Dunkers, Dunkards

General Information

The term Brethren identifies several Christian groups of common origin, at an earlier date frequently called "Dunkers," of which the Church of the Brethren is today the largest. The movement began in Germany in 1708 as part of the spiritual awakening called Pietism. In that year a small group led by Alexander Mack (1679 - 1735) baptized one another by immersion, face down, three times in a flowing stream: this form of Baptism became a distinctive practice. Mack and his followers migrated to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1719. Since then, small groups have broken away from the main body, either because it seemed too liberal or not liberal enough. Among all Brethren, trine immersion is practiced and a pacifist witness maintained. The Church of the Brethren lists 161,824 members in 1,044 congregations (1986). The Brethren Church and the Old German Baptist Brethren are much smaller.

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S L Bowman, Power and Polity among the Brethren (1987); V S Fisher, The Story of the Brethren (1957).


General Information


The Church of the Brethren is one of the historic "peace churches" in the United States. It is of German Pietistic-Anabaptist background and shares many Baptist characteristics. Members of the church are known also as Dunkers or Dunkards (from German tunken,"to dip"), because of their baptismal ceremony. During this ceremony the believer is dipped three times, face forward, once at the mention of each name of the Trinity, according to the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19.


The Dunker movement was an offshoot of the German Pietist movement of the late 17th century. The first Dunker congregation was organized at Schwartzenau, Germany (now in North Rhine-Westphalia), in 1708. Persecuted by the state church in Germany, the Dunkers immigrated to America from 1719 to 1729. Their first church in what is now the United States was organized in 1723. The Dunkers are most numerous in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and North Dakota. Many of them are farmers. In recent years the denomination has expanded to include many prosperous city churches. The denomination supports a number of colleges, notably Ashland College, at Ashland, Ohio.

Doctrine and Organization

In doctrine the Brethren adhere to the New Testament and accept no creeds. They hold the Bible to be the inspired and infallible word of God and accept the New Testament as their only rule of faith and practice. They believe in the Trinity, in the divinity of Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in future rewards and punishments. Faith, repentance, and baptism are held to be the conditions of salvation. In practice the Brethren closely follow the teachings of the Bible and observe the primitive simplicity of the Apostolic church.

At the basis of their belief is a commitment to peace. They enjoin plainness of dress, settle difficulties among themselves without civil law, affirm instead of taking oath, oppose secret societies, and advise against the use of tobacco and the manufacture, sale, and use of intoxicants. As early as 1782 the Brethren prohibited slavery and vehemently denounced the slave trade. A traditional ban on participation in politics has been relaxed somewhat in recent years.

The Eucharist is celebrated in the evening, after the serving of a simple common meal. Before this meal the ordinance of foot washing is observed, and afterward the members extend the right hand of fellowship and exchange the kiss of peace. Bishops (or elders), ministers, and deacons are elected by the congregations. Congregations are organized into state districts; both units elect delegates to the annual conference.

Later History

In 1881-83 the church lost about 8000 members by a division in its ranks; the split resulted in the secession of two parties, known as the Old-Order Brethren and Progressive Brethren. The former group objected to the attention the church was paying to educational, missionary, and Sunday school work, and the latter insisted that the church was too conservative. After several years of contention these parties withdrew from the parent church and formed separate organizations. The parent church is known today as the Church of the Brethren (Conservative Dunkers) and according to recent statistics has 172,115 members in 1061 congregations.

The Progressive Brethren divided again in 1939. According to the latest available statistics, one group, the Brethren Church (Ashland, Ohio) has 15,082 members in 122 churches; the second group, the National Fellowship of Brethren churches, has 34,000 members in more than 275 churches. Another Dunker sect is composed of the Seventh Day Baptists (German).


Catholic Information

(German tunken, to dip)

A Protestant sect thus named from its distinctive baptismal rite. They are also called "Dunkards", "Dunkers", "Brethren", and "German Baptists". This last appellation designates both their national origin and doctrinal relationship. In addition to their admission of the teaching of the Baptists, they hold the following distinctive beliefs and practices. 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. 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. Their foundation was due to a desire of restoring primitive Christianity, and dates back to 1708. In that year their founder Alexander Mack (1679-1735) received believers' baptism with seven companions at Schwarzenau, in Westphalia. The little company rapidly made converts, and congregations were established in Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. As they were subjected to persecution, they all emigrated to America between the years 1719 and 1729.

The first families settled at Germantown, Pennsylvania, where a church was organized in 1723. Shortly after some members, led by Conrad Beissel who contended that the seventh day ought to be observed as the Sabbath, seceded and formed the "Seventh Day Baptists" (German; membership in 1911, 250). The Tunkers, nevertheless, prospered and, in spite of set-backs caused by the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, spread from Pennsylvania to many other states of the Union, and to Canada. Foreign missionary work and the foundation of educational institutions were inaugurated in the decade 1870-1880. About the same time the demands for the adoption of a more progressive and liberal church policy became more and more insistent, and in 1881-82 led to division. 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. They maintain schools in various states, own a printing plant at Elgin, Illinois, and publish the "Gospel Messenger" as their official organ. (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. (Statistics, 186 ministers, 219 churches, 18,607 communicants.) The Old Order Brethren 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.)

Publication information Written by N.A. Weber. Transcribed by Herman F. Holbrook. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


The statistics throughout are those of CARROLL in Christian Advocate (New York, 26 Jan., 1911). Beside the minutes of the Annual Meeting, consult on the doctrine: MACK, A Plain View of the Rites and Ordinances of the House of God (Mt. Morris, 1888), and MILLER, Doctrine of the Brethren Defended (Indianapolis, 1876); BRUMBAUGH, History of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America (Elgin, 1899); FALKENSTEIN, History of the German Baptist Brethren Church (Lancaster, 1901); HOLSINGER, History of the Tunkers and the Brethren Churches (Oakland, 1901); GILLEN, The Dunkers (New York, 1906).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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