Explore the history, art, genealogy and spirituality of the Perkiomen Valley. Journey from 16th century Germany to present day Pennsylvania.
The Schwenkfelder History Gallery
We are the only institution preserving and interpreting the story of the Schwenkfelders. Because of that, we have a long term exhibit telling this story. The Schwenkfelder exhibit begins just past the stairs to the lower level, along the ramp, with the story of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig and his participation in the Protestant Reformation.
Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig
Caspar Schwenckfeld was born in late 1489, the eldest of three children of the noble Schwenckfeld family of Ossig, Silesia, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. We have little information about his early life, but it is likely that his education and daily life was similar to other nobles. As the eldest son, Schwenckfeld would inherit the family estates, though he would spend little time there as an adult. In his early twenties, Schwenckfeld became a court attendant to several Silesian lords. At the height of his career, he served Duke Friedrich of Liegnitz, the most powerful Silesian noble.
Like many of his contemporaries, Schwenckfeld pondered the question of the Lord's Supper. The numerous Christian groups springing up in Europe clashed over the meaning and practice of this most holy of Christian observances. Schwenckfeld sought the inner spiritual truth that would lead Christians to real understanding of the Lord's Supper. His radical ideas led to his split with Luther in 1526, and set him on his spiritual course known as the Middle Way. Schwenckfeld and his supporters joined in a suspension of the celebration of the Lord's Supper, until all participants could come together in Christian unity. The resulting disputes forced Schwenckfeld into voluntary exile from Silesia in 1529. Often called a heretic and harassed by his enemies, he sought safe houses where he could work and write until his death in 1561.
To this day Schwenckfeld's followers learned of his ideas through his writings or by word-of-mouth. They were generally nobles or intellectuals and Schwenckfeld probably considered them his social equals. Later Schwenkfelders were typical of the general population, including craftsmen and farmers. Schwenkfelders generally lived in two areas -- southern Germany and lower Silesia. Lower Silesia would become their traditional home, and the area where their beliefs would take root. Approximately 1200 to 1500 Schwenkfelders lived in this area.
The Schwenkfelders endured years of oppression. Enslaved on ships, jailed, fined and put in stocks, they were not allowed freedom of worship sporadically for 150 years. Persecution sometimes came from Lutherans or Catholics, and often from government officials. The Schwenkfelders were subject to changes in the political climate, which were frequent and severe.By 1700, all Schwenkfelders were living the village of Harpersdorf and the surrounding area. Two Jesuit priests were sent to the region in 1719 to convert them to Roman Catholicism by order of the Emperor. At first, the priests imposed a few rules, but they soon found that the Schwenkfelder spirit was not easy to break and persecution intensified. Prohibition of Schwenkfelder burials on consecrated ground was among the sanctions exacted by the Jesuits. The Schwenkfelders instead were forced to bury their dead in potters' fields outside Harpersdorf. The Jesuits did not allow any of the Schwenkfelders to sell their property and leave town.
In the early 1720s appeals were made in Vienna for toleration, but were rejected. By 1726, many of the families were desperate to escape. Their leaders secretly contacted Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Berthelsdorf, Saxony, for shelter. Four years before, Zinzendorf had provided a home to the Moravians, another Protestant sect. Beginning in February 1726 and continuing into the following months, families quietly crept from their homes in Harpersdorf at night. Over 500 of the faithful would take this fateful path. They fled with only the clothes on their backs and a few hand carried items, across the border to Saxony and their unknown future.
They decided to settle in Pennsylvania, already home to German immigrants and others seeking religious freedom. They arrived at the port of Philadelphia in six migrations from 1731 to 1737. The largest group of Schwenkfelders set sail on the St. Andrew from Haarlem, Holland in June, 1734. After a grueling and often tragic voyage, they landed at Philadelphia on September 22, 1734. On the following day, the Schwenkfelder men over age 16 took an oath of allegiance to the British crown, either by signing the oath or by a handshake. George Weiss, a self-educated Schwenkfelder pastor, held the first Day of Remembrance, or Gedächtnestag, on September 24. Each year on the Sunday closest to September 24, Schwenkfelders gather to honor their past. While sharing the simple meal of bread and butter, apple butter and water, today's Schwenkfelders remember what the immigrants endured for their faith. Gedächtnestag is the oldest continually celebrated day of thanksgiving in the United States.
Schwenkfelder Life in America
The first American Schwenkfelders were very interested in finding land where they could settle together. Despite several opportunities, a group purchase did not happen, and the Schwenkfelders spread out and settled in the region between Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania. They established communities in the Upper District (known as the Goschenhoppen) and the Middle District (the Skippack area). Today, this area remains the traditional American home of the Schwenkfelders, though descendants have settled throughout the United States. Today, the Schwenkfelder Churches still flourish in southeastern Pennsylvania. Though the membership has changed from predominantly Schwenkfelder descendants to a multi-cultural church community, the values of the Schwenkfelders, rooted in religious freedom, tolerance, charity and education, are undercurrents in all current church activities.