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The Dunkards, or German Baptists, or Brethren, are of German origin, and trace their beginning back to Alexander Mack, of Schwartzenau, Germany. Early in the eighteenth century Mack and several others formed a habit of meeting together for the study of the New Testament. They were convinced that its doctrines and principles of church order were not being faithfully followed, either by the Lutheran or the Reformed Church. They therefore resolved to form a society of their own. Alexander Mack was chosen as their pastor. Persecution soon arose, and they were scattered. In 1719 most of them got together and came to the United States, settling in Pennsylvania, where their first church was organized about 1723. Like the Mennonites, they chose Germantown, where Christian Saur, one of their number, edited and printed the first German Bible in America, the unbound sheets of which were used by the British soldiers to litter their horses after the battle of Germantown, in the Revolutionary War. Later a number of these sheets were gathered up and several volumes were made of them, some of which are still in existence.

The Dunkards were an earnest and devout people, endeavoring to shape their lives according to the teachings of the New Testament, and they increased quite rapidly, drawing their converts, of course, from the German element. One of their most important principles is nonconformity to the world. They have sought, while living in the midst of the world, to preserve a simple, unostentatious life, ignoring the fashions and the customs of society in dress, in household furnishing, and in general mode of life. Through a long course of years this subject occupied more or less attention at every Annual Meeting. Bishops and heads of families were exhorted to be careful that they and their households set a good example in rejecting the "high fashions" of the times. As early as 1822 it was decided that with those who should continue to disregard the rule of nonconformity after the third admonition the Brethren should not break bread. In 1840 complaint was heard at the Annual Meeting of the increase of the “evil” of conformity to the world. Some Brethren, it was said, conform too much to the world in “ building, house-furniture, apparel, etc., and even in sleighing have bells upon their horses.” Five years later a solemn warning was given against “ fashionable dressing, building and ornamenting houses in the style of those high in the world,” as an “alarming and dangerous evil.” In 1846 the overseers of churches were instructed to see that members did not have paintings, carpets, fine furniture, or fine houses. Much attention was given at the various Annual Meetings to the fashions of women. In 1862 they were forbidden to wear“ hoops" and bonnets, and enjoined never to be without the cap, or prayer-covering, in church worship. Among the queries sent up in later years was one asking whether it was lawful for Brethren to establish or patronize high-schools. The reply was that Brethren should not mind high things but condescend to men of low estate.

The Brethren, however, continued to maintain a highschool, and have even established colleges. Despite their utmost care, innovations crept in gradually among them; carpets, musical instruments, gold watches, and other forbidden articles found their way gradually into use, and the cut and character of their garments were changed. Their discipline became insensibly relaxed, and the differences between them and their neighbors of other denominations were less striking. The result was that the more conservative, rallying against these innovations and insisting upon adherence to the old rules of discipline, found themselves strongly opposed by the more progressive element, and a division occurred about ten years ago.

As the outcome of this division there are three branches, known as the Conservative, the Progressive, and the Old Order Brethren. There is, besides, a fourth called the Seventh-Day Baptist, German. This was due to a secession from the Dunkards, led by Conrad Beissel, in 1728. Beissel and his disciples observed the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath, and adopted a communal life.

On the general doctrines of the evangelical faith the Brethren are in harmony with other Protestant churches, They interpret the Scriptures literally, and hold that unquestioning obedience should be given to both letter and spirit. They agree with the Baptists in holding that immersion is the only proper form of baptism, and that believers are the only proper subjects of the ordinance. They do not practice infant baptism. The ordinance is administered to candidates in a kneeling position. They are dipped thrice, once at the mention of each name of the Trinity in the baptismal formula. They are dipped forward instead of backward, contrary to the usual custom of immersion. One reason given for dipping forward is that when Christ died upon the cross his head fell forward on his breast. Immediately after the third immersion the administrator lays his hands upon the candidate's head and offers prayer.

Endeavoring to follow all the customs as well as the commandments of the New Testament, the Dunkards hold communion in the evening. It is preceded by the feast of love, or the agape of the Greeks. After partaking of a full meal, which is served at tables, the bread and wine of the sacrament are administered. In connection with this they extend the right hand of fellowship to one another and exchange the kiss of charity. This part of the service is observed separately by the sexes. Before the supper is eaten the ceremony of washing one another's feet is performed, the brethren observing it among themselves and the sisters doing likewise.

The ministry consists of bishops or elders, ministers, and deacons, all of whom are elected by the congregations. Deacons are advanced to be ministers, ministers are advanced to the second degree, and bishops or elders are elected from the list of ministers of the second degree. Ministers are chosen from the body of the brethren. In most cases they receive nothing for their services.

The polity of the Dunkards is partly Congregational and partly Presbyterian. Their chief ecclesiastical body is the Annual Meeting or Conference, whose decisions are considered binding upon district conferences and churches. Questions in doctrine and usage are sent from the district conferences to the Annual Meeting, which returns replies, generally with a Scriptural quotation to indicate the authority on which the replies are based. Each district conference sends to the Annual Meeting one bishop and one delegate. The bishops compose the Standing Committee of the conference. This Standing Committee provides for the organization of the meeting by choosing officers and bringing the business before the meeting in the proper shape for action; and also appoints committees in cases of difficulty in local churches. After the division changes were made in the manner of holding the Annual Meeting in each branch except the Old Order.

The Brethren hold not only to the principle of nonconformity but also to that of nonresistance, and earnestly protest against secret societies. Their ministers are not trained men, but pursue their ordinary business avocations during the week, preaching on Sundays and other occasions, as required. There are four branches, as follows:

1. Conservative.
2. Progressive.
3. Old Order.
4. Seventh-Day, German.


The Conservatives constitute the largest branch of the Dunkards. The division occurred, as already stated, as the result of a disagreement concerning the enforcement of discipline in matters of conformity. The Conservatives found themselves between two fires. On the one hand, there were quite a number of Brethren who demanded more liberty in the matter of the wearing of dress, and in other customs which had hitherto been frowned upon. On the other hand, there was a body of Brethren who insisted upon a rigorous enforcement of the prohibitions against the adoption of modern dress and modern customs.


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