Tuesday, November 3, 2015

America as a Religious Refuge 17C German Mennonites

The first group of Germans to settle in Pennsylvania arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 from Krefeld, Germany, and included Mennonites and possibly some Dutch Quakers. During the early years of German emigration to Pennsylvania, most of the emigrants were members of small sects that shared Quaker principles--Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and some German Baptist groups--and were fleeing religious persecution.

William Penn and his agents encouraged German and European emigration to Pennsylvania by circulating promotional literature touting the economic advantages of Pennsylvania as well as the religious liberty available there.

Persecution and the search for employment forced Mennonites out of the Netherlands eastward to Germany in the 17th century. As Quaker evangelists moved into Germany they received a sympathetic audience among the larger of these Dutch-Mennonite congregations around Krefeld, Altona-Hamburg, Gronau and Emden.  It was among this group of Quakers and Mennonites, living under ongoing discrimination, that William Penn solicited settlers for his new colony. The first permanent settlement of Mennonites in the American Colonies consisted of one Mennonite family and twelve Mennonite-Quaker families of Dutch extraction who arrived from Krefeld, Germany, in 1683 and settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Among these early settlers was William Rittenhouse, a lay minister and owner of the first American paper mill. Jacob Gottschalk was the first bishop of this Germantown congregation. This early group of Mennonites and Mennonite-Quakers wrote the first formal protest against slavery in the United States. The treatise was addressed to slave-holding Quakers in an effort to persuade them to change their ways.

Germantown Mennonite Meeting House, built 1700.

The Mennonites are a Christian group based around the church communities of Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Friesland (at that time, a part of the German Holy Roman Empire). Through his writings, Simons articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders. The teachings of the Mennonites were founded on their belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, which they held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states. Rather than fight, the majority survived by fleeing to neighboring states where ruling families were tolerant of their radical belief in believer's baptism. Over the years, Mennonites have become known as one of the historic peace churches because of their commitment to pacifism.

Menno Simons (1496–1561)

In the early days of the Anabaptist movement, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in the Low Countries, heard of the movement and started to rethink his Catholic faith. He questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation, but was reluctant to leave the Roman Catholic Church. His brother, a member of an Anabaptist group, was killed when he and his companions were attacked and refused to defend themselves. In 1536, at the age of 40, Simons left the Roman Catholic Church. He soon became a leader within the Anabaptist movement, and was wanted by authorities for the rest of his life. His name became associated with scattered groups of nonviolent Anabaptists whom he helped to organize and consolidate.

In the early 18th century, 100,000 Germans from the Palatinate emigrated to Pennsylvania, where they became known collectively as the Pennsylvania Dutch (from the anglicization of Deutsch or German.) The Palatinate had been repeatedly overrun by the French in religious wars, and Queen Anne had invited the Germans to go to the British colonies. Of these immigrants, around 2,500 were Mennonites and 500 were Amish. This group settled farther west than the first group, choosing less expensive land in the Lancaster area. The oldest Mennonite meetinghouse in the United States is the Hans Herr House in West Lampeter Township.

Menno Simons (1496–1561)

During the Colonial period, Mennonites were distinguished from other Pennsylvania Germans in 3 ways: their opposition to the American Revolutionary War, which other Germans participated in on the side of the rebels; resistance to public education; and disapproval of religious revivalism. Contributions of Mennonites during this period include the idea of separation of church and state, and opposition to slavery.

From 1812 to 1860, another wave of Mennonite immigrants settled farther west in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. These Swiss-German speaking Mennonites, along with Amish, came from Switzerland and the Alsace-Lorraine area. These immigrants, along with the Amish of northern New York state, formed the nucleus of the Apostolic Christian Church in the United States.

The appearance in Pennsylvania of so many different religious groups made the province resemble "an asylum for banished sects." Beginning in the 1720s significantly larger numbers of German Lutherans and German Reformed arrived in Pennsylvania. Many were motivated by economic considerations.

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