Old German Baptist Brethren

The Old German Baptist Brethren (OGBB) is a conservative Plain church that emerged from a division among the German Baptist Brethren in 1881 being part of the Old Order Movement. Like the church it emerged from, it has roots both in Anabaptism and in Pietism. It rejects baptism of infants as a biblically valid form of baptism. It is one of several Schwarzenau Brethren groups that trace their roots to 1708, when eight believers founded a new church in Schwarzenau, Germany. The Old German Baptist Brethren church has about 4,000 baptized members.


The Old German Baptist Brethren are historically known as German Baptists in contrast to English Baptists, who have different roots. Other names by which they are sometimes identified are Dunkers, Dunkards, Tunkers, and Täufer, all relating to their practice of baptism by immersion. Originally known as Neu-Täufer (new Baptists), in America they used the name "German Baptist" and officially adopted the title "German Baptist Brethren" at their Annual Meeting in 1871. From their formation in 1881 and until the early 1900s the Old German Baptist Brethren were often referred to as "Old Order German Baptist Brethren". There are several different Brethren groups that are not related to the Schwarzenau movement, such as the Plymouth Brethren that arose in England and Ireland early in the 19th century through the labors of Edward Cronin and John Nelson Darby. However, the teachings of Darby, called Dispensationalism, have been influential among many in the Old German Baptist Brethren.



The Schwarzenau Brethren were first organized in 1708 under the leadership of Alexander Mack (1679–1735) in Schwarzenau, Germany, now part of Bad Berleburg in North Rhine-Westphalia. In August of the same year five men and three women gathered at the Eder, a small river that flows through Schwarzenau, to perform baptism as an outward symbol of their new faith. One of the members of the group first baptized Mack, who then, in turn, baptized the other seven. Mack along with the seven others believed that both the Lutheran and Reformed churches were taking liberties with the "true" Christianity revealed in the New Testament, so they rejected established liturgy, including infant baptism and existing Eucharistic practices. The founding Brethren were broadly influenced by Radical Pietist understandings of an invisible, nondenominational church of awakened Christians who would fellowship together in purity and love, awaiting Christ's return.

A notable influence was Ernest Christopher Hochmann von Hochenau, a traveling Pietist minister. While living in Schriesheim, his home town, Mack invited Hochmann to come and minister there. Like others who influenced the Brethren, Hochmann considered the pure church to be spiritual, and did not believe that an organized church was necessary. By 1708, the date of the first Brethren baptisms, Mack had rejected this position in favor of forming a separate church with visible rules and ordinances—including threefold baptism by immersion, a Love Feast (that combined communion with feetwashing and an evening meal), anointing, and use of the "ban" against wayward members.

Religious persecution drove the Brethren to take refuge in Friesland, in the Netherlands. In 1719 Peter Becker brought a group to Pennsylvania. In 1720 forty Brethren families settled in Surhuisterveen in Friesland. They settled among the Mennonites and remained there until 1729, when all but a handful emigrated to America, in three separate groups from 1719 to 1733. Around 1740 almost all Brethren had relocated to Pennsylvania and they ceased to exist as an organized group in Europe.

Peter Becker organized the first American congregation at Germantown, Pennsylvania, on December 25, 1723. In 1743 Christopher Sauer, an early pastor and a printer by trade, printed a Bible in German, the first published in a European language in North America.

Early schisms

The first schism from the general body of German Baptist Brethren occurred in 1728, but more followed after the American Revolution, as different groups sought their own ways. The first separatists became the Seventh Day Dunkers, whose distinctive principle was that they believed that Saturday was true Sabbath. They were founded by Conrad Beissel (1690–1768).

In 1732 Beissel led the establishment of a semi-monastic community with a convent and a monastery at Ephrata, in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. While celibate, the community also welcomed believing families, who lived nearby and participated in joint worship. The monastic feature and celibacy were gradually abandoned after the American Revolution. In 1814 the Society was incorporated as the Seventh Day German Baptist Church. Several branches were established, some of which still exist.[1] A group called the Church of God or "New Dunkers" withdrew in 1848. They disbanded in August 1962.

In 1782 the Brethren forbade slaveholding by its members.

The German Baptist Brethren grew from a small sect of about 1,500 German speaking members in 1790 to a mainly English speaking church with about 58,000 members in 500 congregation in 1880.[2]

The divisions of the early 1880s

In the early 1880s there was a three-way division among the German Baptist Brethren: In 1881, the Old German Baptist Brethren broke away from the main body in order to maintain older customs, dress, and forms of worship. In 1883, the Brethren Church left the German Baptist Brethren over several matters including Sunday Schools, higher education, plain dress, revivalism, and church discipline.

The Old German Baptist Brethren represent the conservative faction that would not tolerate certain modern innovations of the 19th century, while the Brethren Church represent the progressive faction. The German Baptist Brethren changed their name to the Church of the Brethren in 1908.[3]

The most conservative members emphasized consistency, obedience, and the order of the Brethren. They opposed the use of musical instruments, Sunday Schools, and worldly amusements. They promoted plain dress, simple living, and church discipline. The progressives in the church focused on grace and acceptance. They promoted higher education, salaried ministers, Sunday Schools, and revivalism. The majority of Brethren held a position between the two extremes.

In 1869 and 1880, a group of Brethren in the Miami Valley of Ohio submitted a petition to Annual Conference to stop liberalization and return to traditional Brethren values. On both occasions, a more moderate petition was submitted to the delegates. Both times, the Miami Valley group found the rewording unacceptable

In 1881, they resubmitted their petition to Annual Conference, and it was rejected for violating technical procedure. In November 1881, conservative Brethren led by the Miami Valley group met and formally split from the Church of the Brethren to form the Old German Baptist Brethren. They held their first annual meeting in 1882.

At the same time, Henry Holsinger, a leader of the progressives in the church, published writings that some Brethren considered slanderous and schismatic. As a result, he was dis-fellowshipped from the 1882 annual meeting of the Brethren. He met with other progressives on June 6 and 7, 1883, and together they formed The Brethren Church.[4]

The remaining middle group—called "conservatives"—retained the name German Baptist Brethren. At the Annual Conference of 1908 at Des Moines, Iowa, the name was officially changed to the Church of the Brethren. The Annual Conference justified the name change by citing the predominant use of English in the church, the fact that the name "German Baptist" frustrated mission work, and that it would disassociate the denomination from the Old German Baptist Brethren.

Departure of small conservative groups

In the early 20th century several more conservative Brethren left the Old German Baptist Brethren and formed their own churches.

In 1913, a group broke away in Indiana and formed the Old Brethren. In 1915, another congregation of Old Brethren was organized in California. The issue which is often given as the cause for the division was the acceptance of telephones by the Old German Baptist Brethren, but generally, the Old Brethren also wanted a more uniform adherence to annual meeting decisions and wanted to uphold the old order form of annual meeting which was simpler than had developed among the Old German Baptists. There was a division over the acceptance of the automobile in 1930. After the 1930 divide, those who adopted the use of the automobile placed less stress on annual meeting authority than did the parent body, believing it to be more for edification and teaching. Moral persuasion rather than legislative decisions of annual meeting is the basis for adherence to the church's order.

In 1939, Old Brethren who wished to maintain the stress on annual meeting decisions and the rejection of automobiles, telephones, electricity, and tractors formed a group called the Old Brethren German Baptists. Old Brethren membership, among three congregations (California, Indiana, and Ohio), in 2000 was 250. Old Brethren German Baptist membership in 2012 was over 100 and growing rapidly, with congregations in Indiana and Missouri.

As the original Old German Baptist Brethren body became more accepting of automobiles, another group withdrew in 1921 to become the Old Order German Baptist Brethren. They do not use automobiles, electric power or telephones but do use tractors in the field and for transportation on the public roadways for work related activities, such as going to work sites or selling produce in towns. Two other minor divisions in the parent body of "Old German Baptist Brethren" occurred in the 1990s resulting in three car driving congregations of 185 total members. While each conference has an "official" name, members of all conferences refer to themselves generally as Old Order German Baptists.

Further Division

In 2009, a major division was a result of the rejection, by a large percentage of members (2/5ths of the membership, or approximately 2,400 individuals),[5] of an unprecedented committee report [6] adopted by the 2009 Annual Meeting held near Waterford, CA. The report stated in part, "Members of the Old German Baptist Brethren Church in full fellowship and in good standing with the Church, believe and agree that the Old German Baptist Brethren’s interpretation of NT doctrine is scriptural and has been prompted by the Holy Spirit and it is their mind to remain in this fellowship and to teach, support and promote the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It will be expected that members hearing the reading of this report will be willing to accept the same."

No positions on specific questions of doctrine or church practice before the Conference were addressed in the Report, though the general understanding was that it asked for an affirmation of loyalty to traditional doctrine and practice as understood by the more traditional/conservative arm of membership. Conference representatives were sent to each district (congregation) in the brotherhood to determine the willingness of each member to accept the report. Those who refused to accept the report gave their names, which were recorded and sent to the secretary of the standing committee for processing, and they were disfellowshipped (or "put out of the church"). Members who refused were given 60 days to reconsider their decision without repercussion. Those who remained silent or did not attend the meeting were assumed to be in agreement or willing to submit to the decision, and were retained as members.

A majority of the members who did not accept the Report, and were subsequently disfellowshipped, participated in the re-organization of a new body, which was organized at a July 3, 2009, meeting in Troy, Ohio, called the Old German Baptist Brethren, New Conference. Several fundamental disagreements identified by the New Conference and adherents [7] included: allowing regular group Bible studies outside of the Sunday worship setting; permitting open outreach & mission efforts; use of email and the Internet; Scriptural application of church discipline as guided by Matthew 18; and a perceived violation of the Scriptural principle of nonresistance, whereby majority disfellowshipped minority when they could not submit in good conscience to limited options forced upon them without prior conference council or discussion.

The New Conference Polity Statement,[8] declares that "the church must never be elevated to a place of equality with Jesus Christ," reflecting the New Conference's somewhat more individualistic approach to faith (in opposition to the parent body's stronger emphasis on unity through mutual practice and theology). The majority of the remainder of the departing members have joined similar existing groups such as the Old Brethren or Dunkard Brethren, or moved on to more mainstream church fellowships. Since the split, a few families who stood with the New Conference in 2009 have returned to their Old Conference membership, primarily in Ohio and Indiana, and several families have migrated to the New Conference from the Old since that time, primarily in Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Recent events

Following the division of 2009, the majority that remained with the Old German Baptist Brethren (often referred to as the "Old Conference") decided at their 2010 Annual Conference to continue the ban on email and the internet. They agreed to allow very limited use for member businesses already online, with the understanding that they discontinue use within three years.[9]

To date, the subsequent queries again requesting some form of business use have been met with a discussions ending in reaffirmation of the 2010 decision. As of 2015, there is a group of nine brethren working autonomously with outside communications companies to arrange a "third party" system to allow their members access to needed online information without actually using the World Wide Web themselves.

An increasing adherence to traditional patterns of dress and practice have also become significantly more evident among the remaining conservative membership. A trickle of members moving to the more traditional horse and buggy groups (primarily Old Brethren German Baptist) may also have slowed. Increasing conservatism in the Old German Baptist Brethren has also had a bearing on the decision of a majority of the former members of the Philip Hess faction of the German Baptist Brethren to join the Old Conference of the Old German Baptist Brethren after the dissolution of that group in September–October 2010.[10]

The increasing conservatism since the 2009 division was not sufficient for the majority of the Gene Wagoner faction of the German Baptist Brethren to move to the Old German Baptist Brethren upon the dissolution of that group in spring of 2012, although several of them did reunite with the parent body Old German Baptist Brethren Church prior to the 2012 Annual Conference. Several of the former members of that faction have joined the small migration of former Old German Baptist Brethren moving to Trenton, MO and have united with them in the more traditional horse and buggy Old Brethren German Baptist group.[11]

After a controversial 2015 Annual Meeting decision regarding the filtered "Brethren Resource Group" Internet service, some 10 districts (congregations) sent queries to Annual Meeting in 2016 asking for the decision to be reversed. There was also opposition to the procedure used at the 2015 meeting. While the procedure question was laid down and the Internet question deferred for one year, there is once again open discussion of a division due to the controversy and disunion between the old order branches of the church with their strength in Pennsylvania, California, and Wisconsin, and the progressives, whose strength is in Indiana and Ohio.


In general, the theological position of the OGBB can be diverse, and often represented geographically. A Doctrinal Treatise was published in 1952, primarily for the sake of young men who went abroad in Civilian Public Service camps or other work programs, and it presents many doctrinal distinctives of the OGBB, but it is not a creed or formal statement of faith to which members must subscribe, as members interpret and apply some of its various points differently. When asked for a creed, most Old German Baptist Brethren claim that the New Testament is the closest thing they have to a creed.

Generally, the OGBB believe in Free Will, and that faith and baptism in the Lord Jesus Christ is required for salvation, to be followed by a life of literal obedience to His word (the result of that faith). When there is a question of applications for a specific issue or area of life for which Scripture has no clear mandate, the members gather once a year at their Annual Meeting and consider the issue in light of Scripture, past practices, and current contexts, then voice (or vote) on it. While the Brethren strive for unanimity in any decision, that is difficult to achieve, and often the vote is decided by a very strong majority voice. If such cannot be reached, the issue is laid down (closed) or deferred until the following Annual Meeting. These decisions are kept on record as "Minutes of the Annual Meeting", and referred back to for consideration when there is any significant deviation from them. They touch on many things, including dress, technology, political involvement, and entertainment.

The theological position of the OGBB was largely established by Peter Nead and William J. Shoup, both prolific Brethren authors and preachers. Nead, in particular, was a schooled Lutheran who converted to the Brethren and brought a refined system of teaching to the fellowship. Today the writings of Alexander Mack, Dietrich Phillips, the collected essays of Samuel Kinsey, and Nead form the most important doctrinal writings. A lively series of devotional and doctrinal essays appear in the Vindicator each month. Member Michael Hari has contributed two widely circulated books of essays titled Brethren Thinking and One Faith in recent years.[12][13]

Religious practice

The Old German Baptist Brethren historically believe in baptismal regeneration, placing the emphasis on the obedience of the new believer through faith, repentance, and baptism rather than a sacramental view that the water itself washes away sins. This is the official position of the church while individual members may differ somewhat in personal belief. They are noted for several ordinances like believer's baptism by trine immersion, feet washing, the love feast, communion of the bread and cup, the holy kiss, and anointing of the sick with oil. Baptism is by trine forward-immersion in water. They hold an Annual Meeting associated with Pentecost, and cooperate in publishing a monthly periodical, The Vindicator.

The Old German Baptist Brethren are a non-resistant sect, whose young men usually file as conscientious objectors in times of war. Members of the church do not believe in defending themselves against physical attacks outside of war, either. Members do not file lawsuits, defend themselves against lawsuits, or use liens to collect debts.


The form of worship is fairly consistent from church to church, with a cappella singing, kneeling in prayer, sermons by congregationally elected ministers (called the plural ministry because of having several ministers in each congregation), and provision for divided seating with women and men assembled on opposite sides of the meetinghouse. The Old German Baptist Brethren use their own hymn book, of which most members maintain a personal copy. The hymns were written by both Old German Baptist Brethren members and many well-known authors from the 18th and 19th centuries. The style of singing is generally started and led by a congregationally elected deacon, and is slow, in polyphony or unison. The more conservative in practice a district may be, the slower the singing tends to be, though the difference may not be obvious to visitors. The singing is similar to that of the Old Regular Baptists.[14]

Plain dress

The Old German Baptist Brethren dress plain. The women's dress is similar to the dress patterns of Old Order Mennonites, like the "Wengers" (Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church) or the Beachy Amish: one-piece dresses and head coverings. Men sometimes wear beards, plain coats and often black hats.[15] The beard, worn without the mustache, is required for the ministry and is considered the best order. Although not required for the laity, it is encouraged.

Restrictions on technology

There are no radios, televisions sets, stereos, tape recorders, VCRs, or musical instruments in members' homes.[16] There was a long debate over the use of the internet beginning in the middle of the 1990s, although contrary to various reports, it was not one of the primary catalysts for the split in 2009.

Members and congregations

According to the 2009 Directory of Officials,[17] the Old German Baptist Brethren had 6,149 members in 56 churches at the end of 2008, although this number was reduced to approximately 3600 members after the 2009 Annual Meeting Report which led to the organization of the Old German Baptist Brethren (New Conference). The largest concentration of congregations is in Ohio (16), followed by Indiana (9), California (4), Kansas (5), Pennsylvania (5), Virginia (4), Washington (3), Florida (2), Wisconsin (2), Georgia (1), Michigan (1), Missouri (1), Montana (1), Oregon (1) and West Virginia (1). Almost 54% of the members live in Ohio and Indiana.[18] The numbers above refer to the Old German Baptist Brethren before the split in 2009. In 2016 the Old German Baptist Brethren had about 4.000 members.


  • Charles D. Thompson Jr.: The Old German Baptist Brethren: Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge, (2006) University of Illinois Press.
  • Carl F. Bowman: Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a Peculiar People, (1995) Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Donald B. Kraybill and Carl D. Bowman: On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, (2001) Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Marcus Miller: Roots by the River, (1973) Independently Published.
  • Donald F. Durnbaugh, (editor): Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. I-III, (1983) The Brethren Encyclopedia Inc.
  • Donald F. Durnbaugh and Dale V. Ulrich (editors), Carl Bowman, contributing editor: Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, (2006) The Brethren Encyclopedia Inc.
  • Donald F. Durnbaugh: Fruit of the Vine, A History of the Brethren 1708-1995, (1997) Brethren Press.
  • Michael Hari: Brethren Thinking, (2011) Der Bruederbote Press.
  • Donald B. Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter: Anabaptist World USA, (2001) Herald Press.
  • Gerald J. Mast: The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division of 2009: The Debate over the Internet an the Authority of the Annual Meeting in The Mennonite Quarterly Review 2014, pages 45–64.


  1. German Seventh-Day Baptists
  2. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl D. Bowman: On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, (2001) Johns Hopkins University Press, page 138.
  3. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl D. Bowman: On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, (2001) Johns Hopkins University Press, page 138.
  4. Brethren Church homepage
  5. Cold Waters to a Thirsty Soul, Sept. 2009
  6. Minutes of the Annual Meeting of The Old German Baptist Brethren Church May 30-June 2, 2009. Published by "The Vindicator"
  7. Charter-Agreement Old German Baptist Brethren Church (New Conference)
  8. Polity Statement, Old German Baptist Brethren Church (New Conference) July 3, 2009
  9. Minutes of the Annual Meeting of The Old German Baptist Brethren Church May 22–25, 2010. Published by "The Vindicator".
  10. "The Vindicator"
  11. "The Vindicator"
  12. Michael Hari: Brethren Thinking, (2013) Bruderbote.
  13. Michael Hari: One Faith, (2015) Bruderbote.
  14. Hari, Michael (2013). Brethren Thinking. Der Bruederbote Press. ISBN 978-1490557304
  15. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl D. Bowman: On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, (2001) Johns Hopkins University Press, page 145.
  16. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl D. Bowman: On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, (2001) Johns Hopkins University Press, page 145.
  17. The Old German Baptist Brethren Church January 2009 Directory of Officials, Miami Valley Press, Inc.
  18. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl D. Bowman: On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, (2001) Johns Hopkins University Press, page 141.
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