The Germans Have Landed

IT IS OCTOBER 1683. In a temporary cave-dwelling on the high banks of the Delaware, a German Mennonite family and several German Quaker families cast lots for parcels of land. The settlement they are founding—Germantown—will play a crucial role in the early history of the American Anabaptists.

The Germans’ “other holy experiment”

A wave of German immigrants began landing at the port city of Philadelphia in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. William Penn, the colony’s Quaker proprietor, did not intend to establish a Quaker commonwealth in the New World. Rather Pennsylvania—"Penn’s Woods"—his “holy experiment,” was open to all people of Christian faiths.

Penn’s agents combed Germany’s Rhine Valley for potential colonists, and German immigrants flocked to Pennsylvania by the thousands. These immigrants were mostly Lutheran and Reformed, and a few were Catholic—these were the legal, state-supported faiths of the German territories. In Penn’s vision, however, dissenting and persecuted Anabaptist and Pietist groups were welcome as well. These included German Quakers, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Mennonites, Brethren (Dunkers), and Amish. English residents soon labeled all of these groups “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Gradually the Pennsylvania German settlers developed their own dialect and perpetuated their own folkways and traditions that clearly set them apart from their English-speaking neighbors.

Germantown, the first intentional German-speaking community in America, was laid out in 1683, a mile-long section of an Indian trail some six miles northwest from Philadelphia. The first German settlers—13 families—arrived that October on the ship Concord. They were greeted at the Philadelphia wharf by William Penn and one of his land agents, a young German lawyer named Francis Daniel Pastorius. They met in the cave-like dwelling he had constructed at Germantown and cast lots for land.

Free enterprise, free religion

The new village was an economic success from the beginning. The first winter they dug cellars for shelter. The first log homes appeared the next spring along a wide main street on lots 180 feet wide by 800 feet deep, but these were soon replaced by larger dwellings made of native stone. Cemeteries were laid out at both ends of the village, which also contained a central market. Outlying fields were cleared for crops and nearby creeks supplied power for mills. The settlers planted flax (for linen), fruit trees, and vineyards. Germantown incorporated in 1689, with Pastorius as its first mayor.

Initially Germantown was a Quaker enterprise; by the late 1680s they were planning for their first meetinghouse, and in 1689 they issued the first formal protest against slavery in America. Continued immigration from Germany, however, allowed a Mennonite congregation to develop. By the early 1690s Mennonites were meeting together for worship, but they did not organize a congregation until 1698. Shortly after the turn of the century, they built a log meetinghouse on Germantown Avenue. It was replaced in 1770 by a fieldstone building, still used by the congregation today.

Lure of the land

Penn advised new immigrants to live in towns where they could then clear and work the outlying fields, as had long been done in England. However, the lure of inexpensive, fertile land to the north and west—perceived as the key to wealth and economic independence—proved too powerful. From Germantown, clusters of Mennonite families could soon be found at “Skippack,” to the northwest in what is today Montgomery County, and at the “Swamp” to the north in Bucks County. Shortly after 1710 Mennonites also moved to the back country, to “Conestoga” in what is now Lancaster County.

The arrival of a few hundred Mennonite immigrants in 1717, most from the Palatinate or Switzerland, greatly aided the stability of Pennsylvania’s Mennonite communities. But these newcomers bypassed the Germantown congregation—largely influenced by Dutch Mennonite traditions—preferring instead the upcountry farming settlements at Skippack and Swamp or Lancaster’s Conestoga country. These two areas, “Franconia” and “Lancaster,” soon became major centers of Mennonite development in America.

Baptized and cloistered

The first group of Brethren, colloquially known as “Dunkers” (after their manner of baptism—threefold immersion) arrived on the ship Allen in 1719. The leader was Peter Becker, a weaver, who settled at Germantown. Brethren organized a congregation on Christmas Day, 1723 after “newly awakened” candidates for baptism had come to Germantown. Since there was no minister on this side of the Atlantic, the settlers chose for this office Becker, who then led the congregation down to the Wissahickon Creek for the baptisms. Rejoicing together, the Brethren proceeded that night to a member’s cabin for a love feast. This is the Brethren setting for Holy Communion, which has traditionally included a time of self-examination, feetwashing, a simple communal meal, and the observance of the bread and cup. The Germantown Brethren did not build a house for worship until 1770. It is located on the north end of Germantown Avenue, and still used for worship today.

Those baptized in 1723 were from the outlying areas of “Coventry,” along the Schuylkill River in northern Chester County, and the Conestoga country in northeast Lancaster County. The following year, the Dunkers organized congregations in both areas. The latter group chose for their minister Georg Conrad Beissel, who had only recently been baptized by Becker. Within a few years, significant differences developed between Beissel and the Brethren at Germantown, primarily over the importance of celibacy in the life of a believer, Beissel’s claim of personal direct divine revelation, and his practice of observing Saturday as the Christian Sabbath. Beissel resigned his office with the Conestoga Brethren in 1728 but continued as the spiritual leader for a small group of followers. Seeking solitude, he moved a short distance away in 1732 to the Cocalico Creek in Lancaster County, where he established the famed Ephrata Cloister (p. 28).

Although Beissel retained many Brethren practices, such as trine immersion baptism, the love feast, and nonresistant pacifism, his charismatic leadership cast a wide net. At its height in the 1750s and ‘60s, there were perhaps 80 celibate residents at the Ephrata site, with its unique dormitories, chapels, and other buildings, and another 200 “householders” (married couples living on nearby farms) who looked to Beissel for spiritual leadership and worshiped with the community.

Ephrata’s influence was felt in several German-speaking communities in Pennsylvania and as far south as the Carolinas. Ephrata was also an economic success, and the community became well-known for its mills, bread, and other products; fraktur (decorated manuscripts), choral music, and printing. Ephrata monastics translated (from Dutch into German) and printed for the Mennonites the important work of Anabaptist martyrology The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs Mirror (1748–1751), the largest work published in colonial America.

While Mennonites benefited from a constant flow of migration to Pennsylvania, the only other significant Brethren immigrant group arrived at Germantown in 1729. This party was led by Alexander Mack, the first minister of the Brethren in Europe. The future of the Brethren would thus not be influenced by the Old World as much as it would by their development in America.

The Germantown congregation prospered, eventually spinning off congregations in Philadelphia and at Indian Creek to the north in Montgomery County where some of the 1719 group had settled. Most Brethren followed the agricultural frontier west from Germantown into Lancaster, across the Susquehanna into York and Adams counties. From there they headed west across the mountains into the valleys of central and western Pennsylvania, or south following the “Great Wagon Road” through Maryland into the Valley of Virginia and the Carolinas.

An Amishman’s captivity

The first Mennonite and Brethren immigrants were weavers, millers, or workers in other trades. They shifted quickly to agriculture and farming, however. The Amish arrived in Pennsylvania already proficient farmers, preferring rural settlements in townships with other Germans rather than market towns. While Dutch Mennonites often played a major role in helping obtain ship’s passage, Amish immigrants bypassed any significant contact with Germantown.

The first and most important Amish settlement in colonial America emerged in central Berks County in the 1730s. Centered along the Northkill Creek, this area had perhaps 200 Amish residents by 1750. Jacob Hertzler, the first known Amish bishop in America, arrived here in 1749.

While isolated, the Northkill settlement was also vulnerable to international conflict as the British and French sought to extend their control over America’s vast inland regions. On the evening of September 19, 1757, the family of Jacob Hochstetler was attacked by Native Americans allied with the French during the French and Indian War. According to well-worn Amish tradition, the father ordered his sons not to retaliate with their hunting rifles. Rather the family acted out their nonresistant pacifist faith by hiding in the cabin’s cellar.

The Indians eventually torched the cabin and the family was captured while attempting to escape. Hochstetler’s wife, daughter, and son Jacob Jr. were killed. The father and two sons, Joseph and Christian, were taken prisoner and removed to French-controlled territory, but the sons were soon separated from their father. The following spring, Hochstetler was permitted to hunt for food alone and took the opportunity to escape. After two weeks he arrived at Shamokin on the Susquehanna River and eventually found his way back to an Amish community. His sons, still captives at the end of the war, were eventually released and reunited with him.

Pacifists in a revolutionary age

Closer to Germantown, another Amish settlement developed at Malvern in Chester County during the 1760s. This community took the somewhat unusual step of building a schoolhouse, which was also used for Sunday worship. The Amish, like the Mennonites and Brethren, worshiped in the homes or barns of members, a tradition kept alive by Old Order Amish communities today.

The largest Amish community in Pennsylvania (and the second largest in North America today) at Lancaster did not begin until the Revolutionary era. It was originally located on the Berks-Lancaster border, near Morgantown, but was eventually absorbed by an expanding settlement on Pequea Creek, near Gordonville, which began around 1790.

The American Revolution was in many ways a time of testing for the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren. All were Christian pacifist groups who took literally Christ’s teachings: “Blessed are the peacemaker“Turn the other “Do not resist the evil one.” Their faith also taught them to be obedient to governing authorities, except in matters that conflicted with what they understood to be God’s law. German immigrants after 1727 signed a declaration of loyalty to the British crown. They appreciated the religious freedom found in Pennsylvania and had prospered materially as well. When war broke out in 1775, these historic peace churches sought to remain neutral. That, however, proved difficult.

Recognizing their situation, a small group of Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish met with revolutionary authorities in Lancaster County in 1775. While they could not take up arms, they did agree to offer humanitarian aid. By 1777 Pennsylvania Revolutionary officials required citizens to take a loyalty oath (known as the “Attest"), but these groups also practiced “nonswearing,” and thus could not in good conscience take such an oath. Many were required to pay double taxes, or more, for refusal to take a new oath of allegiance.

Many on the Revolutionary side, however, interpreted the stance of the peace churches as thinly veiled support for the British. For his refusal to allow a military officer to use his horse in 1779, Amishman Isaac Kaufman was arrested, tried, and jailed in the Berks county jail as a Tory. In Germantown, Brethren leader Christopher Sauer Jr., the influential printer and one of the wealthier men in the colony, was arrested and roughed up in 1778 for his refusal to take the Attest. While such incidents may have been relatively isolated, the hostile attitude of the patriot cause toward the German peace churches was not.

The Revolutionary victory left the peace churches drained and marginalized in some ways. During the war, voting rights in some areas were taken away, which many in these groups never sought to reclaim. A few Mennonites even took the opportunity to move to Canada, which they saw as more politically stable. For many, it also confirmed a preference to live away from towns and the English majority in a life of rural seclusion. On a deeper level, the challenges of war introduced a key question of identity. How sectarian, how nonconformist, how German, how American were they to be if they were to grow and prosper in the new Republic?

This challenge has shaped American Anabaptists ever since, coming to a head with particular force in the late 19th century.

By David Eller

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #84 in 2004]

David B. Eller is director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
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