College of Arts and Sciences


Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)


Kemp Burpeau


Dunker Sect, Frontier, Dissenter class


History | History of Christianity


The Dunker Sect, a radical Christian fellowship founded by Alexander Mack and Ernst Christoph Hochmann von Hochenau, grew from the endless conflict and radicalization of Christianity that emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in what is now Germany and Switzerland. These men were guided by Christian leaders such as Jakob Spener, August Hermann Franke, and other radicals in Eastern Germany. Both Hochmann and Mack were separatists, in that they wanted nothing to do with what they considered the corrupted Church of the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed denominations. The term “separatist” however, only describes their removal from the established church rather than their “liberation” from the established church. In their eyes they saw a new beginning for Christianity, a path that would lead their followers to a new spiritual freedom. This spiritual freedom culminated in the New World where their freedoms were taken to limits beyond their own dreams and aspirations.

Hochmann never saw the New World; however, Mack and his followers, some of which would split off into their own fringe groups, others would float back and forth from one to another, such as the Inspirationists, the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Moravians, arrived in the New World in clusters. Most of Mack’s followers would settle first in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then migrated into the frontier or fringe of British North America to seek both solitude and peaceful co-existence with nature and with their fellow man. They sought what Rufus M. Jones called the “perfect flower of religion [the] crowning achievement of the soul in its search of God.” This Christian Mysticism, not to be confused with the occult, was an attempt “to realize, in thought and feeling, the imminence of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal,” and further, that the relationship between “temporal and the eternal, are bound together.”

The German community created a vibrant and mystical relationship with the New World that remains, albeit diminished today, one of the most unique of in both colonial America as well as the early United States history. The Dunkers, while bearing a small but unique and impactful part of this history, created printed material, a unification of frontier ambitions and opportunities, and also established churches and other sects that remain vibrant and alive today. As one of the smaller groups that triggered the Radical Pietism movement in Pennsylvania and beyond after 1770, the movement created multiple splinter religious communities which emphasized a “religion of the heart” rather than of the mind. Many, such as the River Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Bruderhof, and Schwarzenau Brethren (Dunkers) as well as Apostolic Christians, became reenergized and created denominations rather than merely following one leader or another. Prior to 1770, the Anabaptist movement, along with the Radical Pietism movement, created separatist groups, mentioned above, that still got along, but remained separate. However, between the failure of Zinzendorf to create one denomination under the Moravian flag, and the schisms over theology and dogma, the various denominations emerged over the next century and a half. The Old Order Anabaptist groups emerged from the division of mainstream Anabaptist groups between 1850 and 1900.

The frontier in America was a daunting mass of land, completely wild and untamed. Very few places in America today are reminiscent of what the settlers of the mid-eighteenth century witnessed when they crossed the Blue Ridge and beyond. America’s collective memory of the frontier, romanticized by John Wayne, Dean Martin, Roy Rogers, and others on the Silver Screen, do little justice to the hardships, sacrifices and depravity that our forefathers endured settling this rugged expanse. While religion played an important part in the spiritual lives of most settlers who crossed the Susquehanna River, the Potomac River, the Shenandoah River, south along the Great Wagon Road that grew out of the toil and adversity the flora and fauna that must have seemed disconcerting, religion itself was secondary to the survival and success of the homesteads and settlements that were to be created. A frontier, which stretched from New England to Georgia, occupied by men, women, and children, who had to survive. Many historians call these trailblazers hardy, rough, strong, however, they were practically no different than their descendants today. What made them different was their willingness to live in a land which offered so much for someone who governed themselves, harvested a hardy crop, cultivated fertile land, celebrated victories, and mourned defeats. Although this frontier was settled by hundreds of dissenters who created communities of believers or communities of language, it was the necessity of survival that generated peace between religious distinctions. It was not until after the Revolutionary War, and into the nineteenth century that the various groups, primarily Moravian, Mennonite, Dunker, and Quaker, began to quarrel on principles of theology and dogma. Ironically, the Dunkers familiar association with these other “Plain People” sects in both Pennsylvania and the frontier, prompted all four to adopt various features that were characteristic of these distinctive groups, which has caused the reader to misidentify key individuals as Moravian, Mennonite, Dunker, or Quaker during the colonial frontier period.

All these sects, plus tens of other German, English, and other Northwestern European group all came to America to be free of persecution because of their faith, and Pennsylvania offered that. However, as more migrants landed in Philadelphia and other ports, the land value grew to be more expensive, unavailable, or crowded. What many thousands began to do was migrate further west as the land became available. First to what is now Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and York Counties, then to Adams and Cumberland Counties in Pennsylvania, Washington, and Frederick Counties in Maryland, and finally into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and south into North and South Carolina. The further west and south these migrants went, the further from their organized religion they became. In Europe, this was not the case, land, religious activity, the frontier, were all populated, fortified, galvanized, and legalized by the various factions, principalities and other religious or government entities. In the frontier in America, no populations existed, no religious or governmental body ruled over the estates, no large landowners existed, fertile, cheap land was available to settle. The catch, it was untamed, wild, unregulated land, far from the civilized east of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania; and far from their religious leadership which had provided spiritual comfort and a firm theological standing. It was not until after the French and Indian War that the municipal courts and other local governments began modernizing the Great Wagon Road that ran from Philadelphia, west then south through the Shenandoah Valley eventually ending in Georgia. The road was surrounded by endless farms, forts, taverns, villages, and meeting houses which afforded the sectarians a means to gather for worship, trade, and commune with neighbors. Not only did the road offer goods and services to the frontier, but also mail and publication services, which began to provoke the associated sects (Mennonite and Dunker particularly) against each other due to religious writings. However, the road did not produce this on its own, life began to get easier, families who survived the first few years on the frontier in a single room single story homestead were now building new homes, many survive today as “two up, two down” stone houses.

The Schwarzenau Brethren, Dunkers, Long Beards, are unique in colonial American history, such that examining the history of how the Anabaptists and Radical Pietism transformed a community which settled Pennsylvania and its frontier is difficult. This is not an exhaustive examination of the Dunkers themselves, rather this is an history of Radical Christianity during the Reformation and the collision of Pietism and Anabaptism which created the Dunker sect, highlights of their movements, trails, tribulations as well as their victories. Additionally, what happened to the Dunker members between the French and Indian War and the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Revolutionary War is important. Finally, examining the Dunker migrations within the context of the frontier, why they migrated into the wilderness, and what they accomplished is another fascinating note. The frontier presented the Dunkers with both formidable obstacles and unique opportunities to these religious outcasts. The “Old West” gave the individual a life that was less communal than their eastern counterparts. The infrastructure was yet to be established, the facilities were not yet built, and the environment remained wild. What the Dunkers faced in the east was schism, divisiveness, and power struggles, what they faced in the west was individualism, religious freedom, and the ability to seek out the Holy Spirit for themselves. They allied themselves with likeminded individuals which they incorporated, collaborated, and intermarried with to develop yet another unique Anabaptist and Pietist movement that became more fluid in the frontier than it did in the east.