December 29, 2007

No Force in Religion

While doing some research for the 300th Anniversary Celebration of the Church of the Brethren, I came across an article by M.G. Brumbaugh, "The Conditions in Germany About 1708. It was the first article in the book: Two Centuries of the Church of the Brethren: Bicentennial Addresses. [You may read the article on Google Books here.]

Brumbaugh, who had just completed his own History of the Brethren a few years earlier in 1899 and would soon be elected Governor of Pennsylvania, shared this address at the 1908 Annual Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Brumbaugh lays the groundwork by describing religious conditions in Germany in 1708 as the Brethren were beginning.

He describes the Protestant Reformation that began in the days of Martin Luther and the period of wars from 1620 to 1748 that pervaded the culture and resulted in generations of Germans a war-weary and war-hating people. He also speaks to the resulting three state churches (Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran) that denied to all others the right to exist in the German Empire. This led to the fundamental belief and practice of the Taufers or German Baptist Church: "No exercise of force in religion."

After listing some key resulting principles of the new church, Brumbaugh goes on to describe the early Brethren in this way: Driven from all participation in the established churches of Germany they turned to the Book of God as their sole and sufficient guide. In this message from Heaven they found the same principle. The religion of Jesus is an appeal to the Will. It is a call for voluntary service. There can be no force, no coercion, no compulsion in the Master's message.

Brumbaugh continues with this key paragraph: The Church of the Brethren, although persecuted ... never persecuted anybody, and I plead with you this morning to remember that the church is false to its history and false to its spirit when at anytime it becomes an instrument of oppression or of persecution to any human soul. We can persuade, entreat, and petition, but we cannot persecute, and sad will be the day when we have so far lost all vital spirit of Christian toleration as to make the church an instrument of persecution to any human soul. Let us not forget that the church was born to suffer persecution but not to inflict it.

Brumbaugh's words 100 years ago sound like something the church needs to hear again today.