Discovering Religious Diversity Along the Pennsylvania Trails of History

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

William Penn (1644-1718) knew well the sting of discrimination and the misery of persecution for his religious beliefs. He suffered the consequences of breaking with the Church of England, leading to estrangement from his father, Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670). When imprisoned for attending meetings of the Society of Friends – commonly called Quakers and Friends – the younger Penn finally declared himself a full-fledged member. His father attempted to reason with him, but Penn was determined to adopt the Quakers’ religious beliefs. His decision prompted his father to disown him.

As he grew in his faith, Penn began writing religious tracts and was imprisoned several times. He became a chief legal defender of Quakerism and held firm to its tenets. Reconciled to his father toward the end of the elder Penn’s life, he inherited a fortune and a promise made to his father by King Charles II to protect him and make him a counselor.

In light of a minor split in the Society of Friends and acceleration of the persecution of Quakers, Penn proposed to the king that a large number of English Quakers move to North America. Several years earlier, in 1677, Penn and a group of prominent Friends had purchased the land that now makes up the western half of New Jersey. In response to a petition Penn presented to the crown in 1680, the king granted him a large tract of land west of New Jersey and north of Maryland, satisfying a debt to the elder Penn for provisions he had supplied to the crews of his ships, which with interest had grown to sixteen thousand pounds. The extraordinarily generous Charter of 1681 made Penn the largest non-royal landowner in the world with more than forty-five thousand square miles.

And so Pennsylvania was born.

“It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it to me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation,” Penn wrote. He extended the principle of religious toleration to all inhabitants of his beloved “holy experiment,” proclaiming that the European settlers, simply working together, would glorify God.

How has Penn’s vision of religious tolerance fared in Pennsylvania? The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) is examining Penn’s impact through its annual theme for 2011, “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity,” and a look at several PHMC historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History™ tells the story.


Pennsbury Manor

Morrisville, Bucks County

Perhaps no place in Pennsylvania more clearly recalls the founder’s ideals than Pennsbury Manor, his country estate of eighty-four hundred acres on the Delaware River, twenty-six miles northeast of Philadelphia. William Penn intended the manor in Bucks County to serve as a stately residence benefiting his position, productive farm, community of workers, and the seat of government.

In spite of the care he had lavished on the design and plans for the estate, Penn lived there only for two short periods totaling less than four years, from 1683 to 1684, and again, from 1700 to 1701. Even when in residence, he was often away performing duties as governor or attending meetings in Philadelphia.

After the proprietor’s death in 1718, Pennsbury began to deteriorate, and by the early nineteenth century visitors were carrying off pieces of the manor house as souvenirs. In 1932, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, PHMC’s predecessor, assumed responsibility for the site and, after conducting extensive research, developed plans to re-create the estate. In 1938, the main house was completed and opened the following year as a memorial and teaching center honoring Penn and his vision.

In subsequent years, fifteen buildings and structures were erected, including a bake and brew house, a woodworking shop, icehouse, smokehouse, privy, and a worker’s cottage. Gardens were laid out, and a barn was built to house farm animals.

Today’s visitors enjoy exhibits and an orientation film in the visitor center, where they learn the story of Penn’s religious conversion, his persecution and imprisonment for his beliefs, and the development of his beloved “holy experiment.”

A guided tour of the manor house begins on the side of the house fronting the river, where visitors enter in the “porch” or reception area. Next come the Governor’s Parlor, a formal meeting room, and the Withdrawing Room, a more intimate space for conversation. The Great Hall was host to large dinners, and the Best Chamber was reserved for distinguished guests. Other sleeping chambers are shown, as well as Penn’s Chamber, furnished with objects similar to those the family would have used.

A walking tour of the grounds reveals a replica of Penn’s river barge, a large barn and animals appropriate to the period, and a museum shop housed in a nineteenth-century dwelling that once stood on the foundation of the original manor house.

The Pennsbury Society assists PHMC through support of school programs, family-oriented festival days, garden workshops, distance learning, preschool events, and living history demonstrations.

400 Pennsbury Memorial Rd.
Morrisville, PA 19067
(215) 946-0400


Cornwall Iron Furnace

Cornwall, Lebanon County

Approaching Cornwall Iron Furnace today, motorists can’t help but be struck by the unusual Gothic Revival-style buildings and the serene setting. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though, the scene was vastly different. Workers labored day and night to satisfy the furnace’s enormous and seemingly insatiable appetite for charcoal, limestone, and iron ore. The belching furnace spewed forth a fiery torrent of molten iron, and charcoal dust covered the ground.

Built in 1742 by Peter Grubb (1702-1754), the industrial iron plantation passed to his sons Curttis (circa 1730-1789) and Peter (1740-1786) on his death. Robert Coleman (1748-1825) became ironmaster in 1796, the first of four generations of Colemans who oversaw the operation. The furnace, blown out for the final time in 1883, became a state historic site in 1932.

An extensive visitors’ center, housed in an eighteenth-century charcoal barn, features exhibits on the making of charcoal, the mining of iron, and the smelting process. The lives of the wealthy owners and their workers are examined, and examples of furnace products are displayed. An orientation video and a museum shop complete the visitors’ center experience. A guided tour begins with a walk under a connecting shed, designed to keep charcoal awaiting movement from the charcoal barn dry. Visitors enter the charging room, passing charcoal buggies and iron ore carts used by colliers and miners to transport raw materials, where iron ore, limestone, and charcoal were placed in the furnace.

In the wheel room, an enormous gear called the “Great Wheel” is located, seemingly ready to blow air into the furnace to raise its temperature. A steam engine demonstrates how the giant wheel was driven, using steam generated by the furnace itself. In the casting house, where the molten iron was poured into molds, visitors see the full magnitude of the furnace stack, a marvel of early industrial technology.

Just a short drive away are several historic buildings related to the iron-making operation, including the owners’ mansion, paymaster’s office, stable, smokehouse, and a village of miners’ houses.

Similar to other mining and manufacturing communities in Pennsylvania, Cornwall was made up of immigrants from many countries. In most cases their churches were an extension not only of their faith but also of their nation of origin. Cornwall claimed buildings used by Brethren and Mennonite groups and Lutheran, German Reformed, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist churches. Several of the churches are still standing and remain integral parts of the community. Others have come and gone, a number of them adapted for other uses.

At Cornwall Iron Furnace an exhibit depicts many of these church buildings, dating mostly from the late nineteenth century, when the mine was yielding vast amounts of iron ore, and many workers were needed by the iron-making complex.

A volunteer organization, the Friends of Cornwall Iron Furnace, supports the preservation, interpretation, curatorial, and educational programs at the historic site.

94 Rexmont Rd.
P.O. Box 251
Cornwall, PA 17016
(717) 272-9711


Eckley Miners’ Village

Eckley, Luzerne County

Company-owned hamlets, or “patch towns,” were common components of sizable nineteenth-century industrial enterprises. Housing was constructed so that workers would be close to their work, and the companies could maintain a degree of control over their employees. At Eckley Miners’ Village, visitors see such a town and learn about the daily lives of immigrant coal miners and their families.

A succession of immigrant groups, used to hard work in their native countries, came to Eckley to find not only economic opportunities but also the freedom of political expression and to worship as they chose. The first arrivals were English, Welsh, and German, then Irish immigrants, followed by families from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Tours at Eckley begin with a seventeen-minute orientation film that offers the background of the village. The exhibit hall, showcasing hundreds of objects and historic photographs of everyday life, reveals what life was like for residents. A walking tour introduces visitors to the village churches, company store, workers’ houses, boss’s house, doctor’s office, and the owners’ residence. A museum shop is housed in a former church rectory.

In 1861, a simple wooden church was built for Eckley’s Catholic families, most of them Irish. A Presbyterian Church later fell into disuse, and a Protestant Episcopal Church, meeting the same fate, was removed in 1938. In 1974, it was replaced with a nearly identical sister church building from White Haven, Luzerne County. The building was a gift of the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to the village.

The two churches are included in the village tour, and this year an Irish wedding reenactment will take place in the Catholic Church, while concerts will be performed on the Episcopal Church’s tracker pipe organ. A period church service will take place during a living history weekend, and St. Nicholas will make an appearance during the annual children’s Christmas program.

2 Eckley Main St.
Weatherly, PA 18255
(570) 636-2070


Ephrata Cloister

Ephrata, Lancaster County

It was Penn’s vision of religious toleration that enabled places like Ephrata Cloister, founded in 1732 as a religious community by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), to flourish. After having been banished by the state church in his homeland, Beissel, a German Pietist, immigrated to the New World in 1720.

At Ephrata there were two celibate orders, one male and one female, and an order of married couples. Their beliefs required of them lifestyles of self-deprivation and discipline as they sought an individual relationship with God, with no need for an organized church or clergy. The Cloister became an important center of publishing for the American colonies and was known for its original music and the art of fraktur, decorative writing filled with symbolic meaning. Its distinctive Germanic Medieval-style buildings housed the members’ activities.

Several of the major historic buildings of the Cloister remain today and are open for visitors. At the visitor center, an orientation program is provided, along with exhibits of archaeological artifacts, original objects, fraktur, and explanations of the history, beliefs, and practices of the community.

On a walking tour, visitors discover Beissel’s house, the sisters’ house, the Saal, or meetinghouse, and other points of interest such as a bakery, printing office, weaver’s house, and the community’s cemetery.

The Saal is of particular interest, for it was here that the each individual concentrated on progress toward the mystical union with God that was sought. Today the Ephrata Cloister Chorus performs in the Saal, singing some of the unique musical compositions of Beissel and his followers.

A museum shop housed in an old barn is managed by Ephrata Cloister Associates, a volunteer group that provides tour guides, programs, and other support.

632 West Main St.
Ephrata, PA 17522
(717) 733-6600


Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Northumberland County

Much like Penn, Joseph Priestley (1833-1804), chemist, educator, political philosopher, and theologian, knew the hardships of religious persecution.

Priestley hoped at an early age to enter the ministry. In 1752, he began his studies and eventually came to embrace Unitarianism and became a leading theologian in the movement. Theology was the subject of more than half of his published works. In 1761, he began teaching at Warrington Academy, the leading institute for dissenters and nonconformists of the Church of England.

Priestley taught himself science, and by 1767 he had found a way to produce carbonated water. In 1774, he isolated eight gases, including oxygen, and described the basic process of photosynthesis.

Turning to politics as a result of discrimination against Dissenters, Priestley supported the American Revolution and continued to criticize the Church of England. His support for the French Revolution led to the destruction of his house, laboratory, and library in Birmingham, England, by angry crowds.

With his wife Mary, Priestley left England in 1794 and settled in Northumberland in northcentral Pennsylvania, where he hoped to establish a colony for English Dissenters, knowing they would be guaranteed the right to practice their religion as they pleased. The colony never materialized, but Priestley’s manor house overlooking the Susquehanna River survives as a witness to his ideals.

The Joseph Priestley House, furnished as it might have been during the Priestleys’ residence, also contains his laboratory. Exhibits and activities help explain this complex and many-faceted individual.

The Joseph Priestley House is administered by PHMC through the Friends of Joseph Priestley House, a volunteer organization. In 2011, the house is open Saturday and Sunday, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., through November 27. Tours are offered at 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m.

472 Priestley Ave.
Northumberland, PA 17857
(570) 473-9474


Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum

Lancaster, Lancaster County

Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, a veritable treasure trove of objects and artifacts documenting Pennsylvania German rural life, was established by brothers George D. (1867-1954) and Henry K. Landis (1865-1955) in 1925. Their German ancestors had settled in Lancaster County during the early eighteenth century, along with thousands of other Germans, then accounting for about one-third of the Keystone State’s population. Recognizing the significance of their culture and its traditions, the brothers began to collect Pennsylvania German objects from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They amassed a collection of more than seventy-five thousand objects and established a small museum on the grounds of their homestead. The brothers were fiercely proud of their Pennsylvania German heritage and did not want to see it disappear.

In the years that followed, the museum grew until it was acquired by PHMC in 1953. Today’s visitor will see many of the Landis’s objects, as well as buildings moved to the site, including a hotel, brick and log buildings, school house, and a blacksmith’s shop. Re-created buildings include a fire house, smokehouse, bake house, gun shop, and tavern.

This summer, the museum presents an exhibit on the religious diversity of the Pennsylvania German community in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Visitors will learn why so many Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania and how the Amish and Mennonites lived in relation to the more “worldly” religious groups in Lancaster County.

The Landis Valley Associates, a volunteer organization, provides support for the museum’s educational programs, collections, and research through memberships and a museum shop.

2451 Kissel Hill Rd.
Lancaster, PA 17601
(717) 569-0401


Old Economy Village

Ambridge, Beaver County

Penn’s vision of religious freedom attracted all sorts of religious groups to Pennsylvania. The Harmony Society, formed in Germany in 1785 by a former Lutheran, George Rapp (1757-1847), was among them. Its members believed that the millennium-when Christ would return to reign for a thousand years-was at hand. The Harmonists needed to prepare for it by living as they would in heaven. They shared all of their possessions equally. They believed in adult baptism, celibacy, pacifism, and in the absolute truth of the Bible.

Located along the Ohio River, Economy, the third of the Harmony Society’s American communities, was built between 1824 and 1831. Today the village offers visitors fourteen original Harmonist structures, including Rapp’s house, feast hall, store, two family dwellings, community kitchen, cabinet shop, granary, wine cellar, mechanics building, blacksmith’s shop, and extensive gardens.

A modern visitor center provides information on the Harmonists’ beliefs and way of life and displays Harmonist objects and decorative arts. A museum shop offers books, art objects, and reproductions.

Across the street from the village is the original Harmonist Church, where Rapp preached, now housing – ironically – a Lutheran congregation.

Old Economy Village, administered by PHMC, is managed by the Friends of Old Economy Village, a non-profit corporation that supports the preservation, interpretation, development, and promotion of the historic site.

270 Sixteenth St.
Ambridge, PA 15003
(724) 266-4500


Peace Church

Camp Hill, Cumberland County

The tide of German immigration to Pennsylvania swelled between 1725 and 1775. The Germans, made up of Lutherans, Reformed, Mennonites, Amish, and other sects, cultivated a rich religious life with a strong musical culture.

A group of German Reformed farmers living in the Cumberland Valley between Carlisle, Cumberland County, and Harrisburg, Dauphin County, organized Peace Church in 1793. Four years later, a small log building was purchased for use as a school, home for a schoolmaster, and church. A limestone church in the meetinghouse style built in 1798 was dedicated on May 19, 1799.

In 1807, a German Lutheran congregation from nearby Poplar Grove purchased one-half ownership in the church, and the two groups shared the building. The same year, a pipe organ in a handsome Chippendale-style case was purchased from Conrad Doll (1772-1819) of Lancaster and is still in use.

Peace Church has remained essentially unchanged. Among its features are brick aisles, wooden floors, simple wooden benches, a gallery on three sides, cast iron stoves, early lighting devices, funeral bier, communion table and lectern, and a wineglass pulpit, flanked by tall Palladian windows.

Visitors will hear the story of Pastor John Winebrenner (1797-1860), who strayed from the beliefs of the German Reformed Church in the 1820s, decried infant baptism, and insisted that church members come forward to the “anxious benches” to admit their sins and be re-born. Eventually locked out of Peace Church and several churches he served in the Harrisburg area, he established a new denomination.

Peace Church, administered by PHMC since 1969, is managed by the Friends of Peace Church, a volunteer organization.

Peace Church is open on Sundays, 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., from June through September. Volunteers interpret the church’s story, and a musician often demonstrates the organ. Musical programs, crafts demonstrations, and cultural events are scheduled throughout the summer. The church is also a popular venue for weddings.

Trindle and St. John’s Church Roads
Camp Hill, PA 17011

Mailing address:
P.O. Box 3034
Shiremanstown, PA 17011
(717) 737-6492


Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum

Scranton, Lackawanna County

Immigration and ethnicity, mining technology, associated industries and businesses, organized labor, and the formation of communities are the major themes explored at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, which interprets northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite (hard coal) region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to exhibits, a library and archives help students and scholars research the history of the area.

The focus of the museum’s exhibits is the miner and his family. Displays interpret his daily work and feature his tools. Women’s work is discussed, too, illustrating the textile and garment industries of the region after the fall of “King Coal,” and household management and budgeting. Also depicted are the “life centers”-home, church, and tavern.

Religious diversity was readily apparent in the anthracite region. A new, multipart exhibit offers visitors a glimpse at the traditions of three religious groups.

Immigrants in the Catholic Tradition looks at the distinctive church buildings and the use of language and ritual that preserved European traditions among Catholics.

Immigrants in the Jewish Tradition examines the arrival, growth, and establishment of synagogues and the enrichment of communities through interfaith cooperation.

The arrival of many Protestants who spoke no English was a challenge to the established churches in the region. In Immigrants in the Protestant Tradition , visitors learn how churches helped newcomers integrate into church life or to form their own congregations.

The Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces Associates, a volunteer organization, provides programs and special activities at the museum and operates a museum shop.

Not far away, in downtown Scranton, are the towering Scranton Iron Furnaces, four massive stone blast furnaces, the remnants of an extensive plant once operated by the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company.

McDade Park
22 Bald Mountain Rd.
Scranton, PA 18504
(570) 963-4804


Pennsylvania Military Museum

Boalsburg, Centre County

The Pennsylvania Military Museum, on the grounds of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division Shrine, preserves and honors Pennsylvania’s military history from 1747 to the present. The museum, with special emphasis on the twentieth century, tells the story of the Commonwealth’s “citizen soldiers,” civilian activities on the home front, and the contributions of Pennsylvania industry to military technology.

The current self-guided main exhibit tour introduces visitors to the tactics and logistics of warfare in the twentieth century. Through text and exhibits highlighting the museum’s outstanding weapons and artifact collections, visitors examine the organization of the armed services of the United States and the Pennsylvania connection to each.

Included in the tour are several examples of automotive technology at the dawn of the age of mechanical warfare, as well as the stories of sea and air service in the twentieth century.

Examining the role of religion in wartime is Religion and Conflict , a new exhibit related to this year’s theme of religious diversity. It considers the organization of the U.S. chaplaincy corps, religious and mystical symbology, the rationalization of warfare through religious beliefs, and the impact of the faith of individuals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

On the museum grounds, visitors will discover the 28th Division Shrine; tracked vehicles from World War II through the Vietnam era; and enormous guns from the USS Pennsylvania , a battleship which saw duty in World War I and survived the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Friends of the Pennsylvania Military Museum is a non-profit organization that supports the museum’s mission, provides programs, and operates a museum shop.

The museum is open through December 2 and then on weekends through December 18. Please visit the website to verify days and hours.

602 Boalsburg Pike
Boalsburg, PA 16827
(814) 466-6263


Warrior Run Church

Watsontown, Northumberland County

Scholars estimate that more than 200,000 Scots-Irish migrated to the Americas between 1717 and 1775. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, they quickly left for the hill country, where inexpensive land was available. The Scots-Irish moved up the Delaware River to Bucks County, and then up the Susquehanna and Cumberland Valleys, finding flat land along the rivers and creeks to build their log cabins, grist mills, and Presbyterian churches.

One of those churches was Warrior Run Church, formed in 1772. The congregation worshipped in two different log churches until 1835, when the present brick church was completed. The building, designed in a classical Greek Doric style, seats approximately 240 people.

A succession of ministers served the Warrior Run congregation into the 1950s. The building was restored in 1947 by the Warrior Run Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution because the congregation did not have the financial resources needed for preservation.

By 1964, Warrior Run’s membership had dwindled to five worshippers, and the congregation was dissolved. The church is administered by PHMC and managed by the Warrior Run-Fort Freeland Heritage Society, which organizes programs throughout the year, including a strawberry festival, heritage days festival with a Colonial-era service in the church, and an annual Christmas candlelight service.

Warrior Run Church is open weekends, from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day, and by appointment.

Eighth St. Extension and
Susquehanna Trail
Watsontown, PA 17777


For Further Reading

Alderfer, E. Gordon. The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Arndt, Karl J. R. George Rapp’s Harmony Society, 1785–1847. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Growing Up in Coal Country. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009.

Binder, Frederick Moore. Coal Age Empire: Pennsylvania Coal and Its Utilization to 1860. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.

Christ, Robert Grant. Peace Church. Mechanicsburg: Plank’s Suburban Press, 1972.

Dibert, James A. Iron, Independence and Inheritance: The Story of Curttis and Peter Grubb. Cornwall, Pa.: Cornwall Iron Furnace Associates, 2000.

Kenny, Kevin. Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Noble, Richard E. The Touch of Time: Robert Habersham Coleman, 1856–1930. Lebanon, Pa.: Lebanon County Historical Society, 1983.

Schofield, Robert E. The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1773 to 1804. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.


John K. Robinson of Linglestown, Dauphin County, served in several positions with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) until his retirement in 2009. He began as historic site manager for Cornwall Iron Furnace and later coordinated the marketing and sales and the historical marker programs. From 2000 to 2003, he was press secretary, after which he served as content editor for PHMC’s Web site. The author is a member of the board of directors of the Historical Society of Dauphin County. Among his interests are Pennsylvania German redware pottery and sacred church music.