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Brethren In Christ

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The faith of the Brethren in Christ spread quietly into Russia in the late 16th century and the early years of the 17th. At that time the provinces of Red Russia, Volhynia, Podolia, Polesia and the Ukraine were a veritable patchwork of religions. Dominant was the Uniate church, Byzantine in liturgy but in communion with Rome; but there were also Russian Orthodox, Armenians, Calvinists, Lutherans, Moslems and many vigorous Jewish communities.

This heady brew of beliefs provided a milieu not unfavourable to the activities of the Brethren. Some of the Ukrainian gentry were quite happy to offer protection, even support. By the 1630's ecclesial life was well developed. It was centred principally on Kisielin, where an academy was established to replace Rakow, which had been closed by the Polish Parliament, and on Dazwa where there was a large meeting.

Most of the congregations, including those just named, were within a hundred mile radius of the city of Lutsk. There were some, however, even east of Kiev, as far as Chernigov. Interestingly, it was in this same area that converts were made to the Christadelphians in the 1920's and '30's.

There is a considerable literature in Ukrainian on the work and ecclesial life of the Brethren, and much archival material in that language has survived. Quite a number of scholarly studies have been made in recent years, since the Russians consider that the Brethren's "ideology" represented an early form of protest against feudal and ecclesiastical tyranny, and in some ways a forerunner of socialism. Unfortunately, their ideological recognition of the 16th and 17th century Brethren has not extended to official acceptance of their 20th century counterparts!

The era of growth and relative freedom in the 1640's was drawing to a close by the 1650's. Ukrainian nationalism, Russian expansionism and anti-semitism were all in the ascendant, the Cossacks were a menace, and the area was frequently ravaged by various armies. Meeting halls were burned, heavy fines were levied on members, and congregations fissioned and reformed as refugee groups streamed here and there as flotsam of war.

The conference at Dazwa in 1646 was held under these tense conditions and the delegates decided to ask an earnest Polish Brother Piotr Morzkowski to prepare a document which would leave on record some account of the way in which the Brethren in Christ had sought to

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worship and obey the God of Israel.

Morzkowski more than carried out his instructions. He compiled a monumental work which contains thousands of Scripture "proofs" to support the Faith and life of those who were being increasingly persecuted as unspeakable heretics. The whole volume runs into hundreds of pages. One short passage describing a typical memorial meeting has been included here (see PIOTR MORZKOWSKI ON THE BREAKING OF BREAD).

By the end of the 17th century only scattered remnants remained meeting in secret and in homes. Some sort of a revival took place in the 18th and early 19th century, a time when Mennonite colonies also flourished in the Ukraine. The persistence of remnants of faithful witness is all the more remarkable in view of the severity of official policy towards faiths which dissented from 'orthodoxy'; in fact, the more scripturally based these were, the worse they fared -- which, is of course no more than Jesus promised.

Why did the Brethren in Christ disappear? Stanislaw Kot expressed it thus of the Polish Brethren: "they died out while dispersed as exiles, grieving that their own nation had rejected them".147 The persecution by the forces of Antichrist -- the Jesuits especially -- was so systematic, ruthless and relentless that there was no hope of organized survival. Indeed whenever and wherever any sign of what was bitterly and unjustly stigmatized as "anabaptism", "arianism", "socinianism", or simply "the pestiferous heathen stench emanated from Poland" as a Bishop of London chose to label it, dared to raise its head, it was immediately and mercilessly crushed. Zealous heresy hunters were always finding nests here and there, right up to the 19th century when liberty in religion became accepted more widely.257

There were, however, other reasons for the tragedy of the Brethren in Christ. F. B. Mott -- hardly sympathetic to their cause, but a reliable historian nevertheless -- has this to say:

    "The cause of its final disappearance may be found in such tenets as the following:

    Belief in the salvation of only such as have faith in Christ;

    Belief that the soul is mortal, and only becomes immortal by special grace through faith;

    Belief in complete immersion in baptism and the necessity of baptism;

    Denial of baptism to infants;

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Belief that no Christian can hold any civil office which involves complicity with bloodshed;

Belief that no Christian can appeal to the civil law for redress of private grievance."285

Mott suggests that this last tenet alone was so impractical as to make the faith of the Brethren incapable of growth. In other words, this faith, however soundly based on Jesus' teaching and example, was too impractical to be popular. It did not pander to the thinking of the flesh. Without the extermination which was forced upon it, it would have survived. But it would never have become 'popular'. It would have been, as it is today, the hope, refuge, conviction and life of those who prefer the praise of God to that of men, who will choose hard truth in preference to easy error, who are prepared to sell all that they have to grasp the pearl of great price.