Continuing the work of Jesus : Peacefully ~ Simply ~ Together


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Brethren Life

Have you ever wished that you could go back in time and experience life in a typical Brethren farming community? When life was at a much slower pace, without the vibration of noisy over crowded highways, and the word filth referred to something in a barnyard. Here is at least one opportunity to discover what simple family life was like during the 1840-1850's, in and around the small farming community of Boston, Indiana. For some this will be a chance to discover former ways of more simple living and for others it will be a refreshing trip down memory lane, because of stories that grandparents used to tell. Brethren church historian Merle C. Rummel has graciously permitted several chapters of his book, "Four Mile Community" to be place online, so that people in the modern world may discover what life was like in a more simple time, when people knew almost everyone in town. It was truly a time of sheltered existence for many, a time for cultivating a rich heritage of family experiences when the outside world - was still the outside world.

Four Mile Church: THE DUNKERS

Written by Merle C. Rummel ~ Published April, 1998 ~ Last Updated, November, 2009 ©
This document may be reproduced, only if remaining intact, with full acknowledgement to the author.

Table of Contents ~ Brethren Community ~ The Dunkers ~ Brethren Farmer ~ Brethren Wife

Letter Iconniversalist Preacher, Elhenan Winchester, in 1803, said of the Brethren that they "take the Scripture as their only guide, in matters both of faith and practice. ..such Christians I have never seen as they are: so averse are they to all sin, and to many things that other Christians esteem lawful, that they not only refuse to swear, go to war, etc. but are so afraid of doing any thing contrary to the commands of Christ, that no temptation would prevail upon them ever to sue any person at law, for either name, character, estate, or any debt, be it ever so just. They are industrious, sober, temperate, kind, charitable people; envying not the great, nor despising the mean, they read much, they sing and pray much, they are constant attendants upon the worship of God, their dwelling houses are all houses of prayer. They walk in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless both in public and private. They bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. No noise of rudeness, shameless mirth, loud vain laughter is heard within their doors. The law of kindness is in their mouths; no sourness or moroseness, disgraces their religion; and whatsoever they believe their Savior commands, they practice without requiring or regarding what others do." Rev. Morgan Edwards, formerly minister of the Baptist Church in Philadelphia, once said to me, "God always will have a visible people on earth; and these are his people at present, above any other in the world." (from Roger Sappington, Brethren in the Carolinas.)

The Brethren were hard-working farmers, who believed in Christ -like living in the daily life. They mostly spoke German, but many of the families from Franklin Co. VA., were English, among the Four Mile families German soon died out, (at least, we find no record of it). They were community oriented, which is shown in the way the several major families worked, shared and intermarried. They lived the "simple life", as opposed to "fancy" or "worldly". This meant jewelry and smart clothes, makeup and hair styling's for both men and women were not accepted. There was no "garb" as was later adopted when the Industrial Revolution crossed America, and as is still seen in the Old Order Dunkers in nearby Ohio. This Old Order garb of today is typical of the common dress of working man in that day, and was like that worn on the Four Mile. Being "plain" did not mean being out-of-date, indeed, the Dunkers were advanced in their methods of farming and useful improvements to the home.

Christ-like living in the daily life meant some activities of their neighbors were not part of their life. Swearing and loose language were rejected. The spoken word was important! Jesus had said: "Let your YES be a Yes! and your NO be No!" they typified this in their life: " A Dunker's Word is as good as his Bond!" Freemasonry, and the various Masonic Lodges, was creditably popularized by President George Washington and others of the Virginia Society. The Brethren objected to the oaths required of the mason, and even more to the evidence of heathen beliefs about Jesus Christ incorporated in the higher levels of this secret society. Joining such was forbidden. Another was dancing. The waltz, popular in Virginia, was prohibited, as were the coarser folk dances or round dances of the frontier. Brethren did not go to a dance, let alone participate. Playing cards, besides being a waste of time, was almost completely associated with gambling, and was prohibited. Since professional gamblers wore long bar handle mustaches, the mustache was rejected for men, although the beard was expected. The loaning of money or usury was forbidden, also. A Christian did not take advantage of his brother in need, indeed, it was common to give aid to another, expecting no return.

Itinerant Music Teachers came into the community and would hold a singing school, at night, often in the school building. Since the singing school would include popular or profane music, actually having "leading" verse ("Sweet Adelaine"). It was not singing in worship to the Lord, the singing school was prohibited. It wasn't a case of denial to fun, it was a decision of where the importance of one's life should be placed. There was plenty of work to be done, there was not enough time left over to waste on things of ill repute. Scripture said, "Give no place to evil."

John Moss, son of Elder Abraham was put on the "ban", because he had a "Devil's Row" or "spite fence" with his neighbor (no agreement of property line, actually two parallel snake fences were built, some 18" apart, the neighbor -likely his cousin, Baltzer Lybrook), then he went to a singing school! The Ban was the threat and punishment of the local church. Because of the community atmosphere of the Brethren, the center of life was in the church. The Four Mile was basically a family community: a few separate families, heavily intermarried, and the kin of their spouses. The Ban prohibited association with an individual by any one in the community, even his own family. He was not spoken to, even by members of his own family in his own home. He was not seen when he was around, or heard when he spoke. He became like a non-person, and was effectively isolated from everyone. It was a very lonely exile. Man is not made to live alone, and as a result the ban was invariably effective, even to the most innocent or most stubborn individual. The anticipated result was the confession of the individual of his sin, publicly, in front of the church, and his receiving forgiveness by the church. John Moss quit the church! (While the event of John Moss occurred several years following the time of this study, it shows the power of the ban on the individual in that day, and a result that did occur possibly too often. It was very similar to the "excommunication" of the Catholic Church.) The Ban became more common as the struggle of the church with the "world" became pronounced, during the Industrial Revolution following the Civil War. This struggle resulted in a more rigid, or legalistic, attitude about the beliefs and practices of the Brethren, and disagreements concerning these beliefs were a primary cause of the 1881-2 splintering of the Brethren Church into its several branches.

The Brethren did not accept "Clergy". Their leaders were their neighbors, possibly the hardest type of ministry possible. If a person showed true Christ-like living and had ability, they could be elected to be a deacon. From among the deacons, were called the ministers who showed a talent to preach, or a special concern for their brethren, some few ministers were ordained to the eldership on showing wisdom and outstanding ability. Each church had a Presiding Elder. They were not paid for their pastoral work, nor did they take schooling for the position, except as the man studied the Word of God himself and learned from the teaching of the Elders. It was called the "free ministry".

Membership in the church was for adults. The Scripture tells one to CHOOSE. An infant cannot choose, his parents choose for him, just so the Anabaptist heritage refused infant and child baptism. A young man was considered to be an adult when he could show evidence of ability to grow a beard. By then, possibly he was beyond many of the temptations of teenage rebellion and peer group pressures. He would choose to accept Christ and join the church. Consideration to the deaconship and ministry could not come until after the young man married. A minister especially had to show the scriptural order in his life. This included the admonition of the ability to control his own family, before he could control the Church of Christ, so ministers, and thus elders, were normally older, after they had children. Many a minister never was considered for the Eldership because of the rebellion and misbehavior of his teenage children. Christ had to rule in the home and life of the minister, and it had to be portrayed in his personal life. The Brethren Pietist heritage started with the concept that those in leadership in the church, MUST be themselves demonstrating in their lives the Life of Christ. (The author's grandfather wanted to become a minister, he let his beard grow and it came out half red and half black, he shaved it off. He never became a minister, he had too much pride.)

The early Dunkers did not have church buildings, but met in the various homes as the individual's turn came, and his house had space to hold the gathering. Some homes were especially built for church services, such as the Garber House, at Beaver Dam MD. Its interior walls separating the 3 large downstairs rooms, are hinged at the ceiling, so they can be raised up and thus open the whole downstairs for services. Frequently meetings were held in the barn, or even outdoors under a spreading tree, weather permitting. Sunday Schools were unknown, although there was a special emphasis on teaching the children: Sower's Press, in Germantown before the Revolution, had printed special cards for the children. Depending on how the Spirit led, and how many preachers might be present, there were frequently more than one sermon at a Sunday Meeting, and services could last for several hours, even into the afternoon.

Later, when church buildings were constructed (1840 for Lower Four Mile and 1857 for Upper Four Mile, 1854 for Stonelick, in Ohio, but seen in older Meeting houses, such as Beaver Dam in Maryland, 1828), some special features evolved. Remodeling at the Upper Four Mile Church and Stonelick has covered it up, but the signs of the customary double entrance can still be seen. The front of the church usually faced south and had two separate doors, the one to the right was for the women, the one to the left for the men. Inside the church, between the doors, was the preachers' bench. Against the wall was a bench seat with a long table in front of it. The active ministers (sometimes only those who would participate that day, sometimes all ministers, including visiting) would be sitting facing the congregation. (You didn't arrive late, you made sure you were early, else you had to enter church right up front, on either side of the ministers, and walk in front of the entire congregation to a seat. Neither did you get up during the service to go to the little building out back.)

Directly in front of the ministers' table was deacon's bench, also facing the congregation. In the service the deacons read Scripture and led the singing. Since no musical instruments were in the church and often few hymn books, lining of the songs was common. A Deacon would read one or a couple lines, then the congregation would sing them, then a couple more would be lined. (One result might be that the tune would be pitched low, often far too low, another, that the timing of the song would be lost, and be sung so slow that the song would drag interminably.) To the left of the ministers, beyond the mens' door, was the Elders' corner, often called the Amen Corner. Here were several benches facing toward the ministers, for the Elders, where they could also observe the whole church congregation. Opposite, beyond the womens' door was a similar set of benches for ministers' and elders' wives.

The church body sat separately by sex in front of the ministers and deacons. Some Dunker churches placed a wooden partition, some even high enough to be a wall, down the center of the church between men and women. (Of course, young folks will always find a way around - like a knot-hole that a finger can unobtrusively be stuck through, knowing that a certain One had chosen the opposite side.) The men had pegs in the wall around their side on which they hung their broad brimmed hats. In the back of the church was a huge fireplace, used for preparation of Communion, and of course for heating in the winter. The church building would be kept spotlessly clean, painted white inside and out. Following the service would be a church dinner for all, with fellowship and socializing, then home. For those from a distance, it might be dark till they were home. Services did not meet in every church every Sunday, Whitewater, and later New Bethel, met only once a month. Likely Upper and Lower Four Mile congregations alternated Sundays. Attendance was expected at the local church and those that could, attended at the farther churches.

Church organization of the Brethren is congregational. The Presiding Elder of the local church moderated the Council meetings and over viewed all church activities. He was directly responsible to the body of elders and ministers that were members of the local church, and to the collective body of elders of Annual Meeting. Local matters were decided by vote of the church in Council. The vote was to be unanimous. This was based on the concept of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit speaks with one voice. To be sure of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, each person must seek to know His will. A matter of concern or decision is brought up before a Council meeting of the whole church membership. The elders speak, giving direction about the matter, others may speak also, then the matter is prayed over and brought to voice vote. If the vote is not unanimous, it means that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has not become known to all the congregation. Further discussion is not accepted, but it is again brought before the Lord in prayer (sometimes the prayers were addressed more to the congregation than to the Lord), then another vote is taken. If the vote is again not unanimous, then further guidance must be sought and the matter is postponed to the next Council meeting. The intervening time is used to seek the Lord to know His will on the matter. At the next meeting the same procedure is followed, first the elders speak on the matter, summarizing what has gone on previously, possibly presenting any insights that the Lord has given them. Others are allowed the right to similarly speak (with restraint), then the matter is brought to prayer and then a vote. Church Council meeting records and Annual Meeting records of this time on occasion have shown a matter brought up again and again for several years before a unanimous decision is reached. Some cases have only one or a few for or against a measure at the start, but in the end received the unanimous decision. In others, the matter is finally left undecided because no unanimous decision was reached, and likely, because the matter was so inconsequential that the Lord wasn't interested in the church wasting more time on it. If a matter was too devisive, or of critical importance beyond the local church, it would be brought to the Annual Meeting for final decision.

The local church was responsible to the decisions of the total church denomination. Their decisions must be within the acceptance of the Annual Meeting. Annual Meeting was held each year at the time of the New Testament Pentecost and moved among the various areas where the Dunkers lived in strength. With so many prestigious elders present from distant states, people flocked to hear them preach. Outstanding sermons were heard from the most eloquent of preachers. Great teachings were heard from the best of the Bible scholars. The services were at least as important as the business conducted. It was a huge revival to the local community, and also carried on the work of the church and consolidated its position on questions facing the church. The elders in attendance at Annual Meeting would elect from among themselves 12 who would be called the "Standing Committee". These would be the official body for the coming year. Each year one of these elders was chosen to moderate the Annual Meeting and be the foreman of the Standing Committee for the coming year, thus becoming the head official of the church for that year. According to the nature of the business before Annual Meeting, other committees might be formed, they would complete their assignment, and report to the next year's Annual Meeting. The elders, ministers and some deacons formed the voting body, representing their local churches. Decisions were made according to Scripture. The same procedure was used at Annual Meeting as at the local Council meeting. One or several elders would speak on a matter or issue facing the church, then there was prayer and then a vote was taken. One interesting result of this was the importance that was put on the presentations of leading elders. (See footnote) Annual Meeting ended with a communion service.

There were several special services of the church that are unique to the Brethren. The Trine Immersion Baptism is one of these. For baptism, the whole assembled church went down to the nearby Four Mile Creek (at Upper Four Mile it was on the Hart farm, just below the Boston Pike. Lower Four Mile Church was built on the bank above the stream.) Running water was originally part of the scriptural demands. There the candidates together give their affirmation of faith by answering three questions that affirm their faith in Jesus and his salvation for them, and their surrender of their life to him. Then, one by one they were taken into the stream (where the water was about waist deep) and baptized. The candidate for baptism knelt down in the water and the minister standing beside them, had them cover their nose and mouth with their own hands, then he placed his hands one behind their head and the other covering their hands. He then dipped them forward into the water (Christ bowed his head in death) once each for: "in the name of the Father, -and of the Son, -and of the Holy Spirit". Before they rose up out of the water, a prayer for the infilling of the Holy Spirit was made over the new-born Christian. If the group of candidates was large, several ministers might successively baptize the candidates, so that one was being baptized while the previous was removed from the water and the next brought in. To the horror of one old Dunker Elder at Beaver Dam (MD.), the author was only able to immerse one candidate twice for baptism, taking well over a half hour for that, due to her size, and to her horror of water. The old Elder told me that he would have commanded her to go home until her fear of hell was greater than her fear of the water.

Communion is another service of the Church. The Dunker Communion Service consists, according to Scripture, of five parts: the Examination Service, the Footwashing, the Holy Kiss, the Love Feast and the Communion. The Examination Service was essentially a sermon, or several, reminding people directly if the occasion demanded, generally otherwise, of sin and need for forgiveness. Such might be the subject of the afternoon services ahead of Communion, but was part of the service that night. Implicit to receiving forgiveness from the Lord was the Scripture that we must forgive those who sinned against us. Some who were not ready to forgive another would refuse to attend, for kin and neighbors knew the problems between brethren (and sisters). To forestall this, previous to the Communion was a Deacon's Visitation to each member, to work out differences and feelings. The Examination Service concluded with beseeching the Lord for forgiveness.

The Foot Washing Service followed with the scripture that Jesus washed the Disciples feet, then commanded them to do as He had done to them. The eastern Brethren, and this likely included the Four Mile, practiced what is called the "double mode" of Foot washing. Here (men and women are seated separately and so wash their neighbor's feet) a basin of water is provided at the end of each table, with a long towel "with which he girded himself", long enough to wrap around the waist and hang down nearly to the floor, to be used for wiping. The feet are washed by gently running water over them, dipped up by hand out of the basin, or sometimes the feet are immersed in the water. Then the feet are dried with the towel, following which the brothers stand and exchange the holy kiss. When a brother is finished washing feet, the towel is passed on to the next brother in line. A minister or another begins by coming around the end of the table to his left and washing the feet of the brother sitting there. The brother next to him takes the towel to dry the feet. Together they wash and dry the feet to the next two brethren, who then proceed to wash the feet of those next two brothers, seated along the table and around the opposite side. This continues until all have washed the feet of their brethren. Simultaneously, the same has been occurring among the women on their side of the church. Normally, hymns are sung during the feet washing. In some churches the Holy Kiss was not bestowed during the Foot Washing service, but once it was completed, then all the brethren practiced the Holy Kiss. The Far Western Brethren practiced what is called the Single Mode of feet washing, (they were predominant in early Illinois, seeming to have come out of Washington Co. PA., where the Shideler's were from, and Tennessee/Kentucky.). The brother (or sister) washed and dried the feet of only the one sitting next to them at the table, then resumed their seat. All else was similar. (This is a customary procedure now at Four Mile, the result of the compromise between the Annual Meeting Brethren and the Far Western Brethren in settling their differences in 1859.)

There had been some discussion whether the Love Feast (meal) should take place before the foot washing or following it (Christ "rose up from the table and took a towel-" Again, practiced by the Far Western Brethren). The custom is that the meal follows the foot washing. A prayer was offered for the meal, and frequently the custom was to offer one of thanks following the meal. The Love Feast is a shared meal consisting of meat and sop. While originally the meat was mutton according to Scripture, beef replaced it on the American frontier. (There is no record to ascertain if mutton was ever used on the Four Mile, although records from Ohio, nearby, indicate the change took place about 1830. Because of the close association of the Four Mile with the Ohio churches, the change of meat probably took place here about the same time.) Bread is added to the beef broth and cooked together to form the sop. Modern affluence permits each communicant to have a plate to eat from, communion utensils remaining from early Four Mile include tin plates, but these would have come from manufacturing of the Industrial Revolution (after the time of this study). Some customs have carried through that indicate that early churches did not have the ware to do this. A dish of sop, a plate of meat and a plate with a thick sliced loaf of bread sat on each table. These were passed around the table. Each person took a thick piece of bread to form their own dish and dipped meat and sop on it, and then ate. Cups (later often tin cups) were available to drink water.

The Communion closed the meal. Following appropriate scriptures and prayer, specially prepared unleavened bread was broken to each communicant. The bread was about 1/4 inch thick and in strips about 1 inch wide. It was lightly cooked so it was whitish in color. Fork prong marks down the strip allowed for easy breakage. Scripture was read, then a minister or deacon with a tray of bread (strips) started a strip on each table by breaking it for the first person, then handing him the strip of bread, that communicant broke a piece for the next, handing it to him and then giving him the remainder of the strip of bread. This proceeded around the table, followed by the minister with a tray of bread, so a strip could be replaced when it became too short to break another piece from it. In some churches, each repeated the Scripture from Romans as he broke the bread for the next person. Once the bread was broken for all, some churches now said the Scripture from Romans in unison, and each solemnly ate, (what the custom was at Four Mile we have no record). The Cup of the New Testament normally held a low alcohol wine, although about 1850 the temperance movements, and especially from the Methodist Church, challenged the Dunkers, so that Annual Conference determined that grape juice was appropriate. One Cup of wine was on each table. Following Scripture and prayer, the corresponding Scripture from Romans was again said in unison and the cup was passed slowly from communicant to communicant around the table. Each in turn took a sip and turned the cup slightly before passing it to the next. (The alcohol and turned cup provided relatively sanitary conditions.) Again a minister followed the cup around the table, carrying a pitcher of wine to refill it when necessary. A hymn was sung, prayer of dismissal was given, and "they went out".

The Communion was a Church service. It normally was celebrated at any church only once a year. Since travel was slow and the distance took considerable time, the Communion Service was considered to be a whole weekend in length. Communion was held on Saturday night but preaching starting in the afternoon. Local and visiting ministers and elders took turns preaching. Four Mile Communion drew Brethren from distances around to the service. Visitors would likely have come from the Twin Valley area of Preble County and included Miami Valley churches, along with the Nettle Creek Church in Indiana. Four Mile members would have traveled between the Upper and Lower congregations and come over from the Whitewater. There was no possibility for these distant brethren to travel following the night service, so lodging had to be provided for them. Upper Four Mile does not contain the attic sleeping facilities of some of the old Dunker Churches, like Beaver Dam, neither did Stonelick. The lodging was provided by the local members in their houses and barns, sleeping on the floor when bedspace ran out. For the children, this was a festive occasion. During the afternoon the church was rearranged for Communion. Benches were reversed to face the next bench. Some benches were especially made such that the back of the bench could be laid on top of the bench supports to form a table. The tables were placed between a pair of benches. Food had been collected to serve the guests as well as prepare for the Love Feast. The big fireplace in the back of the church gave off delicious aroma. Arriving hungry visitors could satisfy their starved young ones, then proceed for themselves. An evening meal was served before communion, as the Corinthians scriptures encouraged. Since Communion thus became an overnight meeting, there was breakfast at the church the next morning. It was a Sunday: morning service was held with church dinner following. Non-Brethren visitors often came to observe the communion, in fact, the records show that the whole community came, if not to observe, at least for the food and visiting. They were not allowed to participate in the service if they were not Dunker members (called "closed communion"), but they sat on benches around the outside wall and watched. Children and youth who were not yet members were also observers, although frequently young men found alternate activity outside.

The Brethren hold the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. God does not changing, he is the same from everlasting to everlasting. What he has said, he will fulfill, even if you or I do not agree with what is said. Men can offer explanations of this and exceptions to that, to obtain their own desires, but such does not change God's Word. Accordingly the Brethren hold the sixth commandment to be true as the Bible says it: "Thou shalt not kill."

The Dunker belief in pacifism has set the church apart throughout its history. It has led to persecution and ridicule, imprisonment or worse through every conflict and war our nation has faced. It has led to condemnation and violent attack by neighbors and even personal friends. It has brought arguments and splintering within Dunker families, as youth faced by peer pressures of the community in the hysteria of war fever, decided against their own family's faith. Many of these separations have never been reconciled. This belief was instrumental in the movement of the Four Mile Dunker families down the Valley of Virginia previous to our Revolution. It has faced the Brethren on the Four Mile, when there was Indian threat during the War of 1812 and local militia were formed, and again as the cries arose against slavery and the slave holder and the nation girded itself to fight its own countrymen. The Brethren have faced violence for obeying Scripture and showing love to the enemy, as well as the friend. For this they are not understood. They do not condone evil, but attempt to resolve the problem behind the conflict, which the use of force has never managed to do. This follows the teachings of Christ, it is called Peace Making.

The Brethren were a church-centered community. The individual and family daily life started and ended with Scripture and prayer. The week began at Church on Sunday, and ended the week with Church on Sunday. The "Sabbath" was holy and no work was done on it (except the tending of livestock to keep them from suffering). It was set aside for worship which meant going to church if at all possible. If the local church did not hold services, and one could not attend one of the more distant services, then Scripture and prayer were practiced in the home. It was not a day of rest and recreation. The women folk had done all food preparation the day before, and had only to set it out for eating. Commonly, if there were local services, the several kin families would gather together to share their meal, and fellowship together. Sometimes this would be in one or another s home. Sometimes it would be the whole church together.

Before the Industrial Revolution, and its dependence on distant manufacture and sales, the life of the individual and family had little to draw it beyond local boundaries. The Church became the center of life, and almost its total expression. A person often never traveled more than 5-10 miles from his birthplace, in his entire life. It was family and church that shared together in building the farm, and in various harvesting of crops, the sharing of work for both husband and wife. It was family and church that shared together the birth of a child, the marriage of a couple, the troubles, even disasters of life, the death and burial of one who would be kin to most there. It was family and church, that was ones entire life.


Footnote: The author, as a youth, at Richmond, VA, Annual Conference, heard the old Elder, I.N.H. Beahm, a great leading elder of the whole denomination, present on a vital matter. Repeatedly he used the status of his name and position: "I.N.H. Beahm says - - - ". Interestingly, when the vote went against his leadership, his disappointment was obvious. He came out of the meeting very rapidly for an elderly man, seeing the author and his brother in the entrance he started for us, we separated around some large pillars. He caught my brother (about 16 yrs old) and gave him the kiss of brotherly love very forcefully, something neither of us wanted at that time. I now suspect that it was a reminder to him by himself that he still loved the Brethren, even if they didn't follow his insights.

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