At Antietam's Dunker Church, local Brethren congregations reflect on 300 years

May 19, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

SHARPSBURG - Sunlight streamed in through the open door of the Dunker Church at Antietam National Battlefield Sunday, falling in stripes across the wooden pews as those gathered inside sang hymns copied from a hymnal more than 100 years old.

"Today we have attempted to add some flavor of the way Brethren have done things in the past," Lester Boleyn explained as he welcomed participants to the commemorative service, a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Brethren movement.

"The more you know about where you come from, the better able you will be to see where you were going," Boleyn said.

For those at Sunday's service, remembering the past meant not only sitting on hard benches and singing long-lost verses to familiar hymns, but coming together with others to recognize a common lineage of faith.


Participants included members of several Washington County churches representing the Brethren Church and the Church of the Brethren, two denominations that stem from a religious movement in Germany in 1708, said the Rev. Brian Moore, pastor of St. James Brethren Church.

At the time, those who dissented from the accepted state churches were permitted to go to a certain area to worship as they pleased, said Moore, who is writing a book about the history of the Brethren movement.

In August 1708, a group of eight people, influenced by the Pietist movement and Anabaptist Mennonites, were baptized in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany, Moore said. As their influence grew, their followers were pushed northward by persecution and eventually settled in America, particularly in eastern Pennsylvania, he said.

As the German Baptist Brethren became more Americanized, several schisms occurred. One group, favoring new ideas such as Sunday school, paid pastors and less rigid rules about dress, split off in 1883 to become the Brethren Church, while an especially conservative group split off in 1881 to become the Old German Baptist Brethren, Moore said. The main branch became the Church of the Brethren, he said.

Moore said after the service that he believes the future of the church depends upon its members reaching and preserving an understanding of their faith, including its origin and the roots of its principles.

In the process, organizers hope this awareness will bring together denominations that rarely do anything together.

"We're all followers of Christ," said the Rev. Ed Poling, pastor of Hagerstown Church of the Brethren. "To me, it's so refreshing to learn from each other."

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