o give a proper accounting of the history of the Apostolic Christian Church, we need to look back and consider the very first Christian churches to ever exist; what was the Christian church like when it was led by Christ’s hand-picked apostles? And we need to look at the Roman Catholic Church that later dominated Christianity for many centuries, because if there were no Roman Catholic Church, there probably would not be a need for an Apostolic Christian Church. And we need to look at the reformers who rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church because if there were no Reformation, there would be no Apostolic Christian Church! So read on for a brief history of Christianity and ultimately, the Apostolic Christian Church.
The Start Of Christianity
The first Christian church began in Jerusalem after Christ's ministry on earth and His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven (approximately 30 A.D.). The first church leaders were Christ’s apostles and of course, that church was founded on the teachings of Christ. Soon the Word was spread to other cities. The book of Acts (which can be found in the New Testament of the Bible) gives a personal account of how the first church Christian churches were organized and what they believed. One can also learn about the very first churches through the letters written to various church congregations at the time; many of them have been preserved for posterity and can be read in the New Testament of the Bible. It must have been a very exciting time because one could listen at the feet of those who were personally discipled by Jesus Christ Himself!
From the Bible, and first & second century church writings, as well as some writings of their contemporaries, we can piece together the beliefs and practices of the early church. We know that church services started with a lengthy reading from the Scriptures, followed by preaching, prayer, hymn-singing and the celebration of holy communion. Only those who had been converted and baptized were allowed to participate in communion.
The conversion process involved adults learning about the faith (as it was new and completely unknown to most of the world) and demonstrating a full repentance of their former sins and showing clear evidence of a change of heart and true allegiance to Christ. This process of conversion, ending with baptism, could take up to three years! In the earliest years, church services were held in the homes of church members. Baptisms would occur at nearest body of water where the convert was fully immersed into the water, in some cases three times (once for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Later, when houses were converted solely for church use, baptistries were often incorporated into the buildings so that baptisms could be possible even when weather conditions were poor (archaeologists have actually excavated some of these early house-churches, complete with baptistries). After baptism, the new church member was greeted with a “kiss of love” or “kiss of peace” from fellow church members, it was a greeting that was only shared among church members. Records of the communion service and other church services of the period also mention the use of the kiss as a greeting between church members. In many cases, the new member also partook of communion right after baptism.
However, as time passed, the first generation Christians died out and it was left for succeeding generations to pass on the things they had learned about Christianity to the next generation. Thankfully, the first generation put much of what they knew down in writing before they passed on and we can still read this in the New Testament of the Bible. In the first century or two, these documents were the sole standard of the church, the guide for all church practices & doctrines and the guidebook on how Christians were to conduct their lives. Therefore, it should not be a shock to us to find that although there were minor regional differences, the majority of the churches across the land did not stray very far from the Bible in their teachings and practices.
However, sad to say, that was soon to change. Worldly influences and the ideas of men would gradually replace the teachings of Christ and His apostles. Many of the things commonly found in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and even Protestant churches today would be completely foreign and considered heretical and blasphemous to the very first believers.
Centralization Of Power
The lust for power in the church leadership was to soon send the church of that era into a downward spiral of darkness. By the end of the second century, some church leaders began to promote the idea of a church hierarchy with certain bishops in control of vast geographical regions and even a single bishop that would be over every single church! At that time, all churches were largely independent. The bishops Ireneaus and Cyprian were successful in their campaign to make the bishop of Rome seen as the most important of all bishops, even though there is no scriptural support for such an idea. This eventually led to making Rome the head of the Roman Catholic Church (hence the “Roman” part of the name) and all of the other Christian churches were made subservient to Rome.
Henry Ford once said that you could get your Model T in any color you wanted—as long as that color was black; the same could be said for the poor person looking for a church after this consolidation of power. With few exceptions, if you wanted to attend a church you could go to any church you wanted to, as long as it was Roman Catholic, because that was the only church around!
To be fair, if we are to believe the bishops, one of the motives for the centralization of power was to enable them to be able to quickly squelch some of the heresies that were starting to arise in a few of the fringe churches. Unfortunately, when the power was secured, it ended up being used more to promote heresies than to suppress them!
Bishops Ireneus and Cyprian also wanted another kind of power—a power over the minds and lives of those they were supposed to be shepherding. Apparently, they did not want anyone to be able to challenge them when it came to interpreting what the Scriptures said. So they promoted the idea that only the clergy were qualified to interpret the Scriptures. Sadly, this idea gained acceptance and the laity were actually discouraged from reading the very Scriptures that had once been passed around and read to all of the churches during New Testament times. This eventually led to complete ignorance of the Scriptures by the lay people and that had grave consequences for the church because the laity then had no ability to discern if their clergymen were espousing the truths from the Bible or something contrary to the Scriptures.
Because of this, there was nothing to prevent the clergy from promoting their own opinions or even blatant heresies instead of the truth of the Bible. And that is exactly what happened. The opinions and teachings of priests and bishops soon supplanted the simple truths of the Bible (see some of the highlights scrolling at the bottom-right corner of your screen—click your refresh button to start at the beginning of the list, 300 A.D.).
In time the teachings of the church were so far removed from the Bible, that the church felt threatened by its very presence (if the people they controlled were to read the Bible, they could plainly see that the vast majority of the church’s teachings were outright heresies). So in 1229, the Roman Catholic Church placed the Bible on its list of forbidden books and it was made a mortal (i.e., very serious) sin in their church law if a layperson were to read it! As hard as it may be to believe, as late as the 1950’s, the Roman Catholic Church was conducting official book-burnings and the book they were burning was the Bible!
And as if that were not enough, in 1545, the Roman Catholic Church had the gall to declare that their church laws and teachings were equal in authority to those of the Bible! This is a literally a weighty matter for any Catholic striving to follow the teachings of the church, because the just the “Bulls” (i.e., official pronouncements on church doctrine) of the popes from 450 to 1850 fills 41 volumes and that does did not include any of the laws created by the various synods and councils! And the pronouncements of one pope often contradict another, leading to even more confusion for the poor Roman Catholic believer!
There was another event that led to the downfall of the church. And strangely, it is an event that some see as one of the successes of the Christian church and not as one of it’s failures. In 324 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine showed favor to the Christian religion; a welcome relief to the early Christians after much persecution of Christianity by his predecessors. However, in return for his favor, he demanded the right to meddle with this new religion and few leaders dared to complain. Constantine was soon building grand church buildings modeled after Roman basilicas.
And because the great and powerful Emperor and his family now sometimes attended church services in the buildings which he commissioned, there was a natural desire to change the service into something that seemed more worthy of someone of his stature and of the new, grand building in which they were being held. So gradually more ceremony was incorporated into church services; the service was changing from the simple, heartfelt worship of group of fellow believers into a spectacle of pomp and circumstance designed to awe and entertain. The laity were changing from participants in worship to mere spectators. For example, services were soon changed to begin and end with stately parades of people filing through the church aisles, usually displaying religious symbols, amulets, trinkets and images (typically called church processionals); incense was burned to add to the overall effect. Such ceremonies were a common part of pagan worship and of state ceremonies, but had not been a part of Christian worship until then. As a result, the churches services became more formalized, ritualized and sterile.
But it could well be said that another emperor had even more impact on the course of Christianity. In 392, Emperor Theodosius became the first Emperor to ban the pagan religions that were very common at the time and force conversions of the general populace to Christianity, now the official state religion. Church and state were becoming one. While the emperor surely meant well, his new law was to have grave consequences for the Christian church. Immediately the small Christian community, still a tiny minority at the time, was completely overwhelmed by the huge numbers of people seeking membership so that they could comply with the new law. In order to cope with the new crisis, the lengthy conversion process was shortened to a mere 40 days, made less personal and more formalized.
Soon the churches will filled to overflowing with people, but not because they really wanted to be there of their own free will. When this kind of thing happens, syncretism rears its ugly head. Syncretism occurs when people are forced to convert to a religion, or do it half-heartedly or for the wrong reasons. In a nutshell, these people often fail to abandon their old religion when converting to a new one. It can be vividly seen in Latin America, for instance, where the native people, who were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism, incorporated many of their pagan rituals into their brand of Catholicism. The same thing happened in these Roman times. The negative effect of the huge influx of newly "converted" pagan people into the church was devastating.
For example, in 754, Pope Leo III became alarmed because it had become commonplace for the laity and clergy to kiss, venerate and worship statues and pictures of dead saints and Jesus and Mary. He tried to stop the practice, but was ultimately unsuccessful because it had become so ingrained by then. However, such activity would be quite the norm in a pagan temple, the most likely source for this notion. The idea of installing images and statues in a Christian church was unheard of until around 375 when some churches began to accept their presence in their buildings.
Also, pagans nearly always had both male and female deities, but Christianity had no female deities—this left a vacuum that some of the “converts” wanted to fill. They found that Mary, the mother of Jesus, seemed to fit the bill quite nicely. In 431 Mary was given the title, "Mother of God" by the church and became the object of veneration. This heresy was expanded in 600 to allow for prayers to and worship of Mary and dead "saints" which were said to be acting as direct agents for God (there is no scriptural basis for such a claim). Of course, praying for the dead and worship of dead "holy" men is a common pagan religious practice--such practices can still be seen today in many Eastern religions and in New Age beliefs that are continuing to gain popularity in the West. But this was only the beginning, (see the highlights, scrolling at the bottom of your screen; hit your Refresh button to start at the beginning of the list).
As you might imagine, the introduction of pagan ideas into the Christian Church had a corrosive effect on the Church. Christianity is incompatible with the worship of people and inanimate objects; how can anyone find God in a church that confuses the sacred and the profane?
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. (Matthew 23:13)
The situation was to get even worse. "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," goes the saying and it is a true one. In 500 A.D., the priests started in dressing in special elaborate and expensive costumes in order to elevate themselves above the laity.
Then in 600, it was decreed that worship (written and spoken) could only occur in the Latin language—a language that only the very highly educated (a miniscule population of that day) could understand. These rules had the effect of creating a huge divide between the clergy and laity, and it was perceived that different standards were required of each class of people. And even more important, having church services in Latin meant that the laity, which had already been discouraged from reading the Bible, now could not even comprehend the few Bible verses recited in their church services! The indiscernible chanting of Latin by splendidly-robed priests soon became a integral component of Roman Catholicism. So the very words Jesus plainly spoke to the common people on the hillsides were turned into incomprehensible hocus-pocus chanted by priests clad in costly garments while they conducted mysterious rituals to impress the multitudes—the very things that Jesus had preached against (see John 18:19-20, Mark 7:6-9, Mark 12:38-12:40, Luke 4:16, Luke 11:39-40, Luke 11:52, Matthew 23:1-33, etc.)!
Then in 750 the office of pope had become a state office, as well as a church office, giving the church even more power. After Christianity became a state religion, it was inevitable that state and church would meld even further together. It was not long before the Roman Catholic Church was using its power to wage wars. A far cry from what the Apostle Paul had in mind when describing the role of the Christian church!
The church continued to enhance the wealth, power and prestige of the priests. It was taught that the prayers of the common layperson had little, if any effect, but that the prayers of the priests went straight up to God. And by 1245 it was taught that serious sins could not be forgiven unless they were confessed to priests. Trying to go directly to Jesus would be futile; Jesus would only forgive your sins if you confessed them to a Roman Catholic priest. Later the church taught that the priests themselves had the power to forgive sins! A description of the priest in the Council of Trent in 1545 removed all doubt—it was declared that the priest was God’s only holy representative on earth and that they were practically gods themselves!
This put everyone at the mercy of their priests and naturally put them in high demand, especially by those who had a lot of sins to account for. The priests soon took advantage of this by charging money for prayers on behalf of individuals seeking forgiveness of their sins and to perform baptisms, weddings and funerals.
However, there were a few alternative paths to forgiveness in this ever-changing religion. For instance, sins could supposedly be erased by the performance of certain rituals of penance, but only after being directed to do so by a priest. The most common ritual was chanting a “Hail Mary” prayer over and over, keeping track of the number of repetitions by counting on rosary beads (see what the Bible has to say about this practice: Matthew 6:7). Or you might be asked to visit a religious shrine, but in a painful way (climbing hundreds of stone steps to the shrine on one’s bare knees, for example). Or one could bypass such outward demonstrations of religiosity and simply purchase an expensive document from the church, blessed by a priest and stating that one’s sins were forgiven (the so-called indulgence). Or sins could even be erased by fighting in one of the pope’s wars (it was one of the primary recruitment incentives for the Crusades). In short, they changed the church into a den of thieves (see Matthew 21:12-13 & Mark 11:15-17, Acts 8:18-24).
Impediments To Reform
If you know your Bible well, you can clearly see that there was hardly a single truth of the Gospel that was not trampled on or twisted completely out of recognition. And it would be perfectly clear to anyone who had access to a Bible and who could read and understand it. One might wonder why some of the priests did not challenge the teachings of their own church, after all, they had access to the truth because they were granted access to the Bible, albeit, usually a Latin translation.
One reason was that there was no such thing as freedom of religion, anyone who dared to question the authority of the church would suffer quick and brutal retribution. Another reason was that many priests were illiterate and those who did receive religious training were taught church law, philosophy, how to perform church ceremonies and precious little about the Scriptures. As implausible as it may seem, it was possible to graduate from most seminaries of the day without even cracking open the Bible once! For example, Menno Simons, a priest in the 16th century, admitted that he had never read a single page of the Bible! After he got up enough nerve to do so later in life, he left the Roman Catholic Church because he could plainly see that Roman Catholicism was contrary to the Word of God.
Another reason was the role money played in the church. Because church jobs granted one a steady source of income and often a very high income, such jobs were often a reward for political patronage (remember, church and state were one) or sought out because of a person’s desire for wealth, power and prestige. And hard as it may be to believe, the pope commonly auctioned off bishoprics to the highest bidder! As bidding was open to practically anyone who had the money, it was very unlikely that the successful bidder would be qualified for such an office.
And there was another source of corruption. According to reports from the period, an overwhelming majority of the “celibate” priests were involved in sexual affairs with adults and/or children, some quite openly, in fact, many churches and monasteries had brothels or homes for their "concubines" in plain view, right next to the church! Obviously, the farce of the "chaste" priest has continued to this very day judging from the pedophile, homosexual and other sex scandals of Roman Catholic priests in recent times! Those in the Roman Catholic priesthood have openly admitted that 60% to 80% of their priests are homosexuals. The corruption in the priesthood was widespread and well known in early times too, especially in Rome, discouraging many sincere religious people from aspiring to the priesthood.
The First Reformers
But despite the obstacles, there were a few sincere souls who went out of way to learn the Scriptures and then dared to tell others what the Bible actually said, regardless of the inevitable persecution that would follow from the displeased Roman Catholic Church.
There may have been some lost to history, but the first reformer of note was Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant of France, who sold nearly all of his possessions and started a movement in 1176 based on strict adherence to the Bible (sola scriptura). He preached repentance to all who would listen and condemned the mass, prayers for the dead, indulgences and prayers to the saints.
Then in 1375, John Wycliffe, a master of Belliol College at Oxford, England made waves by orchestrating an English translation of the Bible (which became known as the Wycliffe Bible). He rejected the entire papal system, the doctrine of transubstantiation, purgatory, use of relics and indulgences. Wycliffe’s Bible and other published writings on religion were responsible, in part, for the emergence of later reformers. The Roman Catholic Church hated him so much that after he died, they desecrated his grave, removed his bones, burned them, ground them to powder and threw them into the river!
In 1401 John Hus was ordained as a priest and then became a professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. He also preached at Bethlehem Chapel (which seated about 3,000 people). After much study of the Scriptures, he became convinced that his church was seriously corrupt in its teachings. He then openly condemned indulgences, the mass, the corrupt clergy, and the denial of communion wine to the laity. In addition, he condemned the doctrine that the clergy had the power to forgive sins and said that no pope or priest could establish a doctrine that was contrary to the Bible (quite a shocking and revolutionary statement at the time). He contrasted Biblical teachings with Roman Catholic teachings using murals on the chapel walls. For instance, he a had a picture of the pope getting his feet kissed by the faithful (a requirement upon meeting the pope) and another mural across from that showing Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.
Hus also irritated the Roman Catholic Church by encouraging congregational singing in his church (the Roman Catholic Church forbade anyone but official church choristers from singing in church). His followers produced the first known hymnal for use in congregational singing (to be clear, the first century church also practiced congregational singing and some of their hymn lyrics survive, but no hymnals; by Hus’s time, congregational singing had been banned by the church).
He was very popular in his country, even after the pope excommunicated him and the entire city of Prague! However, after a receiving assurances of safe passage from his king and the pope, he decided to meet with the Roman Catholic Council of Constance to defend his views. The main item for this council to consider was a church crisis, two different men, one in Italy and one in France were claiming to be the holy, infallible pope and both had a large following!
Upon his arrival, he was thrown into prison and much later was forced to attend a hearing where he was shouted down by the priests whenever he attempted to defend himself. He was sentenced to be burned alive at the stake, which was carried out on July 6, 1415. Neither his king or the pope made any attempts to stop his imprisonment or save him from the stake. In his last moments, as the flames engulfed him, he sang a hymn.
Incidentally, the phrase, “We’ll cook his goose” actually originated from his death, Hus meant “goose” in the Czech language. A remnant of Waldo’s movement had survived until Hus’s time and they joined his movement. The movement Hus started still exists with the Moravian Brethren in America and the Hussites and the Czech Brethren Church in Europe, however, some of their beliefs have changed considerably since his day.
While he can't be considered a Reformation leader, Desiderius Erasmus was responsible, in part, for the Reformation of the 1500's. Erasmus was a Roman Catholic scholar and one of the first men to compile a complete edition of the Greek New Testament from ancient Greek manuscripts since the apostolic era. He completed this in 1516 and it became widely published and known in scholarly religious circles. Until that time, most scholars had to make do with the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible. The Vulgate was a poor translation which intentionally distorted many words and phrases in order to make the Bible to seem agreeable with Roman Catholicism. Erasmus's Greek New Testament became the basis for the Textus Receptus, which in turn became the text that most early Protestant Bibles were based on (including the popular King James version).
Erasmus published other writings which scorned the Roman Catholic Church, especially their traditions and theology which could not be found in primitive Christianity, such as their doctrine of original sin, their beliefs about holy communion, fasts, pilgrimages, veneration of saints, priestly celibacy and the like. On the other hand, Erasmus promoted a rationalistic, humanistic philosophy which most Christians today would find abhorrent. However, it was his Greek New Testament translation that would soon change the world because it was read by most of the reformers to come, including Luther, Zwingli and the Anabaptists, to name a few. After reading the New Testament in an unaltered state, it immediately became obvious to most readers that the Roman Catholic Church had wandered far from true Christianity.
Of course, the reformer most successful at gaining followers was Martin Luther, a former monk. He nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517 to advertise his grievances and it worked quite well. What Luther protested the most was the church’s use of indulgences and the abuses and corruption of the clergy. The Roman Catholic Church responded by excommunicating him. They desperately wanted to get their hands on him, but Luther’s ruler, Frederic of Saxony, was sympathetic to Luther’s views and protected Luther.
Luther translated the Bible into German and soon his movement swept Germany. Luther preached the “priesthood of the believer” (i.e., that one did not have to go through a priest to access God or receive forgiveness, but could go straight to Christ) and salvation by grace, not salvation by performing “penance” or good works.
Though he was not the first to practice it, Luther included congregational hymn singing in his churches and because of his great influence, he was largely responsible for the incorporation of the practice in later Protestant churches. The German hymnody tradition started by Luther incorporated more modern melodies with harmony and included freer and more personal lyrics than ever before (with few exceptions, Roman Catholic tradition demanded that hymns be strictly based on the Psalms in the Bible; including personal sentiment in hymns was forbidden—incidentally, this philosophy was also prevalent in many Protestant churches for many years).
However, like Waldo and Hus who came before him, Luther’s original goal was to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not to leave it and create a new one. When it became obvious that would not work, he followed the Roman Catholic model and created a new state church, the Lutheran church. He was much more tolerant of the many errors brought into the Roman Catholic Church over the years than the most of the reformers who preceded and followed him. For example, he continued with a form of the mass, insisted that Jesus Christ was present in the communion bread and wine, maintained the use of clerical garb to set the clergy apart from the laity, made no attempt to remove images from the church, etc. Also, while he embraced the Scriptures more than the Roman Catholic Church ever did, he could not disguise his deep contempt for some parts of the Bible (the epistle of James, for instance, because it contradicted some of the doctrines he had formulated).
The Swiss Reformation
The Reformation in Switzerland was sparked by the priest Huldreich Zwingli. After studying the Greek New Testament published by Erasmus, he became convinced that his church was seriously flawed. In about 1519, he began preaching against celibacy of the priesthood and the use of pilgrimages and indulgences as a means to remit sins. He started a movement that became known as the Reform movement and it soon spread to all of the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Like Luther, he ended up creating a new state church and all people in the territories under his control were forced to become members of his new Swiss Reformed Church.
However, he was more thorough than Luther in expunging the church of heretical Roman Catholic teachings and traditions. In areas where he gained control, monasteries and nunneries were disbanded (these institutions, once based on the vow of poverty, had often become very corrupt and wealthy). Their possessions and property were confiscated, sold and the money given to the poor. Priests were allowed to marry. And all pictures, statues and organs were removed from the churches; he had observed that the presence of images in churches had led to idolatry and he noted that the use of musical instruments in worship had no scriptural support and were a worldly distraction. Interestingly, in his youth, Zwingli was an accomplished musician and could play six different instruments! However, he initially continued observing the mass, but eventually dropped that also, several years later.
The Start Of The Anabaptist Movement
Two of Zwingli’s first, and most enthusiastic followers included Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Both were highly educated men, who could read the Scriptures in their original Greek and Hebrew languages. They believed that the church was so corrupt that it was necessary to start with a clean slate (dispensing with the many aberrant Roman Catholic church teachings, traditions and inventions added over the centuries) and that one should use only the Bible as their guide. Initially, they were excited because Zwingli seemed to agree wholeheartedly. However, Zwingli was to soon disappoint them.
Grebel and Manz applauded the many changes Zwingli had instituted, but they believed there was much more to be done. Zwingli seemed satisfied with only a partial church reformation, while Grebel and Manz thought that he should not stop until the church was in complete conformity with Biblical teachings and when it clearly resembled the model given by the first believers in the New Testament. For example, Zwingli openly admitted that the Bible offered no support for infant baptism, but he thought it was a necessary evil because if he insisted on accepting only baptism of adult believers, he would lose a lot of his followers. Also, by maintaining the practice of infant baptism, he would automatically gain members into his churches every time a pregnant woman in his church gave birth; the practice would help insure that his church would endure. In other words, Zwingli was quite willing to ignore Biblical precepts if it was politically expedient to do so.
This flaw was plainly demonstrated as Zwingli gained control over city and canton (state) governments. Once control was securely in his grasp, he let his city councils make doctrinal decisions. These councils were usually interested more in their own personal welfare than what the Bible had to say about the subject at hand. Zwingli’s lust for the creation of a state under his control led to many wars with opposing powers.
Grebel and Manz tried to reason with Zwingli for several years, but he was unwilling to budge, so they broke with Zwingli in 1525 and created their own movement. The first order of business was for the followers of this movement to get baptized. They did not honor previous infant baptisms; they considered them meaningless because an infant did not have the cognitive ability to commit his life to Christ. It was this practice that inspired outsiders to give them the name of “Anabaptist,” literally, “baptize again.”
This new movement incorporated most of the reforms instituted by Zwingli, but true to their convictions, they continued where Zwingli left off and did not stop until their church resembled the original New Testament churches. They insisted on repentance of sins and evidence of a deep and true obedience to Christ before one was accepted into the church. Unlike Zwingli, they believed that one had freedom of will and therefore was responsible for his actions.
And unlike Luther, they rejected the “once-saved, always saved” doctrine. To them it was clear from Christ’s teachings in the Gospels that He had very high expectations of His followers and demanded complete submission and obedience; an absence of this was an indicator of a lack of sincerity and that the person had not been truly converted or perhaps had once been converted, but had wandered away from the faith. On the other hand, they recognized that it was impossible to earn your way to heaven and it was ultimately only God’s grace that would allow one to enter. Obedience to Christ was not seen as a duty or a way to earn one’s way to heaven, but the natural response of anyone who had truly submitted his life to Christ and had been filled with the spiritual renewing power of the Holy Spirit.
The Anabaptists also went back to the New Testament practice of church discipline. Because of their nature, this was something very difficult for state churches to implement because by definition, everyone born in that state was automatically a lifetime member of the state church (unless he should leave for a country where another state religion was enforced). Unlike in the state churches, church members behaving immorally were not ignored or just winked at, but removed from church fellowship until the person repented of his sins—and this included the clergy, as well.
The Grebel and Manz’s movement also insisted that it was not Biblical for one to kill another person in war; such actions were contrary to Christ’s command to love your enemies and those that abuse and persecute you (Matthew 5:24). And they campaigned for something very radical at the time, the right for one to choose and practice his own religion instead of being forced to attend the local state church. More than anything else, it was these two beliefs (unwillingness to kill in war and separation from the state church) that got them into the most trouble with state authorities. Anabaptists soon became the most persecuted sect in Protestant history, with thousands of them being executed by the Reformed, Lutheran and Roman Catholic state churches.
However, the Anabaptist movement was initially very successful; so successful, in fact that only a year after the movement started, Zwingli saw it as direct threat to his consolidation of power in Switzerland. Hundreds of people were openly repenting of their sins and being baptized. Some meetings had so much emotion and fervor, they resembled the spirit of much later great revivals in America.
The Zurich city council had the ringleaders of the new movement arrested and then fined them and demanded that all Anabaptists leave the city immediately. They did so, but apparently the city council later decided that their solution was inadequate and had the now relocated leaders arrested again, put through some show trials and thrown into prison for life! However, all managed to escape prison.
Unfortunately, Grebel died of the plague shortly after he escaped and Manz was found and arrested once again. On January 25, 1527 the Zurich city council sentenced him to death and had him drowned in the river that ran through the center of Zurich; his former friend Zwingli made no attempt to stop the killing. His last words were, "Into thy hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” He was only one the first of a long line of Anabaptist martyrs for many centuries to come. Zwingli’s state government’s hated them so much that they put a bounty on all Anabaptists. It was assumed that anyone that did not curse, abuse his employees or family or drink to excess was an Anabaptist! That says a lot about the society in which they lived and the Anabaptists themselves! Zwingli met his own end in 1531 while fighting in a war for control of a nearby Catholic canton.
The Spread Of The Anabaptist Faith
Despite unceasing persecution (and perhaps because of it), the Anabaptists continued to grow and spread to the surrounding countries. Hans Hut brought the faith to Austria and Moravia. That movement was furthered by Jacob Hutter. Those he led became known as Hutterites and lived a communal life. Because of persecution, many of them emigrated to North America and the Ukraine, where they still exist to this day.
A former Lutheran pastor, Melchior Hoffman spread the Anabaptist faith to the Netherlands and Germany. This northern branch of Anabaptism was later propelled into the biggest branch of the faith by a former priest who converted to the faith; his name was Menno Simons. Under his tireless leadership, the faith was spread from Amsterdam to Danzig, from Cologne to the North Sea. These people came to be known as Mennonites.
Another influential leader surfaced in the late 1600’s. Jakob Amman, a former member of the Swiss Reformed church, converted to Anabaptism and later became a Mennonite minister and then elder (bishop) in the faith. However, he came to believe that the Mennonites were becoming lax and straying from their spiritual roots. Many churches were turning a blind eye to those practicing a sinful life and not following church practices.
Amman and those sympathetic to his concerns called for a meeting of all the ministers in the northern Swiss and southern German churches to discuss the problem and possible solutions. Amman thought a return to the Biblical practice of church discipline and the institution of biannual instead of annual communion services might be a way to address the problem (according to the Bible, one should confess their sins and make things right with their brothers and sisters in the faith before partaking of communion; increasing the frequency of the communion service would force church members to confront their sins at least twice a year).
However, to his great disappointment, Amman’s ideas were not welcomed by all at the meeting. When later meetings were called to try to work out their differences, those opposed to Amman’s ideas simply refused to attend. Because of their refusal to even talk, Amman felt he had no choice but to split from those who rejected his reforms. So nearly all of the northern Swiss churches split away from old Mennonite/Anabaptist church.
Growth and persecution eventually spread the Amish faith to southeast France, Alsace, Lorraine, southern Germany, Bavaria, the Netherlands, Poland and Russia (now part of the Ukraine). And by 1736 (perhaps earlier, by some accounts), the Amish had emigrated to America, where they flourished. A 1991 study counted about 63,000 members of the Old Order Amish church in America, not including children. These counts do not reveal their dramatic early success in America, because over the years large numbers split away from the original Amish church. Most of those that split off adopted "Mennonite" as part of their new denomination names and eventually dropped any part of their names that would reveal their Amish heritage (for those interested the historical development of the various Amish/Mennonite denominations, "A History of the Amish" is highly recommended--see bibliography below). This means that a large number of American "Mennonites" have a relatively recent Amish heritage, but only a very distant Mennonite heritage.
Most of us today are familiar with the Amish, who stick out like a sore thumb with their horse & buggies, rejection of technology, bearded men, bonneted women and the old-fashioned clothing they wear. However, before the 20th century, the Amish did not look terribly different than any other farm family you might see on the street; horse & buggies were the mode of transportation of the day, beards and bonnets were in style and their clothing, except for the lack of frills and buttons, was similar to the common clothing of the day. Their rejection of technology, the one thing that makes them seem so odd today, did not fully develop until the early 20th century. Of course, their Christian beliefs and the way they conducted their lives would have set them apart from their non-Amish neighbors, but these things are generally not apparent at first glance. Another distinction was that they refused to own slaves, which was highly unusual at the time.
The Start Of The Apostolic Christian Church
On July 4th, 1803, a son was born to religious parents, descendants of French Huguenots (a Calvinistic Protestant movement in France), living in Brugg, Switzerland. They named him Samuel. They dedicated their infant to the ministry in a church ceremony in the local Swiss Reformed church where his father was employed as a sexton. It would seem that this set the course for his life to come, though probably not as his parents would have imagined. When Samuel reached at 17, he went off to the University of Zurich to begin his training as a pastor in the state church. As Froehlich wrote later, “I did not in the slightest degree feel the great importance and responsibility of the vocation… I was to learn it much more in the way of a trade.” By that time, the theories of rationalism had taken hold over many of the European universities and Froehlich learned the theories well; he horrified his parents when he would come back for visits and tell them that he learned that there was no such thing as hell, heaven, miracles or anything supernatural. It was during this time Froehlich recalled that “Sin and the power of death had grown up hand-in-hand with unbelief, since it can not fail that where the head of the old serpent rises, its members also rise… Saddest of all was that…I could pass over [my sin] so lightly and so easily...that I could even formally say to myself, ‘That which I am doing is not sin.’"
He then transferred to the then new University of Basel for the remainder of his theological training. While in Basel, he made a point of looking up a pastor which Froehlich referred to only as "Reverend Lord Passavant." The vicar from his church back in Brugg had recommended him. This person is surely one Pastor Theophil Passavant, who was later employed at the Basel Mission to teach Greek and Latin in 1826 through 1828, according to their records. The Basel Evangelical Missionary Society was founded in 1815 to prepare missionaries for the mission field; it was one of many non-denominational "societies" formed in that period in Protestant England and Europe for this purpose. Nearly all of these societies were formed because of the Pietist sensibilities of their founders (until the Pietist movement, missionary activity of both Catholic and Protestant churches had consisted only of "Christianizing" people of conquered lands, and often not by preaching the Word, but by the sword)! The Basel Mission was a center of Pietism in Switzerland.
Froehlich was haunted by Pastor Passavant, who went out of his way to ask him every time they met, “How are things going in the most important matter of all?” When he finally asked him what he meant, Froehlich recalled that the pastor “began to preach to me of repentance… faith in Christ, etc. But he preached to deaf ears. I understood not a word of all he said.” Yet enough sunk in for him to pen these words in his diary, “Through the knowledge of God, man comes to knowledge of self, that is the truth which Christ taught us and to which we [can] arrive only through repentance.” Pastor Passavant had a real heart for leading young men to a true conversion to Christ; shortly after his brief stint at the Basel Mission, he started an outreach for the young men in Basel, similar to the early (pre-sports) years of the YMCA in the America; he is considered the founder of the Christian youth movement in German-speaking countries.
While attending university in Basel, Froehlich decided to join a student group that got together to read and discuss the Greek New Testament; it is possible that the group was led or at least organized by Pastor Passavant as he later taught the subject. Many of the students were members of the Community of Brethren. Apostolic Christian historian Klopfenstein tentatively identifies the Community as Anabaptists, but this is highly unlikely as all known Anabaptist groups eschewed all higher education (high school and university) and especially seminary training for their ministers because of the objectionable secular and religious teachings taught in such institutions. In fact, a school steeped in godless rationalism (as the Basel University was) would be the last place one might find an Anabaptist! Instead, it is more likely the Community of Brethren was a Pietist group as the "Brethren" name was popular among Pietist groups at the time; also, forming small groups to study the New Testament in Greek was one of the trademarks of Pietism. In any case, Froehlich became enraged when he found that the students closed their meetings with hymn-singing and prayer; such sincere piety in midst of a godless university environment apparently caught him off-guard. He did not want anything further to do with the group, and even tried to discourage others from joining it.
It was more than a year before Froehlich gave any serious thought to nagging question from Pastor Passavant. Then, while at home during Easter vacation, he became greatly troubled by a single thought that echoed through his mind, “Things can not continue like this. You must change!” "Then," Froehlich wrote, “I knelt for the first time before the hidden God and with uplifted hands solemnly gave the vow of fidelity, that from now on it must be different with me... All theological and rationalistic lectures became an abomination to me for I was now in another school.” Now if this were a typical Christian testimony, the story of this man’s conversion would have ended there, but that is not the case!
After this, Froehlich once again joined the Greek New Testament study group (which had been nearly disbanded, because of his efforts). Froehlich further recalled, “From then on, with all earnestness and might, I wished to shun sin (which I now recognized as sin) but did not realize that it did not lie within my power to overcome a mastery which had for so long bound me with chains of darkness.” As a result, he wrote, “I found peace and rest nowhere… I sought for something which should fill the endless emptiness which had now arisen in my soul and I did not find it. I went out into mountain and forest, knelt and prayer and cried out in lonesome places…. I sought the Lord Jesus Christ with ardent fervor and many tears.” Froehlich remained in this condition for seven long months until finally, “Faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified, brought me rest, peace and light and made place within me for a new creation. From then on, Jesus Christ was the center of my whole life and the sphere of activity.”
And yet, all was not easy after his conversion, Froehlich wrote, “I was kept constantly under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, for not until now did the struggle against my old nature…become serious. But even with all my new transgressions, the faithfulness of the Lord did not forsake me. Both of these things, my sins and His grace, humbled me greatly."
When Froehlich completed his studies, he found it very difficult to get a job in the state church because he was compelled to preach the truth of the Scriptures instead of the things he had learned in seminary. Then in 1830, he was appointed as the vicar of an ailing, poorly attended church in Leutwil. Undeterred by his appointment, he proceeded to preach the undiluted truth with all his might and soon the church was filled to overflowing with nearly 2,000 people, many from neighboring parishes. A great awakening had begun in the once nearly-dead church.
Then in 1830, the state church introduced a new catechism (formal religious instruction for children and adults). The new catechism had replaced the truth of the Gospel with the rationalistic thought he had been taught while in seminary. He refused to use it. He had already angered many of his peers because of his unconventional preaching and his success (many people abandoned their home churches to attend Froehlich's church), so they eagerly took advantage of this opportunity and notified his superiors of his refusal to use the new catechism. As a result, Froehlich was dismissed from his post and banned from ever preaching in a state church again.
But Froehlich did not let this stop him. He received invitations to preach at some Mennonite churches the following year and he eagerly accepted. However, while he was impressed with their doctrines and strict adherence to the Bible, he was disappointed to find that the doctrine of repentance and the new birth was conspicuously absent from their beliefs. Also, he felt that their strict dress code, which required members to wear dated costumes, had become a hindrance instead of a help to the furtherance of the Gospel.
Then later in 1831, he heard about a society in England, which he identifies as the "Continental Society of London" that was willing to support independent ministers of the Gospel. He sent a letter to them explaining his conversion experience and they replied back that they were willing to sponsor him. The full name of the society was the Continental Society for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge over the Continent of Europe, which was part of the mission outreach of the English Baptists at the time. This society was a new venture for the Baptists, they wanted to see if Baptist mission work on the European continent might be fruitful, as the Baptist faith was generally unknown outside of the English-speaking world at the time. Froehlich's proposal to evangelize in France was particulary welcomed by the Baptists, because it was one area in which they had little success thus far.
In 1832, Froehlich met with one Paul Ami Isaac David Bost, another minister sponsored by the Continental Society. Bost grew up in a community founded by the famous Pietist Zinzendorf, his parents were members of the community. Like Froehlich, he was briefly a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, but separated from it because he believed the teachings of the state church were contrary to the Bible. He spent most of his years as a traveling evangelist in French-speaking areas of Switzerland and France and also became known as a poet and hymn composer. Froehlich met Bost in 1832, while Bost was pastoring the Bourg de Four free (i.e., non-state) church in Geneva and asked him to baptize him, which he did. With that, he started his new life as a missionary, starting in Leutwil. Several hundred came to hear him preach, many of them from the state church where he formally preached. That year Froehlich led 38 men and women through the experience of repentance and conversion and they became the first souls to be baptized in the new denomination.
However, it was not long before the authorities chased him out of his old city. As in times past, persecution only caused the new movement to grow. Froehlich ended up in Langnau where he met an older Mennonite elder who was impressed by the young preacher and disappointed with the spiritual decline in his own church. He invited Froehlich to preach in his town, which he did with much success, on a daily basis, often to 400-500 or more enthusiastic listeners. However after about four months he was run of town by the state authorities.
Undeterred, Froehlich moved on to Herisau, then Wattwil, and then Hauptwil (Thurgau) preaching and converting men and women at each stop. In Hauptwil, he met his future wife, Susette, who he later married in 1836. One lesson he learned in the early years was to allow plenty of time to allow for a true conversion and not to be too hasty to baptize them into the church because “everyone who permits himself to be baptized must be ready not only to receive the blessing of the cross of Christ, but also to take up the cross of Christ.” The persecution did not relent, but neither did his missionary zeal, even after his sponsor, the Baptist Continental Society, decided to end their effort at European evangelization and stopped funding Froehlich and the others initially supported by the project. New churches continued to take root and in 1833, three elders were ordained to serve the churches in Aargua, the very first ministers (other than Froehlich himself) in the new denomination. By then, it was clear that a lasting movement had begun. The church took the name of Evangelical Baptist, though many of their contemporaries called them “Froehlichers” after its founder.
Another man that had been employed by the Baptist Continental Society was Johann G. Oncken; he had been in their employ as early as 1824 by some reports, however he was not baptised as a Baptist until 1834. At the time, most of his successful evanglization was in Germany and like Froehlich, he had close ties to the Mennonites of Germany and Switzerland. He established his first Baptist church in Germany in 1836. Ten years later Froehlich met with Oncken to discuss the possibility of a unification of their two denominations. It was decided that the denominations should maintain their separate paths, for reasons unknown. Later in his life Oncken became estranged from the English Baptists, even though he was the one largely responsible for bring the Baptist faith to many countries of Europe. Interestingly, Oncken named his church the "Evangelical Baptist-Minded Church," very close to Froehlich's "Evangelical Baptist Church."
The Apostolic Christian Church In America
In 1847, the large Amish congregation in Lewis County, New York was going through a crisis. One man in the congregation stated that he knew a man who was knowledgeable about the issues that were dividing them and thought he might be able to end their confusion--and that man was Samuel Froehlich of Switzerland! This man had earlier been baptized into Froehlich’s fledgling church, but for some reason ended up in an Amish congregation that later emigrated to America from the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe. The ministers agreed to ask Froehlich or one of his representatives to visit their church. Upon receipt of their letter, the new church immediately ordained Benedict Weyeneth for this mission and sent him to America.
Once there, Weyeneth attended church services with the confused congregation and after the service asked to recite the words to a song from a hymnal he had brought with him. It is almost certain that the hymnal was an early version of the official Evangelical Baptist Church hymnal, The Zion’s Harp. Which hymn he quoted from is not known, but clearly the message from song piqued the interest of many members and ministers of the congregation. While Weyeneth never preached at their church services, he did talk privately with many of the church members in their homes about the necessity of the new birth and of baptism by immersion based on the New Testament model (most Anabaptists usually baptized by sprinkling or pouring water over one’s head). In a very short time, 75% of the congregation left the Amish congregation and converted to the new Evangelical Baptist faith. A total of five ministers, including at least one bishop (elder) also joined the new church.
There are accounts of this incident in Amish and Mennonite records, including the book called A History of the Mennonites in Lewis County which includes an account taken from a diary or letter written by an Amish church member during that time. Of the Evangelical Baptist visitors, the member wrote, “A little different teaching unfamiliar to the Amish Mennonite people was introduced by them… One change pertained to the new birth experience by placing emphasis on feeling, impulse or emotion. They also subscribed to the doctrine of baptism by immersion…” By 1855, the numbers were so large that houses were inadequate for services, so two church buildings were erected, one in Croghan and the other in nearby Naumburg, New York.
With this dramatic start, the new faith took root in America. Weyeneth inspired other Evangelical Baptist church menbers from Europe to join him America. Within a year, or so, a small group of church members from Europe, led by their minister, Isaac Gehring, sailed to America and eventually settled in Sardis, Ohio. They built their first church building in 1850 (which was actually before the New York congregation built theirs). Joseph Bella, a missionary instrumental in starting new churches in Hungary and Yugoslavia, later came to the new church in Sardis and became their first elder.
Missionary zeal was quite evident in the new faith and in the first 50 years additional new American churches were planted at (in approximate chronological order) Mansfield, Ohio; Partridge Prairie, Illinois; Elgin, Iowa; Tremont, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; Rittman, Ohio; Archbold, Ohio; Congerville, Illinois; Roanoke, Illinois (where Benedict Weyeneth finally settled); Bluffton, Indiana; Peoria, Illinois; Morton, Illinois; Leo, Indiana; Girard, Ohio; Forrest, Illinois; Junction, Ohio; Pulaski, Iowa; Rockville, Connecticut; West Bend Iowa; Fairbury, Illinois; Princeville, Illinois; Gridley, Illinois; Bern, Kansas; Cissna Park, Illinois; Diamond, Missouri; Ashtabula, Ohio; Elgin, Illinois; Akron, Ohio; Gridley, Kansas; Lamont, Kansas; Silverton, Oregon; Portland, Oregon; Toledo, Ohio; Lester, Iowa; Weiner, Arkansas; Harper, Kansas; Fort Scott, Kansas; Burlington, Oklahoma; Alto, Michigan and Eureka, Illinois.
As one can see from the church locations, most were in prime farming areas. Members of the new churches consisted of immigrants from the Evangelical Baptist Church in Europe and American converts from those who had previously settled in those areas, especially Amish and Mennonite groups (particularly in the first 20 years or so). In some communities the Evangelical Baptists became known as the “New Amish” or “New Mennonites” because so many of their members were originally Amish or Mennonite. However, to be clear, the members of the new church did not adhere to many of the distinctive practices that are commonly associated with the Amish such as strict mode of dress and rejection of technology, etc. Churches that began in areas where there were no Amish or Mennonites converts were not given this moniker, instead, they were often known as the “German Evangelical Baptist Church” or just “German Church.” Interestingly, many Apostolic Christians today are unaware that their denomination ever had any kind of connection with the Amish or Mennonites.
While Froehlich had adopted most Anabaptist doctrines and practices (more or less common to both the Amish and Mennonites), he had some major disagreements with them on three issues. First, was the necessity of the born-again experience. While such a thing was not unknown among the first Anabaptists, it never became a part of official Anabaptist doctrine. The Apostolic Christians were one of the first groups to successfully converts Anabaptists to this doctrine, in both Europe and America. However, to be clear, neither Froehlich, nor the Apostolic Christian Church ever taught of the practice of creating "instant" conversions by using modern evangelization techniques, such as claiming salvation after praying "the sinner's prayer" or "going forward" at a revival meeting. However, some Mennonite denominations later adopted these techniques after being influenced by the various revivals in the late 1800's. The second Apostolic Christian doctrine that conflicted with traditional Anabaptist doctrine was the insistence on baptism by immersion; this was based on the Biblical accounts of baptism in the New Testament. Lastly, Froehlich believed that Christians could serve in compulsory military service as noncombatants (i.e., in a role which did not require bearing arms, such as a medic or cook) without comprising his faith, whereas most Anabaptists of that era insisted on avoiding service altogether as conscientious objectors.
The members of the new Evangelical Baptist Church in America soon found that their name was confusing the general public; in America the "Baptist" name was chiefly used by followers of the English Baptist movement started in the 1700's (though in most of Europe the name signified Anabaptists). The English Baptist movement had borrowed some doctrines from the Anabaptists at its beginnings, but had no other real ties to the Anabaptists and it followed some doctrines which Anabaptists found to be highly questionable. Also, there was an Evangelical Lutheran denomination in America, which added to the confusion.
So to dispel the confusion, most of the American churches took on the name "Apostolic Christian" or variants of the name (most other American denominations that currently use "Apostolic" in their names, such as the various "Apostolic" Pentecostal churches, did not exist at this time). The reason for this name choice is not known, however it may be due to the fact that the phrase "Apostolic Christian Church" was commonly used by historians to refer to the era and practices of the first Christian church created by Christ and His Apostles; if this was the reasoning, it accurately reflects the longstanding desire of the denomination to base their church solely on the principles set forth in the Bible. In any case, a name referring to Christians following the model of Christ’s Apostles can not be a bad one!
The Cultural Split
For reasons unclear, missionary efforts waned towards the end of the 19th century. Perhaps it was assumed that the momentum created by the natural growth of the established churches was adequate to ensure continuing church growth. And changing immigration patterns and more skeptical attitudes towards religion in America may have contributed to the change as well. In addition, missionary work was not an established tradition of many of the Amish and Mennonites that joined the church, so their attitudes may have influenced the overall position of the church towards such efforts. Also, by end the of century, most of the original church missionaries had died off (and the church in Europe was no longer sending people over to America for missionary work). However, church growth did continue, but not at the rate of the first 50 years.
By the turn of the century, most of members of the American churches were largely homegrown. There were several generations of members who had been born to parents that already belonged to the Apostolic Christian Church in America. Most church members had never set foot in Europe. Most ministers and elders came from the same stock. Because of this, the ties with the church in Europe were considerably weaker than in the past when the church was led largely by European immigrants.
By 1906, it became apparent that there were some significant cultural differences that were causing friction between two groups in some churches. Specifically, the new immigrants from the Slavic European countries were not blending well with native-born church members, many of them with Anabaptist roots centuries old. Most of the church members with an Anabaptist heritage descended from people in the German and Swiss areas of Europe: some were converts from Mennonite or Amish denominations in America and some were recent immigrants from Anabaptist areas in Switzerland, Germany or Southern France. The vast majority of the Slavs did not share their long Anabaptist heritage (the Slavic countries were and still are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic--not a welcome place for the "radical" Protestant Anabaptists). This had not become a problem in Europe because the two groups were largely isolated from each other and not compelled to live and worship side-by-side as they were in the melting pot of America.
One example of the friction was that the Slavs insisted on wearing mustaches, which had military connotations for those from Germany and Switzerland and for those who originally came from Mennonite and Amish stock (the mustache was traditionally identified with those in the military in Germany and Switzerland). Some found it highly offensive that someone belonging to a church committed to non-resistance (and severely persecuted because of it) would try to emulate a military man with his appearance. Also, the fact that the clean-shaven, clean-cut man was becoming the de facto standard for a morally upright, respectable, Christian man in modern America probably had a lot to do with the attitudes of the native-born Americans. The furry faces of the immigrants was seen as a sign of ignorance and backwardness to the general public. In addition, some ministers felt that the mustaches had become a source of pride in some of the Slavic men because they would constantly comb and curl them during the Sunday sermons (which no doubt, irritated the ministers to no end!).
The request by the elders for the brothers of the church to shave off their mustache (if they had one) to promote unity in the church was seen as a completely unreasonable request for many of them and they threatened to split off and form their own denomination. Some of the elders from Europe were contacted by the disgruntled group in an effort to force the American elders to reconsider their decision, but their efforts were fruitless; the European church had little, if any, control over the American church. So true to their word, a good number of the proudly-mustached men and their families left the church.
The church was left feeling hurt by the split and puzzled that so many would leave because of such a trivial request. Those that left were understandably bitter and did not understand why the American elders would not make some seemingly minor compromises in order to keep them in the church. Clearly, there was a lack of understanding on both sides. After both factions had time to consider what had happened, they both admitted that the split was a mistake and shouldn't have happened, but no attempt was made to reunite the two groups; the wounds from the split were probably too deep, nobody wanted to revisit something that had been so painful. However, a few decades later enough time had passed and both sides expressed a desire to reunite the two groups. Meetings were held with elders from both groups attending on two separate occasions, but without success.
In retrospect, it is easy to make light of this incident, but one must remember that new immigrant groups in America, particularly non-Anglos, were always shunned and discriminated against. Most of the "melting" did not take place until their then Americanized children had reached adulthood. For instance, a person of the "wrong" heritage (such as Irish) who accidentally wandered into the wrong neighborhood of any large city (such as the German area) could expect to be severely beaten or even killed! Considering this, that the two cultural groups in the church were able to stay worship and live together as long as they did could be considered an accomplishment!
The number that eventually left the church was small, though a few congregations were particularly hard hit, such as the churches in Oregon. However, the fact that not a single church elder left with them shows that the American church leadership was quite unified at the time, despite the great physical distance between the many churches.
The group that left eventually adopted the name of the Apostolic Christian Church, Nazarene. The Nazarene name was apparently chosen because most of those that left came from Slavic European countries and the name Nazarene was commonly used among those Evangelical Baptist congregations (recently many are now using the name "Nazarean," apparently to distinguish themselves for the Church of the Nazarene which was spawned from the American Holiness movement in the early 1900's). The new denomination’s unfortunate name choice has meant that they are often confused with those of the Apostolic Christian Church and vice versa. Many of them often leave the “Nazarene” part off of their name, causing even more confusion.
In the beginning, there were very few doctrinal differences between the two branches, with the exception that the Nazarenes relied much more on the writings of Samuel Froehlich when formulating doctrine. This is not to say that the Apostolic Christian Church of America did place importance on his writings, especially in the early years, however, as large numbers of Mennonites and Amish joined the church, they could not help but bring their collective memory of hundreds of years of Anabaptist heritage and theology with them. It is interesting to note that the integration was so complete that when Perry Klopfenstein collected information from the various Apostolic Christian churches for his book on Apostolic Christian history, a well-known anecdote regarding a daring stagecoach escape by Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonites) had been erroneously attributed to Samuel Froehlich! The Slavs that dominated the Nazarene branch, on the other hand, could not fall back on their Anabaptist heritage because they did not have one. The practical consequences of this were that the Apostolic Christian Church would rarely, if ever mention the name of Froehlich or his writings in a sermon, while in the Nazarene branch, such references would not be uncommon. These differences between the two branches can still be seen today when one compares the Apostolic Christian Church with the traditional, conservative churches of the Nazarene denomination.
Cutting Ties With Germany
World War I influenced the church a great deal. With the war came an aggressive anti-German propaganda campaign which maligned practically anything associated with Germany, including the German language. It is hard to fathom the kind of pressure that was brought to bear upon anyone who had the least bit of association with Germany. During that time German music was banned, many cities and institutions with German names were renamed, hamburgers were renamed "liberty steaks" and sauerkraut "liberty cabbage" and at one medical clinic German measles was renamed "liberty measles"! Also, a federal law required all German publications to print an accompanying English translation which could be screened by U.S. postmasters who were looking to stop the flow of any pro-German sentiment. It was an abrupt change from just a few decades earlier when the U.S. Congress attempted to change the official language of the country from English to German (it only lost by a single vote)!
German immigrants who refused to participate fully in the war were the most suspect and persecuted the most. While Apostolic Christians that were drafted offered to participate as noncombatants (those who could help in the war effort as medics or cooks, etc., but would not be required to kill other men), this was seen as traitorous to some military officials and many young Apostolic Christian men were dealt with severely. The Amish and some of the Mennonites, who refused to participate at all in the war effort (not even as a noncombatant) suffered even worse and during that time; more than 1,500 of them fled to Canada to escape the persecution instituted by their own government.
The Apostolic Christian Church soon realized that the lack of a consistent name across all of their churches was making the situation worse than it needed to be for those drafted into the army. So a meeting of church elders was convened and it was agreed that Apostolic Christian Church of America would become the official name of the denomination. The name was then registered with the federal government so that it would become clear to military officials that men registered to this denomination would act in the capacity of noncombatants.
Most of those in the Apostolic Christian Church still used German as their primary language and practically all church services were in German. This was not unusual, for example, many Lutherans had held onto their German language as well. However, with the WWI propaganda campaign even those found speaking German in the privacy of their own homes were suspect! The Apostolic Christian Church did not escape the brunt of this new propaganda campaign, for example, some unknown persons attempted (unsuccessfully) to burn one church building to the ground and yet another church building was defaced with anti-German graffiti.
The Apostolic Christians wanted to make it clear that they were loyal to the American government. As a result, most churches started conducting services in English as soon as possible. This was easier said than done, however, because many of the older ministers could not speak English, so young, English-speaking ministers had to be added to the ministry! Also, some older members of the congregation could not fully understand English. All things considered, the change to English was very rapid and without much debate because of the pressures upon the church. In 1924, a new church hymnal was printed, the Zion’s Harp II, with the original German hymns in one half and the same hymns, translated into English in the other. In the next revision, the German lyrics were dropped altogether.
However, the quick change to German did not set well with everyone, a few were unwilling to accept the use of English in worship and believed that it impaired one's ability to practice Christianity; they believed that the English King James translation of the Bible was inferior to their German translation and that the German language was much better suited to worship than the "foreign" English language.
But language was not the only thing that was changing at the time, the industrial revolution was bringing modern intrusions like automobiles, telephones, radios, cameras and even life insurance into their lives. Strange as it may seem, they seriously feared that these new things could lead a Christian astray. Automobiles allowed one to easily travel outside the influence of the church and to all sorts of potentially corrupting influences outside of the home. Telephones could promote gossip, radios brought evil influences into the home, cameras (and even the then affordable mirrors) could promote vanity, life insurance was evidence of one's lack of dependence on God, etc. Along with these modern innovations, these people thought that the new clothing fashions, especially for women, were too revealing. They wanted to return to an outdated (and consequently less-revealing) mode of dress, even if it made them look odd, eccentric and an object of curiosity. And there were a few religious innovations that they wanted to do away with, such as Sunday School because it had been promoted by other denominations.
In retrospect, some of their concerns were not altogether baseless, for example, some people do use telephones to gossip, some people have used automobiles for evil, there are many radio stations which broadcast less than wholesome programming and there are even some people who have become vain by looking at themselves in mirror or by admiring photographs of themselves! But for the most part, technology is not inherently evil, we can use it for good or evil; it all depends on what we choose to do with it. If we have so little self-control that we always choose to use it for evil, then dispensing with that technology altogether may be a valid choice for someone trying to keep himself pure (a modern example--the medium we are using right now; many men can not trust themselves on the internet, so choose to use a filtered ISP or give it up altogether).
On the other hand, they seemed to have missed the mark when it came to things like Sunday School and their strict mode of dress. Those in the Apostolic Christian Church have been largely successful at maintaining modesty using more modern clothing (though obviously some styles had to avoided altogether, such as the miniskirt and bikinis, for example). And it is hard to imagine how the church could have survived without Sunday School; it is a great tool for teaching the Gospel to children. Incidentally, the practice hearkens back to the first century church where they maintained formal instructional programs for newcomers to the church.
Interestingly, nearly all of the same concerns were present in many conservative Mennonite and Amish denominations resulting in many splits during this era. Most of them decided that they could effectively control and therefore use and live in harmony with most of the new innovations, but a few did not. Those that chose to resist the new trends are made obvious to all today by their use of horse and buggies, rejection of other new technology and/or their old-fashioned mode of dress and/or use of the German language, etc.
There were a few Apostolic Christian churches where those attempting to dig in their heels against the advance of technology and modernity were in a position (i.e., the ministry) where they could attempt to enforce their ideals upon the entire congregation. In these churches they banned most of the new innovations and tried to rally support for a return to the German language. And there is at least one known instance where a member was disciplined because he dared to purchase one of those new-fangled horseless carriages! Repeated incidents like these did not endear these ministers to their congregations and the ministers eventually realized that their efforts to stop the changes were going to be futile because the majority of church members did not believe as they did. So in 1932, two elders, one from Fairbury, Illinois and the other from Bern, Kansas and several additional ministers gathered together a number of like-minded believers from several Illinois, Kansas and Oregon churches and pulled out of the Apostolic Christian Church to form their own denomination, the German Apostolic Christian Church. The number that left was much smaller than in the Nazarene split. It seems that this split was less painful than the Nazarene split, probably because they were so few in number and much further apart from the mainstream in their beliefs than in those that left in the Nazarene split. As far as it is known, there have not been any efforts to reunite the two groups.
Not surprisingly, the German Apostolic Church went back to German worship services (no English was allowed). To keep the language alive in their children, Sunday School services were replaced with German classes. Rigid and comprehensive dress codes were enforced and all fashionable clothing was banned, even for children who were not converted to their faith. Their regulation requiring women to wear black stockings gave them the moniker of the "black stocking church" in areas where they reside. Fraternization with members of other churches was made off-limits; members were even banned from attending weddings, funerals or baptisms of immediate relatives who belonged to other denominations. "Excessive" decoration or adornment of homes (inside and outside) was banned, it was considered worldly and materialistic. Of course, radios and most other such technological intrusions were banned. Birth control was banned. Children were not allowed to complete high school, too much education was considered worldly. Their dead could only be buried in plain caskets without any burial vaults. Any church member who questioned any of the church regulations could face excommunication.
Over time, practical and economic realities have forced the German Apostolic Christian Church to rescind some of the regulations they held dear. For example, their large families and the high cost of farmland have forced them to allow their children to complete their high school education and in some cases, even a college education so that they can get jobs away from the farm. However, underneath all of the regulations, the German Apostolic Church maintained most of the core beliefs of the Apostolic Christian Church.
Recent Developments In The Other Branches
Thankfully, the split of 1932 was the last major split of the Apostolic Christian Church. However, the German Apostolic Christian Church denomination did not fare as well, splitting several times in just a few decades with the largest offshoot calling itself the Christian Apostolic Church. The Christian Apostolic Church dropped the emphasis on the use of the German language, but kept most of the other regulations.
As one might imagine, the strict regulations in the German Apostolic Christian and Christian Apostolic churches, as well as their rejection of evangelization and missionary outreaches and have made it nearly impossible for these churches to attract new members; also their approach has caused many of those born into the church to leave. As a result, most are not growing in size and some are nearly extinct. A considerable number of those who have become dissatisfied with their denomination have come back to the Apostolic Christian Church. They are now so small that it is becoming very difficult for men and women to find mates within the church because of the high degree of intermarriage between the few families in the denomination (like the Apostolic Christian Church, they do not marry outside of their denomination).
On a sad note, there has been a notable decline of the European "mother church," particularly the German and Swiss congregations. For many years, the Apostolic Christian Church has been concerned about their European counterparts. They noted a gradual, but steady abandonment of many of the tenets of the Anabaptist faith handed down from Froehlich or the Anabaptist forbearers of the denomination. It would seem that the European church was unable to resist the temptation to become more like the world around them. Admittedly, the pressure is great; much of Europe is openly hostile to genuine Christianity and overall church attendance (including all Christian denominations) is less than 10% in most European countries.
In 1984, there was a split when nearly all of the Swiss churches, most of the German churches and several of the French churches united under the name ETG (Evangelische Täufer Gemeinden) based on the denomination's original name, Evangelical Baptist. However, unlike the original denomination Froehlich started, practically every Anabaptist practice and belief was officially abandoned in favor of those most common in the various evangelical churches around them. Many of the churches also discontinued use of the former official church hymnal, The Zion's Harp or used an greatly edited version of it changed to reflect their new beliefs. Those churches from the Slavic European countries were largely unaffected by the decline of the Swiss and German churches, largely because of the isolation imposed while they were under Communist rule and because there was never a great deal of interchange between the churches of the Slavic countries and the rest of Europe. Despite the large split, there is still remains a notable number of the original, conservative Evangelical Baptist churches in Europe.
The Apostolic Christian Church, Nazarene denomination still has strong ties to some of the Evangelical Baptist churches in the European Slavic countries (many emigrated to America to escape the persecution while under Communist rule) and some of their American churches have a large number of people from these areas; some even hold services in Serbian, Romanian and Hungarian languages! The denomination has been aggressive with missionary efforts and has started small congregations in many countries across the globe.
However, lately there is much concern about the Nazarene denomination. While there were few doctrinal differences between the two denominations preceding the split in 1906, that has changed, at least for some of the Nazarene congregations. It would appear that the denomination's lack of any kind of concrete organizational structure and oversight has allowed some of their churches to stray far from the Anabaptist beliefs that their church was founded on. Some individual churches have gone as far as dropping "Apostolic Christian" from their names so as to not be identified with Anabaptist beliefs. These churches have done things like hire seminary-trained pastors, abandoned the Biblical precepts regarding modesty, the wearing of jewelry, women's headcoverings, the holy kiss, worldliness and so on. In short, they have become like the liberal evangelical churches around them. On a positive note, the churches that identify most with traditional Apostolic Christian beliefs have formed a "conservative conference" and severed most of their ties (but apparently, not all) with the more liberal churches in this denomination.
The Apostolic Christian Church Today
The Apostolic Christian Church has striven to maintain the doctrines handed down from Froehlich and ultimately Christ and His Apostles. Unity in the church has been helped a great deal by modern modes of transportation (trains, then cars and planes) which make the distances seem smaller, as well as the tools of modern communication. Also, regular meetings are held at least twice a year with all of the elders to discuss the issues of the day. The church has continued to grow, with most growth now in urban areas. It has about 80 churches in the U.S., Canada, Japan and Mexico with more than 20,000 people in total attendance.
In addition, missionary efforts have been renewed and some new churches in countries outside of the U.S. have been planted, including several in Japan. The Missionary Committee also organizes volunteers to travel to foreign countries help them meet their immediate material and spiritual needs. The Apostolic Christian World Relief organization has been active in distributing financial and material aid to those in need across the globe for many years (typical examples are famine, flood and earthquake relief, as well as assisting the poor all over the world with food and clothing donations). And for many years, the Apostolic Christian Church has been operating a program to distribute Bibles and hymnbooks, free of charge to those who can not afford them.
The Apostolic Christian Church owns and operates ten nursing homes including about 200 assisted-living apartments. In addition, it operates the Home for the Handicapped in Morton, Illinois and the Gateway Woods Apostolic Christian Children's Home in Leo, Indiana so that they can provide physical, emotional, and spiritual support for handicapped persons and needy children. It also runs a preschool program in Athens, Alabama.
More historical details and other information can be found on the Beliefs, Library and Articles pages of this website. A complete listing of all Apostolic Christian Churches can be found on the Locations page of this website. And if you require even more information, we encourage you to view our Library (click on "Library" above) and other pages of this website. You may also want to consult the sources we used to write this brief history, listed below; we especially recommend "Marching To Zion" which may be available through your library.
300: Practice of praying for the dead and "signing with the cross" introduced.
375: Veneration of dead people and use of statues and images as part of worship introduced.
500: Doctrine of purgatory first preached by the Roman Catholic Church.
500: Priests adopt a different form of dress than the laity. The costumes were copied from that of Roman government officials.
600: Pope Gregory I mandates that only Latin is to be used in church worship, a language that practically none of the laity could understand.
610: Pope Gregory the Great mandates the practice of baptizing infants.
685: Pope Vitalian I introduces musical instruments into worship.
750: Papacy changes from a church office to a state office. The pope was seen as the head of the "Holy Roman Empire."
754: Alarmed by the then common practice of laity kissing and worshiping religious statues and pictures, Pope Leo III bans them from the church.
788: Worship of statues, images and supposed relics of dead "saints" was reintroduced into the Roman Catholic Church, this time to stay.
800 (approximate): Pipe organ introduced into the church.
850: "Holy water" was introduced into worship. Its use was believed to scare away demons.
965: "Baptism" of church bells was introduced as a Roman Catholic Church practice.
995: Pope John XV decreed that only those that he "canonized" could be called saints.
998: Fasting on Fridays was imposed. The exception made for fish during this fast is said to be because profits from fishing contributed a great deal to the Pope's treasury at the time.
1050 (approximate): Mass evolved into a ceremony where Christ was said to be sacrificed again and again at the command of the priest (each time the ceremony was performed). Attendance at Mass was made mandatory in all Catholic countries.
1079: Pope Hildebrand, Boniface VIII bans marriage among priests (married priests were common until then).
1090: Rosary beads were introduced into the church. The church got the idea from their Islamic and pagan neighbors who had used them in their worship.
1096: Practice of selling "indulgences" to raise money for the church instituted. According to the church, by purchasing an indulgence, one's time in purgatory was shortened.
1215: Pope Innocent III made confession of one's sins to a priest at least once a year mandatory.
1215: Roman Catholic laity banned from drinking the wine during communion (only priests were granted this privilege).
1215: "Transubstantiation" made a part of Roman Catholic doctrine. Transubstantiation is the doctrine that the communion bread and wine magically turns into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ during the mass.
1220: "Adoration of the wafer" instituted by Pope Honorius; literally the worship of the bread used during communion.
1229: Roman Catholic laity were forbidden to own or read a Bible; reading the Bible was declared to be a mortal sin. Getting caught violating this decree could lead to a death sentence. Bible verses and concepts were only to be passed down to laity through the priests' sermons and church ceremonies.
1245: The Roman Catholic Church declared that a sinner can not be pardoned unless he confess his sin to a priest and receive "absolution" from that priest.
1287: Use of the scapular comes into practice in the Roman Catholic Church. The scapular was an undergarment that acted as a lucky charm, warding off disease, lightning, fire, storms, enchantments and evil spirits.
1302: Pope Boniface VIII declares that only those in full obedience to the pope can be saved from hell.
1439: Doctrine of purgatory was made an article of faith (a mandatory belief for any Roman Catholic).
1439: Roman Catholic doctrine of seven "sacraments" introduced. Sacraments are religious acts that supposedly help one work his way towards forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
1545: Roman Catholic teachings were declared to have authority equal to that of the Bible. In actuality, church teachings had long been held to have more authority than the Bible, because by then most of them were clearly contrary to what the Bible taught.
1545: The Council of Trent decreed that all Roman Catholic Church members had to agree that priests "remit sins as God" and that they are "justly called not only angels, but also God, holding as they do among us the power and authority of God." Failure to agree was a mortal sin and grounds for excommunication.
1546: In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church added the Apocryphal books to the Bible. Until this point, these books were considered suspect, of dubious authorship and error-prone by the scholars and theologians of the Roman Catholic Church.
1558: Ave Maria prayer ("Hail Mary...Mother of God..." etc.) instituted in the Roman Catholic Church.
1713: Pope Clement XI reaffirms the ban on possession of the Bible by the laity.
1824: Pope Leo XII condemns translators who were translating the Bible into languages where a translation did not previously exist. This position was reaffirmed by popes in 1844 & 1878.
1854: Despite the many Biblical references that refuted this assertion, Pope Pius IX decreed that Mary bore no child other than Jesus (so-called doctrine of "immaculate conception").
1870: Pope Pius IX declares himself and all popes before and after infallible when officially speaking on matters of church doctrine.
1907: Pope Pius X condemns all scientific discoveries which are not recognized or officially approved by the Roman Catholic Church.
1950: Pope Pius XII declares that Mary did not know death, but ascended directly into heaven (so-called "assumption of the Virgin Mary").
1964: Roman Catholic Church reverses the use of only Latin in church worship and some restrictions on owning and reading the Bible in one's own tongue. Just one of thousands of examples of "infallible" popes reversing the doctrines of previous "infallible" popes.