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Church of the Brethren

Church Family :
Based in : United States of America
Present in :
Membership : 134,000
Pastors : 961
Congregations : 1,025
Member Of :
Associate Member Of :
WCC Member Since : 1948
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The Church of the Brethren grew out of the Pietist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. While most Pietists sought to renew the church from within, some (the Radical Pietists) separated themselves from the state churches. The Brethren movement dates its birth to 1708, when the first Brethren baptism took place at Schwarzenau, Germany. Eight men and women, all of whom had been members of state churches, formed the new group. Because of persecution and economic hardship, the Brethren relocated to colonial Pennsylvania. The first group emigrated in 1719, and by 1730 most were in America. In both Europe and America, the Brethren often lived in the same areas as Anabaptists. While it is unclear how much the early Brethren were influenced by the Anabaptists, some scholars understand the Brethren as combining Pietist and Anabaptist thought.

As the United States grew, Brethren spread west across the country, often following the same migration pattern as other German-speaking groups. Throughout most of the 1800s Brethren sought to remain separated from the larger society. They wore a prescribed dress, built simple meeting houses, and continued to speak German at home and in worship. With the coming of the 20th century, Brethren became less ethnic and sectarian, and began to participate in movements such as temperance and foreign missions. In 1908 the Brethren changed their official name from German Baptist Brethren to Church of the Brethren. During the first half of the 20th century, foreign missions became the great work of the Brethren, with major mission fields in India, China and Nigeria. After World War II Brethren became known for their service work and began such programmes as Heifer Project, International Christian Youth Exchange, and Brethren Volunteer Service.

Seeking to pattern themselves after the primitive church, the early Brethren took the New Testament as the guide for their faith and practice. Today this is still the Brethren understanding. While much of Brethren theology is the same as mainstream Protestantism, the Brethren do emphasize certain beliefs and practices, such as 1) the love feast, which combines communion with a fellowship meal and feet-washing; 2) nonresistance, which leads some to active peacemaking and conscientious objection to military service; 3) service, which leads Brethren to participate in programmes to relieve hunger, provide health care, and improve the lives of others in the United States and other parts of the world; 4) believers' baptism, whereby infant baptism is rejected in favour of a conscious decision to follow Jesus; 5) the simple life, which calls Brethren to resist the temptations of the consumer society and treat creation with respect; 6) anointing for healing based on James 5:13-16; and 7) non-creedalism, whereby Brethren remain open to discovering new biblical truths. All Brethren beliefs and practices are rooted in their understanding of the church as a New Testament community, rather than a group of individual Christians.

The ultimate legislative authority in the Church of the Brethren is the annual conference, which is made up of representatives from congregations. The conference's primary administrative body, the general board, carries out worldwide ministries in areas such as mission, service and development, witness, education, discipleship, and publishing. Congregations have a great deal of autonomy and choose their own leadership, including pastors.