River Brethren

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Popular name for the Brethren in Christ Church, so named because its members first met at a point along the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pa. In 1710 groups of Swiss mennonites began to settle near the Susquehanna; later other German sectarians, such as the German Baptist Brethren (Dunkers), arrived. [see church of the brethren (dunkers)]. Influenced by pietistic revivalism, members from these religious communities, along with some German Lutherans and Reformed, grouped informally as united brethren and began to conduct fellowship meetings in various parts of Lancaster County. The "brotherhood down by the river," or River Brethren, ultimately broke away from the other United Brethren because of differences over the form of baptism and rituals.

The River Brethren followed a way of life similar to that of the Mennonites or Dunkers. Their churches were loosely organized; however, when the Civil War draft began to take members of the sect into the army, the River Brethren were forced to devise a more formal organization to protect conscientious objectors. The sect took the name Brethren in Christ in 1863. Their theology represents a synthesis between pietism and the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage. They stress the necessity of an immediate assurance of salvation through personal experience. Early in the 20th century the sect adopted the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification. With these doctrinal positions, the Brethren in Christ allow only adult baptism; the candidate for baptism is immersed three times. The sect stresses simplicity of life and plain dress, anoints the sick with oil, opposes secret societies, and emphasizes pacifism.

Bibliography: f. s. mead, s.s. hill and c. d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed (Nashville 2001).

[w. j. whalen/eds.]