On a sultry Sunday evening in late August, fifty men and women crowded into a small room at the old millhouse near Schriesheim, Germany. The windows and doors were tightly shut, and their joyful singing and intense prayer did little to mask the palpable tension in the room.
Without warning, a sharp pounding on the outside door interrupted their worship. A sympathetic neighbor was bringing news that would forever alter their lives. “Scatter quickly,” he shouted, “or you’ll face certain arrest!” What was their crime? Daring to worship God outside the religious movements officially recognized in Europe — the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Churches.
Among those who fled was a young man who had helped organize the meeting. Quickly gathering his wife and two small sons, they narrowly escaped to a nearby town. They would never see their home again. Alexander Mack and his family were now religious refugees.
To better understand the intolerance they faced, it helps to briefly retrace what occurred after the young priest Martin Luther ignited a movement in 1517 that we know today as The Reformation. While previous attempts to address abuses in the Catholic church had failed, this time would be different. The masses were yearning for something new, regional leaders were eager to break free from the Pope’s power, and reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin were eager to supply fresh interpretations of the Bible.
Over the next hundred years, the European continent realigned itself around regional kings and the religious expressions they preferred. Soon political ambitions mixed with religious zeal, unleashing the firestorm of violence and oppression we know as The Thirty Years War (1618– 1648). As the most destructive religious conflict in European history, it ended in an exhausted stalemate in which no one could claim victory. Instead, kings agreed to respect one another’s sovereignty, including the right to impose the church of their choice on their subjects.
Unfortunately, this did little to restrain the growing lust for land and power among Europe’s ruling elite. And this is where Alexander Mack enters the story. His father was relatively wealthy, owning three grinding mills that were essential to the farm economy of the region. Twice he was elected mayor of their village. But Schriesheim (pop. 640) was located in southwestern Germany and became a prime target in the perpetual tug-o-war between King Louis XIV of France and King Leopold I of Germany. Armies constantly crisscrossed area farms, leaving devastation in their wake. Several times their town was held hostage and required to pay large sums to stave off destruction. And while some citizens chose to immigrate to America, those who remained were frequently forced to hide in the surrounding hills.
Throughout history, times of uncertainty and upheaval often spawn novel religious views as people seek to apply the book of Revelation directly to their personal situation. In Mack’s day, the most extreme views were held by a group called the ‘radical pietists.’ And it was association with this group that forced him to abandon his hometown.
Mack chose to relocate to a small principality in central Germany where the local prince permitted freedom of religion. While many viewed the tiny village of Schwazenau as an underdeveloped and undesirable backwater, the hundreds of religious refugees who settled there believed it held great promise. Hard work and industry could transform the rocky region into a productive valley. The absence of an official church ensured freedom for new religious expressions.
Over the next two years, Mack joined others in eager study of the New Testament. On the one hand, he rejected the extreme views of the radical pietists, who often downplayed Scripture and encouraged each person to receive revelation directly from God. Yet on the other hand, he also rejected the cold orthodoxy, low moral standards, and violence of the official state churches.
By summer 1708, the group was ready to put into practice their new convictions by forming a church patterned directly on New Testament teaching. Their first bold step was to be baptized as believing adults, an action still prohibited by law. The second was to practice the full Lord’s Supper, an event that included a common meal, washing of one another’s feet, and celebrating the bread and cup.
Over the next ten years, the group quickly grew to over one thousand members scattered among several congregations. Admittedly, this was a time of experimentation as they adopted then rejected select doctrines and practices. Out of these experiences, they pass along to us a basic commitment to the authority and centrality of the Bible, which we summarize as follows:
- What do the Scriptures say? Rejecting blind obedience to creeds and traditions, they earnestly studied the Scriptures to determine God’s will for their lives.
- How did the earliest disciples understand and apply it? Yet they also realized they were separated from the original Scriptures by language, culture, and 1,600 years of history. As a result, they leaned heavily upon the interpretations and practices of the earliest Christians to better understand the true meaning of Scripture.
- How is the Holy Spirit at work within us to confirm it? Rejecting the idea that any single individual could fully understand Scripture, they agreed to interpret and apply it as a community.
- How will we obey? Last but certainly not least was their constant and strong commitment to put into practice what they believed Scripture to call them to do.
These commitments set Mack’s group apart from many others and led to the creation of what we know today as the Charis Fellowship.
Written by Dave Guiles. Dave has served various roles with Encompass World Partners, the cross-cultural ministries arm of the Charis Fellowship. They include twelve years as a church planter in Argentina (while also coordinating our ministries in all of Latin America) and twenty-three years as executive director. Recently he moved into an expanded role as coordinator of the global Charis Alliance while still serving North American churches as a mission mobilizer. This article was originally published in the 2021–2022 Year in Review.