Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600-1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part First. The English Church in the Colonies

Chapter XIV. The Germans

First German immigration; the "Pennsylvania Dutch"; religious character ad condition; the Moravians; their influence on Whitefield; intractable material for the Church.

While the Commissaries were reforming the Church in the south, notable scholars coming to her aid in the east, and the Great Awakening was stirring the religious life of the whole land, the last great wave of pre-Revolutionary immigration broke over the middle colonies. It came from two quarters, Germany and Ireland. It brought in two great populations, one of whom has always remained indifferent and the other opposed to Episcopacy.

The ceaseless wars which became inevitable on the Continent of Europe when the Reformation motto cujus regio, ejus religio, was adopted, had wrought incalculable damage in Germany. The condition of the common people was deplorable. While the country was prolific of great scholars and leaders of the Reformation, the mass of the people retained much of their mediaeval barbarism. The feudal spirit which made his people patient of the great Frederick's cane, and still keeps the citizens of a mighty empire docile under the personal rule of the Kaiser, made the common folk then helpless to rise out of their low state. Continual wars, changes of rule, changes of faith, bad government, made their lives intolerable. [Seebohm: Era of Protestant Revolution, p. 33.] Like the unfortunate in all lands they turned their faces to America. In the last years of the seventeenth century they began to come. The bulk of them came to Penn's colony. Through his German mother and his own sojourn at Cresheim on the Rhine, Penn knew them and they knew him. In 1683 Pastorius brought the first detachment of twenty families, sat down with them six miles from Philadelphia, and properly named the first German settlement Germantown. [Reichel Moravian History, p. 15.] A few recruits followed from time to time, but thirty years later immigration came en masse. In 1709 a horrible famine wasted their fatherland. Thousands perished of cold and hunger. [Ib. p. 15] The heart of the world, which at that time was not easily moved at the sight of suffering, turned toward the poor, dying creatures with compassion. Good Queen Anne of England offered to give them lands and homes in America and to help them move. Multitudes took her at her word. Thirty thousand made their way to London to escape starvation through the queen's goodness. [Ib. p. 16.] So many additional hungry mouths threatened to set up a famine there. The brutal populace of the city fell upon them in their poor camp at Blackmoor, beat them, drove them off to beg and starve among the lanes and hedges. Five thousand of them, being Roman Catholics, were sent back to Germany. Four thousand were sent to Ireland to settle waste lands about Limerick. The remainder, more than twenty thousand in number, were sent to America. Ten ships brought five thousand of them to New York at one time. They were carried up the Hudson and moved in behind the Dutch, who had lived for half a century on its western bank. [Smith: History of New York, p. 139.] Their descendants are still found about Scoharie, Schenectady, Palatine Bridge, and westward to the headwaters of the Susquehanna. But the main stream came up the Delaware. Philadelphia was their entrepôt. Before the middle of the century the immigration had reached and sustained itself for several years at twelve thousand annually. [Proud: History of Pennsylvania, vol. ii. p. 273.] They moved in behind the English and Welsh and sat down upon the rich limestone soil which stretches westward to the Susquehanna. From Pennsylvania they crept southward into Virginia and western Maryland. A smaller, independent stream flowed into North Carolina and farther south. [Williamson: History of North Carolina, vol. i. p. 184.] At the outbreak of the Revolution they constituted one-third the population of Pennsylvania. [Proud: History of Pennsylvania, vol. ii. p. 273.] Their religious and social condition was of the very lowest. Ignorant when they left home, their exposure and suffering reduced them still lower. Many of them came as "Redemptioners," that is, persons who had sold themselves either outright or for a limited number of years to some shipmaster for the amount of their passage money. The advertisement pages of the dingy newspapers of the time are full of notices of rewards for runaway "Dutch servants." They were harshly treated, and upon the smallest excuse or no excuse at all had their time of servitude lengthened until many became hopeless bond slaves.

From a religious point of view they were all classified as "Lutherans." The distinction which the Germans began early to make between Lutherans and Reformed was not observed by English-speaking people in describing them. The various German sects were in popular speech lumped together as Lutherans, that is, Germans who were not Romanists. With the exception of the few leaders, and leading German families who were broadly marked off from the rank and file of their people, the mass were for the most part indifferent to religion in any form. The few preachers who at first accompanied their flocks gradually found their graves in the western wilds, or if yet living, their influence on newcomers was very slight. There were thousands, who, educated in Germany as Lutherans, but now scattered about in the forest wilds of America, never saw a church or cared for it. Many were so utterly indifferent to all religion that it became proverbial to say of those who cared nothing for God of His Word, that they belonged to " the Pennsylvania Church." [Spangenberg: Life of Zinzendorf, p. 1230.] The chronic tendency of German Protestantism to division made their religious condition worse. They became a congeries of sects, some of them holding as their distinguishing mark the most grotesque and whimsical practice or tenet. The mystical "Mennonite" would not allow the baptism of infants, would not take an oath, refused to bear arms, and wore a peculiar dress. The "Tunkers" held to the same theological and ethical views, but wore a different dress, and made it a point of faith to wear their beards untouched by blade or scissors. The "Siebentagen" observed the seventh day of the week instead of the first to keep it holy, denounced marriage as a snare of Satan, lived in community, established an order of Protestant monks and nuns, and built for themselves monasteries, the broken walls of which still stand. [At Ephrata, Lancaster Co., Penn.] Anchorites lived solitary lives far in the forest, and hermits made their homes in the rocky caves along the Wissahickon. Besides these, Schwenkfelders and separatists of now forgotten names abounded. Their type may be seen in one sect which still exists, whose distinctive dogma is that men should wear hooks and eyes instead of buttons to fasten their clothes!

The numbers and character of the incoming Germans seriously alarmed the colonial authorities, and, after a prolonged agitation, it was checked and ultimately stopped by the imposition of a tax of forty shillings a head upon all comers. But before this was done the Germans who are now known as "Pennsylvania Dutch" had established themselves in a circle of settlements which surrounded the Church of England at those points where it was strongest. There they have remained ever since. They have preserved their original features of character and religious life with a tenacity which hardly any other class in America can equal. Simpleminded and coarse in fibre, but strong and pertinacious, they have held their own, and the Church has made but little impress upon them. With the exception of the great and saintly Muhlenbergs, and a few others of kindred spirit, their names are absent from her rolls.

The Moravian Church came among them at a later date, and has since held in their midst much the same place that the Episcopal Church has among the English-speaking Protestants. It, though small in numbers, has probably affected the religious life of America more profoundly, though indirectly, than have the vastly more numerous German Lutheran and Reformed. Bishop Nitschman, in Savannah, became the teacher of the Churchman John Wesley. The Moravian Peter Böhler, as we shall see, gave him that cast of religious life which made him the founder of Methodism. Whitefield was their friend and coworker. He bought for them five thousand acres of land at the forks of the Delaware to found a school for negroes, which was to be administered by them, [Reichel: Moravian History, p. 78.] and then quarrelled with them and took the land away. But he retained that bias which his intercourse with Peter Böhler had given him, and, during his restless wanderings up and down the colonies, was more under the domination of the Moravian than the English Church.

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