Religion on a Moving Frontier: The Berks County Area, 1700-1748

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Because of the tolerant policy of the Penns, thousands of people of various ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths poured into the colony of Pennsylvania, many of them moving directly to the frontier. Within fifteen years after the founding of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania frontier had moved more than fifty miles north and west of the city. By 1700 the area comprising the southeastern part of Berks County was part of that moving, vibrant line of settlement.

During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, this area-extending in a southwesterly direction from Bally through Bechtelsville, Boyertown, and Douglassville to Morgantown – became a veritable melting pot. Between 1700 and 1705 a number of Swedish Lutherans settled along the Schuylkill River near the mouth of the Manatawny Creek. This settlement, generally referred to as Molatton, was located at the present site of Douglassville. By 1720 the area known as Oley, then comprising some sixty thou­sand acres, contained a rather sizable heterogeneous group of people, including German Lutherans, German Calvinists, French Huguenots, Anabaptists, and Quakers as well as followers of Alexander Mack and Matthias Bauman. Welsh members of the Anglican Church had settled in the Morgan­town area at the headwaters of the Conestoga Creek by 1720. Palatines from Schoharie, New York, began their migration to the Tulpehocken area as early as 1723. It was here on the Berks frontier that a pattern of religious development emerged which was to be repeated many times over as the settlers moved west.

Since the great majority of people in the area were associated with some religious denomination prior to their coming to the frontier, it was only natural that they would be eager to continue their religious life after moving to the Berks County region. As soon as the settler cleared a portion of his land and built his house or log cabin, he, along with other members of his particular denomination, began to make plans for the construction of a church or meetinghouse. Once the place of worship had been com­pleted the congregation started what in many instances became a long search for a minister to serve it. Fortun­ately, there were a number of men with sufficient evangelical zeal, stamina, and character to answer the call.

During the 1720’s and 1730’s men like George Michael Weiss, John Philip Boehm, Johannes Henricus Goetschius, Justus Falckner, John Caspar Stoever, Samuel Hesselius, Gabriel Falk, Henry Antes, and others served the newly established churches in the Berks County area on a minimal basis. Two or three visits a year for individual churches was common. At times a minister might travel more than two hundred miles in the process of completing the circuit. Baptisms and confirmations were usually handled on the day the minister visited the congregation. By the end of the 1740’s the churches had multiplied to such an extent that efforts were begun to bring order out of chaos by organ­izing the churches into larger groups which could give efficiency and direction to religious purpose.

Although there were instances where members of particular denominations collected funds and purchased a small plot of ground upon which to erect a meetinghouse or church, the majority of churches built in Berks County before 1748 were erected on land set aside for such purpose by the more affluent members of a particular denomination. One of the first such transfers of property recorded took place in 1725 and resulted in the construction of Zion’s Lutheran Church, or “Reed’s Church,” just a mile east of Stouchsburg. Morton Montgomery, in his History of Berks County, Pennsylvania, noted that at a preliminary meeting George Scholl moved that a house of worship “be built on lands which Adam, Christopher and John Reith offered to donate, in addition to the seven acres which the proprietor of Plumton Manor … had already set aside for church purposes, in case such a house should be built.” Two years later Christopher Lechner, the building-master, and other members of the congregation completed the small log meetinghouse.

The Reformed Church in Oley originated in a similar manner. To cite Montgomery again, on April 13, 1734, John Lesher deeded 132 perches of land to Gabriel Boyer and Casper Greisemer “in trust for the society of Christian people inhabiting Oley, professing the doctrines and tenets of John Calvin.” Members of the congregation erected a meetinghouse on the property the following year. In 1735 George Hain donated seven acres for a Reformed Church. Although it is officially known as St. John’s Reformed, this church, located about one mile north of Wernersville, is better known to most Berks countians as “Hain’s Church.”

On December 24, 1736, Montgomery records, George and Deborah Boone deeded one acre of land to Anthony Lee, John Webb, and Squire Boone, who on the same day conveyed the land to Ellis Hugh, Thomas Ellis, and James Boone “for a house and place for meeting for the people called Quakers. within the said township of Oley.”

St. Thomas Church in Morgantown, the first Anglican Church in Berks County, owes its origin to Thomas Morgan. In his last will and testament Morgan “devised to his four sons, John, Francis, William and Jacob, and their heirs, in trust, one acre of ground in Caernarvon, for purposes of erecting thereon a house of worship and for a burying­-ground.” Morgan, however, went his contemporaries one better by donating an additional ninety-three acres of land, the Montgomery history states, “the rent of which should be applied towards building the church and maintaining services in the same.”

, Other churches in Berks County founded before 1748 also owe their existence to similar land donations. In 1743 Sebastian Fisher, Christian Lauer, and George Unruh each gave five acres upon which Christ Lutheran Church was erected. This church is located one mile west of Stouchsburg. John de Turck gave land for the Moravian Church in Oley. In 1744 Tobias Bickel donated a plot of ground upon which the North Heidelberg Church was erected. In the spring of 174 7 Henry Mertz donated three-quarters of an acre of land for the Bieber’s Creek Church in Rockland Township. The list could be expanded but it would only further substantiate what is already evident; i.e., that religion was of primary concern to the early settlers of Berks County and that they were willing to make sacri­fices to attain their goals.

Once the churches were erected the congregations began the long and thankless task of finding a clergyman willing to minister to their needs. Prior to 1740 few if any of the ministers came directly from Europe to the Berks County area. The great majority of them were pretty well established in the colony before most of the churches in the Berks County area were founded. They merely added the new churches to the list of churches they were already serving.

The history of religion in Berks County begins with the Swedish theologian, Andreas Rudman, who along with Eric Bjork and Jonas Auren arrived in America on June 29, 1697, in response to appeals from Lutherans on the Delaware. Prior to his embarking for America he had studied for his doctor’s degree under Dr. Jasper Svedberg, father of the great theologican Emanuel Swedenborg and professor of theology at Upsala University. On June 30, the day of his arrival, he went to Wicaco, where he conducted his first religious service. It was from Wicaco that he ministered to the Lutherans at Molatton. Rudman was succeed­ed by Andreas Sandel, who served the people at Molatton from 1702 to 1719. From 1720 to 1723 Rev. Samuel Hessetius was the minister. For the next ten years supply ministers preached at the church on occasion. In 1733 Gabriel Falk became pastor at Wicaco and Molatton and served the congregations for more than a decade. After 1743 Henry Melchior Muhlenberg ministered to congregations, operating out of his home base at Trappe.

Between 1710 and 1735 five of the pioneer leaders of the German Reformed Church arrived in Pennsylvania to serve the fledgling congregations in the colony. The Rev. Samuel Guldin, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1710, is generally considered to be the first German Reformed minister in Pennsylvania. It is John Philip Boehm, however, who is honored as the founder of the German Reformed Church in Pennsylvania. Boehm arrived in the colony in 1720 and served the denomination faithfully for nearly thirty years until his death in 1749. In the late twenties and early thirties, three other German Reformed ministers arrived in the Province: George Michael Weiss arrived in 1727; John Bartholomew Rieger on September 21, 1731 ; and Johannes Henricus Goetschius on May 29, 1735.

Two Lutherans should be added to the list. John Caspar Stoever, who was closely associated with the churches in the Tulpehocken area, arrived in Pennsylvania in Septem­ber, 1728. Justus Falckner, the first Lutheran minister ordained in Pennsylvania, arrived in the 1690’s.

By 1740 the stage was set for a decade of activity which would involve one of the greatest concentrations of prominent religious leaders ever assembled in any one area over a protracted period of time. No less than six of the greatest figures in the history of religion in America arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1740’s and joined the other preachers already here in ministering to the settlers in the Berks County area. Three of them, George de Benneville, Theodore Schneider, and Nicholas Ludwig Count Zinzen­dorf, arrived in 1741. They were followed the next year by Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. Augustus Gottlieb Spangen­berg arrived in Bethlehem in 1744 to take charge of the Moravian activities which emanated from that community. This included supervision of the work of Moravians in the Berks County area. The last member of this distinguished group, Rev. Michael Schlatter, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1746 to consolidate the work begun by Boehm, Weiss, Goetschius, and others.

Two in this group, George de Benneville and Count Zinzendorf, were born of noble parentage. George de Benneville was the son of the French nobleman Francois de Benneville and his wife, the daughter of the Duke of Granville, while Count Zinzendorf came from one of the noble houses of Saxony. Count Zinzendorf, Theodore Schneider, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Augustus Spangenberg, and Michael Schlatter had excellent academic training before coming to America. Zinzendorf attended Halle University, where he established a secret religious society known as the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed. His associate, Spangenberg, held a master of arts degree from the University of Jena. Muhlenberg was a graduate of the University of Gottingen where he completed the course in theology. Schneider completed his university education prior to joining the Jesuit order. Michael Schlatter received his theological training at the universities of Leyden and Helmstedt.

Each of these individuals had already begun a distinguished career before coming to America. De Benneville nearly lost his life while preaching his religious doctrines in France. Count Zinzendorf had established a famous refuge for Moravians at Herrnhut. Theodore Schneider had first served as professor of philosophy and polemics at the Jesuit College of Liege before going to Heidelberg, where he was eventually elected Rector Magnificus of Heidelberg University. Muhlenberg was a teacher at the famous Waisenhaus at Halle, where he came under the influence of August Franke, the man most responsible for Muhlenberg’s coming to America. Spangenberg, too, was associated with Halle. He held the chair of religious education at the University of Halle, but was dismissed for his espousal of Moravian doctrines. Schlatter had already be­gun his career in the ministry when he turned his attentions to the religious needs of the people in Pennsylvania.

It is interesting that of all the great religious leaders who exerted a profound impact on the religious development of frontier Pennsylvania, only the two men of noble birth, De Benneville and Zinzendorf, ventured beyond mere denominational theology. De Benneville preached universal salvation in “the fulness of times,” while Zinzendorf tried to unite members of all denominations in the Congregation of God in the Spirit, the first great ecumenical movement in America. It is also interesting to note that Zinzen­dorf was assaulted from every quarter of the religious com­munity while De Benneville was largely ignored, thus leading one to assume that an ecumenical union of Christian believers in the present is more greatly to be feared than “the restoration of all souls” following the Divine Catas­trophe. In fact, the assault on Zinzendorf by his religious colleagues was so widespread and so bitter that it led directly to the organization of the major denominations in Pennsylvania.

Zinzendorf did not view the Congregation of God in the Spirit as an organic union of all denominations into one church but rather as a confederation or commonwealth. As Arthur James Lewis explains in Zinzendorf, The Ecu­menical Pioneer, each denomination would be considered a Tropus “with its own ‘Jewel’ of truth, ritual or order,” which it would contribute “in setting forth the full glory and mission of the Lamb.” When this mission was accomplished the Tropuses would pass away.

On November 29, 1741, Zinzendorf landed in New York and set out immediately for Pennsylvania where he hoped to translate the concept of a Congregation of God in the Spirit into fact. He was willing to take any measure to insure the success of his mission. To this end he resigned his Moravian episcopate, gave up his noble title, and assumed the name of Von Thurnstein. On December 20, 1741, he met Henry Antes and inspired him to send out a circular letter calling the leaders of the various religious denomina­tions in Pennsylvania to a conference to be held on January 12, 1742, in Germantown. This was the beginning of the famous Pennsylvania Synods, which continued until 1748.

The principal synods, seven in number, were held between January and June, 1742. At the first meeting Zinzendorf made known his intention of uniting the various denominations in a Congregation of God in the Spirit. To give emphasis to the Tropus idea he and two of his colleagues, Christopher Pyrlaeus and Laurence Nyberg, registered as Lutherans. At the second synod, held at Falckner Swamp on January 25 and 26, he again re-emphasized the idea of a basic unity under Christ.

However, it was the third synod, held in John de Turck’s house in Oley on February 22 and 23, 1742, that witnessed events which, according to Arthur Lewis, “must always rank among the most remarkable and inspiring in the whole ecumenical story.” It was here that Zinzendorf organized the members of the synod – Lutheran, Reformed, and Men­nonite – into the Oley Congregation, a non-denominational church in which each member would list the Tropus or denomination with which he was affiliated. Andrew Eschen­bach, who had been instrumental in bringing the group together, was named minister. Zinzendorf believed that his end would soon be achieved, but such was not to be the case. Following the third synod the organization began to deteriorate rapidly.

If Zinzendorf believed that the religious leaders of Pennsylvania would rush to his Congregation once they understood its purpose he was sadly mistaken. Instead they charged him with trying to build a religious empire of his own and denounced his ideas whenever the opportun­ity arose. One of the strongest attacks against Zinzendorf and his “Herrn Huthers” came from John Philip Boehm. In his “Faithful Letter of Warning” to the members of the German Reformed church in Pennsylvania, he emphasized the fact that he and his fellow church members presented a protestation at the first synod meeting in Germantown in which they made their position clear.

… we cannot recognize as a brother in communion with any one, whoever he may be, who separates himself from our Church or has already been separated, or will in future separate himself, and who professes his adherence to such an assembly and its doctrines, mixed with all kinds of opinions, until he shall fully return to the divine truth upon which our doctrine is founded.

He did not take kindly to those who joined the Congrega­tion of God in the Spirit. He denounced John Bechtel, a Reformed minister who had embraced the teachings of Zinzendorf, as a “cunning and tempting recruiting officer for this Herrnhutish sect.”

Zinzendorf, himself a Lutheran minister, caused the greatest disturbance among Lutherans of Pennsylvania. When Henry Melchior Muhlenberg landed in Philadelphia on November 25, 1742, he found himself in the midst of the controversy. His diary entry for that date is revealing:

In the morning, about eight o’clock, we arrived in Philadelphia …. First I stopped off at an inn, and then sought Mr. Zwilfer. Mr. Zwilfer received me kindly, and when I inquired about our German Lutherans, Mr. Zwilfer said that most of them had gone over to Count Zinzendorf .. ..

The few Lutherans who had not gone over had accepted an old preacher by the name of Johann Valentin Kraft as their minister. During November and December of 1742, Muhlen­berg worked closely with him. From Muhlenberg’s com­ments the situation was anything but encouraging. “The Herrnhuters, after their fashion,” he wrote on February 18, 1743,

have easily three or four, often five, preachers in Philadelphia, and they also have their new church in which they preach both English and German, conduct devotional services daily, and are extremely active.

Muhlenberg, on the other hand, had little or nothing to work with. Aside from the privilege of conducting services in the Swedish Church, he was left with only a small building rented for worship purposes. “If the gracious God does not send me help,” he lamented,

I must surely sink under the burden. I am alone and in every way I have to carry on the struggle against myself, against the world, and against the white and the black devil.

Whether the “gracious God” intervened in Muhlenberg’s behalf is not for us to say, but Zinzendorf’s influence did decline rather sharply after his return to Germany in 1743. In 1746 Rev. Michael Schlatter noted the decline in his journal and credited it to God “who does all things well in His own time, and who knows best when the proper time has come to send out help for the sanctuary.”

Zinzendorf’s ecumenical movement had little or no impact outside the German-speaking denominations, who were either Lutheran, German Reformed, Moravian, or Mennonite. Quakers, Anglicans, and Catholics were little affected by the movement. The few Mennonites who had participated in the early synods dropped out the first year. The members of the German Reformed church followed soon after since they did not have the support of any important church leader. Of all the sects involved in the Congregation of God in the Spirit, it would seem that the Lutherans had the most traumatic experience, mainly because Zinzendorf never gave up his Lutheran affiliations. The controversy was particularly heated in the Tulpe­hocken area for a brief period of time.

Although Zinzendorf failed in his attempt to bring about an ecumenical union, he did, without intending to do so, contribute greatly to the organization of denominations in Pennsylvania. “There is often a paradox implicit in the growth of an ecumenical consciousness:” wrote Arthur Lewis in his study of Zinzendorf, “it also encour­ages a denominational awareness, not always of an irenic nature.” The reason for this was largely a matter of per­sonality. Despite Zinzendorf’s efforts he could not make sectarians forget his “grand title and distinguished bearing.” He might have made some progress toward his goal were it not for the fact that he had to face so distinguished an opposition. John Philip Boehm, who had labored so long for the German Reformed church, was not about to be up­staged by the likes of Zinzendorf. Muhlenberg, who came to Pennsylvania with a signed commission and the blessings of no less a figure than August Franke, could not accept a man who had no such commission or blessing.

It would be a mistake to assume that Zinzendorf was solely or largely responsible for the organization of the denominations in Pennsylvania. Zinzendorf was more of a catalyst than a cause. By the late 1740’s the number of churches in rural Pennsylvania, particularly Lutheran and German Reformed, was increasing quite rapidly. ‘By 1748 there were in Berks County alone some nine or ten Re­formed churches, six Lutheran churches, a Catholic Church, an Anglican Church, several Moravian churches. There were also Mennonites, Dunkards, and adherents of other religious faiths. Zinzendorf’s activities merely hastened centralization of the churches, especially those of the Lutheran and German Reformed denominations.

The German Reformed took the lead in establishing a central organization. On September 29, 1747 four min­isters – Boehm, Weiss, Rieger, and Schlatter – and twenty-seven elders representing twelve congregations met in Philadelphia and formed the First Coetus of the German Reformed church in Pennsylvania. Two elders from Tulpe­hocken and several from Old Goschenhoppen were present at the meeting. The Pennsylvania Ministerium of the Lutheran church was established the following year. By 1748 the synods begun by Zinzendorf in 1742 had virtually become Moravian in structure. This fact was recognized at the meeting of the synod held October 12-16, 1748, when the Moravian church was organized. At the synod held in Bethlehem in January, 1749, congregations in thirty-one localities (exclusive of Indians) were recognized as Moravian.

The centralization of the major denominations brought to a close the frontier phase of religious development in the eastern counties of the Province of Pennsylvania and ushered in a stable period of steady growth which con­tinued well into the nineteenth century.


The photographs are by George M. Meiser, IX.


Dr. William Hummel is Professor of History at Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania.