DENTON — For 150 years, a small, close-knit community of Christians has worshiped and served God and others on the Eastern Shore.

This year, about 700 members of those seven congregations of the Church of the Brethren are celebrating the 1893 arrival of their founders and the witness of Brethren and their service to the Gospel in the years since.

About 100 Brethren gathered at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, at Camp Mardela to kick off the first of three sesquicentennial events this year. An anniversary summer vespers service will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at historic Round Top meetinghouse on U.S. Route 50 south of Easton. In the fall, an Eastern Shore “Love Feast,” a “Brethren heritage-flavored remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper” will take place in Ridgely.

The seven congregations of the Eastern Shore are located in Easton, Cordova, Ridgely, Denton, Westover, Farmington and Salisbury.

They came to farm the

loamy soil

Many of the early Brethren traveled from western Maryland and points north and west to find flat, fertile farmland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the late 19th century, ministers Joseph Rittenhouse journeyed from Ohio, Caleb Secrist migrated from Kansas, and James Hutchison arrived from West Virginia.

Even before migrating to the Eastern Shore, German Baptist Brethren, as they were known until 1908, had escaped persecution in Europe and sailed to America in 1719. Settling in Germantown near Philadelphia, they were part of a larger group of Anabaptists and Pietists who escaped persecution.

“The original founders of the Church of the Brethren wanted to bring the church back to the people at a time when the church in Europe was very hierarchical and they thought it had lost some of its moorings from the early church,” said the Rev. Walt Wiltschek, pastor of Easton Church of the Brethren.

The first German Baptist Brethren who migrated from Germantown to the Eastern Shore were Jacob Kline and his wife. They settled in Caroline County in 1869.

“Others soon followed. About a decade later, those Brethren joined with other faith groups to create a church building, Round Top, near Easton. Other, larger meeting places followed on both sides of the Choptank River and eventually further to the south and east. And a century and a half later, we continue their history and their legacy,” Wiltschek told his fellow Brethren who gathered under Camp Mardela’s open-air picnic pavilion.

With local Methodists, Lutherans and Swedenborgians, Brethren built the little “Round Top” Meetinghouse in 1880 at the head of Peachblossom Creek. The six-cornered structure is a Maryland historic site and is owned by the Easton congregation. A small graveyard contains the remains of Samuel Rittenhouse, whose father Joseph began to preach in a school house near Easton in the spring of 1876.

“In this area, we don’t have the same name recognition as the Methodist and Baptists, because we’re a small denomination,” Wiltschek said in a recent interview. “In the U.S., we have (about) 120,000 members, yet for over 300 years they’ve got this faithful witness going,”

A traditional peace church

That legacy is formed around several “distinctives,” Wiltschek said.

“Adult baptism was a distinctive early on for the Brethren. ‘Anabaptist’ (means) to be baptized again,” he said. “They felt that it should be a conscious decision made by someone who can think through the details of what that decision means … and becoming part of the church community in a new way.”

“The historic peace position of the church has certainly been a distinctive — something we share with the Mennonites and the Quakers, or Friends, that we try our best to live in harmony with one another and with our neighbors and to try work for peace wherever we can,” Wiltschek said.

Indeed, in the historical records Eastern Shore Brethren have carefully kept, discussions took place in 1941 with local Quakers and Mennonites about financing “conscientious objector project camps.”

While the churches would cover the cost of food, clothing and shelter, conscientious objectors would work eight-hour days with no paychecks. “They should expect no favors, such as overvisiting by parents or coming home very frequently. Their furloughs will like be about as frequent as those from military camp,” states a booklet commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Fairview Church of the Brethren near Cordova.

A white dove holding an olive branch with the words “Peacefully. Simply. Together” adorned a peach-colored T-shirt worn by Jean Shaffer of Denton at the May 19 celebration. The three words are the second half of the slogan of the Church of the Brethren, which begins with “Continuing the work of Jesus.” She is treasurer of Camp Mardela and is a member of Fairview Church.

Also a Fairview member, John Hutchison, Ph.D., was involved in various peace initiatives when he worked in Washington, D.C., and continues to advocate for peace. Wearing his trademark plaid shirt and suspenders, he also attended the celebration with his wife, Mary Ellen.

“There are a lot of things we share with other faith traditions,” Wiltschek said. “The Brethren have long been involved ecumenically. We say sometimes we have no creed but the New Testament, that we really try to base our beliefs on the central teachings of Jesus — the Gospels have long been central scriptures for the Brethren — not that we disregard the rest of the Bible, but those are certainly the heart of what we try to do and be together.”

“The (founders) wanted to return to the practice of following Jesus, to really trying to look and understand what Jesus said and taught and how he lived. And that meant very intentionally trying to live in community with one another, that you would have open dialogue and Bible study and examine what the Word said, and bounce ideas off one another to create greater understanding,” Wiltschek said. “It meant living out your faith in practice. Faith in action was very important from the start, and it continues to be. Service has always been a hallmark for the Church of the Brethren.”

Brethren service today

Besides missionary and charitable outreaches like Brethren World Service, one of the tangible results of local Brethrens’ service to youth was the establishment of Camp Mardela 59 years ago. Wiltschek serves as board chairman.

The 125-acre woodland camp on the banks of Watts Creek just off the Choptank River in Denton is owned by the 50-church Mid Atlantic District of the Church of the Brethren. Its mission is to “provide children and adults with opportunities for spiritual growth, fellowship, and recreation in a setting that deepens their appreciation for God’s creation.”

Gieta Gresh is celebrating her 15th summer as camp director and said she appreciates the dedicated group of volunteers who keep Camp Mardela going.

Volunteers Tom Schuyler of Harrington and Matt Baynard of Easton attended the May 19 celebration. They are part of a group of retired men who take care of repairs, renovation and even construction at the camp. “We fix what needs to be fixed and shoot the breeze,” Baynard said.

“If it wasn’t for them, the camp would be in debt because of the things they were able to do,” said Baynard’s wife Wanda. The handymen used building material they generated from the camp property to construct the “big green building” for about $8,000, Baynard said. He said it’s valued at about $70,000.

Volunteers like Baynard tap into a heritage of hard work, loving service and building Christian community that have characterized Eastern Shore Brethren for 150 years.

“In a region where lighthouses have dotted the waterways at strategic places for hundreds of years, that imagery of light seems particularly apt,” Wiltschek told his fellow Brethren on May 19. “We shine our light as a beacon to others seeking the way of Christ, and we find illumination for our own journey as we join our lights with others.”

Follow me on Twitter @connie_stardem.

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