The beliefs of the early Brethren
Willoughby, William George
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The Church of the Brethren, an American Protestant denomination of approximately 180,000 members, originated in Germany in 1708. From 1719 to 1733 the Brethren, except for a few, migrated to America. A number of historians have briefly summarized the beliefs of the first generation of the Brethren, but none has made an intensive study of them. The purpose of this dissertation is threefold: first, to determine the basic beliefs of the early Brethren by an examination of the religious milieu of the period and through an inductive study of evidential sources; second, to select criteria for the evaluation of these beliefs; and third, to carry out their evuluation. The method of the whole inquiry is synoptic reason. It is rational, rather than traditional or dogmatic. It is synoptic in that, so far as possible, all relevant facts are considered. The primary sources consulted include Rites and Ordinances and Ground-Searching questions, two pamphlets written in 1713 by Alexander Mack, the founder of the Church. Another is the Glaubensbekenntniss of 1702 by Ernst Christoph Hochmunn von Hochenau, which was widely circulated by the early Brethren, and can be accepted as fairly representing their views. Hochmann was a noted Pietist and close friend of Mack. Other primary sources are the Preface and Appendix to the 1774 edition of Alexander Mack's writings in which Alexander Mack, Jr., describes the founding of the denomination. The early Brethren can be described as Protestant Christians. Though antagonistic to theological formulations, the Brethren assumed the truth of the historic Christian creeds. Furthermore, the Brethren accepted the major achievements of the Reformation. The study also clearly reveals the profound influence of the Anabaptist traditions mediated to the Brethren through the Mennonites. In the Palatinate, where Mack and others of the early Brethren lived, there were a number of Mennonite congregations. In 1706 Mack and Hochmann visited these congregations, and became well acquainted with them. The outline of Mack's Rites and Ordinances is remarkably similar to the outline of the Mennonite Dordrecht Confession of 1632, printed in the Bloedigh Tooneel, an influential Mennonite book from which Mack quoted extensively. The most persuasive evidence of Anabaptist influence, however, is the close similarity of the early Brethren Church to the Mennonite Church in form and function. The inquiry further shows that the early Brethren were fundamentally Pietistic. They were familiar with the literature of German Pietism, and were sympathetic with its aims. Most, if not all, of the early Brethren had been participants in Pietistic devotional gatherings prior to their founding of a church. One aspect of Pietism was the movement known as Separatism. Those who considered the established Churches hopelessly corrupt, and who refused to give loyalty and sympathetic support to them, were called "Separatists." All eight of the original Brethren, and the large majority of the first generation, were Separatists before they became Brethren. From an examination of the primary sources, it can be confidently stated that the early Brethren believed, first, in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith as defined by the historic creeds. Second, the early Brethren believed trine immersion of adult believers to be the only valid mode of baptism. Clearly rejecting infant baptism, they insisted that the New Testament mode of baptism was immersion. From their study of ancient Church history they also came to the conclusion that a person should be immersed three times forward into "the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Third, they believed that obedience to the teachings of Jesus is necessary for salvation. As corollaries to this tenet, the Brethren refused to take the oath, or to go to war, and practiced the ceremony of feet-washing in connection with the Lord's Supper. Fourth, the early Brethren believed that the reality of religion is to be found in un inner experience of God's presence. Such an experience is cultivated through Bible study, prayer,mediation, and hymn singing. Fifth, they believed that religion, or salvation, is not a "once-for-all" attainment, but is, rather, a process of growth Believing this, they rejected creeds lest they prevent future generations from discovering new truths. Sixth , the Brethren believed that the Church should be a fellowship of redeemed Christians, and should be patterned after the New Testament Church. To keep their congregations pure, they practiced excommunicution and Meidung (avoidance). They celebrated the Agape two or more times a year. In this service they included the feet-washing, the meal, the Eucharist, and probably, the kiss of charity. Finally, the first generation of brethren believed in the ultimate restoration of all persons. This was strong meat, they felt, and should not be taught to people until they were firm in the faith, lest people take advantage of it by living in sin with the hope of redemption in the hereafter. In selecting criteria for evaluating these beliefs, the attempt was made to choose standards that would be reasonably acceptable. First, is the system of early Brethren beliefs internally consistent? Or are there contradictions, dilemmas, unresolved paradoxes? Second, are the beliefs of the early Brethren in harmony with the received knowledge of the physical hnd social sciences? Through the years, science has amassed a large fund of knowledge, and a religious faith that repudiates this fund discredits itself. Third, are their beliefs in harmony with empirical ethics? Or did the Brethren, perhaps, advocate behavior inconsistent with the highest principles of ethical theory? Fourth, it is in the spirit of this inquiry to ask whether the beliefs of the early Brethren accord with the highest religious values of ecumenical Christianity. Fifth, it is reasonable to criticize the beliefs of the early Brethren according to the central system of highest meanings and values of the contemporary Church of the Brethren. This central system is found by rationally critical selection from the resolutions of the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, its decisions of policy, and the official literature of the denomination. In evaluation, it can be stated that there is no glaring inconsistency in the "whole-pttttern" of early Brethren beliefs. None of the articles of faith logically contradict each other. The Brethren, it is true, did not develop this pattern "logically." It was forged in the realities of solitary and group religious experiences. But in the dialectics of critical discussions the inconsistent was recognized und either eliminated or resolved. It can also be affirmed that the system of early Brethren credenda does not violate any of the received knowledge of science. Since the early Brethren did not make any pronouncements in opposition to the discoveries and findings of science, science, in turn, can make no serious criticism of the major articles of faith of the early Brethren. It is true that Biblical scholars could find fault with their interpretations of the Bible, which were at times unreasonably literalistic or, occasionally, allegorical. Generally, though, their use of the Bible was fair, representing an honest and intelligent attempt to understand it. There is little in early Brethren credendu to prevent the realization of a very high ethic as defined by a philosophicbl science of ethics. The Brethren were charitable toward the poor, scrupulously honest in business, and morally above reproach. Some might claim that their reluctance to go to war represented a faulty social ethic, but this is a controverted point in social ethics at the present time. The early Brethren can be critcized for the following aspects of their faith; First, the Brethren tended to be narrowly sectarian. Mack and others insisted that the Brethren Church was the only true Church because it alone had the "New Testament form" of baptism. The highest values of the Church today would not accord with this teaching. The Church of the Brethren is now a full member of the National Council of Churches, and is active in many areas of inter-church cooperation. It was one of the leaders in interdenominational overseas relief following the Second World War. Second, the early Brethren put undue emphasis on the importance of a particulur mode of baptism. "Trine immersion" may be defended on functional grounds as symbolically expressing the Christian faith, but to insist that all other modes are invalid is to be disloyal to the highest values of ecumenical Christianity. Third, there was a tendency among the early Brethren to apply legalistically their tenet, "obedience to the teachings of Jesus." In so far as Mack and the others interpreted the teachings of Jesus as a code of precise rules, they were "legalistic.' But at their best, the early Brethren believed that true obedience is an inner experience of religious commitment. The criticisms here suggested should in no way detract from the honor that rightfully belongs to the early Brethren. That their beliefs are worthy of investigation over two centuries later is itself a tribute to the courageous and intelligent adventuring of the early Brethren.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University