The Dunkers are a Protestant
sect named from their distinctive baptismal rite. The name "German Baptist
" is the most descriptive, as it denotes their country of origin and their doctrinal
relationship(1) - that is, they accept the teachings of the Baptists
. Some other names for the Dunkers besides those mentioned in Webster's are Taufers
, and Old German Baptist Brethren
.(4) However, not all Brethren are Dunkers, and not all Dunkers call themselves Brethren.
Most Dunkers live in Pennsylvania
, and California
.(4) They belong among the denominations
informally called "plain people
They formed a group in 1708 under the leadership of Alexander Mack, Sr. From 1719 to 1733, the Dunkers came to America and settled in Pennsylvania in the area of Germantown.(4) In Germany, they had belonged to a movement called Pietism. Unlike other Pietists, they were greatly influenced by the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and borrowed some of their beliefs.
Two extreme parties, "the Progressives" and the "Old Order Brethren", separated from the main body, which henceforth was known as the "Conservative Tunkers". These obey the annual conference as the central authority, and have a ministry composed of bishops or elders, ministers, and deacons. (Membership, 3006 ministers, 880 churches, 100,000 communicants.) The Progressives hold that the decisions of the annual conference do not bind the individual conscience, that its regulations concerning plain attire need not be observed, and that each congregation shall independently administer its own affairs. (Membership, 186 ministers, 219 churches, 18,607 communicants.) The Old Order Brethren, who split off in 1881(2) are unalterably attached to the old practices; they are opposed to high schools, Sunday schools, and missionary activity; they have still, according to the long prevalent custom of the sect, an unsalaried ministry and are extremely plain in dress. (228 ministers; 75 churches; 4000 communicants.) ((1) except where noted otherwise)
Dunkers have the following beliefs and practices over and above those of the Baptists: Above all, in the administration of baptism, the candidate is required to kneel in the water and is dipped forward three times, in recognition of the three Persons of the Trinity. Further, Communion after the manner of the primitive church is administered in the evening; it is preceded by the love-feast or agape, and followed by the kiss of charity. On certain occasions they also perform the rite of foot-washing. Their dress is characterized by unusual simplicity. They refuse to take oaths, to bear arms, and, in so far as possible, to engage in lawsuits. (all (1))
The Brethren did not accept "Clergy". Their leaders were their neighbors. If a person showed Christ-like living and had ability, they could be elected deacon. Deacons who showed a talent to preach or a special concern for their brethren were called the ministers. Each church had a Presiding Elder. They were not paid for their pastoral work, nor did they take schooling for the position, though they studied the Bible and the teaching of the Elders. This was called the "free ministry".((3), paraphrased)
Membership in the church was for adults, as they felt it required a choice, and infants could not choose - which was also why their Anabaptist heritage refused infant and child baptism. A young man was considered an adult when he could prove his ability to grow a beard. By then, the thinking was, he should be beyond most temptations of rebellion and peer group pressures. Only married men could become deacons and ministers. A minister had to prove he could 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 his teenage children rebelled and misbehaved.((3), paraphrased)
all paraphrased from (3)
Historically, Communion typically started with footwashing. Footwashing practices varied from branch to branch among the Dunkers.
The eastern Brethren practiced what is called the "double mode." Here men and women are seated separately and so wash their neighbors' feet. A basin of water is provided at the end of each table, with a towel long enough to wrap around the waist and hang down 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/sisters stand and exchange the holy kiss. When a brother/sister is finished washing feet, the towel is passed on to the next brother/sister 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/sister. S/he may continue to wash the feet of several consecutive brothers/sisters and finally retakes his seat. Once a brother's/sister's feet are washed by all before him, s/he then proceeds to wash the feet of those after him/her, seated along the table and around the opposite side. This continues until all have washed the feet of their brethren.
The Far Western Brethren practiced what is called the Single Mode of feetwashing. They washed the feet of only the brother next to them at the table. All else was similar. (This is the customary procedure now, as a result of the compromise between the eastern Dunkers and the Far Western Brethren in settling their differences.)
The Love Feast customarily 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. 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; 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 were available to drink water.
The Communion closed the meal. Following appropriate scriptures and prayer, specially prepared unleavened bread was broken to each communicant. 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. 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.
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. 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 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. 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. ((3), paraphrased).