The Charis Fellowship

Beginnings (1708–1729)

The story of the Charis Fellowship (legal name is The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, Inc) begins with the Pietists in the 18th century. These German Christians reacted against the dead orthodoxy that had taken over the great Reformation churches. Pastors had only to sign the right creed to serve. Theologians viciously wrangled over words. Membership in the parish church was enough to say that you were a Christian. However, the Pietists proclaimed that Christianity was a faith to be lived and experienced. They rejected creeds as the products of men, elevated over the Bible. They wanted preaching that applied the Scriptures to LIFE. The Pietists did not want to create a new denomination but hoped to reform the dead state churches. Alexander Mack, the founder of the Brethren movement, was greatly impacted by these Pietists.

The story also begins with the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists had lived in Germany for almost two hundred years. They were seen as the radicals of the Reformation who did not want to simply reform the existing church, but instead create a New Testament church from the ground up. In addition to believer's baptism, they rejected swearing oaths and participation in the military. They advanced a strong sense of community in the local church. Alexander Mack was also influenced by these Anabaptists.

The crisis for Mack and his small group of fellow Bible students came when they studied Matthew 18:15-17. They discovered that they could not practice that passage correctly if there was not a church made up of believers committed and accountable to each other. Their continued study of the Bible led them to the creation of a local congregation. Out of this study they concluded that as believers they needed to be baptized by triune immersion and practice a threefold communion service. Out in the forest, this small group of eight souls conducted a baptismal service after reading Luke 14:25-27. The Grace Brethren movement traces its roots from that small seed of faith planted in 1708.

Moving to America (1729-1883)

Persecution brought the Brethren to Pennsylvania. In a state church system, dissenters are seen as disloyal and unpatriotic. William Penn invited many Anabaptist groups, including the Brethren, to become productive citizens of his new colony. By 1729, virtually the entire Brethren membership had moved in with their German Anabaptist neighbors. Earnest efforts were made to plant new churches. The first Sunday School in the colonies was started by the Brethren in Philadelphia. The first European language Bible published in North America came off the press of a Brethren named Christopher Sauer. There was energy and a progressive spirit in these early Brethren. However, the legalism of the eastern Pennsylvania Anabaptists eventually took over the movement. This was a time when annual meetings debated the right meat to have at the Love Feast or the worldliness of carpet in the parlor. When the Second Great Awakening swept the United States, the Brethren had isolated themselves from the mainstream of American religious life and missed out on a great opportunity to reach people with the Gospel and to plant new churches.

The “Progressives” (1883-1901)

But this was not the end of the story. A progressive movement began to assert itself. Weekly periodicals began to debate the issues and become voices for progress and change in the brotherhood. High schools and colleges were founded. Full-time pastors with college educations were hired. Sunday schools were started. Protracted meetings, revivals that stretched over two to three weeks, were held. Services were begun in English instead of German in order to open the door to reaching neighbors. The fact that this created tension and conflict within the Brethren movement should be no surprise. The nature and identity of the Brethren movement were at stake. Eventually, the conflict resulted in a three-way division of the Brethren. The Old Order German Baptists kept to the old ways and rules. The majority went on to create the Church of the Brethren. The progressives organized the Brethren Church. They wanted to be progressive in methods, true to fundamental Brethren doctrine, and to promote local congregational authority over a centralized denomination.

Mission (1901–1939)

The Brethren Church moved Brethrenism into the mainstream of American evangelicalism. Forces at work in American Christianity, including the Bible Conference movement, a renewed thrust in foreign missions, and the rise of dispensational fundamentalism, all impacted these progressive Brethren. This renewed thrust in foreign missions gave rise to the founding of the Foreign Missionary Society of the Brethren Church on September 4, 1900. Fifty-three ordinary men and women met under a tree in Winona Lake, Indiana, to begin an extraordinary missions movement. Today the Foreign Missionary Society is called Encompass World Partners. This movement has resulted in more than 1100 Grace Brethren churches worldwide, more than four times the number of Grace Brethren Churches in the United States.

Grace Emerges (1939–present)

However, even while this great missions movement flourished in the early 1900's, two different viewpoints on the nature of the Brethren Church began to emerge. Both forces were put in close proximity when a new seminary was begun at Ashland College, the only college associated with the fellowship. When Dr. Alva J. McClain and Dr. Herman Hoyt were dismissed from the seminary by the administration, the tensions erupted into conflict. The creation of Grace Theological Seminary in 1937 brought to the surface the underlying differences that existed in the denomination. Ultimately, in 1939, there was a division, and the National Fellowship of Brethren Churches (later renamed the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches) was formed. Today, Grace College and Seminary continues to excel in training young men and women in character, competence, and service.

Vision: (1939- present)

Around this same time, men and women with a vision for beginning new churches in North America founded the Home Missions Council. More than half of the Grace Brethren Churches in the United States and Canada were begun with help from this council.

CE National began as standing committees elected by delegates to National Conference to focus on the Christian education of our youth. Eventually, these committees were combined and then incorporated as a separate organization called CE National with its own board of directors. CE National provides excellent training in ministry experience in the form of programs such as Operation Barnabas and Momentum.

Women of Grace USA, Internationals USA, Grace Brethren Men, Grace Brethren Boys, The Brethren Missionary Herald, the Association of Grace Brethren Ministers were all formed by men and women eager to help Grace Brethren churches and leaders fulfill the Great Commission. The Grace Brethren movement is not primarily an organization but rather a commitment to fulfill the Great Commission.


Today the Grace Brethren movement is made up of more than 260 churches in the United States and Canada who have formed the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (Inc.), more than fifteen national and cooperating ministries, 23 cooperating districts, over 3,000 churches outside the United States and Canada, hundreds of new church starts called "points of light," and an unknown number of cooperative ministry initiatives.

In 2008, representatives from Grace Brethren fellowships around the globe came together for a gathering called Charis 2008. They challenged all the fellowships of Grace Brethren Churches to focus on church planting, leadership development, and integrated ministry through 2020. This vision is called "Our Commitment to Common Ministry" and has been adopted by the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches,inc and all of it's national ministries. 

In 2015, delegates from Grace Brethren fellowships around the globe gathered again to form the Charis Alliance and draft the Charis Commitment to Common Identity.  The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches formally became charter members of the Charis Alliance in the summer of 2017.

This passion to plant churches, develop leaders and for integrated ministry is motivated by our abiding desire...

To Know Jesus…
To Make HIM known

For more information, we recommend two books available at

  • Restoring the Household: The Quest of the Grace Brethren Church
  • Finding our Focus

Or watch this video lecture:

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