Project Canterbury

The Pennsylvania Dutch in the Episcopal Church
By Theodore Diller

American Church Quarterly volume 35, 1934
pp 355-359

THERE was a large emigration of German people, mostly from the Palatinate and also from Switzerland, which settled in eastern Pennsylvania beginning at the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century and continuing for several decades. These people and their descendants are commonly called Pennsylvania Dutch, although very few of them came from Holland. Many of these immigrants were Mennonites, others settled in the western part of the country and there is, it is well known, a Russian Mennonite colony. But they were especially predominant in York, Lancaster, Lehigh, Lebanon, Berks, and Northampton counties. Some of the early Pennsylvania Dutch, like Christian Sauer and Melchior Muhlenburg, were highly educated; but generally speaking they were opposed to higher education and this continues more or less to be their attitude today. For the most part their religious affiliations were of two kinds—Lutheran and Mennonite, or Amish. The Lutherans maintained their religious tenets and have held succeeding generations to it quite well up to the present time. The Mennonites, who were usually meant when the words "Pennsylvania Dutch" were used, were adherents of a religious system following the teaching of Simon Menno, a former Roman Catholic priest who lived about the middle of the sixteenth century. Menno's doctrine was almost identical with that of the Quakers; indeed in the early days William Penn suggested a union between the Mennonites and the Quakers. In one or two instances this was actually accomplished. But the movement did not spread, I believe for the reason that the Mennonites felt by following it they would lose not only their language but their religious solidarity. The Mennonites, like the Quakers, and in even a greater degree, maintained simplicity of life, dress and manners. They eschewed worldly pleasures such as cards, games, dancing, and the circus. Members who failed to conform to their rules were set aside in the way provided for by the New Testament teaching. They refused to go to war, to sit on juries and to vote. They were divided into two sects about 1820. John Herr found they were becoming lax and started a new sect called the Reformed Mennonites, which adhered more rigidly to the old doctrines. The Mennonites were and are conscientious, thrifty, hard-working, and thoroughly honest. They tried to live in the world without being part of it. They tried to get along without laughing. Their social life was with each other—for with their views, how could they live with other people in any degree of sympathy and understanding? The Mennonite religion was adapted for rural life and for rural life only. It cannot long survive in the city. Some Mennonites did move to large towns, Lancaster, Reading, and Bethlehem, etc.; but here they sooner or later abandoned the Mennonite faith; if not the parents, most surely the children.

The Mennonites, with the Amish who were much like them, were quite different from the Germans of the Lutheran faith. There was not much in common except their nationality and language, yet Pennsylvania Dutch was a name applied to all Germans in a more or less loose way. By some the word is regarded as an opprobrium, and by others, myself among them, it is regarded as an honorable designation. It may be remarked that the word "Quaker" was also used as a term of opprobrium in the first place and afterwards as one of honorable distinction. Although the Mennonites did not encourage book-learning, they did encourage practical learning of things of life which concerned them. Their farms represent models of care, industry and frugality and are admired by all that see them. Nor is their attitude to book-learning in the slightest degree an index of mental inferiority. It is only the superficial person who so regards it.

At first sight it would seem to some that the Episcopal Church is far removed from the Pennsylvania Dutch, but they have come into the Church in considerable numbers all through eastern Pennsylvania, and there are also native born Germans who entered the Church who could scarcely be designated as Pennsylvania Dutch. In this respect the Pennsylvania Dutch again exhibit a resemblance to the Quakers for it is well known many of them have entered the Episcopal Church. Indeed it has been said that most of the worshippers of St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia, have Quaker ancestors. Among the Quakers and Mennonites are numerous mystics with deep rooted religious sense and experience. Many of them find as they go along in life that the Mennonite faith fails to satisfy the religious longing and desire for outward expression of their piety. In other words they revolt against repression of their natural instinct. It is somewhat startling to realize that the greatest priest of the Episcopal Church in this country was a Pennsylvania Dutchman—William Augustus Muhlenburg. If any one disputes this statement, then he will at least readily admit that he is among the four or five greatest. Dr. Muhlenburg came from a family distinguished in medicine, law, statecraft and science, perhaps the most distinguished of all the Pennsylvania Dutch families. Dr. Muhlenburg became co-rector of St. James' Church in Lancaster, in 1820. He put life and energy into the old parish, which had been founded in 1744; and his vitalizing influence left results which may be seen today. For instance, my grandfather, then a young man of the Lutheran faith, was gently influenced by Dr. Muhlenburg to come into the Episcopal Church. My grandfather felt he was making only a slight change in doing this and that it had the advantage of bringing him in line with the linguistic turn of the day, the English language as against the German language. He argued that this was an English-speaking country and the church service should now be in that language. He had five sons and three daughters, and they learned in childhood the catechism and the Church doctrine and her ways. Every one of them became loyal, devoted sons and daughters of the Church. One of my grandfather's sons, my father's brother, Jacob Diller, entered the priesthood and was rector of St. Luke's Church, Brooklyn, for nearly forty years and perished aboard a burning vessel in Hell Gate, in 1877. A few of the older New York clergy still recall him. In his day he was a stiff High Churchman, and when the practice was rare, he kept up daily morning and evening prayer. His name is revered in St. Luke's parish and far beyond its parochial borders. My grandfather's children nearly all had large families and every one of the children was baptized and confirmed in the Church. This personal reference may perhaps be pardoned as it is an illustration I know most about. Dr. Muhlenburg brought many into the Church in Lancaster during his stay there before he left for his larger field of work in New York, where he founded St. Luke's hospital and the Church of the Holy Communion, St. Johnsland, and instituted the practice of a weekly Eucharist. A dignified tablet to his memory is to be found on the walls of St. James Church.

One of Jacob Diller's brothers, Isaac, had a son, Alonzo, who entered the priesthood and who lost his life in the Johnstown flood: another brother of Jacob Diller, George (my father), had a grandson who entered the priesthood and is active in his office at the present time, Rev. Howard W. Diller, rector of Trinity Church, Pottsville.

In 1820 Dr. Muhlenburg became co-rector of St. James' Church, Lancaster. Mr. Robert Coleman at this time was senior warden, and the father of two charming daughters who attracted Dr. Muhlenburg and James Buchanan (who later became president of the United States), two young suitors whose names were afterwards to attain national reputations in their respective spheres. Neither of these young men was successful in his suit. It was commonly reported at the time that Mr. Coleman thought that they were not sufficiently qualified as husbands for his daughters and that it was through his influence marriages were prevented in both cases. Be this as it may, both suitors remained bachelors to the end of their days. It is reported that Dr. Muhlenburg wrote, in a period of depression and discouragement after his rejection, the beautiful hymn, "I would not live alway." Anne Coleman, who had been betrothed to the young lawyer, James Buchanan, broke off her engagement suddenly. Shortly afterwards she went to Philadelphia where she committed suicide.

Along about the Reconstruction period, the rectorship of St. James' Church was filled by a scholarly German named Jacob Isidor Mombert, who besides his parochial duties found time and disposition to produce an excellent history of Lancaster county. It will be recalled by some Church historians that the first and second bishops of New Jersey were Germans and I am under the impression that the ranks of our clergy have been recruited to considerable extent from the Pennsylvania Dutch. Our great missionary to the Northwest, Jackson Kemper, was a Pennsylvania Dutchman.

I myself was raised in St. John's Church, Lancaster, Pa., which was founded seventy-five years ago by Bishop Bowman, an offshoot of the mother church, St. James; this congregation was made up very largely of Pennsylvania Dutch people. Several of the young men of this parish have entered the priesthood, among them, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, Father Gast, of Bellefonte, who is a credit to his Order. On a recent visit to New Orleans, I made the acquaintance of Dean Nes of Christ Cathedral, who is honored for his scholarship both inside and outside the Church. He revealed to me that he was a Pennsylvania Dutchman, born in York, Pa. Father F. O. Musser of Easton is one of our most talented and devout priests. Both his parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, his father; I believe, was brought up in the Mennonite faith.

But going back to Dr. Muhlenburg's advent to Lancaster in 1820, I believe this was about the time that the Church realized it was something more than an exclusive British institution, that indeed one might be a faithful member of this Church without understanding the English language. The Church began to go abroad into the four corners of the world, where it is now found serving many peoples in many tongues. Those of us, who like myself, are Pennsylvania Dutch, are deeply grateful to the Church of England for her fostering care and rejoice greatly that the badge of English ancestry and tongue is not required—the Church is large enough to include us all, and we need make no apology or feel any uneasiness in giving our full allegiance to this British Catholic Church. Our Church has not done as much as she might have done to attract people of other tongues. This subject has been dwelt upon several times by the editor of the Living Church and most impressively by Bishop Wilson; but even now the idea has not been wholly dispelled that the Anglican Church is an English speaking respectable institution for English people or those of English descent.

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