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Brethren Religious Consciousness Series: Primitive Stage

In an earlier blog, I made brief mention of Michael Barnes’ book, In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness (1990). Barnes offers helpful descriptions of religious experience/consciousness as part of a four-stage development (primitive, archaic, historic, and modern).[i] In this next series of blogs, I would like to expand on each of these stages in a Brethren context.

The primitive stage of consciousness contains little to no individuality but only the collective identity of the tribe or community. In the archaic stage, basic structures and systems emerge within the group. The historic stage witnesses the development of absolute truth and identity over and against other truth and identity claims as a systematic articulation of theological identity develops. Lastly, the modern stage transitions a black and white ideology/theology to one of paradox and mysticism in pursuit of the common good.


Primitive—Brethren in Europe

Alexander Mack Sr.’s writings serve as a primitive expression of Brethren faith as an amalgamation of Mennonite (Anabaptist) ecclesiology with a Radical Pietist missiology was symbolized by the central dialectical practice of immersion baptism. The Schwarzenau Brethren chose not to record the first to be baptized nor the baptizer so as to respect the equality of all present before the Lord. As Barnes writes, “Primitive life is usually egalitarian, because there are no hereditary or official rulers in primitive societies.”[ii] An egalitarian and underdeveloped theological system reveals a more primitive expression of Brethren life. Brethren writings of the period speak more to orthopraxy than orthodoxy.[iii] Further development of religious consciousness did not occur until Brethren emigrated to America. Persecution and constant movement did not provide the necessary space for reflection on faith and practice.

Religious pressure and economic necessities combined to make migration to North America essential. Two large groups left, in 1719 and 1729, as well as several smaller parties between and after those years. By 1750 the Brethren had been transplanted to America. Those who came to Germantown in 1719 did not formally organize a congregation until Christmas Day, 1723, when they held their first baptisms and inaugural love feast, led by Peter Becker.

Peter Becker (1687-1758) serves as a central connector of the European beginnings of the Brethren and their newfound home in America. Becker provided leadership to the first Brethren congregation in America—Germantown, Pennsylvania (outside present-day Philadelphia). Becker became interested in the Radical Pietist movement in Europe after growing frustration with the Reformed Church of his birth. With Mack Sr., he was attracted to the teachings of Hochmann von Hochenau. On May 15, 1714, he was baptized by the Brethren minister Johannes Naas in Dudelsheim. Becker’s oversight allowed not only for the formation of a congregation in the new world but also allowed it to flourish. It was Becker’s evangelistic efforts that led to the formation of a second (Coventry) and third (Conestoga) Brethren congregation in colonial Pennsylvania.

Becker worked as a weaver and eventually apprenticed a Radical Pietist named Conrad Beissel who quickly became a leader of the Conestoga congregation. Beissel’s Radical Pietist views, unchecked by the Brethren dialectical partner of Anabaptism, produced a division within the congregation in 1728. Finding the Anabaptist witness of the Brethren to be legalistic and oppressive to the Spirit, Beissel and his followers founded a communal society along the Cocalico Creek, a tributary of the Conestoga River in present day Lebanon and Lancaster counties of Pennsylvania. This society became known as the Ephrata Cloister, to which many Brethren were attracted. Ephrata championed unorthodox views that differed radically from the Brethren—including Sabbatarianism, celibacy, and monasticism. The central impulse of these views was the Radical Pietist slant that animated Beissel’s faith. Becker and Mack Sr. attempted to reconcile with Beissel but the Ephrata community could not be reconciled to the perceived legalism of the Brethren (nor the Anabaptist structure of their witness).

Throughout the eighteenth century the Germantown congregation continued to play a leading role in Brethren life. In 1729, Mack Sr. led about 120 Brethren to America.[iv] The leadership of Mack Sr., alongside capable leaders like Becker, Sander Mack and Christopher Sauer II enabled the evangelistic zeal of the Brethren to spread their faith quickly in America, with congregations founded in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas by 1770.[v] The Brethren became characterized by their practice of believer baptism by trine immersion and their observance of the Lord’s Supper with its three parts: feetwashing, love feast, and communion. Their worship services had lively preaching and singing. Their congregations were led by unpaid or free ministers elected by the local church. Brethren sought to live a devout and Christ-like style of life and to maintain their principles of nonconformity, nonresistance, and nonswearing.

The context of America will push the Brethren, known, often derisively, as “Dunkers,” to broaden their religious understanding as similar groups in the new world challenged the boundary lines of their identity and dissimilar groups challenged their understanding of identity that up to this point had been stitched together by sparse writings that often served to justify core practices.


[i] Unlike liberal theology in which “consciousness” denotes religion as a human phenomenon, this paper uses religious consciousness as the development of a particular denomination/sect’s thought over a period of several generations. Barnes’ research skews more toward the former rather than the latter. This paper uses Barnes’ research to illustrate the evolution of Brethren thought from eighteenth century Germany into twentieth/twenty-first century America. See Michael Barnes. In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness. Ellicott City, MD: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990.

[ii] Ibid, 19.

[iii] For early Brethren, distinct understandings of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, specifically, communicated a fresh orthodoxy that was embodied in the practices themselves. The specific mode of trine immersion baptism, therefore, was essential to communicate the centrality of both the New Testament and the early church for the Brethren. It is unfair to accuse early Brethren of holding an apathy or antipathy to orthodoxy. Yet if belief was not translated to changed behavior and discipleship, Brethren (then and now) held little use for such speculative theology.

[iv] Few Brethren remained in Europe. Those that did joined other Pietistic groups or the Mennonites. The Brethren had fully been transplanted to America by 1750.

[v] Sauer and his father, Christopher Sauer I, were known for their printing establishment that served the German speaking settlers in America. The Sauer Press published the three editions of the Sauer Bible, the first European language Bible printed in America, along with almanacs, books, magazines, and newspapers. The Sauers used a specific type face that was easier for German readers to read. Christopher Sauer II would suffer severely during the American Revolution when his press was confiscated and he was tortured for his unwillingness to support the revolutionary cause. Brethren of the period, by and large, did not support the revolutionary cause, believing they were to submit to the Crown according to the commands of Romans 13:1-7.

2 comments on “Brethren Religious Consciousness Series: Primitive Stage

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