When Mennonites sing “Move in Our Midst,” a hymn praying for the Holy Spirit to guide us, we are accepting a gift from the Church of the Brethren.
“Teach us to love with heart, soul and mind,” Kenneth I. Morse wrote for the 1951 Brethren Hymnal. “Guide us forever, show us thy way. . . . Spirit of God, O send us thy pow’r!”
Hymns are just one of the connections between Mennonites and Brethren, a stream of Anabaptism counted in Mennonite World Conference’s global census for the first time this year. By including the Brethren, MWC gives a more complete picture of the Anabaptist world. They are one of four Anabaptist “families,” along with Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. The MWC census now counts them all, though only the Mennonites and Brethren in Christ (an 18th-century offshoot of Mennonites in Pennsylvania) are members of MWC.
In the Anabaptist family tree, the Brethren are a branch grafted on rather than a sprout from the main truck. The Brethren originated in Germany in 1708, influenced by Mennonitism and pietism. Pietists sought deeper devotion to God and stronger love for others, in contrast to rigid dogmas and traditions.
Originally known as the German Baptist Brethren — or as Dunkards because they baptized by immersion — many migrated to the United States in the 19th century. On their bicentennial in 1908, they changed their name to the Church of the Brethren.
The denomination has a wonderful slogan: “Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together.” Along with Mennonites and Quakers, they are a historic peace church.
There are about a dozen Brethren groups in North America, compared to more than 150 Mennonite groups. The largest North American Brethren group, the Church of the Brethren, has 116,000 members. Its estimated global membership is 650,000, though MWC included only U.S. Brethren in its census. Perhaps next time it will count Brethren overseas too.
Awareness of Brethren around the world is especially important today in light of the severe persecution the Nigerian church is enduring. Attacks by Boko Haram militants have devastated Brethren communities. A story on page 1 gives an update on the crisis, as reported to delegates at the Church of the Brethren annual conference: 1,600 churches burned, more than 8,000 members murdered, almost 1,400 pastors displaced from their homes and without churches to serve. Other reports say more than 150,000 Brethren are displaced; some are refugees in Cameroon. U.S. Brethren are responding, with $1.9 million spent on aid efforts so far.
These, too, are our people.
A more inclusive accounting of global Anabaptism reminds us of the rich diversity within our particular household of faith. Though Anabaptists have now passed the milestone of 2 million baptized members, we remain a tiny fraction (about .097 percent) of global Christianity. We are a small movement that makes an impact beyond our numbers.
Mennonites and other Anabaptists can sing with the Brethren: “Kindle our hearts to burn with thy flame. . . . Spirit of God, thy love makes us strong.”
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