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Brethren Consciousness

The eighteenth-century spiritual ferment in continental Europe that birthed the Brethren offers a powerful corrective to theological systems and methods that bracket religious experience away from intellectual assent. Brethren theology is a theological way of knowing (also called “epistemology”) that encompasses experience as a way to recognize and experience the transcendent. Michael Barnes, in his four-part evolution of religious consciousness entitled, In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction To The Story Of Human Religiousness (1990), offers helpful descriptions of religious experience/consciousness at four stages to steward such an epistemological posture. Barnes writes that each of these stages is present in the development of a particular religious community’s understanding of itself (what he calls “religious consciousness”).

Barnes’ stages include primitive where there is no individuality but only the tribe or community. The archaic stage with the emergence of basic structures and systems. Historic with the development of absolute truth and/or identity over and against other truth and identity claims, and, finally, modern (or postmodern) whereby a black and white ideology or theology gives way to paradox and mysticism in pursuit of the common good. These stages (and subsequent typologies) help to describe Brethren faith progression.

Seventeenth-century Brethren founder Alexander Mack (1679-1735) represents Brethren faith at the primitive stage. His eighteenth-century son, Alexander Mack Jr. (1712-1803) represents the archaic stage of Brethren faith development. Nineteenth-century systematic thinker, Peter Nead (1796-1877), embodies the historic stage of Brethren thought. Finally, J. Allen Miller (1866-1935), exhibits the modern stage of Brethren life. These stages are captured in the multi-facted understanding of continual conversion that is central to Brethren theology.


In Alexander Mack’s writings we find the first defense of Brethren faith, an amalgamation of Mennonite (Anabaptist) ecclesiology with a Radical Pietist missiology. In his book, Basic Questions (1713), Mack answers 40 questions submitted by Eberhard Louis Gruber, one of the main leaders of the Inspirationists. The writings, written in a simple question and answer format, detail the first response to “outsiders” presented by Alexander Mack.

His writings offer a subtle critique of other modes of baptism and reveal the mentality of the early Brethren—a group of believers separating from stated norms because of a strict adherence to their reading of the New Testament. When this group of Brethren baptize one another it will not be documented who was baptized first to respect the equality of all present. As Barnes writes, “Primitive life is usually egalitarian, because there are no hereditary or official rulers in primitive societies” (19). An egalitarian and underdeveloped black and white theology reveals a more primitive expression of Brethren life. Brethren theology is about the community and not the individual (ironic given their Pietist influence).  


The archaic stage of Brethren thought and governance comes in the adjustments needed for colonial America. The Brethren, having recently emigrated from Krefeld, Germany, found themselves with Mennonite and Quaker groups in the village of Germantown (outside present day Philadelphia). The central thinker of this period was Alexander Mack Jr. (or Sander Mack). Sander Mack explores Brethren theology through poetry. His poetry speaks to the separation from the world, the pilgrimage of faith, and hope. As aliens in a foreign land, one that is often hostile to the ways of Christ, Mack remained steadfast in his hope. Throughout his poetry he references Pietist understandings of Christ who is the “Lamb of God,” “the Bridegroom,” and the “Good and Faithful Shepherd” whose teachings are “sweet as sugar” and “sweeter than honey” and ties such themes into the Brethren immigration narrative. The Brethren are in a new world but still desire to be a separate people. “Archaic cultures,” Barnes writes, “have a hierarchy of power among people, from peasant to landlords and military leaders to kings” (20). Brethren in the new world with their need for adjusting the faith and connecting with religious “others” exhibits an archaic stage of development. The tension of autonomy and communal identity, intrinsic to the archaic shift, reflect Brethren life of this period.


The historic stage of Brethren development comes with the nineteenth century Brethren thinker Peter Nead. Nead’s central concern is the ethnic identity and faithfulness of Brethren life as Brethren move from being a “German people” in a foreign land to ethnic Americans. During Nead’s lifetime this identity was tested by the response of the Brethren to the Civil War. What role did government have and what was the relationship of the church to such an institution? In regards to the church’s involvement in the government, Nead articulates what will become a traditional Brethren view on church and world:

To be strictly honest in all [the church’s] dealings with all men: to speak the truth upon all occasions: to sue no person at law: not to resist evil, but to suffer: to do unto all men, as we would wish them to do unto us : love our enemies, consequently the members do not learn to muster nor go to war: to pay tribute to whom tribute is due. In testimony to the above, Alexander Mack writes, ‘Instructions of this kind Paul has given to the faithful…that every soul shall be subject for the Lord’s sake, to human regulations, made by their rulers; and render them tribute, custom, fear, and honor: for all magistrates are ordained by God to punish evildoers and defend the good in such manner as to correspond with the will of God’ … It was in the year 1729, that a number of the society, or church of Christ, professing the above principles, emigrated from different parts of Germany and Holland, to North America, where persecuted virtue found an asylum under the government of William Penn. The emigrants settled first at Germantown, a small village about six miles north of Philadelphia, where they soon formed themselves into a society which through the kind providence of God, continues unto this day.

-Peter Nead, Theological Writings on Various Subjects (1850)

Nead provides an exposition of the history of the Brethren in conversation with a developing “proper” Brethren exegesis of Romans 13:1-7. Such systematic thinking exhibits a more concrete orthodoxy of Brethren thinking. Describing the historic stage of religious consciousness, Barnes writes, “Religion [forms] a culture…a person [can] belong to without inner division. Yet the perfectionism of historic religion contains within itself the elements of separation from society” (122). A separation and systematic presentation of theology reveals a historic development in the life of the Brethren. Like Barnes’ research, this will be an axial moment for the Brethren as the latter half of the nineteenth century will witness a split between the historic (Old Order) and modern (Progressives) stages of Brethrenism. The tension of autonomy and corporate identity, started in the archaic stage, will reach a threshold with this event.


Brethren thinker J. Allen Miller is a synthesis of all prior Brethren expressions. Miller holds the fundamentalist and liberal factions of the Brethren denomination together during the first part of the twentieth century. In fact, present day Brethren live in the shadow cast by this pivotal theologian. Miller exhibits what Brethren will call the “conservative-progressive dialectic” arguing that there is truth in fundamentalism and liberalism and the church must chart a unique third way between the two poles. “Modern religion,” Barnes argues, “will certainly not eliminate or replace primitive, archaic, or historic thought. What it will do is exert a continuing influence on the historic syntheses by relativizing them” (309). Miller desires to hold all these strands of religious consciousness together. Miller’s thought shows a synthesis, as Barnes asserts, of the former three stages. Each stage deposited into the next. This becomes the secret to Miller’s profound impact. As he was known to declare to his classes, “After all, whether conservative or liberal, the best way is to seek to do the right thing by remaining loyal to our original deposit of faith.” Conversion and education are wed together in Miller’s synthesis as a tradition was continually re-contextualized to a changing American landscape.


If modern religious consciousness is a continual development of the prior three (primitive, archaic, historic), then how do Brethren understand themselves in a “modern” way and remain faithful to the gospel truths that orient our witness? Even further, how do we respond to a post-modern religious consciousness? Some will respond with a cry for a more primitive faith fearing that cultural engagement distorts our witness. [In some ways, this fear has some validity.] Others will want to cast off one religious consciousness (read “Brethren”) for another. [This is a possibility but the development of religious consciousness will occur in another camp as well.] Still others will attempt to rally the religious body around shared values and practices. [Brethren have taken this route, of which I have been a proponent, but it can truncate the witness down to a legalistic understanding of said values and practices.]

Both modern and postmodern people, ironically, make commitments when involving religious consciousness. Moderns commit to a propositional belief system while postmoderns commit to values and practices (revealing they are not as “postmodern” as they claim). Barnes recommends a communal evaluation by religious groups that recognizes that at any point in time people are at various stages of consciousness. I think these evaluative points might be helpful for Brethren. He writes:

  1. The evaluation must be conducted through public argumentation, so that others have a chance to identify any hidden presuppositions or values at work in the evaluation;
  2. Anyone should have the opportunity to challenge the presuppositions and values and ask that they be justified in terms that people in general would find reasonable;
  3. The evaluation is open-ended, always subject to further challenge; and
  4. In the case of truth-claims made about the religion or by the religion [in our case denomination], the criteria of “fit” with the evidence are to be used. (334)

Rather than calcifying the tradition (or consciousness) in history, values, or practices, communal evaluation keeps the tradition fresh and ever evolving (in the best sense of the term). Healthy and critical evaluation pulls primitive, archaic, and historic forward all while grounding modern (and postmodern) consciousness in the essentials of the tradition. While the Brethren claim “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible,” it is the engagement of that Bible with the modern world, with one another, and with the God revealed through it that makes this evaluative task all the more necessary.

To each of the stages of Brethrendom (I invited that term), I would ask the following questions regarding the role of the Bible:

  1. Primitive: where do you have doubt or confusion when reading the Bible? How might God meet you in that place?
  2. Archaic: who is a friend from another tradition, religion, or no religion that you have in your life? How do they read the Bible differently than you?
  3. Historic: where do you find disagreement with the larger Brethren in areas of doctrine or polity? How has your reading of the Bible informed such disagreement? What was the lens through which you read the Bible differently from the Brethren?
  4. Modern: what is “Brethren” absent an agreed upon credal standard? What does a religious witness look like absent such a creed? [I’m not advocating a creed but, merely, attempting to analyze the lens through which we understand ourselves, church, Bible, and God.]
  5. Postmodern: who determines “shared” values and practices? How would you define the terms “shared,” “values,” and “practices?”

In the end, I return to the great quote by Jaroslov Pelikan in closing:

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

5 comments on “Brethren Consciousness

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