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Brethren In Christ

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It was the year 1456. Two Germans, Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, painstakingly produced the first book printed by moveable type. A beautiful and almost priceless copy, one of the few surviving, can be seen any day in the foyer of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. That book was the Bible.

It was in Latin, which only the educated could read. Moreover, it was forbidden by papal decrees that the ordinary man should search the Scriptures for himself. Yet the invention of printing was pregnant with significance: during the following sixty years, books, including God's Word or portions of it in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, spread over Europe and revolutionized education everywhere and indeed human thought itself.

It was the year 1522. Martin Luther emerged from his hiding-place in the Wartburg Castle with his translation of the Bible into German. No longer would the market for Bibles be cornered by popish priests and monks. Printers got to work and Luther's Bible became one of the world's best sellers: it ran through 430 editions within his own lifetime!101 Sincere people in many European countries, tired of centuries of superstition and spiritual tyranny, turned with eagerness to the message of hope and love enshrined in the oracles of God. All over Europe groups of seekers began to come together in homes, in workshops, secretly in woods and even adrift on rivers, eagerly desirous of finding the Truth from God's Word.

It was the year 1525. Such a group of earnest, prayerful seekers, meeting in the home of the young scholar Felix Manz in Zurich, Switzerland, "pressed in heart" by the conviction of Bible truths that they had learnt, "linked themselves into a brotherhood of faith: Bruder in Christo, Brethren in Christ." 45 "The decision was "sealed by a solemn but intimate breaking of bread".90

The time was ripe for the preaching of the verities of God's Word. Convinced that every reasonable-minded man and woman would willingly choose the plain teaching of the Scriptures in place of worn-out and discredited traditions and errors of men, they began a Bible campaign that swept over all of Europe. Their deep conviction, born of keen study of the prophetic Word, that Jesus Christ would soon return and establish his millennial worldwide rule gave a powerful impetus to the witness. Within the incredibly short space of twenty years, at most,


there were "Re-baptizers" everywhere.

Like rivers flowing from the Alpine watershed, this message took root in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Moravia; it flowed on eastwards to Poland, Hungary and Transylvania; westwards to the Netherlands, France, Britain, and even eventually across the ocean to the Americas. Their doings and their doctrines were recorded in German, Italian, French, Latin, Polish, Lithuanian, Czech, Hungarian, Ukrainian, English, Dutch and Flemish and are found buried in libraries and archives from the steppes of Russia to the prairies of the U.S.A. By 1545 there were whole groups of believers organised by region and language: Swiss Brethren, Czech Brethren, Polish Brethren, and so on, sometimes differing in specific aspects of doctrine and practice, but owning a common bond of loyalty to a totally Bible-based Christianity. By the end of the 16th century a network of small congregations, linked by faith and persecution, extended from the Dnieper to the Severn (Map 1).[below]


The spirit of this whole process is well expressed by Balthasar Hubmaier, most eloquent of the Brethren, as he shares with a new convert the sheer joy of discovery and what it means to find the pearl of great price:

"For so, so long had we been fed the scraps of the gospel, cluttered up with human comment and additions, so that we never received the sweetness of the true wheat or grain. We were led so far away from the source of living water that we drank nothing but muddy, polluted, poisoned water from cisterns, drawn in human vessels. How ever could soundness and salvation have arisen then? But thanks be to Jesus Christ that he boarded our sinking ship. That through his holy, living and eternal word he warned us and instructed us. That now we know truly how to sail by the gleaming star of his holy Word, and how to cast the nets into the water in his name, that we may catch men with the hook of the divine doctrine. That we may draw them out of the salty, stormy, treacherous sea of this world . . . "128

But if, in the mid-16th century, the time was ripe for God to bless faithful witness, He saw fit in His inscrutable wisdom to bring also fiery trial and tribulation. Everywhere king and priest, sheriff and monk, laws secular and ecclesiastical combined to crush the movement wherever it appeared. Every conceivable form of persecution was devised to make life intolerable for the Brethren, and when attempts


at "conversion" failed, ruthless extermination was carefully planned and callously carried out. In some places, periods of relative, tolerable freedom occurred -- the longest was in Poland for more than a century up to 1660 -- but at the last the resurgence of the Roman Catholic "beast" overwhelmed the communities of Bible believers, "for it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them" (Revelation 13:7).

By the end of the 17th century, fully organized communities survived in only a few isolated places, like the Transylvanian valleys in Romania. The fruit of many mighty efforts and the witness of many martyrs were preserved here and there in the hearts and often anonymous writings of those who continued to cling tenaciously to the tenets of truth, for as Balthasar Hubmaier had constantly affirmed, "the Truth is immortal." 129

Like the far-stretching branches of a great tree, many religious denominations of today trace their origins to the 16th century Brethren in Christ, often having separated at some time over one or more points of doctrine or practice; Baptists, Mennonites, Hutterites, Unitarians, Valdesi, Adventists and many others can claim a share in this common rootstock. But in most cases these communities have not retained all the characteristic beliefs or practice of their antecedents. Some have added peculiar new beliefs of their own.

It was the year 1865. John Thomas, desiring to help some "baptized believers" in the USA obtain exemption from military service, being well-read and knowing something at least of Brethren who had gone before him, took his pen and wrote for the purposes of registration at the courthouse of Oregon, Illinois a certification of membership in "a religious association denominated Brethren in Christ, or in one word Christadelphians. The denomination ... conscientiously opposes and earnestly protests against Brethren in Christ having anything to do with politics in worldly strife, or armsbearing in the service of the Sin-powers of the world under any conceivable circumstances whatever". 216

This book is not an academic treatise on the Anabaptist, Socinian, Unitarian or any other branches, real or invented, of those people in centuries past who for the most part were known, and wished to be known, only as Brethren in Christ. It sets out rather, mainly in the form of separate passages within the body of the main text, selected documents from several sections of the 16th to 18th century Brethren.


MAP 1: The spread of the Brethren in Christ across Europe. Six phases are indicatedmap1 by numbers. (1) Before 1525 (mainly Vaudois); (2) 1525-1528; (3) 1528-1580; (4) 1580-1660; (5) 1660-1700; (6) after 1700. The situation is, of course, highly generalised. The political boundaries are those about 1600.


Many of these have not been published previously in English. It might be argued that the selection has been made according to the whim of the author. So be it. Any choice would be arbitrary. But they do seem to indicate that of present day religious bodies the "Brethren in Christ or in one word Christadelphians" are the closest of all to the Brethren in Christ of those days, and, we sincerely believe, to the first-century Christian community in New Testament times.

It is of note that, after long acquaintance with the literature of many churches and religious communities covering hundreds of years, the author has come to realize that the Brethren in Christ from the 16th century onwards and the present Christadelphians are the only ones to use the term 'the Truth' freely and frequently in that very special way that is characteristically expressed in Scripture as "the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12). This special sense and usage is explained and elaborated upon, for example, by John Thomas in Elpis Israel, pt. 2, ch. 1, p. 168. 263


PLATE 2: A "heretic" -- presumably one of the Brethren -- being hounded out of the city of Vienna by a Catholic priest, followed by an aroused mob.