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The Early Years 1880-1890

In 1885 the General Conference of the Schwenkfelder Church instructed church trustees to collect books and manuscripts remaining in Schwenkfelder possession. The driving force behind this collecting effort was based on two developments, one negative and one positive. The negative development was a declining knowledge of the German language among Schwenkfelders: this deprived them of the ability to study their own history. Yet, at the same time, new scholarship and interest in the study of Schwenckfeld and Schwenkfelders, especially the Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum project, spurred the drive to preserve, present and interpret their physical and spiritual history.

Designated the “Schwenkfelder Historical Library” in 1890, Howard Wiegner Kriebel was the collection’s first curator. Kriebel, a teacher by training and profession, originally stored the newly gathered books and manuscripts at his home near the Washington Meeting House, but when he moved to East Greenville in 1892 to take up teaching duties at the Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, the collection moved with him: first to his home, then to the school’s campus. With the exception of material sent to Hartford, Connecticut and Wolfenbüttel, Germany for the Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum project, the collection remained on the Perkiomen School campus for the next fifty-nine years.

H.W. & O.S. Kriebel and the Carnegie Library

Howard Kriebel in 1907 resigned as curator of the collection and his cousin, the Reverend Oscar Schultz Kriebel, Headmaster of Perkiomen School, became the collection’s new custodian. At the beginning of Rev. Kriebel’s custodianship, the collection was being stored in the school’s gymnasium, and Reverend Kriebel’s main challenge was to find a permanent building in which to store the collection.

In 1906 he had secured a matching grant from Andrew Carnegie for $20,000 for a new library building. In the negotiations between Andrew Carnegie and donors, it was agreed that " one purpose of the library building was to provide floor space and a fireproof section or vault for the housing, use and management of the collection of historical materials being formed by the Schwenkfelder Church." By 1910, however, Rev. Kriebel needed to raise over $60,000 as the school’s rising debt reached $38,000. With contributions coming from school trustees, alumni and church members, the money was raised and the new library building was dedicated on November 20, 1913.

The Years Abroad

Chester Hartranft died in 1914 so the work was entirely placed in the youthful but capable hands of Elmer Johnson and Selina Gerhard Schultz. Yet, World War One proved to be another major obstacle. Dr. Johnson, his family and Selina stayed the entire course of the war in Wolfenbüttel and continued their work throughout. By war’s end in 1919 they returned home for good so that the entire collection gathered in Germany,
146 boxes weighing twelve tons, found its permanent home in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. Therefore, by 1919 the material originally gathered by Howard Kriebel for the Schwenkfelder Historical Library and the material gathered by Dr. Chester Hartranft, Elmer E.S. Johnson and Selina Gerhard Schultz for the Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum was brought together in Pennsburg at the Carnegie Library, and became the foundation for the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center’s library and museum collections of today. However, this did not mean the collection had a permanent address: further accumulation of books, manuscripts and artifacts in the 1920s and 1930s and the lack of an adequate fireproof building and vault spurred action for a new library building.

The Corpus Project

A year prior to the 1885 General Conference decree, in a circular letter and at the sesquicentennial Schwenkfelder Memorial Day service, Dr. Chester David Hartranft, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Hartford Theological Seminary, made an impassioned appeal to the Schwenkfelder community for a need to publish a comprehensive, scholarly “encyclopedic critical edition” of the works of Caspar Schwenckfeld in order to secure his “rightful but long-denied place in Reformation scholarship.” The appeal was accepted most positively and the fall 1884 General Conference appointed a committee to consider Hartranft’s call to produce a sixteen volume corpus of the works of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig.

Dr. Hartranft’s Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum project itself was influenced and inspired by the preceding work of men like Friedrich Schneider and Oswald Kadelbach. These men, in the early-to-mid 19th century had each contributed to the modern era of Schwenckfelder scholarship and Schwenkfelder history. Friedrich Schneider, after reading the work of Reformation historian Gottfried Arnold became deeply interested in Schwenkfelder history and, in his study, accumulated an unrivaled knowledge and manuscript collection of Schwenkfelder history up to that time. Kadelbach’s 1860 Ausführlich Geschichte Kaspar v. Schwenkfelds und der Schwenkfelder in Schlesien was an additional step in the path towards recognition of the need for a comprehensive and scholarly edition of Schwenckfeld’s work.

Dr. Hartranft set sail for Germany in May 1885 where he began a preliminary search of libraries and archives for Schwenckfeld’s writings, and soon produced a bibliography of over 900 documents. As his research continued over the next few years more and more documents were uncovered. Yet, during the 1880s and 1890s the Corpus project, despite its intensive research, massive accumulation of copied documents and enthusiastic financial backing, failed to see a single volume published. Chester Hartranft’s other duties at Hartford, his health problems, plus his insistence on thorough scholarship in the German tradition, caused delay after delay in publication.

However, by 1903 Dr. Hartranft had retired from Hartford so that he could focus all of his time on the Corpus. He moved with his family to Wolfenbüttel, Germany whose holdings contained the largest collection of Schwenkfeldian documents in all of Europe. The documents collected by Howard Kriebel traveled with Dr. Hartranft to Germany as well. Still the project was bogged down by Hartranft’s administrative duties and his insistence on thorough scholarship. In 1904 Elmer E.S. Johnson was appointed assistant editor and sent to Germany to speed up work on volume I which still did not appear for another three years. After that time, and with the addition of Selina Gerhard Schultz, first as secretary, then as editor the project’s work proceeded much more smoothly but still slowly.

Finding a Permanent Home

Wayne C. Meschter, president of the Board of Publication, was the power behind the effort to erect a new building for the book and manuscript collection. In December 1944, he delivered a check for $7,500 to the Board of Publication, and in April showed a willingness to give up to $100,000 when needed, provided the Board of Publication would assume responsibility of maintenance of the building project, the General Conference would approve separate incorporation of the library and the land would be owned by the corporation so that the library would be a “perpetually independent” institution.

The Board and Conference accepted and approved this move and in November 1946 the library became incorporated. In May 1947 articles of incorporation were approved and bylaws adopted. Mr. Meschter was elected library’s first president; Malcolm Schweiker, vice president; Wayne Rothenberger, treasurer; Lester Kriebel, secretary. In October 1947 the library’s property was deeded from Perkiomen School to library. The location chosen was a lot on the Perkiomen School campus approximately 250 yards from the Carnegie Library.

The new building was dedicated on October 27, 1951. Earlier that year title to the collections, endowment funds and rights of occupancy to designated areas of the Carnegie Library were formally transferred from the Board of Publication to the Schwenkfelder Library. The contents of the vault had been moved in September and the rest of the library collection was moved as time permitted. The museum collection remained in the Carnegie building and was given over to exhibit space for the artifacts. Over the years this collection grew and more thought had to be given to consider suitable space for its storage, display and protection.

Through the generosity of Wayne C. Meschter, the efforts of the Schwenkfelder Board of Directors and Director Berky the library made a concerted effort in the late 1950s to increase the library’s endowment fund in order to insure funding for the basic operating costs. After acquiring the full share of stock in Mr. Meschter’s preserve company, Wayne American Co., the library then dissolved the corporation and sold the company’s Philadelphia building. This insured the library with sufficient monthly cash flow and endowment funds.

Directors

Andrew Berky saw the need to make the collection more accessible to the public, as well as continue in the tradition of Dr. Hartranft, Selina Schultz and Elmer Johnson’s Reformation scholarship. Berky wrote numerous books (see bibliography on website for listing) and lectured on Schwenkfelder and local history. At this time the library was still working on the publication of the Corpus and supplemented this work by supporting the research of Reformation scholars Joachim Seyppel and John Joseph Stoudt. Seyppel’s Schwenckfeld, Knight of Faith and Stoudt’s translation of Schwenckfeld’s Passional and Prayerbook were published in 1961 to mark the 400th anniversary of Schwenckfeld’s death.

With the completion of the Corpus in 1961 and the library’s endowment secure Berky began to see the need for a re-evaluation of Schwenkfelder history. He saw the traditional, insular world of the Schwenkfelders as shrinking and losing significance. He thought now there was a need to change the library’s mission with the changing times or else it would lose its vitality. There was also a need, in his mind, to develop a relationship with a Reformation scholar who could “properly assess its [the collection’s] intrinsic worth in relationship to Protestant development throughout the past four centuries, and relate its significance in terms of modern theological thought.”

It was not until 1973 that the library found a scholar who was willing to take on the duties, though temporary, of being a consultant for the library. Peter C. Erb, who had originally come to Pennsburg in 1970 from the University of Toronto as part of his PhD research into the role of late Medieval spirituality in the work of Gottfried Arnold agreed to a fifteen month consultantship where he would “oversee communication with interested scholars in the field [of Reformation Studies] and supervise a modest program of acquisition of new volumes…to augment the library collections.”

Dr. Erb left the Schwenkfelder Library after his fifteen months of consulting to return to his tenured position at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Yet, since that time, the library has enjoyed a very close personal and professional relationship with Dr. Erb. Though staying here only a short while as a consultant Peter has since been the library’s Associate Director and has published books and articles on Schwenckfeld and the Schwenkfelders (see bibliography). In addition he organized the 1984 colloquium which was organized to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Schwenkfelders in America, and brought scholars from throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe to Pennsburg to present papers on various aspects of Schwenkfelder and Reformation history.

At the same time badly-needed cataloging tasks were being undertaken by Upper Perkiomen native Fred Grater who started as a part-time employee in 1965 and stayed on for ten years. Fred Grater received a master’s degree in religion and culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada and wrote his thesis on Schwenckfeld’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession. Another invaluable asset to the library came from the local community. Dennis Moyer started at the library as a volunteer with the museum collection in 1977. He provided expert knowledge of local history and a great understanding of the meaning and interpretation of our artifacts and fraktur. Dennis became the Director in 1983 and his directorship culminated with the publication his book Fraktur Writings and Folk Art Drawings of the Schwenkfelder Library Collection published in 1988.

2001-Present

In the 1990s a fire badly damaged Kriebel Hall, the main building of the Perkiomen School. This prompted the Board to consider, relocating the museum collection to a more secure, fireproof building. A capital campaign was started to raise money for an addition to the library for storage and exhibition of the museum collection.

Ground was broken in March of 2000 and the building was completed and rededicated in June 2001. During the period of the construction the building was closed but the staff continued to work in the midst of the construction. The museum collection was inventoried and boxed for moving and the library collection was boxed and stored off site. Since 2001 the, rechristened, “Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center” has opened its doors to researchers, students and families interested in the Schwenkfelder story or, more generally, Pennsylvania German culture and life. The Heritage Center’s challenges for the future are still great: attracting visitors from a changing social demographic; creating new education and exhibit topics and programs; cataloging its large collection of books manuscripts and artifacts; locating funding for the operation and upkeep of the building and the preservation and conservation of the collection.