Origins of the Church of the Brethren and Other Brethren Groups

by Lois C. Byrem, Strasburg, Pennsylvania

Groups which stem from the Schwarzenau Brethren, 1708

Many religious groups have the term "brethren" as part of their names. Most are not related to the events that took place in Schwarzenau (present day Germany), in 1708, and to the group called "the Schwarzenau Brethren."

According to The Brethren Encyclopedia, there have been more than 35 groups which are identified as having evolved from the Schwarzenau Brethren. It is important to note that those that are listed below, all consider themselves to be the true heirs of the Schwarzenau Brethren.

The Church of the Brethren (earlier called Fraternity of German Baptists, until 1907 they were known as the German Baptist Brethren). Membership about 155,000. Beginning in Pennsylvania in 1723. Considered "conservative" in the 1880s. It has a seminary and six colleges. Headquarters - Elgin, Illinois.

Ephrata Community (German Seventh Day Baptists). Led by Conrad Beissel, it resulted in the first schism among the Brethren in 1728. In 1732, Beissel led his followers to the place where the Ephrata Cloister now stands. Membership about 100. Office: 9400 Anthony Highway, Waynesboro, PA 17268.

Church of God (New Dunkers). This group withdrew in 1843, was disbanded in 1962. (Not to be confused with the Church of God denomination, still in existence, and begun about 1825 in Harrisburg, PA by John Winebrenner, a pastor in the German Reformed Church.)

Old German Baptist Brethren (Old Order) - withdrew from the main group in l881, feeling that the church was not being true to its heritage. They still honor the religious garb and the free ministry; they oppose Sunday Schools, foreign missions, higher education, and the use of instruments in the church. Membership 5,200.

Brethren Church (Progressive) became a separate group in 1882. They felt that the church was not being progressive enough. Most of what they wanted is now part of the Church of the Brethren.

In 1939, this group split into the Ashland Brethren and the Grace Brethren.

The Ashland Brethren have a membership of about 15,000, a seminary and college with excellent libraries. Office: 524 College Avenue, Ashland, Ohio 44805.

The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches has a membership of about 40,000, a seminary and college. Is more fundamentalist in theology. Office: Winona Lake. Indiana 46590.

Dunkard Brethren - withdrew in 1926 because they were dissatisfied with the church's failure to enforce plain dress, and other directions the church was taking. Membership about 1,000.


While their critics and enemies called them "Pietists," they called themselves "Bruder" (Brethren). Through the years, these terms have also been found: Täufer (Baptists); Neutäufer (New Baptists); Schwarzenau Täufer (Schwarzenau Baptists), Tunker or Tunck Täufer (Dippers); Dompelaars (Dutch equivalent of Täufer); Dunkard (most brethren dislike this term, but the Dunkard Brethren incorporated the term in its name.)

Selected Bibliography for Researching the Church of the Brethren

by Lois C. Byrem, Strasburg, Pennsylvania

The Brethren Encyclopedia, 3 volumes, Donald F. Durnbaugh, Editor; Philadelphia, PA and Oak Brook, IL; 1983-4. Contains information on those religious groups that trace their origin to the events at Schwarzenau on the Eder River in Germany in 1708. Five major groups contributed to the Encyclopedia: the Brethren Church, the Church of the Brethren, the Dunkard Brethren, the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, and the Old German Baptist Brethren. Also has many biographical sketches.

European Origins of the Brethren, Donald F. Durnbaugh; Brethren Press, Elgin, IL; 1958. Fourth printing 1986. Contains source documents, good index.

The Brethren in Colonial America, Donald F. Durnbaugh; Brethren Press, Elgin, IL; 1967. Contains source documents, good index. Appendixes have lists of persons who had died and who were known to Alexander Mack Jr. and Christopher Sauer II. Sometimes the date of death and place of death are given.

History Of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America, Martin Grove Brumbaugh, 1899.

Heritage and Promise, Perspectives on the Church of the Brethren, Emmert F. Bittinger, 1970.

The Church of the Brethren and War, 1708-1941, Rufus D. Bowman; Brethren Publishing House, Elgin, IL; l944. Bibliography and index.

Schwarzenau, 1708-1976: Yesterday and Today, Winona Lake, IN, 1977.


On the life of Alexander Mack: Counting the Cost, Wm. G. Willoughby; Brethren Press, Elgin, IL; 1979.

The story of Dan West (founder of Heifer Project International): Passing on the Gift, Glee Yoder; Brethren Press; Elgin, IL, 1978.

The Christopher Sauers, Courageous Printers who Defended Religious Freedom in Early America, Stephen L. Longenecker, Brethren Press, Elgin, IL, 1981.


"Messenger" - the official publication of the Church of the Brethren, now a monthly magazine. Back issues are found in most Church of the Brethren college libraries. Earlier versions of this publication such as "The Gospel Messenger" contain obituaries, helpful to the genealogist, as well as historical and biographical articles.


From These Roots, A History of the North Atlantic District, Church of the Brethren, 1911-1970, Elmer Q. Gleim, Lancaster, PA, 1975. Has pictures and index.

History of the Church of the Brethren of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 1708-19l5, Lancaster, PA; 1915. Reprinted, it has photographs and index.

History of the Church of the Brethren, Eastern Pennsylvania, l915-1965, Lancaster, PA; 1965. About 100 pages are devoted to biographies. Index.

Allegheny Passage, Churches and Families, West Marva District Church of the Brethren, 1752-l990, by Emmert F. Bittinger, Camden, Maine, 1990, index. Very good for churches in West Virginia, northern Maryland.


To Serve the Present Age: The Brethren Service Story, Donald F. Durnbaugh, Elgin, IL; 1975.

Meet the Brethren, ed. by Donald F. Durnbaugh, 1984. Contains information on the five largest Brethren denominations that came from the Schwarzenau Brethren.

The Old Brethren, James H. Lehman; Brethren Press, E1gin, IL; 1976.

Lest We Forget and Tales of Yester-Years, Rolland F. Flory; Daniels Publishing, Orlando, FL, 1976.

The Simple Life. Vernard Eller; Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973.

The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, Volume XXVI, Number 3, 1970; article by Hedwig Mundel, translated by Don Yoder: "A 1725 List of Wittgenstein Emigrants," mentions the Schwarzenau Brethren.


The History and Families of the Black Rock Church of the Brethren, 1738-1988, Elmer Q. Gleim, 1988. This church is located in York County, PA, is well indexed and contains many surnames.

Two Centuries of Brothers Valley Church of the Brethren. 1762-1962, H. Austin Cooper, Times Inc., Westminster, MD, 1962. An account of the Old Colonial Church, the Stony Creek German Baptist Church, and the area of Bruederstahl (Brothers Valley) in which the Brethren settled in 1762.


NATIONAL REPOSITORY. Brethren Historical Library and Archives, located in the lower level of the National Headquarters of the Church of the Brethren, 1451 Dundee Avenue, Elgin, IL 60120. Phone 312-742-5100. Collection of genealogies pertaining to Brethren families. Will respond to inquiries, but examine other sources first

Organization: Fellowship of Brethren Genealogists, headquarters in Elgin (see address above), publishes a quarterly newsletter. Write to Gwendolyn Bobb for information.


High Library, Brethren Historical Room, Elizabethtown College*, Elizabethtown, PA 17022, phone 717-367-1151. Material does not circulate, but public can do research in the Historical room, Mon. Fri., 8:30 to 5:00. Call for appointment, as the Archivist is part time. They have a complete set of "Gospel Messenger." Emphasis of their collection is on the former Eastern District, Atlantic Northeast District, and Southern District of Pennsylvania.

Beeghly Library, Juniata College*, Huntingdon, PA 16653. Collection of books printed in German and early imprints; not much on family history. They have the Abraham Cassel collection and regional information.

Library of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 2215 Millstream Road, Lancaster, PA 17602, phone 717-393-9745. Open Tuesday-Saturday.

Pennsylvania State Library, Genealogy Room, Harrisburg, PA 17105-1601.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 1300 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19107.


Alexander Mack Library, Bridgewater College*, Bridgewater, VA 22812. Brethren collection and the Bible of Alexander Mack Sr.; regional information about the churches in that area.

Menno Simons Historical Library and Archives. Eastern Mennonite College, Harrisonburg, VA 22801. Some material on the Brethren.


Miller Library, McPherson College*, McPherson, Kansas. Info on that region.


Historical Library. Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana 46526. Mennonite College, but has good family histories and information on the Brethren

Funderberg Library. Manchester College*, North Manchester, Indiana 46962. Regional information.


Library, Bethany Theological Seminary, Meyers and Butterfield Roads, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521. Church of the Brethren seminary, but will be moving to the campus of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Has collection of church history, some family history.


Library. University of LaVerne*, LaVerne, California 91750. Information on that region.

Most good historical or genealogical libraries will have books on the Brethren.

*affiliated with the Church of the Brethren.