Grace Community Church is part of the Brethren Church, Ashland, Ohio. Our official launch date was Sunday, September 27th, 1998. We started off as a mobile church that met anywhere we could including motels, schools and even bingo halls.
In 2004 God provided the opportunity to purchase and renovate the former Shawnee Mission Fire Station as our permanent church home.
Looking toward the future, we have recently purchased 14 acres of land on Rt. 522 just south of Winchester that will be the future home of Grace Community Church. We are a member of the Willow Creek Association.
History of our Brethren denomination
The roots of the Brethren movement are to be found in Germany in the early 1700’s. The people who would make up the eight founding members of the Brethren, including their outstanding leader, Alexander Mack, Sr., were originally part of a movement known as Radical Pietism. This movement called people to experience a life-changing spiritual awakening and to separate themselves from the established churches, particularly the Lutheran and Reformed churches, because they were viewed as having departed from true commitment to Jesus Christ.
However, Radical Pietists saw no need for external expressions of the faith such as baptism and communion. Mack and other radicals experienced opposition from the state authorities for their beliefs, and therefore sought refuge in the county of Wittgenstein in the small town of Schwarzenau. Here Mack and a small group of fellow radicals came to the conviction in 1708 that full obedience to Jesus Christ and the Word required that they observe the practices of baptism, communion, and discipline.
Their act of believer baptism in 1708 founded a new Christian fellowship. Zealous evangelism of their fellow radicals, the established churches, and the Mennonites spread their faith to several other locations in Germany. But this activity also brought persecution on the Brethren from the authorities in Germany including exile, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and service as a galley slave in one case. In 1719 about twenty Brethren families, from the congregation in Krefeld, Germany, were the first Brethren to emigrate to America.
Under the leadership of Peter Becker, they settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in the colony that William Penn had opened up as a haven for religious dissenters in Europe. In 1720 Alexander Mack led the Schwarzenau group to Surhuisterveen in West Friesland in the Netherlands. This move was probably occasioned both by continuing governmental pressure on the Brethren and economic hardships. Then in 1729 Mack led about 120 Brethren to America, who settled in Pennsylvania as well. Few Brethren remained in Europe after these emigrations; those who did tended to join other Pietistic groups or similar groups like the Mennonites.
The Brethren who came to Germantown in 1719 did not formally organize a congregation in the New World until Christmas Day, 1723, when they held their first baptisms and love feast, presided over by Peter Becker. The evangelistic efforts of the Germantown Brethren formed two new congregations the next year, Coventry and Conestoga. A division occurred within the Conestoga congregation in 1728, in which the charismatic leader, Conrad Beissel played the lead role. He would become the central figure in the communal society that became known as the Ephrata Cloister, to which many Brethren were attracted.
Throughout the 18th century the Germantown congregation continued to play a leading role in Brethren life through such capable leaders as Alexander Mack, Sr., and Jr., and Christopher Sauer II. Sauer and his father were known for their printing establishment that served the German speaking settlers in America and which published the three editions of the Sauer Bible, the first European language Bible printed in America.
The evangelistic zeal of the Brethren spread their faith quickly in America, with congregations being found in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas by 1770. The Brethren were characterized by their practice of believer baptism by trine immersion and their observance of the Lord’s Supper with its three parts: feetwashing, love feast, and communion. Their worship services had lively preaching and singing. Their congregations were led by unpaid or free ministers elected by the local church; they also had deacons who assisted the ministers and cared for the welfare of the congregation. Brethren people sought to live a devout and Christ-like style of life and to maintain their principles of nonconformity, nonresistance, and non-swearing.
Brethren Expansion and Development (1785-1880)
The Brethren, officially known as the German Baptist Brethren and informally as the Dunkers, continued to expand during this period, establishing new homes and congregations on the American frontier. They founded numerous congregations in the Midwest and had even reached the West coast by the 1850’s. The Brethren had been able to maintain their German subculture through the beginning of the 19th century, but increasingly the influence of American culture was felt on the brotherhood.
During the 1830’s and 40’s the Brethren made the shift from a predominantly German-speaking church to a predominantly English-speaking one. During the 1800’s Annual Meeting came to play an increasingly important role in the life of the church. These yearly gatherings of Brethren from throughout the country began in the mid-1700’s and had served the dual role of maintaining fellowship among the scattered Brethren and developing unity on questions of faith and practice that were considered by the assembled Brethren.
During the course of the 19th century the Brethren had to interact with American culture to an ever greater measure because the artificial barriers of a different language and insulated life on the frontier were steadily eroding. As a result the Brethren brought increasing numbers of questions to Annual Meeting for deliberation, on issues as diverse as the allowance of carpets and flowered wallpaper in homes, to the proper style of plain clothes, to the acceptance of higher education and Sunday Schools.
By the 1860’s two quite divergent views were developing in the church about such issues. One group, the Progressive Brethren, felt that the brotherhood should make full use of such practices as Sunday Schools, evangelism, higher education, and foreign missions to enable the church to spread the beliefs of the church more widely and to move more quickly into the mainstream of American culture. An opposite position was taken by the Old Order Brethren who felt that such innovations would move the church in the direction of worldly Christianity and away from the old order or faith of the church. During the 1870’s a third group, the Conservatives, arose as a mediating position between the two extremes. By the beginning of the 1880’s, tensions among these factions had reached a breaking point.
Between 1880 and 1883 a three way division occurred in the German Baptist Brethren Church. About four thousand Old Order Brethren withdrew during 1880 and 1881, formally organizing themselves into the Old German Baptist Brethren Church. In 1882 Henry Holsinger and many of his Progressive followers were expelled from the church. In 1883 they organized The Brethren Church with about six thousand members. The main body of the German Baptist Brethren, known informally as the Conservatives at the time, would eventually adopt the name, the Church of the Brethren, in 1908. They had about 50,000 members following the division.
Reorganization and Revitalization (1883-1930)
The Brethren Church reluctantly began the difficult task of reorganizing the church, since they had been unwillingly forced out of the German Baptist Brethren Church. The period of the 1880’s and 90’s were difficult ones, due to the lack of sufficient numbers of ministers and to financial hardship that nearly closed the denomination’s publishing company and its college, Ashland College, which had been founded in 1878 and had come under the control of the Brethren Church.
The former “Progressive Brethren” moved rapidly into the mainstream of American church life, emphasizing education, theological training for ministers, the ordination of women, and home and foreign missions. Brethren individuals became involved in many of the interdenominational movements of the early 20th century and they also came under the influence of fundamentalism and liberalism. Between 1913 and 1920 a liberal controversy erupted in the church, but was brought to an end when the Ministerial Association adopted a conservative statement of doctrine and practice in 1921, “The Message of the Brethren Ministry.” As a result, those influenced by liberalism left the church for more compatible denominations.
The 1920’s and 30’s witnessed expansion of the church’s home and foreign missions programs and further developments in the training of ministers. A seminary had been begun at Ashland College in 1906 under the leadership of J. Allen Miller, though it was really a Bible Department in the college. In 1930, however, the seminary began to offer a graduate level degree.
The Division of 1939
All was not well within the church, however. Two distinct factions were forming in the church during the 1930s, one influenced strongly by fundamentalism and the other retaining more of the traditional Brethren beliefs. Controversy first broke out regarding Ashland College, with the Fundamentalist Brethren desiring to transform it into a Bible college and the Brethrenists wanting to continue pursuing its accreditation as a liberal-arts institution. Eventually, theological and personality issues entered the conflict.
The distressing division occurred in 1939, resulting in the approximately 30,000 members splitting nearly evenly between the Grace Brethren, so named after the founding of Grace Theological Seminary in 1937, and the Ashland Brethren so called because of their support of Ashland College.
Period of Disillusionment (1940-1960)
The division of 1939 affected the Ashland Brethren far more adversely than it did the Grace Brethren. A number of ministries that add vitality and vision to a denomination sided with the Grace Brethren: the youth work, the home and foreign mission programs, and nearly all the young ministerial recruits. The emotional drain of the division itself, combined with the exertion needed to begin new ministries from scratch, created a period of despair and disillusionment in the Brethren Church that lasted nearly twenty years. Leaders within the church suggested three options for the future of the church during this period: join the Church of the Brethren, let the denomination disintegrate, and rebuild.
Thankfully, visionary leaders in the church decided to invest the necessary effort to move the church forward. New home and foreign mission programs were begun during the 1940s, but escalated during the 1960s and 70s. Special emphasis was place on youth work beginning in 1946; it began to bear fruit by the 1950s as new leaders were recruited and trained for service in the church.
Especially significant for the advance of the denomination has been the key role played by Ashland Theological Seminary. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there were serious concerns whether the seminary could continue. In 1963, when Joseph Shultz became the dean of the seminary, it was the smallest such school in Ohio with 22 students. His visionary leadership of the seminary enabled it to become the largest seminary in Ohio. Today, under the direction of Fred Finks, the seminary has over 700 students.
The period since 1960 has also witnessed several other significant developments: renewed interest in the historical and theological heritage of the church, important structural changes at the denominational level, and cooperation with other evangelical churches through the National Association of Evangelicals and with other branches of the Brethren in various research, service, and missionary activities.
Today there is a renewed sense of direction and vision in the church. We are seeking to discern the unique calling that God has given the Brethren Church while at the same time we are working together with other like-minded denominations in various ways. We have restructured the denomination to make it more efficient and responsive to change while at the same time we desire a national organization that will model servant leadership. We continue to uphold our historic commitment to evangelism at home and abroad while at the same time we try to be faithful to our heritage of service to the needy in the world. Above all we seek to be faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ in both word and deed.