Connecting Swiss Brethren (Anabaptists) to Exclusive Brethren

An intriguing aspect to the course on the theology of the Reformation that I just finished was learning more about the history of Anabaptists, who were part of the so-called Radical Reformation. The term “Radical Reformation” is a label used to contrast a loose-knit group of Reformers, including Anabaptists, with the Magisterial Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. The Swiss Brethren were a part of the Anabaptist movement in the 1520s whose most prominent voice was an ex-Benedictine monk named Michael Sattler. Other voices in the Anabaptist movement included more well known figures such as Menno Simons, after whom the Mennonites are named, and Jakob Ammann, after whom the Amish are named.

I’ve known about Mennonites and Amish all my life, having grown up near one of the largest Amish communities in the U.S. that also includes many Mennonites. My extended family has a fair amount to do with several Amish families, including having them in their homes. I was familiar with the most basic facts of their history, but the course I just took filled in a lot more detail. Aside from rejection of infant baptism which gave them their name, I also learned a lot more about another core Anabaptist doctrine: separation from the world. I chose to explore that theme in more detail in one of the papers I wrote for the course, and it occurred to me then how similar the doctrinal positions are between them and the group in which I grew up: Exclusive Brethren (more commonly known simply as “the brethren”).

This is a little ironic because my wife, who did not grow up in the brethren, sometimes refers to them as “Amish, but with electricity” when trying to explain my background to others. There are enormous differences between the two groups, but I was struck by how similar are their viewpoints on separation from the world. It made me wonder if there was a more explicit link between the two groups than I previously realized. Exclusive Brethren grew out of a very different and more recent historical context in the mid-1800s in Great Britain and Ireland. I wonder now, though, whether their stance on separation was at all influenced by or explicitly referenced Anabaptist antecedents. Perhaps tracing that potential connection will become a future research project to explore in more detail.

Separation from the world isn’t the only similarity; others include their perspectives on oath-taking, church discipline (“the ban” in the case of Anabaptists, or “shutting up” or “withdrawing from” in the case of Exclusive Brethren), and refusal to take up arms.

NOTE: The featured image for this post is courtesy of PALNI Libraries and has a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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