The German Brethren Church, also known as the Church of the Brethren, or the Dunkard Church, was one of the Anabaptist denominations resulting from a movement within the Protestant Reformation. Other Anabaptist denominations born during this movement were the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. Anabaptists most notable position was on baptism. They believed that baptism was solely for believing adults, since infants and small children cannot understand the teaching about salvation or repent and promise to live lives of obedience to Christ. The Anabaptist denominations shared a core set of beliefs but differed in specifics and practices. Most adhered to a strict interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount which rejected taking oaths, engaging in militant services and participating in civil government.
Due to religious persecution Anabaptists left Europe in large numbers, arriving in Pennsylvania at the invitation of William Penn who offered religious tolerance and freedom in the colony. The first German Brethren arrived in the British colony of Pennsylvania in 1719. By 1740 most Brethren had left Europe.
The German Brethren beliefs were a source of friction during the Revolutionary War. Their commitment to love and nonresistance meant an abandonment of all warfare, strife and violence. In 1775 in a joint statement to the Pennsylvania assembly, Mennonite and German Brethren leaders said , “We have dedicated ourselves to serve all men in everything that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s lives, but…we are not at liberty in conscience to take up arms to conquer our enemies, but rather to pray to God, who has power in heaven and on earth, for us and them.” Their commitment to God and not government or state resulted in Brethren refusing to sign Oaths of Allegiance or to serve in the American army. German Brethren as well as other Anabaptist groups paid heavy fines for their pacifism. Most Patriots thought of the Brethren as traitors. Some suggest that it was persecution during the Revolutionary War that drove German Brethren to the remote valleys of Pennsylvania following the conclusion of the war.
The German Brethren held firm in their commitment to God above all others. By extension, participation in government was rejected. Brethren could not vote nor were they allowed to hold office, as “No man can serve two masters”. Their beliefs would also be sources of friction in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Brethren were however loyal citizens calling the United States “our beloved country”.
In 1871 the German Brethren Church officially adopted the name German Baptist Church.