Untangling those Brethren

All are German-American, or more finely defined, Pennsylvania Dutch, in their roots in this country. Well, apart from the Plymouth Brethren of public radio’s Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor’s youth, which originated in the 1800s in northern England. Still, those Germans show up a lot in the posts in this blog.

One of the things that intrigues me is the ways individuals continue the earlier values – or stridently reject them – when they move away from the stem. I’d love to hear more about how these play out in other lines descending from the genealogical connections we share.


THE BRETHREN: My Ehrstines and many of their related lines originate here.

Usually when I refer to “Brethren,” it’s the core of what’s now known as the Church of the Brethren. In their early years, they were widely referred to as Dunkers, for their insistence on triune (three times) water immersion as baptism, usually outdoors in winter, and some still are – or the variant, Dunkards. Think of it as a test of belief or at least breaking the ice. They must have been hardy and determined. In light of the derogatory tone of those two names, though, they preferred to be known as German Baptist Brethren, although the word “Baptist” added its own confusion – they have little to nothing in common with most Baptist churches, so far as I see. They came to America before the Revolution and are part of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture without the distinctive hex artwork.

A set of divisions, mostly in the 1880s, produced several offshoots, including the then more progressive Brethren Church.

Most of its members today resemble society in general, but some maintain the old ways and look Amish, as far as the rest of America is concerned.

Earlier, though, the Brethren were a distinct culture and lived under strict rules of discipline that included refusal to bear arms in military conflict.

UNITED BRETHREN: By Grandpa and Grandma Hodson’s generation, this is where our family had gravitated, and it’s the one where I was raised. Many of my lines on her side go back to the denomination’s founding.

This denomination, the first one created in the New World, arose as a Wesleyan-based confederation of German-speaking believers in Maryland and Pennsylvania and spread largely through circuit-riding ministers. As such, they had many commonalities with the English-speaking Methodists as well as their own distinctions.

Over the years, the church became a less strict alternative, one more in tune with the broader culture, in contrast to the Dunker/German Baptist Brethren faith or, for that matter, Quakers/Society of Friends, who figure so prominently in this blog.

In 1946, its majority merged into the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, and then, in 1968, into the United Methodist Church. Or, as the joke went, the United Brethren with all their money, and the Methodists, with all their members.

To complicate matters, a remnant United Brethren still exists.

BRETHREN IN CHRIST: Another denomination that figures into my genealogy is the Brethren in Christ, founded in 1778 out of Mennonite, pietist, and Wesleyan influences. Some members continue to be known as River Brethren or River Mennonites, and even wear the Plain clothing associated with the Amish.

These show up in some of my Ehrstine lines, especially the Swanks who led a notable Swankite sect, but typically drift off into the United Brethren in due time.

ONE OF THE THINGS that strikes me in looking at my lines in Ohio and Indiana is the extent to which Joshua’s children moved largely into the United Brethren faith or, in one case, Methodist, but then later swerved off into straight Brethren circles. Were they somehow trying to reclaim earlier expressions? Or, in my case, without knowing of the past, even becoming Quaker.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.