IV. A Sect Called the Dunkers

Franklin ... mentions a sect,
the Dunkers,
who would not compose a written creed....1

If we are to use the Brethren as the control of our comparison, it would he well to know something about the sect.2

What follows, then, is a brief account of Brethren beginnings and history through the eighteenth century, designed to establish the acquaintance and introduce the men whose writings will be quoted in the study proper. As a convenience to the reader, each author's name is italicized as it appears for the first time.

The "pure" initial phase of Brethren sectarianism extended through two generations of leadership during most of the eighteenth century. It is with Brethren thought of this period--and only this period--that we propose to compare the thought of Kierkegaard. In one respect our control group does not conform to the standards of Classic Protestant Sectarianism upon which we insisted so strongly in the previous chapter; for the greater part of the century the sect was located in pluralistic America rather than state-church Europe. This forms no obstacle, however, for the group spent its formative years in the state-church environment and even in America lived in sufficient cultural and linguistic isolation to he constitutionally unaffected at least for the period of our study. The eighteenth century Brethren are as typically sectarian as any example that could be found.

The founding fathers did not choose to give the sect a name but let people refer to it as they would; thus, particularly in the earliest sources, quite a variety of nomenclature is found.3

In America, when a legal name became a necessity, German Baptist Brethren eventually was settled upon. The Church of the Brethren, the name of the main wing of the denomination today, is of twentieth century origin. However, the label by which the group was most widely known until quite recent times is "the Dunkers," a fun poking Anglicizing of the German word "to dip," referring, of course, to the practice of baptism by immersion. We customarily will use the "timeless" designation, the Brethren, although Dunkers also is an acceptable usage that no longer carries offensive connotations.

Alexander Mack (1679-1735) clearly was the leader of the original group of Brethren and thus, in a real sense, the founder of the church. In another sense, however, he lacked many of the marks that usually go with founders. At no time has there been any inclination for the church to bear his name either officially or popularly. His writings have never become symbolical or even authoritative. There is no evidence that his theological views dominated the group. And though he certainly was a respected and beloved leader, there is nothing to suggest that he "controlled" the church or that it felt particularly beholden to him.

Nevertheless, Mack's personal history is of significance, simply because it is so representative of the religious development of the founding Brethren as a group.4 He was born July 27, 1679, in Schriesheim, a village of the Rhenish Palatinate, some five miles north of the university town of Heidelberg. He was reared in the German Reformed Church, as were most of the early Brethren. His father was a prosperous mill owner (whose mill Alexander later inherited) who had been at times mayor and a member of both the town and church councils Alexander had uncles connected with the city and university administrations in Heidelberg; his father-in-law operated the village guesthouse; and his wife's grandfather had been a mayor of Heidelberg. Most of the early Brethren were of the propertied "burger" class rather than the peasantry; this sect was not "a church of the disinherited."

Growing up in Germany contemporaneously with Alexander Mack was the Pietist movement, centering in the Lutheran church of Spener and Francke but actually sweeping the entire religious scene.5 Out of Pietism proper developed a left wing, Radical Pietism.6 Whereas Pietism proper remained within the context of the state churches, the Radical Pietists left the church. Many went the way of "atomism";7 some formed "cults."

Radical Pietism--which, of course, was illegal in the state-church situation--"infiltrated" the Palatinate during the opening years of the eighteenth century, and the young Alexander Mack was one of those it captured. The particular separatist leader who influenced Mack and became his tutor was Ernst Christoph Hochmann von Hochenau (1670-1721), one of the more sane and level-headed of the Radicals. href="notes4.html#f8">8 When Mack's new affiliation became known it meant a break with his home, his church, his community--and the loss of his patrimony. In 1706 Mack and his young family fled Schriesheim as religious refugees, finally settling in Wittgenstein in the little village of Schwarzenau, a place where separatists were tolerated, where Hochmann had established something of a headquarters, and where others of his "disinherited" followers were tending to congregate. It was out of this group that the Brethren were to be organized.

At Schwarzenau, Mack and a handful of others soon became deeply dissatisfied with the lack of order and discipline that "spiritual religion" entailed, particularly the wild excesses of some of the cults in the area; they became convinced that the New Testament prescribed at least some rudiments of outward organization. It is clear that at least part of the influence pushing the Brethren-to-be in this direction was that of Reformation Anabaptism, mediated through the Mennonites who were active (or at least extant; their faith was much deteriorated from what it had been in the sixteenth century) within the realm of Mack's contacts. This growing interest in order and outward obedience tended to focus upon baptism as the symbol of disciplined, corporate Christian life and witness within a Gemeinde.

Thus, in 1708, in the River Eder at Schwarzenau, eight persons (three couples and two single men) were baptized by trine immersion.9 This act marked the founding of the sect and a clean, decisive break with separatistic Radical Pietism. Thus in two deliberate and well-demarcated moves--the first, their earlier, individual leave-takings from the established church; the second, their act of baptism--the Brethren had distinguished themselves from churchism on the right and from spiritual religion on the left and had taken their stand in sectarianism.9

In the process of comparing S.K. and the Brethren we will, of course, be examining and documenting the entire gamut of Brethren belief and practice. However, it would seem helpful in this introduction to include at least a brief summary of Brethren thought as a background against which to understand the chapters that follow.

Clearly the two major streams of historical influence that molded original Brethrenism were:

  1. Radical Pietism, particularly of Hochrnann's variety, and
  2. Anabaptism, mediated by contemporary Mennonites and the literature they possessed.10

We must not overlook the very real though more in-direct influences of the Calvinism in which most of the early Brethren had been reared and of the "churchly" Pietism that formed the background of the more radical strain; but these are secondary.

Yet Radical Pietism and Anabaptism are not simply two ingredients of a blend (in which case the analytical problem would be to determine the proportions of each); rather, they are the two poles of the dialectical tension out of which Brethrenism was created and within which its existence had to be maintained.

This dialectic can be charted and made graphic with the aid of a drawing, namely the personal emblem, or seal, of Alexander Mack, Jr., which in recent years has been popularized as something of a symbol for the church as a whole. Around this emblem we have constructed the accompanying chart.11 It is divided into three columns: a Brethren column sandwiched between the Anabaptist column and the Radical Pietist. Prominent in the Brethren column is the Mack seal, which is composed of three elements. The first, a cross, can represent the ecumenical Christian background which is held in common by the Brethren, Anabaptists, Radical Pietists, and indeed all the groups that make up the ecclesiological spectrum. In our effort to portray what is distinctive about Brethrenism (and sectarianism) it would be unfortunate were we to lose sight of its basic orientation toward the faith that is common to all Christians. Similarly, this cross could he taken as emblematic of the solid Protestant orthodoxy which the founding Brethren had inherited. All of the first generation were reared and educated in the state churches, and their defection from these did in no way mark a renunciation of all they had received there.11

The other two elements of the seal, the heart and the fruit, can be used to symbolize the distinctive emphases of Radical Pietism and Anabaptism respectively. The heart is most appropriate as a visual sign for the Radical Pietist ideology. Similarly, its motto could have been "Love Jesus"; its goal, the line from a hymn of English Pietism: "O, for a closer walk with God." The focus of faith is inner experience. The quotation from Mack's mentor, the Radical Pietist leader Hochmann, is an eloquent summary of the position which, above all, stressed the affective aspects of the Christian life.

On the opposite side of the chart, the fruit of the vine (Jn. 15:1-11) is a visual symbol of Anabaptism. The motto is: "Obey Jesus." The goal is restitution of the primitive Christian life and church order, the Ekklesia. And the focus of the ideology is upon outward obedience, or fruit bearing. Notice how the quotation from Menno revolves around "commandments," "a pious, penitent life as the scriptures teach," "power and works," and "fruit"--the effective aspects of the Christian life.

The Brethren symbol includes both the heart and the fruit. Take away either of these components and it is no longer Brethrenism that is symbolized. Let either gain the ascendancy and the picture of Brethrenism is correspondingly distorted.


Motto: "Obey Jesus."

Restitution of the elarly Christian life and church order. (Outward obedience.)

That which the Holy Spirit ordained for the faithful was written outwardly. All believers are united in it, for the Holy Spirit teaches them inwardly just as the Scriptures teach them outwardly.... Therefore, when a believing person whose inner ears are opened reads the Holy Scriptures outwardly, he will hear as the Lord Jesus intends his teaching to be understood. he hears that which the apostles want to express in their writings. He will also be impelled, through his inner hearing, to true obedience which makes him obey even in outward matters. Outwardly, he reads the Scriptures in faith and hears the inner word of life which gives him strength and power to follow Jesus.

(Alexander Mack)

Motto: "Love Jesus."

"O, for a closer walk with God." (inner experience.)

What does it profit to speak much of Christ and his word, if we do not believe in him, and refuse to obey his commandments? Again I say, awake and tear the accursed unbelief with its unrighteousness from your hearts, and commence a pious, penitent life as the Scriptures teach.... We are referring to a penitence posessed of power and works, such as John the Baptist taught saying: Bear fruit that befits repentance.

(Menno Simons)

To sum up, my feeling is briefly aimed therein that one must seek Jesus in one's heart as the only true foundation of salvation and the heart must be completely purified through the true living faith in Jesus. In case it is wished to perform in true singleness of heart also those outward actions which the first Christians did in addition ot these inner unmovable bases, I cannot consider this a mortal sin, if one only remains in impartial love toward those who cannot feel in their minds this necessity for thoese otuward acts. The freedom of Christ suffers neither force nor laws.

(E. C. Hochmann)

Some felt powerfully drawn to seek again the footsteps of the first Christians. They passionately yearned to avail themselves in faith of the ordained testimonies of Jesus Christ according to their right value. At the same time, it was emphatically opened to them in their hearts how necessary is obedience in faith if a soul wishes to be saved (the origin of the Church of the Brethren as described by Alexander Mack, Jr.).

Notice in the quotation from Mack's Rights and Ordinances how inner experience and outward obedience appear together. The two are not synthesized, nor is the combination an eclectic one; they are held in creative tension. And as shall appear subsequently, it is nothing short of amazing how often and in regard to how many different doctrines and practices eighteenth century Brethren writers followed this pattern, playing off inner experience against outward obedience and then outward obedience against inner experience.

Notice, also, the more subtle expression of the dialectic as it appears at the bottom of the chart in the younger Mack's description of how the church was founded, the earliest such written account. "Felt powerfully drawn," "passionately yearned," and "opened to them in their hearts" are all Radical Pietist phrases describing inner experience. And yet without exception these phrases are coupled to an Anabaptist emphasis on outward obedience: "the footsteps of the first Christians," "ordained testimonies of Jesus Christ," "obedience in faith."

When this dialectic operated as it should, the two emphases checked and balanced each other. When the Radical Pietist tendency would slide off into subjectivism, private inspiration, mysticism, enthusiasm, or vaporous spiritualism, it was pulled up short by the demand for concrete, outward obedience to an objective scriptural norm. Conversely, when the Anabaptist tendency would slide off into formalism, legalism, biblical literalism, or works-righteousness, it was checked by the reminder that faith is essentially a work of God in the heart of the individual believer, an intensely personal relationship rather than a legal one. Thus, within Brethrenism, Anabaptist influences disciplined Pietism at the same time that Pietist influences inspired Anabaptism.12

An understanding of this dialectic also makes it rather easy to explain what happened to the Brethren in the early nineteenth century when they exchanged their pure, primitive sectarianism for something less attractive. It is not easy to live in a dialectic relationship where nothing is fastened down once for all, not easy to keep one's balance in a dynamic situation which means that one continually must be regaining one's balance, and not easy to swim and keep swimming in seventy thousand fathoms of water (as S.K. would put it).

After a hundred years the Brethren got tired. Their recourse was not to abandon their previous beliefs and practices but to try to stabilize the situation which hitherto had been dialectical. Legalistic biblicism and microscopically detailed legislation by the Annual Meeting were used to guy into place the inherited ideology. But although this did have the effect of preserving the inheritance, it killed it in the process. Once the dialectic movement was halted, all the earlier dynamic of the faith was gone as well.

This phase could not last long among the Brethren, however; it was too contradictory to their original genius. By the middle of the century the tight, legalistic authoritarianism showed signs of collapse, and the next seventy-five years witnessed a great transformation in the direction of freedom and openness. But the modern Church of the Brethren that was born out of that reaction hardly was a resurgence of eighteenth century sectarianism. Although certain emphases and characteristics have persisted, today's church has taken its place as a common and respected member of the American "denominational" milieu, i.e. neither church nor sect in the classic sense.

At this point we resume our survey of the eighteenth century history.

Following the Schwarzenau baptism of 1708 the church proceeded to expand and grow at several points in western Germany-invariably at places where Radical Pietism already had been active. By and large the Brethren recruited their membership out of separatist ranks rather than directly out of the churches. But as the sect grew, so grew opposition from the radicals to the left and persecution from both church and state on the right. In 1719, motivated by a desire both for religious freedom and economic betterment, a group of about twenty Brethren families, under the leadership of Peter Becker (1687-1758), migrated from Krefeld to Pennsylvania. They settled in and around Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia which earlier had been settled by Mennonite emigrants from Krefeld.

The next year, 1720, the bulk of the Schwarzenau group, some forty families, under the leadership of Alexander Mack, emigrated to Surhuisterveen in Holland, another Mennonite settlement. They stayed until 1729 before moving once more to join their brethren in Pennsylvania. The emigration of a few individual families continued for several more years, and by the 1730's the church was transplanted to the New World, the European remnant being left to die out very shortly.

The Brethren always have been better at doing than at writing, but the literature necessary for an ideological study is particularly scant for the European period. The writings of Alexander Mack consists of two brief but crucial apologetic tracts directed against the separatists (1713 and 1715), a few hymns, letters, and notes. Mack died in 1735, after only six years in the New World, and there is virtually no material from this part of his career. Otherwise from Europe there come only a few hymns and letters, and a lengthy history of the imprisonment of the so-called Solingen Brethren, six members from Solingen who were cruelly incarcerated for almost four years as a consequence of having submitted to rebaptism. These are the literary remains of the European phase of Brethren origins.13

In America, after the first party of Brethren arrived with Peter Becker in 1719, there was a quiescent period of some four years while the immigrants were getting themselves located and established. Then in 1723-1724 came an awakening that initiated the spread of the church from the mother congregation at Germantown through the hinterlands of the Pennsylvania-German country. By the end of the century there were congregations (almost exclusively rural) through much of Pennsylvania (one in New Jersey) and south into Maryland, Virginia, and what is now West Virginia.

When Mack arrived in 1729, he took over the leadership of the church from Peter Becker, although Becker remained active and succeeded Mack again upon his death in 1735. However, in the very spread of the church had been planted the seeds of trouble, namely the Ephrata movement. Conrad Beissel (1690-1768) was a vagrant soul who during his youth in Germany had dallied with several of the Radical Pietist groups and who, throughout his career, painted a very representative picture of the more esoteric type of "spiritual religion" both separatist and cultic. Upon arriving in America he spent a year in Germantown as an apprentice in Peter Becker's weaving shop. He then went out into the Conestoga country to live as a hermit. It was there that Becker and the other Germantown Brethren met him while on their missionary journey of 1724. They made enough converts in the area to warrant the organization of a separate congregation. Beissel--who earlier had tried baptizing himself in private--surprisingly submitted himself to the Brethren for baptism and was chosen as minister of the group.

Within four short years Beissel had split his congregation, and in 1728 he underwent and performed upon his followers an "unbaptizing immersion" through which the Brethren were "given back" their baptism. Another four years saw the Beisselites founding the famous Ephrata community, a Protestant (or at least non-Catholic) monastery in which the seventh day was observed, celibacy enforced, habits worn, visions and ecstasy enjoyed, and Father Friedsam (he whom the Brethren had lately trusted as Brother Conrad) as much as worshiped.

During the late 1730's (after Mack's death) a "spiritual awakening" hit the Brethren full force, and Beissel reaped the harvest. A number of prominent Brethren went to Ephrata, and some leading families were split as wives or children went on their own. Two of Alexander Mack's sons went; one, we shall see, returned.

Of course, the Ephrata community should not be understood as a branch of the Brethren, nor should the two groups be confused, as often has happened. The Beisselites must be considered as a defection, their true significance being as a symbol of the tension and attraction that Radical Pietism still held for the Brethren who had broken out of it a generation before. When, in the pages that follow, we are developing the Brethren ideology we will not cite the writings of Beisselites or of those who were on the way to becoming such.

The "first generation" authors, then, include: Alexander Mack, whose works we have already described; and Peter Becker, who has left us only a hymn or two.14 John Naas (1670-1741), a prominent leader in Germany who did not come to America until 1733 and then settled in New Jersey and organized the congregation there, has also given us a few hymns plus an interesting account of his transatlantic crossing.14

Michael Frantz (1687-1748) was of the first-generation age group and European-born although an American convert. After Beissel wrecked the Conestoga congregation, the care of the remnant reverted to the nonresident Peter Becker. On a visit in 1734 he baptized Frantz and put him in charge of the congregation on a trial basis. Becker had learned caution about giving the Conestogans into the hands of a new convert; Frantz was advanced to full authority the next year. Frantz's first act in 1734 was to lay a fence rail on the floor of the barn in which the group met, invite those who accepted his leadership to stand on the right side of it with him and those who chose Beissel's leadership to stand on the left. He had a very successful ministry until his death in 1748. In 1770, the Sauer Press published a collection of his works, both poetry and prose, which is one of the very valuable sources of eighteenth century Brethren thought.

One name that most Brethren histories would include among the first-generation authors is here conspicuous by its absence; this is Christopher Sauer (I695-1758),15 founder of the famous printing establishment of Germantown, at least for a time the largest in America. Sauer may well have been the most influential German-American of the colonial period. The periodicals, pamphlets, and books from his press were certainly the major information media and opinion molders of the entire Pennsylvania-German community. As a contemporary and competitor of Ben Franklin, Sauer was also in many respects his counterpart among the Germans. And although it has been recognized that there were problems, historians have assumed that Sauer was a Dunker. There is not the slightest doubt but that he was intimately connected with the Brethren. Himself a separatist, he knew them in Schwarzenau and in fact bought Mack's house when the Brethren went to Holland. In this country Saner lived among the Brethren, attended their services, built his Germantown home so that it could be used as a Brethren meeting house, allowed, if not encouraged, his son to join the church when he was sixteen, the normal age for baptism. Nevertheless, recent scholarship has made it very problematical that Sauer himself ever submitted to baptism and thus attained full church membership; as much as can be said about him with certainty is that he was a Pietist separatist with some strong affinities (but also some separatistic criticisms) for the Brethren.16

Although no great risk would be run in using Sauer's works as a source of eighteenth century Brethren thought, and although these comparatively voluminous materials could prove quite useful, we have chosen the path of scholarly caution; Christopher Sauer will not be cited in the pages that follow.

In 1742 was held the sect's first Annual Meeting, a gathering that since has taken place virtually without interruption down to the present day. It was called to formulate the church's response to the "ecumenical movement" of Count Zinzendorf; the Brethren had cooperated in Zinzendorf's synods until they came to suspect that the Count's intention was to capture all the Pennsylvania-German sectaries for Moravianism.

During the eighteenth century the Annual Meeting was not constituted by formal representation from the congregations but simply by whatever Brethren--particularly ministers--could be in attendance. The ministry itself was not a very formal office. In the earliest period the leaders would admit no title but "teacher" (Lehrer); they were at pains to avoid anything smacking of churchly ecclesiasticism. In time a three-degree ministry was developed:

  1. deacons, who were hardly clerical figures at all, their responsibility being to care for the poor, visit the afflicted, etc.;
  2. exhorters, i.e. preachers; and
  3. elders (bishops), who carried the charge of a given congregation.

All of these were called by the congregation, out of the congregation, at the discretion of the congregation; none were salaried, none were formally educated, none were sacerdotally set apart.

And the Annual Meeting simply gave structure to the form of government that had been implicit from the beginning. Each congregation had great freedom in managing its own affairs, but the brotherhood-as a brotherhood, not as an overhead governing body-was the constituent entity of the church. Thus the congregations, as well as the individual members, were of a "family," which family stood by to act when help was called for (and that either "asked for" or "obviously necessary"). The minutes of the Annual Meetings will prove very valuable for our purposes, the only difficulty being that they are rather incomplete through the eighteenth century and almost nonexistent before the Revolutionary War.

As much of the history of the latter half of the century as we need consider will be forthcoming as we introduce the men whose writings form our source material. The first of the "second generation" authors was John Price (c. 1702-c. 1724), himself a minister and the son of a minister who was a member of Peter Becker's original immigrant party.17 A brief collection of Price's hymns was published in 1753.

The two towering figures of the second generation are Alexander Mack, Jr. (1712-1803), and Christopher Saner, Jr. (1721-1784). Mack Junior was the older of the two and the Brethren writer of the eighteenth century. Born in Schwarzenau, baptized in Holland, "prodigalized" at Ephrata, shortly before 1748 he rejected Beissel and returned to Germantown. There in 1748 he and Sauer Junior were given joint oversight of the congregation, in which they proceeded to labor as "brothers" beyond the call of even Brethren duty. Mack's steady and loving hand guided the church until his death in 1803, during which half-century it also produced several important tracts, a considerable amount of poetry,18 and an astonishing amount of correspondence--all of which will be used extensively in the pages that follow.18

One of Mack Junior's letters constitutes an invitation for a second attempt at epitomizing the Brethren, this time not in terms of their historical genesis but in search of the core principles that establish Brethrenism as an identifiable ideology. We are suggesting that this core is epistemology, the manner in which the Brethren went about attaining religious truth. Mack's letter is not a disquisition on epistemology--that would be the farthest thing from the Brethren mentality--but a concrete demonstration of the epistemology in action.

We present excerpts from the letter, interspersing within them a running commentary; our analysis and conclusions then follow. The document, an open letter to the brotherhood, first was printed as an appendix to the 1799 edition of his father's Rights and Ordinances published by Samuel Sauer.19 Whether this was a way of preserving what actually was an earlier letter, we do not know.

Inasmuch as we have understood that some brethren have difficulties with regard to feetwashing [Since its inception the church had interpreted Jn. 13:1-17 as a positive command and had practiced feetwashing as a part of its agape meal and communion service.], which Jesus has commanded to his disciples as if it had been performed between the supper and the breaking of bread. And because they think it not rightly done if the feet are washed before the meal, we felt moved in sincere love to give the reasons why we wash feet before the meal. At the same time, we would say that it is our belief and view that if a brother or any other person can in love and moderation instruct us according to the word of the Lord more fully and otherwise than is here pointed out, we would be ready to accept it not only in this point of feetwashing but in other matters as well. And we would not at all rest upon long usage but would let the word of the Lord be our only rule and guide.
[There follows a detailed analysis of the pertinent biblical materials. Major attention is given to Jn. 13:2, the words to the effect that "during supper" Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The conclusion is that in the original Greek the phrase translated "during supper" actually meant "after the supper was ready."]

Now these other evangelists say nothing at all about feet-washing, and on the other hand, John writes nothing about the institution of breaking bread. Therefore, scripture must be understood and looked upon with a spiritual eye of love and....

Such [i.e. dogmatism and disputation] ought not to he the manner and mind of the true lovers of wisdom. But true wisdom and her lovers must be minded as James teaches and says, "But the wisdom from above is in the first place pure; and then peace-loving, considerate, and open to reason (Jas. 3:17)."

But commonly it is the case that when a person receives some knowledge in selfishness and maintains it in self-assertiveness, he is not willing to be instructed. He will dispute in his own wisdom about the shell and drop the kernel. Therefore, dear brethren, let us all be wise; and especially concerning the feetwashing let us be careful how we are to conduct ourselves, in love, peace, and humility submitting to one another.

For Christ indeed has given no particular command about the time at which it should he performed, whether before or after the meal. But he has commanded that it should be done--and also that we should love one another. Christ has not said that his disciples should be known by their washing of feet or their breaking of bread, but he did say, 'Love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know that you are my disciples."...

Therefore, it is of the utmost necessity to maintain love and peace and to determine to pray to our dear Lord for still more wisdom. For I can say in truth and from experience that in the church's beginning we washed one another's feet after the meal and after the breaking of bread--yet accompanied by a blessing and an awakening of love. Afterward, we came to a better understanding and washed feet after the meal but before the breaking of bread--also with a blessing. Then, when Reitz published an edition of the New Testament in the original Greek and a brother came among us who understood that language, he pointed out to us how Jesus properly washed feet before the meal, and we in single-heartedness have done it ever since and on each occasion before the meal.... [How many times have churches deliberately revised their "liturgical practice" on the basis of new light that has come through biblical scholarship?]

"Yet I say this, if I should come into a congregation that was holding a love feast, and if the leaders of that congregation did not yet understand it otherwise but that the feetwashing should come after the meal, I would participate with them in great simplicity and love. Even so, I would lay my views before them according to the scriptures and wait in love and have patience with them until they could see it so likewise. [A dialectic is in operation here: The preservation of Gemeinschaft is of supreme value; however, uniformity, or unanimity, in the truth is also of high value. The pressure toward unanimity dare not be allowed to destroy Gemeinschaft, but neither dare the joys of Gemeinschaft be allowed to stifle the search for concord. And it is Mack's faith that if this dialectical balance be patiently maintained, eventually the Spirit can and will bring about unanimity--while in the process enhancing rather than destroying Gemeinschaft.]

Therefore, the scriptures call for spiritual eyes, mind, and understanding. Otherwise, through literalistic interpretation, if a person without true illumination were to try to hold fast to the letter in one place, he would have to disregard and act contrary to it in another place, and thus we would have nothing but trouble and division. [The very nature of the scriptures makes biblicism impractical; thus, literalism is as impossible as it is illegitimate, an obstruction to the Gemeinschaft--creating work of the Holy Spirit.]

Therefore, dear brethren, let us watch and be careful. And above all, preserve love, for then we will preserve light. [This sentence could well be taken as the motto of eighteenth century Brethrenism; the preservation of Gemeinschaft is the precondition for the reception and preservation of religious truth.] For the Spirit of Truth testifies in 1 Jn. 2:10, "Only the man who loves his brother dwells in light: there is nothing to make him stumble." Then our good God, who is love purely and impartially, can and will add by degrees whatever may be lacking in this or that knowledge of truth. [Much more important than having the truth is being in position to receive the truth; thus the life of the church always must be open-ended toward God.]

I now conclude, again begging all my brethren to read and consider this in love and with a calm spirit. Thus I am your weak brother,


The epistemology derived from this letter can be described in eleven basic principles. Most of these are documented by the letter itself; any that are not will become documented in the course of succeeding chapters.

  1. The ultimate source and standard of all Christian truth is the mind of Christ; he is the supreme revelation and indeed the very presence of God himself.
  2. The mind of Christ is given its authoritative definition and proclamation through the pages of the New Testament.
  3. The only reliable interpreter of the New Testament is the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that inspired its writing in the first place.
  4. The best qualified receptor for Spirit-revealed truth is the Christian Gemeinde.
  5. Such a Gemeinde must receive truth as a gift of God's grace rather than possess it in pride as something of its own achievement. The desire to push through to and grasp the truth too quickly destroys Gemeinschaft and thus cuts the group off from the source of truth.
  6. Such a Gemeinde, convinced that truth is a growing, living, personal thing and that no group ever has the "last word," must always be open and eager for new leading rather than complacent in knowledge already attained.
  7. Such a Gemeinde must come to the scriptures having previously made the commitment to obey and follow as literally and completely as possible whatever leading may be discovered therein.
  8. Such a Gemeinde, above all, must preserve the love for one another without which any religious insight, no matter how correct it may be technically, loses its truth.
  9. Such a Gemeinde will respect and maintain brotherhood with all sincere seekers of the truth, although at the same time they will see it as their Christian duty to point out what they feel to be the errors in the other's thinking.
  10. Such a Gemeinde will welcome all the help that scholarship and research can bring to the study of scripture, even though scholarship alone will not be recognized as the final authority.
  11. Such a Gemeinde will renounce all methods of literalistic, mechanical, dead-letter interpretation which overlook the dynamic, two-way aspect of revelation.

At this point we pick up and continue our historical survey with Mack Junior's closest friend and colleague. Sauer Junior (whose mother spent fourteen years at Ephrata) followed his father in the printing trade, operating the bindery and overseeing the production of English publications21 until Sauer Senior's death in 1758, at which time he took over the entire establishment. His proprietorship was just as outstanding and influential as his father's had been. Although it is not easy to identify the materials Sauer wrote from within those he published, we do have some articles, poetry, and correspondence from his pen.21

Sauer's experience during the Revolution is the most noteworthy instance of persecution against the Brethren but at the same time is representative of the pressures encountered by the church as a whole. The Brethren found themselves out of step with the Revolution on at least three counts. In the first place, and primarily, their nonresistant convictions prohibited them from joining the army or voluntarily participating in the war effort. In the second place, their objection to the swearing of oaths hampered them in declaring allegiance to the new government. In the third place, a condition for their having entered the country originally was a pledge of fealty to the British crown, and the Brethren were not ones easily to renounce their solemn word. Sauer labored under the additional handicap that his sons were active loyalists.

In 1778 Continental soldiers roused Sauer from his bed in the middle of the night, stripped him, mistreated him, and drove him on a forced march to a military prison where he spent almost a month before General Muhlenberg interceded with General Washington and obtained his release. Yet later the government, without granting him so much as a hearing, proceeded to confiscate and sell all of his property and effects and to defame him as a traitor. Sauer, a broken man, lived for a time on charity and died in 1784 poverty-stricken. It is understandable that in some respects the Revolutionary War marked the beginning of a Brethren "flight to the wilderness."

We have yet to meet two authors whose work came just at the close of the century, Jacob Stoll (1731-1822) and Christian Longenecker (1731-1808). The two, both born the same year, both second-generation Brethren, grew up together in the Conestoga congregation, the church of Beissel and Frantz (though they proved to be heirs of Frantz rather than Beissel). Conestoga was the center from which the brotherhood grew; Germantown more a center of leadership Both Stoll and Longenecker were called to the ministry. In 1772 the old congregation was divided into three new ones; Stoll lived in what continued to be Conestoga territory and in time became elder of that congregation; Longenecker lived in the White Oak territory and became elder of that congregation.

In 1806 Stoll published a sizable volume of poetry--probably the best of the period. Longenecker became involved in an unfortunate church fight and was disciplined by Annual Meeting on several occasions. He retained his office, however; and the fact that the quarrel was not doctrinal in character means that the theological tract he published in 1806 still can be used as an accurate reflection of eighteenth century Brethren thought.

As a final attempt at epitomizing the Brethren we record the account made by one who observed them firsthand. The following is by Morgan Edwards, the great colonial Baptist historian. He begins the description by noting a difficulty that must plague all such efforts:

It is very hard to give a true account of the principles of these Tunkers as they have not published any system or creed....
They are general baptists in the sense which that phrase bears in Great Britain; but not Arians nor Socinians, as most of their brethren in Holland are. General redemption they certainly hold; and, withal, general salvation; which tenets though wrong are consistent.
They use great plainness of language and dress, like the Quakers; and like them will never swear nor fight. They will not go to law; nor take interest for the money they lend. They commonly wear their beards; and keep the first day Sabbath, except one congregation [Edwards, as so many others, did not distinguish Ephrata]. They have the Lord's Supper with its ancient attendants of love feast, washing feet, kiss of charity, and right-hand of fellowship. They anoint the sick with oil for recovery, and use the trifle immersion, with laying on of hands and prayer, even while the person baptized is in the water; which may easily be done as the party kneels down to be baptized, and continues in that position till both prayer and imposition of hands be performed.... Every brother is allowed to stand up in the congregation to speak in a way of exhortation and expounding, and when by that means they find a man eminent for knowledge and aptness to teach, they choose him to be a minister, and ordain him with imposition of hands, attending with fasting and prayer, and giving the right hand of fellowship. They also have deacons; and ancient widows for deaconesses; and exhorters, who are licensed to use their gifts statedly.
They pay not their ministers unless it be in the way of presents; though they admit their right to pay; neither do the ministers assert the right; esteeming it more blessed to give than to receive. Their acquaintance with the Bible is admirable. In a word they are meek and pious Christians; and have justly acquired the character of the Harmless Tunkers.22

This much background, we trust, has given the reader not only "a knowledge of the Brethren" but also something of "a feel for sectarianism as a whole." But as we come now to compare the religious thought of Søren Kierkegaard with that of these Brethren sectaries the first impression must be that it simply cannot be done; they lived in different worlds. But a closer and more thoughtful analysis will indicate that their so very apparent differences are not really fundamental, that beneath these conspicuous but deceptive divergencies there is a hard core of essential agreement.

The least disturbing of the distances between them is the ocean of water that separates the Old World from the New and the century of time that separates the Dunkers from the Dane. This difference in space and time and the consequent difference of historical environment have their effects, to be sure, but they form no unbridgeable chasm. The greater gap comes in their qualities of mind and thought. By natural endowment S.K. was an authentic genius, one of the world's truly great intellects; none of the Brethren could begin to approach him in this regard. The breadth of S.K.'s interests, the number of fields in which he could and did operate with sheer brilliance, is astounding. An entire century of Brethren thought covers but one small segment of that about which the one man S.K. wrote definitively during a ten-year career. S.K. was a scholar and student, eminently educated, with a world of knowledge at his fingertips. Not a single Dunker so much as attended college. S.K. was highly cultured, a connoisseur and one who could display immense sophistication in the arts, in philosophy, in "gracious living." This was a world the Brethren knew not of--and what little they did know of it, they cared not for.

None of this is to imply that the Brethren were illiterate peasants; that suggestion is far from the truth. Although not strong in formal education, they were intelligent, interested laymen. If Christopher Sauer, Jr., read but a fraction of the material he published, he was very well read for his day and age. Alexander Mack, Jr., in wrestling with exegetical problems of biblical interpretation, mentioned that he had compared the translation in four different languages, talked with a person who could read Greek, and consulted various authorities23 [see above.] Most of the Brethren writings reflect at least some awareness of the broader world of learning and events. Nonetheless, the educational-cultural distance between the Brethren (and for that matter, most sectaries) and S.K. was immense. It might be pointed out that not all men of the "church" are of S.K.'s class either, but in any case it is true that the churches have put more of a premium on these qualities than the sectaries ever did.

But how little this immense distance actually amounts to becomes apparent once we discover the evaluation in which S.K. held his own gifts and advantages. We shall have occasion in a later chapter to give detailed attention to S.K.'s thought regarding the Christian and "the world"; here we need note only that in Christian history but few men of S.K.'s caliber have been able to match him in the degree to which he realized the Pauline precept of regarding "everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord" (Phil. 3:8). S.K. knew and taught that the movement into Christianity is away from the interesting, the sophisticated, the multifarious, toward the attainment of greater and greater simplicity (see his words quoted above). S.K. was a scintillating aesthete, but his aesthetic powers were dedicated to the dethronement of aesthetics. S.K. was a brilliant philosopher, but his philosophic powers were dedicated to the dethronement of philosophy. S.K. was a great thinker, but his rational powers were dedicated to the dethronement of reason. S.K., in very truth, used his gifts against themselves in the interests of attaining Christian simplicity.

And S.K. knew and taught, early and late, that his endowments were worth nothing, that people like the meek, pious, harmless Dunkers might have the same simplicity he had had to attain and might have it without tracing the tortuous Kierkegaardian path through aesthetics or philosophy. Early, in his very first Edifying Discourse (1843), he said:

And yet every man can say it [i.e. "I went to God; He became my schoolmaster."], dares to say it, can say it in truth, and if he does not say it in truth, then it is not because the thought is not true, but because he distorts it. Every man dares say it. Whether his forehead was flattened almost like a beast's or arched more proudly than the heavens; [etc.]--it has nothing to do with the matter, my hearer, absolutely nothing. Every man dares say it when he has faith; for this is precisely the glory of faith. 24

And late, toward the close of his authorship, he said:

I cannot abandon the thought that every man, absolutely every man, however simple he is, however much he may suffer, can nevertheless grasp the highest, namely religion, I cannot forget that. If that is not so, then Christianity is really nonsense. To me it is frightful to see the thoughtlessness with which philosophers and the like make use of the difference-categories such as genius, talent, etc., in religion. They do not suspect that in that case religion is finished and done with. I have only one consolation, the blessed consolation of knowing something which can bring comfort, and blessedly comfort every man, absolutely every man. Take away this comfort and I can't be bothered to live. 25

But he went even farther. Not only is this simplicity no handicap to the Christian life; it is a positive advantage.

Every man has a basic primitive disposition (for primitiveness is the possibility of "spirit"). God knows this best, for it is he who has created it. All earthly, temporal, worldly cleverness tends to destroy its own primitiveness. Christianity aims at following it. Destroy your own primitiveness, and in all probability you will get through the world well, perhaps even be a success--but eternity will denounce you. Follow your primitiveness, and you will fail in the temporal world; but eternity will accept you."26

Some people may be offended to have S.K. compared to the Brethren sectaries; S.K. himself would not be.

There are other significant contrasts between S.K. and the Brethren that are of an entirely different character. If a sectary, S.K. appears at a different point on the "sectarian cycle" than do the Brethren. The main thrust of S.K.'s polemic is directed, of course, against the church; his role is that of critic, discovering and disclosing the flaws of Christendom. Surprisingly, there is but very little of comparable material in the Brethren literature--and obviously not because the Brethren were any happier with churchly ways than was S.K. But the Brethren had fought that battle long past, long even before they became Brethren and started to create a literature. By the time we locate them, they had, as it were, shaken the dust of the church from their feet-nothing was to be gained (or even hoped for) by fulminating against it.

Conversely, a major interest of the Brethren writers does not appear the same way in S.K. They, bearing responsibility for the operation and continuance of an actual organization, of necessity had to give attention to such practical matters as mode of baptism and communion, church organization and government, the ministry, discipline. But for S.K. these things were not central, nor should they have been; his approach was proper for his situation, that of the Brethren for theirs. But although the contrast is a real and noticeable one, it marks only a difference in phase of the same sectarian development and not a difference in basic religious orientation.

A similar point of contrast lies in the fact that S.K.'s polemic was directed against the church on the right, and thus its thrust was in the direction of less rigidity, less structure, less conformity, less overhead. The polemic of the Brethren, on the other hand, was directed primarily against the separatists on their left, thus pulling in the direction of greater form, greater order, and greater discipline. But again the contrast is not really basic; the same dialectic is operative in both cases, and although working in from opposite directions, S.K. and the Brethren meet at a common center.

So much for the divergencies that are more visible than real. We must say a word about the sort of affinities for which we are to look. S.K. and the Brethren had in common a great body of beliefs that represent nothing more or less than their mutual Protestant-Christian heritage; their churchly opponents as well would hold all these in common with them. Thus one could demonstrate, say, that both S.K. and the Brethren believed in the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the reality of the atonement, etc.--but there would be no point in doing so. We shall simply assume what is clearly the case, that both S.K. and the Brethren were, in their basic doctrinal orientation, orthodox, evangelical Protestants--unless there appears evidence to indicate otherwise.

Thus although this doctrinal orthodoxy is the necessary background against which our study takes place, we are interested primarily in those affinities in which the Dunkers and the Dane agreed against "churchly" thought, or where they emphasized points to which the churches customarily gave but passing attention. Affinities of this sort are the ones that will establish S.K.'s sectarian perspective. And we should be reminded again that the use of the Brethren in this comparison is not to demonstrate any sort of special relationship between them and S.K.; our interest, rather, is in relating S.K. to the sectarian tradition as a whole, of which the Brethren have been selected merely as an arbitrary representative.

But as we contemplate our motif comparison we face an insoluble problem; whatever we do will be wrong; will be, in effect, to say something false about the parties we are comparing. For we are forced to make a list of their beliefs, and for sheer convenience of treatment the list must follow at least some sort of logical order and organization. But to do this inevitably is to impose a pattern, a system, a "theological" perspective which is not true to the sources. Both S.K. and the Brethren deliberately refrained from compiling anything like a summary or prospectus of their faith, anything remotely resembling a dogmatic definition or creed. Any such would have been false to their sectarian understanding of faith as free, existential encounter between living men and a living God. Sectarian literature properly is written as "occasional literature, as specific insights into specific concerns in specific situations. But "the faith once delivered ..."? Of course! But just as surely the faith which must be delivered anew to Søren Kierkegaard, to Alexander Mack, and to you And any attempt to give such faith a comprehensive definition, a completed form, is not a true work of faith.

This is not at all to suggest, however, that sectarian faith is without positive and enduring content, or that it is entirely random, lacking all consistency and structure. The thought of both S.K. and the Brethren does display quite distinctive and identifiable pattern, but it is free rather than fixed pattern. It can be likened to a Chinese-checker board (a geometrical network of points, each of which is connected to its neighbor through the interstices) or to a familiar style of octagonal tile flooring. Pattern enough is here, but the pattern can be read in any number of ways. One can take a particular point as a center and see a circumference of other points radiating from it, although he must realize that it would be just as accurate to take one of the circumferential points as the center with what had been the center now on the circumference. The possibilities are endless. This is free pattern, incorporating that which is regular and stable but defying fixed interpretation or description.

With a Chinese-checker board no problem exists; the whole is presented simultaneously, and the viewer is free to discover patterns to his heart's content. But our comparison can be constructed only paragraph by successive paragraph; we necessarily must commit ourselves to one fixed pattern and thus inevitably suggest that this is the way it was with S.K. The only help is constantly to keep in mind that the thought of both the Dunkers and the Dane was much more spontaneous, adaptable, and alive than our dissection of it can indicate.

We stand, then, ready to begin the comparison of motifs--and in fact (all unbeknown to ourselves) already have made that beginning, for the lack of fixed system in S.K.'s thought properly can be understood as our first major correlation between the religious perspective of Kierkegaard and that of the Brethren sectaries.

We have made this survey of S.K.'s religious options not so much to close some possibilities as to open one, namely, Classic Protestant Sectarianism. To that investigation we now proceed.

Copyright (c) 1968