The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

Since its founding, the history of Pennsylvania has sprung from the successive waves of immigrants who have settled within its boundaries. Colonial Pennsylvania was peopled by English, Scotch-Irish, German, Swe­dish, and Welsh arrivals. Germans continued to come after 1800 but were joined by thousands from Ireland and Wales. With industrial expansion after 1870, Hungarians, Lithu­anians, Poles from Prussia, and Slovaks constituted the im­migrant streams of the late nineteenth century. After 1890, massive numbers of southern Italians, Croatians, Serbs, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Galician Poles, Roumanians, Greeks, Carpatho-Ruthenians, Wends, Armenians and East European Jews entered the state. Blacks, who migrated to Pennsyl­vania from colonial years, came in increasing numbers after 1870 and in a rush after 1917 when World War I terminated European immigration and created a need for unskilled Black labor in Pennsylvania industry. After the 1920’s, smaller numbers of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans continued the immigrant pattern. Even contemporary Pennsylvania draws newcomers from Vietnam, Italy, and India in sub­stantial numbers.

Traditionally, America, and Pennsylvania in particular, have been viewed as the land of opportunity which offered religious freedom and economic opportunity to the “huddled masses” of foreign lands. Immigrants themselves were usually portrayed as dispossessed individuals who embraced the American dream of individual liberty and equal oppor­tunity. Essentially the story of immigration, in the popular imagination, has been a success story. Newcomers arrived in Pennsylvania, struggled for awhile, and eventually found their way into the mainstream of American life. That all new arrivals were struggling toward a common set of goals, namely individual liberty and opportunity, was widely assumed.

Far less numerous have been accounts suggesting that in­coming cultural groups had any reservations about the prom­ise of American life. From abroad, Pennsylvania may have looked as a place where material rewards, individual initia­tive and religious freedom could be pursued. But did realities of life in the new land really fulfill immigrant expecta­tions? What unforeseen challenges were encountered by strangers from overseas? Rare are interpretations of immi­grant disillusionment with America or immigrant critiques of American society, especially its transformative nature. And yet, in examining much of the immigrant experience in Pennsylvania, one common thread continually emerges. Nearly all groups eventually faced a conflict in values. Apart from the familiar contentions between the foreign born and their nativist critics, newcomers faced a deeper challenge from the individualistic, materialistic ethos of an expanding new society which differed from the pre migration traditions and values of newcomers. The celebrated opportunities for personal freedom in America often posed a threat to the traditions and family attachments of immigrants. Many, to be sure, eagerly acknowledged the promise of American life and pursued social attainment. A surprisingly large number, however, resisted the pressures of modernization and secularization. Indeed, the process of modernization, which transformed rural, family and religious centered cultures into urban, individualistic, and secular societies, often re­sulted not in the complete assimilation of ethnic and re­ligious groups but in their division into traditionalists and modernizers. To a vast amount of newcomers, the promise of American life was something to be spurned rather than embraced.

The contention between modern and traditional values was characteristic of the earliest immigrant settlements in Pennsylvania. Quakers in eighteenth century Philadelphia came here to cultivate two “plantations.” Since Quaker beliefs held that God dwelled inside men, the inner self was to be respected and nurtured as part of the “holy experi­ment.” But Quakers were also concerned lest the outward plantation (secular society) be neglected. Differing from Anabaptist sects, which rejected worldly appetites and passions, the Friends believed that the material world was the substance from which the Kingdom of God was to be fashioned. God’s will was to be carried out in both the meetinghouse (religion) and the countinghouse (business). While pursuit of individual careers and fortunes was en­couraged, the ultimate goal of the Quaker experiment was to erect inner temples of holiness and righteousness.

By the middle years of the eighteenth century, however, a conflict was evident among Philadelphia Quakers. Several had accumulated vast fortunes from mercantile opportuni­ties available in Philadelphia and were growing away from their religious attachments to the Quaker community. Others began to withdraw from business pursuits and de­voted themselves to philanthropic endeavors in an attempt to concentrate on religious ideals. This conflict, which divided the Quaker community was clearly seen in 1756 by Samuel Fothergill. He wrote:

They [Quakers] settled in ease and affluence and whilst they made the barren wilderness as a fruitful field, suffered the plantation of God to be as a field uncultivated and a desert …. A people who had thus beat their swords into plough-shares, with bent of their spirits to this world, could not instruct their offspring in those statues they had themselves for­gotten.

Quakers were not the only eighteenth century arrivals to differ over the pursuit of materialistic opportunities offered in Pennsylvania. Moravians who came to Bethlehem in 1741 experienced a similar crisis. Moravians believed that Chris­tianity could not exist without community. Thus early Bethlehem was a tightly controlled religious community where only Moravians were allowed to live. Worldly influ­ences were restricted; even individual initiative, something valued highly in an expanding America, was severely cur­tailed. All worked for the community. Everyone contributed part of his time and earnings to Moravian missionary activ­ity. Even relations between sexes and age groups were strictly regulated by Moravian Elders.

By the 1760’s, however, observers detected important alterations in Moravian Bethlehem. One scholar noted that the rising rate of economic growth was fostering an increasing sense of wealth and prosperity among the members of the community. Many Moravians grew resentful over sharing their earnings with the rest of the community. The achievement of economic success was no longer becoming a means to the furtherance of the religious goals of the community; it was being pursued as an end in itself. One Moravian’s lament in 1765 sounded very much like the Quaker dilemma:

Profit is made a main matter and that in considera­tion thereof the Congregation principles are neglected. That we study more how to get money and profit than how to save our souls.

After 1770. it should not be surprising that Moravian Bethlehem witnessed a considerable population decline. Many Moravians left to pursue economic opportunities in other areas of Pennsylvania. They had become less inclined to contribute the fruits of their labor to the General Economy. Religious and missionary work was no longer held in high esteem. Goals of personal profit had slowly replaced religious goals for the many who left. Those that remained in Bethlehem rejected the acquisitive appeal of secular America and remained in Bethlehem to pursue their traditional religious ends.

Perhaps one of the most persistent examples of the rejection of the individualism and acquisitiveness fostered by American economic and political ideals was displayed by the Amish. As with other immigrant groups, the Amish valued community very highly. Spurning the acquisition of wealth, they sought only to own farms which could support families, including the elderly when they could no longer work. Individualism was not valued as highly as mutual assistance. The main objective of their farming was to accumulate sufficient means to purchase enough land to keep all their children on farms. It was not uncommon in Amish families to provide interest-free loans to help young farmers get started.

The Amish sought to perpetuate their way of life by providing for the socialization and education of their children totally within the confines of their community. While elementary schools were built, however, little need was seen for higher learning since academic knowledge was irrelevant to farming and considered inferior to scriptural authority. Since religion was preserved and associated with a total life rather than relegated to a specialized activity, the material opportunities of secular Pennsylvania were shunned. Other studies have shown that many Pennsylvania German groups including the Seventh Day Baptists of Ephrata felt that religion and education were inseparable. If the Amish said no to progress, social success, individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, they were not alone.

If early arrivals in Pennsylvania revealed a reluctance to embrace much of the ethos of American society, the immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century dis­played concerns of a similar nature. Although the Irish, Slavs, Italians, and Hungarians migrated more for economic rather than religious reasons, they were also disturbed by the transformative nature of industrial society with its em­phasis on material success, consumption, individual freedom, and technology, scientific education, and pleasure.

During the nineteenth century the Irish in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Scranton established vast educational networks that guaranteed a child could obtain a Roman Cath­olic education from grade school through college. This parochial school system provided not only religious training but a medium for fostering Catholic marriages and voca­tions. So intent were Irish Catholics upon keeping their children away from secular schools and preserving the pre-migration religious culture, that many Philadelphia Catholic schools as late as the 1960’s refused to send transcripts to non-Catholic colleges to which their students applied. An Irish-Catholic spokesman explained his views:

We believe that the present-day teachings in the majority of secular institutions, based on chaotic philosophies, defeats the purpose of our existence.

A study of immigrant Italian Catholics in Pennsylvania revealed a similar distrust of secular schools. If the child of a South Italian had individual aspirations of education and a successful career, he or she was frequently subjugated to the needs and interest of the family. Beginning work at an early age in order to help the family was considered more important than fulfilling individual ambitions. Immigrant concerns for family were directly opposed to the pressures to “make it on your own in industrial Pennsylvania.”

Slavic immigrants, who composed the bulk of Pennsyl­vania’s immigrants after 1880, were not only skeptical of secular schools in America but also of their promise of material success. In the early 1890’s, Polish newspapers were already mounting a strong assault on the “Dollar God” of American culture. A Polish teacher in Priceburg, Penn­sylvania, wrote to one Polish paper criticizing American society for straining parental-child relationships by stressing “excess and wantonness.” He continued, “the struggle for the dollar facilitated the losing of religion and patriotism so dear to us.”

Numerous editorials and articles emphasized the evil effects of the pursuit of material wealth. One Polish paper claimed in 1894 that a “reasonable, honest drive” to im­prove your material well being was good. But the “idolistic pursuit” of money at the expense of your soul would bring “hatred and desperation.” Furthermore, Polish journals considered American schools inadequate for Polish children not only because they were “irreligious” but because they were thought to be permeated with secularism. A Polish writer asked all Poles to avoid the American generation and pursue better moral and spiritual standards. Slovaks echoed Polish sentiments. One Slovak journal bitterly attacked public schools in the 1930’s for educating the mind but not the heart .. J. T. Porincak, the editor, elaborated:

With a public school education they [Slovak chil­dren] go forth into the world, lost completely to the Slovaks. Their idea of life is … a movie and lots of money. But our duty to our people commands us to save our youth from the moral catastrophe that is confronting it.

Slovaks also revealed a perception of themselves as moral people. A Jednota article compared Slovaks to Quakers. Unlike “British and Italians” Slovaks were thought to represent “endurance and strength not progress and con­quest.” At his retirement as editor of Jednota in 1937, Joseph Husek made a farewell speech in which he analyzed the contribution of Slovaks to American life. What Slovaks could give America, he concluded, was a “moral legacy.” Husek thought Slovak identity would eventually be lost in America but “our moral values will contribute to the crea­tion of the American nation.”

It should not be surprising that many immigrant children in Pennsylvania declined to move in search of higher wages throughout the twentieth century. Unwilling to sever neighborhood and family ties for increased earnings, thousands of second-generation ethnics remained in familiar neighborhoods or moved only short distances in searching for work. Such work patterns stood in contrast to the post-1945 middle class which frequently moved because of corporate transfers and career aspirations. Oral history interviews clearly reveal the ethnic reluctance. Several Poles interviewed in Bethlehem, for instance, declined higher paying jobs in the Brooklyn Shipyards in the 1940’s so as not to sever family ties. A number of Ukrainians remained in a McKees Rocks screw and bolt factory because they liked being among Slovaks, Poles, and Ukrainians in the McKees Rocks “bottoms.”

As with earlier immigrant groups, some Irish, Slavic, and Italian children eschewed the preachings of their parents and leaders and moved through the public schools into re­warding careers. This mobility usually took the individual away from the ethnic neighborhood and family to more affluent suburbs or distant cities. A substantial segment of each immigrant group, however, declined to pursue individual success through education and careers because of an unwillingness to leave neighborhood or family associations or because they were required to contribute to family needs. Thus, the process of mobility and individual attainment in secular America and Pennsylvania resulted not in the total assimilation of ethnic and religious groups but in their division. Some were swept into the materialistic supercul­ture while others remained behind in “ethnic ghettos” clinging to the traditions of family, religion, hard work, and neighborhood. Moravian Bethlehem of the eighteenth cen­tury and the Amish farms of the nineteenth century were as much of a denial of secular America as Pittsburgh’s South Side is today. The characterization of Philadelphia’s Ken­sington section in 1970 is most appropriate in describing those who resisted:

It is the home for a hundred thousand … flag waving, family oriented ethnic Americans. There you find living, often in nationality enclaves, the first, second, and third generation descendants of Irish. Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Hungarian, German, even Scottish and English immigrants. Kensington’s adults average 8.6 years of schooling …. Not all Kensing­ton’s hundred thousand people are poor. Indeed, many live comfortable in neat, well-furnished, mortgage­-free homes. These are the proud, solid Kensingtonians who spurn the mounting debts and rootlessness of suburban life.

The influence of religion in American life has steadily declined. Religion has been compartmentalized and no longer equals the power of political ideology or social as­pirations. The personal commitment of most individuals is usually secular in nature rather than spiritual. Today less than 40 percent of the American population attends church regularly. Nearly all immigrant cultures which were brought to Pennsylvania, however, contained a strong religious com­ponent. This portion of immigrant culture was continually challenged in the new land and often proved quite resistant to secular pressures.

The pull of American democracy and economic opportunity with its emphasis on individualism, success, material well being and mobility had inherent ambiguities. While it proved attractive to bring settlers from throughout the world, it was simultaneously undermining established traditions of religion, family collectivism, and mutual assistance. Often to succeed on one’s own meant leaving the family unit, the little community, or the urban neighborhood. The immensely popular guide to child raising in the twentieth century, Baby and Child Care, by Benjamin Spock encouraged parents in modern America to tolerate and nurture their children’s individual interests so they could reach their “maximum potential.” But the immigrant traditions of Europe were often more concerned with requiring children to help support the family than pursuing personal goals. Children were not viewed as individual achievers but as part of a collective. Ethnic education stressed morality and re­ligion rather than achievement and competition. Many did eventually sacrifice for their children’s education and suc­cess only to see the children move away or come to despise their humble backgrounds.

Immigrants, then, were continually ambivalent about the American dream. Their assimilation was not on a group basis but on an individual basis. Substantial portions of ethnic and religious groups opposed not only the obvious alterations in languages and custom but the more subtle changes in aspirations and life goals. It should not be sur­prising that the contemporary resurgence in ethnic identity has as its chief spokesman a Pennsylvania Slovak, Michael Novak. Novak has called for a new emphasis on family and neighborhood in American politics. He has been most critical of the “nationalizing, standardizing, superculture” and what he calls the new religion of “power, wealth, and success” which he views as detrimental to “old fashioned” values of religion, family and community. America clearly offered immigrants opportunity for individual freedom and economic gain. But in return it extracted a price. Pennsylvania began as a “holy experiment” and a haven for all religions. Centuries of immigrants willingly brought their religious be­liefs and traditions and established them throughout the Commonwealth. Dramatically, however, much of their sacred traditions and beliefs would be eroded by the secular society which had held so much promise.


Dr. John Bodnar, an historian with the PHMC, is a native of Forest City, Pa. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Connecticut. His publications include The Ethnic Experience in Pennsylvania, Ethnic History in Pennsylvania: A Selected Bibliography, and articles in the Journal of Social History, Labor History and the Journal of Ethnic Studies.