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The Legacy of Alexander Mack

One night in Schriesheim, Germany, a number of people crowded into an old millhouse to worship and pray. Without warning, someone urgently pounded on their door, filling the room with total silence. 

“Scatter quickly, or you’ll all be arrested!” a sympathetic neighbor shouted. As one of the meeting’s organizers, Alexander Mack quickly fled with his wife and two small sons, never to see their home again. They were now religious refugees.

Leading up to that period, religious conflict had been festering throughout Europe. About 200 years earlier in 1517, figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin ignited the Protestant Reformation which rebelled against the Catholic church. Then in 1618, the continent suffered the most destructive religious conflict in European history—The Thirty Years War. The war ended in an exhausting stalemate that gave kings the right to impose their church of choice upon their subjects, which is why Alexander’s gathering was illegal. Yet rulers still sought power, so opposing armies constantly clashed in Mack’s hometown. Some civilians escaped to America, while those who remained were often forced to hide in the surrounding hills. 

Alexander’s father had been elected as Schriesheim’s mayor and owned three grinding mills that were essential to the region’s economy, but that didn’t spare Alexander from the perpetual conflict. Being surrounded by constant upheaval, he believed he was living in the end times foretold in the book of Revelation. At that time, there was a group called the “radical pietists” which was known for having the most extreme religious views, and Mack became associated with them. Ultimately, his unorthodox views are what forced him to become a refugee. 

He fled to the tiny village of Schwarzenau because their prince permitted religious freedom. He spent the next two years there eagerly studying the New Testament with others. As he studied scripture, he came to reject the radical pietists for emphasizing personal revelation over scripture while continuing to reject orthodox churches for engaging in so much violence. 

By summer 1708, the group put their new convictions into practice and formed a church directly patterned after the New Testament. As their first step, they baptized all their adult members, though this was illegal at the time. As their next step, they participated in the Lord’s Supper by sharing a common meal, washing each other’s feet, and celebrating the bread and cup.

Over the next decade, the group quickly grew to over 1,000 members with several congregations. These early years ended up being a time of experimentation as they adopted and rejected different doctrines and practices, but they kept the Bible at the core. The commitments they passed on to us today can be summarized as:

  • What do the Scriptures say? Instead of blindly obeying creeds and traditions, we earnestly study the scriptures to determine God’s will for our lives.
  • How did the earliest disciples understand and apply it? Realizing that the original scriptures were written to a different language, culture, and time period, we look to the earliest Christians to better understand its true meaning.
  • How is the Holy Spirit working within us to confirm it? Rejecting the idea that any single individual could fully understand scripture, we interpret and apply scripture as a community.
  • How will we obey? If we believe God’s Word calls us to do something, we commit to putting it into practice.

These simple commitments are what set Alexander Mack’s tiny group apart from so many others. Now that it has grown into the worldwide movement known as the Charis Alliance, we’re still guided by them today.

Adapted from “The Legacy of Alexander Mack” published by the Charis Fellowship.