionary of Christianity in America