|The First Years – A Beginning|
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The First Years – A Beginning
By Lowell H. Beachler
The Brethren, established in 1708 at Schwarzenau, Germany, first migrated to America in 1719. In the following years, the name officially became German Baptist Brethren. With the opening of new frontiers and settlements, the Brethren were a part of the pioneers that scattered across the States. Many congregations were organized; some prospered, some faded away.
By 1881, the membership was estimated at 54,799. But the years of 1880-81-82 will be remembered as long as Brethren history is recorded. Three groups prevailed within the fraternity and became separate units. At that time they were called Old Order, Conservative, and Progressive. Old German Baptist was the official name for the "Old Orders," German Baptist Brethren for the "Conservatives" (changed to Church of the Brethren in 1908), and The Brethren Church for the "Progressives" (frequently called First Brethren). In some areas where all three branches exist today, these nicknames are still used. (To clarify later separations—The Dunkard Brethren came from the Church of the Brethren in 1926, and the Grace Brethren came from the Brethren Church in 1939.)
As a small child, I heard older people speak of "The Divide." It seemed to divide events of time and of life—definitely "a before" and "an after." It appeared to divide time to a degree that it registered to a young mind as an ending and beginning.
People I have known who remembered back to 1881 had grown old in years. They were children themselves at that time and impressions on their memories never seemed to leave them.
Among these older one that I especially was close to by bond of kinship and love, were; my grandmother, Eliza (Blocher) Beachler who was 10 in 1881, living with her parents at Lagro, Wabash County, Indiana, and my foster grandparents, Jacob and Mary Cover. Grandpa lived in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, was 14 in 1881; while Grandma, daughter of Elder David Flory of Lower Twin church, Ohio, had dedicated her life to Jesus in 1879, and was baptized at age 14.
Vividly I remember the stories and events they told of their own personal lives and families that surrounded the time of The Divide. Compassion and love prevailed strongly in their hearts toward those who had differed with their viewpoints. It stilled me as a young lad to see tears flow from their eyes when relating that experience, even after many years had passed.
Grandmother would tell how Brethren would assemble at her parents log house that stood atop a wooded bluff. Even the members of their peaceful little congregation that worshipped at the brick Renicker meetinghouse had decisions to make. Some stood neutral for several months before making an identification of their choice. I'm sure they were tedious and touching times to those families.
Recently I came across a letter tucked away in an old book. It was written by Grandpa Cover's father, just prior to their move from Fayette County, Pennsylvania to Covington, Ohio. It reads:
October 25, 1882
To all whom it may concern in the George's Creek Church, Pa.
After mature reflection of the crisis in which our sectional or party troubles have come. I hereby for myself and not for another have concluded to cast lot and fellowship along those who have withdrawn from these innovations introduced by the fast element into the church through the action of past A.M.'s. Viz such as Revival meetings, Sunday Schools and Sunday School Conventions, High Schools, Colleges of Graduation Paid Ministry, single mode of feet washing, Mission Boards and a speculative strife for preferment as has been published in church periodicals, but now known as the Old Order Brethren known and also further that I have endorsed their Resolutions of August 24, 1881.
This is the honest convictions of my mind and hope that you will see no change in the future of my life for evil, But a hearty return to the old mode and order as the ordinances were taught and practiced when I joined it April 7, 1857. With no envy or hatred to any members for railing about A.M., I ask of you a peaceful separation in the Communion and a prayer that you do all follow me into the same order—in so far as I follow Christ. Yours respectfully,
Jos. I Cover
The foregoing paragraphs are of a personal nature—for historical background. This article does not offer reasons for the Divide. Some early writers state it started as much as 40 years before 1881. This may be true. Already, a number of books by our Brethren have well covered the period of 1881. I refer to a few: Chronicles of the Brethren by J. M. Kimmel; Studies in Brethren History by Floyd Mallott; Roots by the River by Marcus Miller.
In most histories compiled by members of the Church of the Brethren, references are made to the Divide. Those written in the approximately first 10 to 40 years were not always written in the most kindly manner or due respect. I am sure their descendants of today would relate the story differently. The value of time in Christian living has proven to all of us that long suffering, patience and forbearance are overwhelming.
The turning point for our Old Order Brethren was the meeting on August 24, 1881, held at the Ludlow and Painter Creek Meetinghouse in Darke County, Ohio. This meeting was often referred to as the "Miami Valley" meeting. Thereafter, the Resolutions were presented and our Brethren found escape from the bondage and control of the Annual Meeting, and re-established the church government as they peacefully endeavored to labor with each other and for the cause of Christ.
Different writers accumulated figures of the "Old Orders" in the early years. These figures vary somewhat.
In 1882, Howard Miller of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, compiled a directory for the Brethren. He had gathered the data during the years of the separation and had been advised to delay the final recordings; however, he felt to still show the Brethren as a unit. In his records, he states there were 3,000 "Old Brethren." This would not be an accurate record as separation meetings continued to take place even after 1882.
J. M. Kimmel lists the number of Old Orders as between 4,000 and 5,000 by the time of 1882 Annual Meeting, the first for the Old Orders after the Divide, held at Wolf Creek, Ohio.
In 1890, a census was taken on "Churches" in the United States. Its summary lists a long interesting account of each area where Old Orders were located. Its final analysis comes up with; "135 organizations, 63 church edifices, church property valued at $80,770 and 4,411 communicants (1,766 of these in Ohio.)"
In the October 1939 issue of Schwarzenau we find this account of ministers for the Church of the Brethren;
1881 — 1,688 1882 — 1,695 1883 — 1,685
It states that there were 67 Old Order Brethren ministers and 20 Progressive Brethren ministers for 1883.
Since the main purpose of this paper is to record the beginnings of the Old German Baptists during the first years after 1881, the following data was compiled from early Vindicators and personal research and interviews.