Kevin Williams

Beards encouraged but not required: Brethren openness draws converts

The Old Order German Baptist Brethren openness, relatively liberal views and English-speaking ways draw converts

GETTYSBURG, Ohio — They aren’t Amish, but even many of their neighbors in rural Darke County, Ohio misidentify the little-known Old Order German Baptist Brethren, or Petitioners — a nickname bestowed on the group when they broke away from their larger church over a century ago.

The lack of attention suits the Petitioners just fine.

“We try not to call a lot of attention to ourselves,” said Donald Burns, an elder in charge of one of the three church districts along the Darke-Miami county line.

There was a time not so long ago when the future of this tiny church seemed in doubt. The Old Order German Baptist Brethren’s ranks dwindled in recent decades because of members leaving the fold. But a relatively high birth rate and a number of converts to the religion and community — which, unlike the Amish, speaks English rather than a German dialect — has spurred a rebound.

Missy Souza, a Darke County resident who has explored the idea of becoming a Petitioner, said there are two main reasons people are drawn to the church.

“There are those back-to-the-landers" who want to do everything the old-fashioned way. The Plain churches pull those people in, but they generally don't last. The other group is tired of what is going on in the world and want a safer, saner place to raise their children. No television, computers or video games to use all their time, a sense of community where the church members become your family,” she said.

John Lavy, a Petitioner who makes caskets, said he remembered when there were only three buggies in the procession for a minister's funeral in the early 1970s. These days, he said, there would be 60.

The German Baptists trace their roots to 1708, when Alexander Mack founded the sect at the height of the movement known as pietism. The Brethren movement in the U.S. has split multiple times over the years. “At one time we had churches all over the state,” said Burns.

The first split occurred in 1881, when the Old German Baptist Brethren split off from the larger Brethren movement. Forty years later, the Old Order German Baptists came into existence, splitting from the conservative movement largely over the use of automobiles. And in 1939 the small group split yet again, largely over the issue of using farm machinery. The Petitioners, who are a remnant of the most conservative wing of the church, got their name by petitioning the larger church to break away. Each split, of course, left the church smaller.

The Petitioner church allows members to use motorized tractors in the fields, which some members also use on local roads to run errands into town. Petitioner men typically wear suspenders, dark denim and workshirts, and women wear calico dresses, some with a small cape, and white head coverings. In generations past the congregation’s men would have been exclusively farmers but, as with the Amish, an agrarian lifestyle is not always feasible in today’s economic climate. So the Petitioners work in a wide range of occupations in addition to farming, including construction, remodeling and cabinetry.

Changes come slowly to the Petitioners partly because everyone has to agree before a new technology or lifestyle change is adopted. Such changes and issues of congregational governance are decided at an annual meeting held on one of the congregants' homesteads each summer. Before adopting anything like cellphones, the Internet, electricity or even whether someone in the church can work in a certain occupation, all have to agree.

Doug Burns, a church elder’s son, runs a lawnmower repair and sales shop. While most Petitioner men sport long, bushy beards, he is clean-shaven. “Beards are encouraged but not required. Members of the ministry are required to have beards,” he said. This is one of many areas where the Petitioner church shows some flexibility.

While the Brethren church has very different religious roots and church structure from the better-known Amish, they live a similar lifestyle. Both churches eschew automobiles for horse-drawn buggies. Electricity is taboo and dress is plain. But there are also key differences with the Amish — differences that make the Petitioners appealing to outsiders seeking to join. For instance, despite the name, the church abandoned German years ago for English. Many outsiders who attempt to join the Amish fail not because they miss their smartphones or can’t get used to buggies. Instead, what typically trips up converts is trying to master German.

“We made a decision a long time ago to speak English. If we are speaking in a language that most outsiders can’t understand, then how can we be a witness?” Burns asked. In fact, the Petitioners welcome outsiders to attend services, a practice not always found among the Amish.

“Anyone is welcome to attend,” he said. The services rotate Sundays among the three church districts. There is ample parking for buggies — or automobiles.

This openness attracts outsiders. So through converts and a high birth rate, the Petitioners have replenished their ranks over the years. Souza, who maintains close ties to the church, estimates at least 10 outsiders have joined the Petitioners in the last 20 years — a relatively large number in such a small community. Numbers are difficult to come by, but some estimates put the church’s population at about 20 families in the early 1970s. The population has easily tripled since then.

“Now we’ve about outgrown our existing church. We never have enough room,” Burns said.

The three church districts are Painter Creek, Oak Grove and Covington. There is no church building in Painter Creek, but even there the growth is visible.

“There are only one or two people who have houses big enough to hold services. They have to be held in outbuildings. It used to be almost anyone could have them in their house,” said Betty Garber, who lives in the Painter Creek district. For her, Mississippi — where there is the only other Petitioner church in the U.S. — will always be home.

In rural Mississippi since the 1920s, a small but thriving settlement — known as Hot Coffee, named for an old innkeeper’s legendary java — served as a Petitioner beacon. Garber spent most of her life there until marrying and moving to Gettysburg in 2005.

Despite Hot Coffee’s isolation, the three Ohio churches have made sure young people could travel to Mississippi to search for suitors. That’s how Garber met her husband, Neil.

But most of the once-bustling Hot Coffee church in has relocated to Ohio. For many, it was just too isolated to remain viable. Only Garber’s great-grandparents and two aunts remain in Hot Coffee. “I think my grandpa is just tired of moving around. He wants to stay put, “ she said.

On a chilly night in late February a Petitioner woman gathered laundry off her lines before her guests arrived. Some traveled by buggy, and others showed up in tractors pulling charcoal-colored carts. (Petitioners are permitted to use tractors for transportation only if they have carts attached.) Kettles of homemade soup, bread, cheese and desserts were taken out. In the soft glow of gaslights, men gathered to discuss crops and business while women tended to the children and discussed recipes and upcoming gardens.

After supper conversation soon gave way to hymn singing, a beautiful, rich a cappella of the ages filled the room. There was an undercurrent of optimism among the group, that this church has turned a corner and brighter days are ahead.

“The young people of the church tend to stay in the fold now, when they didn’t use to. Most stay. I think they get into the outside world and see what things are like and they want to stay here,” Lavy said.  

And the locals — or members of the outside world — continue to admire the Petitioners' lifestyle, even if they don’t understand their roots.

“When I drive by these homes at dusk, in the evenings, I am always taken by how peaceful and cozy their homes appear,” said Jane Kramer. “I know there is no loud, distracting TV or radio inside ... just the warm-looking lamplight glowing near a window. I imagine the mother is washing dishes after dinner and the children get ready for bed while dad finishes up the evening chores outside. I crave such a simple, quiet life.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter