Saturday, November 01, 2008

Faith Works 11-1-08
Jeff Gill

A Man Who Rippled the Waters

Last weekend I got to spend my time with members and leaders of the Church of the Brethren in the “Western Plains District,” which includes all of Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Colorado and New Mexico, and a mission on the Navajo Reservation.

With yesterday as “Reformation Day,” the anniversary of the nailing by Martin Luther of his 95 points for reforming the Church Catholic of his day in 1517, Lutherans are remembering their roots.

However, it was a movement called “Pietism” led by pastors like Phillip Spener and others that helped to create a number of other movements that we don’t always associate with the Lutheran end of the Protestant Reformation. John Wesley was deeply influenced by Spener’s writings in college at Oxford, and encountered Pietists at key moments in his faith journey that helped produce the Wesleyan/Methodist communion.

Pietism was behind a number of German, or “Deutsch” groups that came to William Penn’s colony in the New World. They were often called “Dutch” by the English speaking Quakers, but the Pennsylvania Dutch included not only the Anabaptist movement communions like Amish and Mennonite, but Pietists who were tagged with names like “German Baptist Brethren,” “United Brethren,” and other religious societies who withdrew into institutions like the Ephrata Cloister (a possible inspiration for the Shakers later) and the Harmonists, who ended up on the Ohio River founding New Harmony, Indiana.

Between Philadelphia and New Harmony there are a number of Dunkard Creeks and Dunkard Hollows, remnants of the folks who in large part became what is now known as the Church of the Brethren. They are still found in Ohio, but many moved west with the frontier, and their congregations still tend very strongly to rural settings, and are rare in cities.

As they migrated west, some of their number slid over into the E&R branch of what is now the United Church of Christ, and others into the old EUB, “Evangelical United Brethren,” which is now part of the United Methodist Church. Ohio still has quite a few Grace Brethren congregations, and Ashland University is one of the legacy institutions of a group named “The Brethren Church”, another branch of the Brethren stream.

However those rivulets meander, you can trace them all back to a place in Germany called Schwarzenau, and a miller’s son named Alexander Mack near the Eder River. The Schwarzenau Brethren arose in 1708 with baptisms of adults in the Eder by Alexander Mack; this break with the established church of their German state, and the official requirement for infant baptism, led to persecution and finally a migration that went first to the Netherlands (like the Pilgrims did before 1620), and then to America in 1719.

So 2008 is a 300th birthday for the Brethren movement, and my Church of the Brethren friends shared with me their pictures and stories from a summer visit to Scharzenau and the Eder River, where the Mack Mill and many other structures from their heritage are still standing.

I brought home from this gathering for the Little Guy a book, lavishly illustrated, called “Alexander Mack – A Man Who Rippled the Waters.” It tells the tale of Mack, the Brethren, their travels, and the hunger for freedom to worship and seek God as one’s conscience dictates. You don’t have to be related to the Scharzenau Brethren to enjoy the text or the paintings on each page . . . but odds are you are, in some way!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a sainted story at

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