The Dunkards, sometimes called German Baptist Brethren and known as the Church of the Brethren since 1908, were formed in Schwarzenau, Germany, in 1708, and had spread to present West Virginia within a half-century. This sect of pacifist Protestant dissenters is similar to the Mennonite, Amish, and Moravian denominations and is the parent of the Old German Baptist Brethren (1882), Dunkard Brethren (1926), Grace Brethren (1939), and related sects. The name ‘‘Dunkards’’ originates from the practice of dunking believers three times forward during baptism. Their primary beliefs include adult baptism, foot washing at communion, and a generally conservative lifestyle.
Today, there are about 80 active Brethren and Dunkard congregations in West Virginia, mostly in the Potomac Highlands region, with a few scattered churches across the rest of the state. Numerous towns in Grant, Hampshire, and Hardy counties are named for Brethren individuals or families, most of whom still have descendants in the area. The Arnold, Bane, Hinkle, Keyser, Kline, Landis, Leatherman, Martin, Moser, Peterson, Powers, Rotruck, and Teter families are among those prominent in the history of West Virginia Brethren.
Early members emigrated mainly from Germany and Switzerland due to intense persecution at the onset of the 1700s. First settling in Pennsylvania, they helped populate the entire Alleghenies, particularly along tributaries of the Potomac River. The first white settlers west of the Alleghenies were the Dunkard Eckerlin brothers. These three men had been leaders of a cloister at Ephrata, Pennsylvania, but left after complaints that they were stern taskmasters. Along with Alexander Mack Jr., they next settled on the New River at Pulaski, Virginia. In 1756, having sold their land at that site, the brothers traveled to the Monongahela River, settling along the Cheat River at present Camp Dawson, near Kingwood. This settlement was called Dunkard’s Bottom.
Suspected by harried settlements along the South Branch of the Potomac of being in sympathy with French and Indian forces, Samuel Eckerlin was detained while on a supply trip to Fort Pleasant, near present Moorefield. It was decided that a small party should accompany him to the Dunkard settlement for investigation. Among these were Frederick Ice, who established Ices Ferry in 1759, and Thomas Decker, who settled at present Morgantown in 1758. They discovered that French and Indian forces had attacked the settlement, killing everyone except the two Eckerlin brothers, who were captured. Brother Israel died quickly in captivity, but Gabriel was sent by the French to Europe, where he died in a French monastery.
This Article was written by Greg Leatherman
Brumbaugh, Martin. A History of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America. Mt. Morris: Brethren Pub. House, 1961.
Wust, Klaus. The Saint-Adventurers of the Virginia Frontier. Edinburg, VA: Shenandoah History Pub., 1977.