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When writer Phebe Gibbons caught a train to Lancaster County in 1871 to visit a Brethren love feast, she prepared herself to enter what she thought would be a strange world. As a reporter for a major magazine she intended to write about what would no doubt be an odd, perhaps even bizarre practice by an obscure religious sect.

What she experienced was the equivalent of a three-day slumber party.

Surprised by love
The love feast was quite different from other religious practices of the day. It stemmed from the peculiar theological synthesis of the Brethren—part Anabaptist, part Pietist, and fully determined to implement those ordinances that they found in Scripture as the result of joint Bible study.

Their reading of John's version of the Last Supper mandated both a full meal and a feetwashing service. John 13:14-15 indicated to the Brethren that Jesus had commanded they wash each other's feet. Moreover, the meal, therefore, did not precede or follow worship. It was worship, and was as essential to Communion as breaking the bread and drinking the cup. Finally, Paul's command to greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26) meant that men kissed men and women kissed women on the lips.

Gibbons was surprised by more than the kissing. First, she had thought of the Brethren as a homogenously German group. But the Lancaster love feast was multicultural: she was astonished to discover folks named Murphy back when the Irish were nearly as reviled as blacks. She was also surprised by the almost raucous good fellowship among these quiet "plain people." The plates of sweet pie and cups of hot coffee never stopped. Venerable patriarchs and matriarchs held court, ...

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