Friday, November 6, 2015

America as a Religious Refuge - Persecution - German & Polish Schwenkfelders


The first group of Germans to settle in Pennsylvania arrived in Philadelphia in 1683, from Krefeld, Germany, & 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, & some German Baptist groups--and were fleeing religious persecution. William Penn & his agents encouraged German & European emigration to Pennsylvania by circulating promotional literature touting the economic advantages of Pennsylvania as well as the religious liberty available there.


Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig (1489–1561).

The Schwenkfelder Church is a small American Christian body rooted in the 16th century Protestant Reformation teachings of Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig (1489–1561).  A contemporary of Martin Luther, he engaged in many debates on religion with Luther. Gradually, he came to have a considerable following of men & women who believed as he did. This belief centered upon an Inner Light, which was to guide their conduct, & later was embodied in books that came into possession of George Fox of England, who adopted the ideas into his philosophy which emerged as Quakerism. In fact, some books call the Schwenkfelders German Quakers.  He was an aristocrat, writer, thinker, and courtier of the German states. By the middle of the 16th century, there were thousands of followers of his "Reformation by the Middle Way."  His ideas appear to be a middle ground between the ways of the Reformation of Martin Luther, John Calvin, & Huldrych Zwingli, + the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.


Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig (1489–1561).

Originally calling themselves Confessors of the Glory of Christ, Schwenkfeld's followers later became known as Schwenkfelders. These Christians often suffered persecution like slavery, prison, & fines at the hands of the government & state churches in Europe. Most of them lived in southern Germany & Lower Silesia (Poland). During the early 1700s, current Roman ruler Frederic Augustus II issued a mandate that the Schwenkfelder community choose between the Lutheran and Catholic churches. When they refused, he placed sanctions on burials and marriages, and refused to acknowledge Schwenkfelders as citizens of the state. 
By the beginning of the 18th century, the remaining Schwenkfelders lived around Harpersdorf. As the persecution intensified around 1719–1725, they were given refuge in 1726, by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Saxony. When the Elector of Saxony died in 1733, Jesuits sought the new ruler to return the Schwenkfelders to Harpersdorf.  With their freedom in jeopardy, they decided to look to the New World.  Although they were forbidden to emigrate, on Tuesday, April 20, 1734, a band of 176 persons deserted their homes, sailed down the Elbe River, and found refuge in Holland. Dutch Mennonites gave them food and shelter and paid for passage on the ship St. Andrew bound for Philadelphia, PA.


Landing of the Schwenckfelders from the St. Andrew by Adolf Pannash 1934

Six groups of Exiles, totaling 209 persons and 52 families, arrived in Philadelphia, 1731 to 1737, but the largest — the third — contained 44 families and 170 persons. The day after they arrived, the able-bodied men affirmed allegiance to the British King, George II, and the following day, perhaps in the nearby Friends meeting house, all of the group held a thanksgiving service for their safe arrival in a land of religious tolerance. Every year thereafter on the anniversary, a similar service has been held in one of the Schwenkfelder Churches. 

The immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church brought saffron to the Americas; Schwenkfelders may have grown saffron in Europe—there is some record that at least one member of the group traded in the spice. A group came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1731, and several migrations continued until 1737. The largest group, 180 Schwenkfelders, arrived in 1734. The offer of religious tolerance in Pennsylvania was extraordinary. Fifteen year old 15-year-old Christopher Schultz documented the 1731 voyage in his journal. Schultz wrote, upon landing in Philadelphia: “People mingle like fish in the sea.” In Europe, Schwenkfelders and Jesuits were at odds. Once settled in Pennsylvania, the first Schwenkfelder settlers actually helped to build a Jesuit chapel.

Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig (1489–1561). Erste Amerikanische Ausgabe. 1859 frontispiece portrait of Schwenckfeld

Schwenkfelders inhabited in the Philadelphia area from Chestnut Hill to Lehigh County and did not extend further. One family only is known to have moved to Virginia. For the first 50 years (1731-1781) it was hard to keep all of the Schwenkfelders together and practicing religion. Lay pastors acted as circuit riders during this time. In 1782, the Society of Schwenkfelders was formed. The Schwenkfelder Church has remained small: as of 2009 there were 5 congregations with about 2,500 members in southeastern Pennsylvania. All of these bodies are within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia.

They teach that the Bible is the source of Christian theology, but also believe it is dead without the inner work of the Holy Spirit. They also continue his belief that the divinity of Jesus was progressive, and that the Lord's supper is a mystical spiritual partaking of the body of Christ in open communion. Adult baptism and both infant baptism and consecration of infants is practiced depending on the church. Adult members are also received into church membership through transfer of memberships from other churches and denominations. Their ecclesiastical tradition is congregational with a strong oecumenical focus. The Schwenkfelder churches recognize the right of the individual in decisions such as public service, & armed combat.


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