Stimulated by distressed social and economic conditions in Russia and a scarcity of professional religious leadership capable of ministering to the people, informal religious prayer groups began to form among the colonists. Through these informal groups, led by the laity, one could receive religiously-based emotional and inspirational support that was believed to be lacking in an increasingly sectarian society. The proliferation of such prayer group meetings became known as the Brüder (Brotherhood) movement.
The first general meeting (a Konferenz - Conference) of these groups was held in Brunnental in 1871 under the leadership of the Rev. Wilhelm Stärkel, pastor of the Reformed Congregation in Norka, and was a union of individuals from several different denominations. Rules of Conduct adopted at this Conference intended to bar sectarians from the order and requiring Brotherhood members to be actively involved with a local congregation.
The Brotherhood movement first took root in America in Sutton, Nebraska. In 1887 a small group met in the newly-erected barn to hold the first American Brotherhood Conference. Its functions were the same as in Russia: to provide protection from a external sectarian society and internal religious stability for this ethnic and religious cluster of people.
Membership in the Brotherhood in the United States, as in Russia, is open to members of established churches, regardless of denomination. These individuals must have had a conversion experience and thus confess Jesus Christ as their Savior. Members must demonstrate Christian character and support their local prayer groups and congregations. There is a strong emphasis on mission work, and members are required to support this endeavor. Conflict within the group is minimized by the operation of the principle of "admonition," which gives the Brotherhood the right to discipline its members, both in personal and prayer group contexts. For example, brethren are forbidden legal recourse against each other, i.e., disputes must be settled on a personal, not juridical, basis. Similarly, points of contention within the organization are resolved through the office of a "committee of admonition" which addresses itself to the problems.
The local group conducts several meetings each week which feature hymns, scripture, short religious addresses, personal testimonies, and group prayer. Women may attend these sessions, but may not fill any role in which they could exercise authority over men.
The local groups are affiliated with district conferences which, in turn, constitute a state conference. These units meet several times annually. As Brotherhood members moved and settled in other states new conferences on each level were established with the Nebraska Conference serving as the "Mother Conference." Most Brotherhood groups in the United States became closely affiliated with Congregational Reformed parishes.
Originally, meetings were conducted exclusively in German, but the English language may now be used. Although the Brotherhood appears to have passed through its greatest phase of expansion, the older members who remain active conduct its affairs with vigor and dedication.
Dorn, George. "The Brotherhood / Brüderschaft." Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia 14:3 (Fall 1991): 55-56.
Koch, Fred C. The Volga Germans: In Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977): 118-119.
Koehler, Paul. "The German Brotherhood: 272 Years of History." Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (Winter 2004): 8-20.