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The Old German Baptist Brethren

Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge

Charles D. Thompson Jr.

Publication Year: 2006

Since arriving nearly 250 years ago in Franklin County, Virginia, German Baptists have maintained their faith and farms by relying on their tightly knit community for spiritual and economic support. Today, with their land and livelihoods threatened by the encroachment of neighboring communities, the construction of a new highway, and competition from corporate megafarms, the German Baptists find themselves forced to adjust._x000B_Charles D. Thompson Jr.'s The Old German Baptist Brethren combines oral history with ethnography and archival research--as well as his own family ties to the Franklin County community--to tell the story of the Brethren's faith on the cusp of impending change. The book traces the transformation of their operations from frontier subsistence farms to cash-based enterprises, connecting this with the wider confluence of agriculture and faith in colonial America. Using extensive interviews, Thompson looks behind the scenes at how individuals interpret their own futures in farming, their hope for their faith, and how the failure of religiously motivated agriculture figures in the larger story of the American farmer. _x000B_

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv


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p. vii

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Prologue: Of Soil and Stories

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pp. ix-xii

Despite romantic notions of “the land” often associated with agriculture, small farms are not natural places that exist apart from human communities. Rather, farms are the work of people interacting with nature over time, in often unromantic and hardscrabble ways. What people do, believe, and say about their work on farms, in...

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pp. xiii-xiv

I dedicate this work to the farmers in Franklin County, and also to those who once possessed and lost farms there, including members of my family. I especially appreciate the participation of those who maintain the Ancient Order today. I also express my gratitude for help and support on this project to Rob Amberg, Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon...

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Note on Photographs

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p. xv

Most of the Old German Baptist Brethren members interviewed for this book told me they did not wish to have their faces appear in photographs as portraits. Appearing to seek “publicity,” as some put it, would be anathema to their belief regarding living plain lives. For this reason, many of the photographs in this volume focus on people at work, in many cases from...

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Introduction: Nonresistance and Change

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pp. xvii-xxxvi

They offered no resistance to assaults against them as they made their way down the narrow trading path to Virginia. If under attack by displaced Iroquois or by outlaw highwaymen, they prayed that God’s will be done and turned the other cheek. Some died in the process. Dressed in conservative black clothing, German Brethren traveled...


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1. The Ancient Order

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pp. 3-17

The first German Baptists were eight exiles who gathered clandestinely three centuries ago in Alexander Mack’s millhouse to read the Bible and pray. It was 1708 and Germany was then but a hodgepodge of provinces, all of them war-torn and struggling to redefine and rebuild themselves, and vying for tribute and allegiance, following the Thirty...

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2. The Carolina Road

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pp. 18-38

Along much of the great trading route through Virginia, the Brethren and other Germans were either the first European pioneers or closely followed the Scotch Irish settlers.1 Yet, the German Brethren and others among them were far from the stereotypical rugged individualists or explorers seeking land for profit or power. Rather, they were a...

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pp. 39-41

For decades the Old German Baptist Brethren of the Pigg River District of Franklin County had charge of a small congregation in Clemmons, North Carolina. By 1994, the last remaining North Carolina district—called Fraternity—retained only two families: a couple in their late fifties along with their son, his...

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3. Raising Citizens

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pp. 43-71

Farming not merely for the sake of producing food but as a way to build a life for a family and a community is a theme Old German Baptist Brethren return to again and again. They speak of religious beliefs and lifestyle intertwined, of clothing, cars, and business ethics all as part of living by example. They cultivate values, not just corn. They build community, not just barns. And, more important than cattle...

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4. Community-Based Agriculture

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pp. 72-100

Family farming is not enough. To survive as a farmer on a small scale, one needs not only family members, but also neighbors. Neighbors help with work, creative financing of farmland purchases, and collective purchasing power. They swap labor and equipment, help one another with repairs, tend to one another’s farms when someone has to be away, respond to emergencies, and encourage one another...

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5. Adversity and Perseverance

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pp. 101-142

Though Franklin County is still rural and has more farms than any county in the southern Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, agriculture there is in jeopardy, and so are its farmers. The pressure mounts from a variety of sources both local and national, even international, including the low prices farmers receive for their milk and other products...

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6. Membership

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pp. 143-173

“We’re Franklin County people,” said Elsie Turner. “I’ve spent all my life right here, and I’m ninety-three years old.” She was a second grade schoolteacher for forty-five years and taught my mother, among thousands of other children raised in the county. Along with teaching, she continued to live and help out on the family dairy farm...

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7. Hope

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pp. 174-196

From the fallow ground of farming’s decline emerge a few sprigs of hope for community-based agriculture. Though farms have gone out of business, new German Baptist farm families now grow pickyour- own-strawberries, sell their own produce at the Rocky Mount Farmers Market, and plant orchards in hopes of direct sales to consumers. Though farm futures seem bleak, an exciting small-scale...

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Epilogue: They Go Quietly

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pp. 197-204

From the time of their arrival in Franklin County in the mid- 1700s to today, the German Baptist Brethren have tried to remain a quiet people who avoid self-aggrandizement, never speak out on political issues or engage in lawsuits, always keep to themselves, and accept ridicule and even persecution without protest. While avoiding the...


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pp. 205-212


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pp. 213-219

E-ISBN-13: 9780252092657
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252031038

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 785782173
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Old German Baptist Brethren

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • German Americans -- Virginia -- Franklin County -- History.
  • Old German Baptist Brethren -- Virginia -- Franklin County -- History.
  • Brethren (Brethren churches) -- Virginia -- Franklin County -- Social life and customs.
  • German Americans -- Virginia -- Franklin County -- Social life and customs.
  • Old German Baptist Brethren -- Virginia -- Franklin County -- Interviews.
  • German Americans -- Virginia -- Franklin County -- Interviews.
  • Farm life -- Virginia -- Franklin County.
  • Franklin County (Va.) -- History.
  • Franklin County (Va.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Franklin County (Va.) -- Religious life and customs.
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