Who Were the German Baptist Brethren?

The members of the German Baptist religious sect were known by their distinctive custom of baptism: full-body immersion by dunking (from tunken in German, to dip) three times forward while kneeling in flowing water  after a personal confession of faith, and often in full view of curious onlookers. Colonists consistently referred to this religious body as Dunkers, Dunkards, or Tunkards because of the peculiar physical act of baptism. Even the closest academic study of them done in the eighteenth century gave this unflattering description of them:

“They are called Tunkers in derision which is as much as to say Sops, from Tunken to put a morsel into sauce; but as the term signifies Dippers they may rest content with the nick-name, since it is the fate of Baptists in all countries to bear some cross or other. They are also called Tumblers, from the manner in which they perform baptism, which is by putting the party’s head forward under the water (while kneeling) so as to resemble the motion of the body in the action of tumbling.”[1]

Brethren were well known in this area, whether others thought of them as “Brethren” or by the more popular name ‘Dunkers’ is not so well known, as the colloquial name caught the public imagination and became another cross the Brethren had to bear. Elizabeth Drinker, a Philadelphia Quaker who kept a diary from 1758-1807 wrote a second-hand report of a Brethren baptism in Germantown as she temporarily resided there during the virulent yellow fever epidemic in 1793: “Seven persons Men and Women were this morning Baptiz’d or dip’d in a Creek about 1-½ miles from this place, they are of the Society of Dunkers, they … kneel in the water and are dip’d with their faces downwards as I am inform’d, great numbers went to see the performance.”.[2]

Drinker conveys accurately the sense of entertainment that non-Brethren, even a fellow sectarian, often expressed at viewing the physical manifestation of the Brethren ritual induction into the congregation. 

Throughout this work, these members will be referred to as Brethren, as they called each other and their community though if others have referred to them by different terms, this will be reflected accurately in the quotes used throughout this study. Although they shared much history and many religious practices with their fellow Anabaptists, the Mennonites, Brethren strongly disagreed with them over baptism. To Brethren, the Mennonite practice of merely pouring water to baptize was clearly wrong and, they believed, an insidiously evil thing to preach. 

The German Baptist sect had been formed in 1708 in the little village of Schwarzenau, Wittgenstein, Germany, by their first elder, Alexander Mack (b. 1679 Germany-d. 1735 Pennsylvania) who along with Peter Becker (b.? Germany- d. 1758, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania) and six followers practiced in the Pietist tradition then prevalent. They sought a personal experience with Christ rather than deep study of theology or participation in liturgy. They prayed together to make themselves more like Jesus in their everyday lives, and re-baptized each other as adults by total immersion in the flowing water of the Eder river, just as Jesus had done near Jordan.  The simple act of baptizing adults who had already been baptized as infants was illegal during this time in the Germanic lands. Taking on the name in Germany of Neue Täufer or new Baptists, to distinguish themselves from the Mennonites, also called Baptists, these early Brethren trod a very risky path.[3]

To put it simply, the Brethren were non-creedal, non-coercive, non-swearing, non-resistant, and non-conformist. They relied solely on the Bible, using the New Testament stories of Jesus’ teachings as their guide. Their ‘reform’ of previous practice lay in their methods of practice, not in new theology.  These individuals sought peace; they did not wish people to go against their consciences, and typically they did not serve in any public office because of the use of coercion or force in these positions. Brethren wanted above anything else for a person to follow his or her conscience. 

Refusing to take oaths, German Baptists believed that to swear and oath implied that one might not be truthful when not taking an oath. The Bible stipulated that one should not swear; therefore, they used the word of truth to bond them. Their word, they said, was their bond. They were willing to affirm by answering ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’[4]

One can classify these German Baptists as “nonresistants,” what we know today as pacifists. They used a metaphor with sheep and wolves to describe this complex ideology, and Brethren were the sheep.  Sheep have no defense or group mechanisms, no capacity to fight back or resist. Thus, when wolves attack sheep, they are just killed; they have no individual mechanism or reaction for fighting off an attacking wolf. This belief manifested itself in Brethren as a strongly felt, but meek pacifism; they saw war as anti-Christian. For Brethren “only spiritual weapons were thought to be consistent with Christian discipleship.”[5] Why did these sects believe so strongly in this pacifism, or, as they called it, this “nonresistance to evil”? What was the animating force or idea behind their belief? Following the example of Christ’s New Testament message answers this important question. The Gospel of St. Matthew, 5: 38-42 (KJV), read: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”[6]

On the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke, 23:24 KJV).  There was never a finger lifted in resistance. When Indians attacked a Brethren settlement on the frontier, resulting in the scalping of women and children, the men stood and reportedly uttered, “God’s will be done.” (“Gottes will sei getan” in German)They did not put up any resistance. They modeled Christ’s behavior that demonstrated one should respond with love, not with aggression. In Romans, they found their creed:  “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans, 12:21 KJV).

The Brethren were non-conformist in that they sought separation from “the world” and “worldly” affairs like politics and other matters; such matters would only distract them from their concentration on the next world, where life everlasting awaited them through the intercession of their savior, Jesus Christ. They identified their lives most often with those of pilgrims; they just passed through this miserable world full of unimportant distractions.[7]

One extract from a Brumbaugh family Bible that a Brethren itinerant minister owned, made these revealing comments when recording his or her children’s birthdays:

             1783 …My daughter Mary was born into this burdensome world.

             1787 …My daughter Catharine was born into this world of misery.

             1792 …My son Jacob was born into this gloomy and troublesome world. [8]

Even at the birth of a child, which one associates with happiness today, brought Brethren, and people in the eighteenth century generally, stress and gloom.[9] Their general circumstances on the frontier included high infant mortality, frequent wars, clashes with worldly people and warlike situations, harsh frontier privation, and a sense that this world was just a woeful test to pass through as pilgrims in order to get to the next, glorious world.

[1] Morgan Edwards, Materials Towards a History of the American Baptists (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank and Isaac Collins, 1770), vol. 1: 64.

[2] 17 October 1793, Elizabeth Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, Elizabeth Foreman Crane, ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 1: 519. Brethren Elder Alexander Mack, Jr. confirms the fact of the baptism of at least seven persons at the Brethren congregation that fall in his entry for 19 December 1793, when he states that for their congregational love feast in Germantown that day “Present were eight newly baptized persons.” Mack, Day Book, 121.

[3] M.G. Brumbaugh, Hist. G.B.B., 29-34. 

[4] The Holy Bible, New Testament, Matthew, 5:34 (KJV). 

[5] Peter Brock, Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 6. 

[6] The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version (Philadelphia: The Westminster Book Stores under License from William Collins, Sons and Company, 1949), (hereafter Bible, KJV) New Testament, [page] 7, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” 5:38-42. 

[7] It is interesting, ironic maybe, to note that in 1776, famed British historian Edward Gibbon published in 1776 the first of his six volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which argued that because Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, with life eternal with the Lord Jesus, this belief fostered indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the greater good of the Roman Empire and thereby contributing to its downfall.

[8] Ulrich Family Bible extract, Brumbaugh file, Pioneer Library of the Bedford County Historical Society. Record found in German Bible “published 1876” [sic] but inscribed “Samuel Ulrich, Bedford Co., Pennsylvania, Nov. 2, 1805” indicating likely a 1776 publishing date. Jacob Brumbaugh’s daughter, Mary, owned this Bible.

[9] See, for instance, Elaine Foreman Crane, ed., Introduction, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, xxxi, “new life was not always greeted [then, in the eighteenth century] with joy by parents (of any class).”

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