Sometimes confused with the Amish, the Old Order River Brethren originated around 1780 near the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Jacob Engle gathered a small group of Christians, mostly from the Mennonite and Dunker backgrounds (not the Amish), and began what is now known as the Brethren movement. In the 1850s the Brethren divided into three groups: the Brethren in Christ, the United Zion Church and the Old Order River Brethren.
River Brethren accentuate the teachings of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, where non-resistance to enemies is stressed. Honest relationships with neighbors and co-workers, daily family worship, careful raising and teaching of children, respect for the elderly, and volunteering are all teachings that are emphasized in their group. Many River Brethren ladies are quilters (like the Amish), and use their quilting talents to help others. Young girls are taught from the time they are small to be able to use needle and thread, and learn how to quilt from their grandmothers. A simple patchwork quilt is used to teach young girls to piece quilts and sew.
The three hour Sunday morning service, conducted in English, is usually held at members homes or in rented community buildings. The singing is a capella and is characterized by a slow, regular cadence. Most of the songs sung come from the Book of Psalms and the tunes they are sung to have been handed down for generations upon generations, despite the music not being written down in any hymnal. Often a pot-luck meal follows the service. Baptism is performed by immersion in a stream or pond. Twice a year they hold the Lords Supper Communion Service in the evening, where they serve a small meal, and then practice the Footwashing ceremony as performed by Jesus with his disciples.
The River Brethren has a dress code that shows both modesty and identification with their group. Womens dress includes a linen head covering (prayer veiling), and a below-the-knee solid colored dress with matching modesty cape and apron (to indicate a willingness to serve). The men wear black or dark pants with suspenders, solid colored collared shirts and straw or black hats. The adult men wear beards.
Family relationships and passing down of traditions is important to the Old Order River Brethren, and Quilting Bees are held to benefit their childrens schools and missions. Many River Brethren ladies create fine Amish quilts. Women working outside the home is not encouraged, and large extended families are the norm. They do drive cars (usually black), and have electricity and even computers and microwaves if they are useful to their business and household, but they do not have TV.
There are currently Old Order River Brethren congregations (often called simply River Brethren) in Lancaster County and Franklin County (Pennsylvania) and in Dallas County, Iowa.