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Old Order Brethren (German Baptists) Still Flourish in Roanoke

If you’re new to the Roanoke Valley, or even if you’ve been here for many years, you’ve probably wondered about the bearded men with cropped hair who often drive school buses and the women in their neat mesh caps and plain long dresses buying in the grocery store.

These Christian folk are not the Amish of Pennsylvania but Old Order Brethren, sometimes called Old German Baptists an ultra conservative group of German background who believe in nonresistence in regard to conflict and in everyday life succeed in living much as valley residents did 150 years ago.

These Brethren, separate from the more numerous Church of the Brethren but at one time the same group, worship in a simple meeting house on Woodhaven Road in Northwest Roanoke County. Unlike the Amish who still use buggies to get around, the Roanoke area Old Order Brethren drive cars of a subdued color. Many still farm or earn their living by carpentry and other crafts. Some sell produce grown on the land and are good repairers of lawn and garden equipment.

“The uniform,” as they call their distinctive dress, is not worn until a young adult – usually not before the age of 18 – makes a commitment to join the church by triune immersion. It’s a big commitment, for these folk take seriously their separation from the modern world.

Until fairly recent years, an elementary school education was considered sufficient for children, but this has been somewhat modified. Leaders of congregations are not ordained but men may attain the title of elder for long years of fidelity and service.

Men and women sit separately in the meeting house with children taking their place by sex with their elders as they approach school age.  There are no organized Sunday schools. Communion, taken quarterly, is closed to those not of the faith, but one may observe the lengthy service –it includes a real meal of beef and bread, the washing of feet, a “holy kiss” to those of the same sex and finally the partaking of bread and wine.

Years ago, I was able to observe the Love Feast service and to borrow a manual of beliefs and practices from the mother of a friend of my son. Not much has changed since those days about 30 years ago, I learned recently, when I was able to share briefly in “a singing” held at the Peters Creek Church of the Brethren on Cove Road.

The Peters Creek Church is the mother congregation of Churches of the Brethren in this area. Its fellowship hall, where the singing was held, dates to 1845 and was used as a hospital at the time of the small Battle of Hanging Rock in 1864. Relations are cordial today between the Old Order folk and the more modern Church of the Brethren, the Rev. Dr. Jack Lowe, pastor for 16 years at Peters Creek, indicated.

However, there seems no question of a merger. The division of old order and modern occurred more than 100 years ago when the traditionalists bought property across Peters Creek and built their own frame meeting house. On my previous visit in the 1980s it was heated by a stove and had no indoor plumbing. Some years later the congregation built several miles away and added the barest modern amenities.

Arriving late for “the singing,” which I only expected to listen to, I found the hall filled with more than 100 people of all ages. A young woman in her long dark dress and cap offered me one of the few seats and shared her hymnal with me. It’s a capella presented joyfully with the several hymns coming from two hymnals with the shaped notes associated with an earlier time. However, nearly all were familiar to me from my own childhood with an evangelical Presbyterian mother.

The Old Order Brethren folk regard modern communication as contrary to their separation from the world – neither seeking nor permitting much attention to themselves. Surprisingly, they do not seek to convert others nor send missionaries since, their manual states, this was done by the early Christian followers of Jesus.

The family and the customs on which children are reared are supposed to do the rest.

– Frances Stebbins

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