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

When we think of historic sites in Pennsylvania, places such as the hallowed ground at Gettysburg, Philadelphia’s stately Independence Hall, or Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh, immediately come to mind. These places are normally associated with great military engagements or important political events. Yet when William Penn (1644–1718) ruminated about the things that would make Pennsylvania unique, he usually thought about religion. Much of the story of Pennsylvania’s past can be told through its religious institutions. The results of Penn’s holy experiment are all around us, if only we take the time to look.

With this in mind, I decided to explore Pennsylvania’s religious diversity for myself. I began by visiting the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) website to identify all of the blue and gold state historical markers related to religion. When I realized just how many markers are associated with churches, religious schools, and other religious institutions, I narrowed my search to central Pennsylvania’s Dauphin, Cumberland, and Adams Counties. Even then, for the sake of time, I needed to be selective about what sites I actually visited. I consulted Mapquest, filled my automobile with gasoline, and headed out on a revealing, history-driven adventure.

My first stop took me to the Paxton Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg. The Paxton congregation worships in the oldest Presbyterian church building in continuous use in Pennsylvania, and the second oldest in the United States. Presbyterians organized their church in 1732, building the present-day stone sanctuary eight years later. The Scots-Irish Presbyterians who attended the Paxton Church were some of the most rugged settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier. Many of the so-called Paxton Boys, the men who murdered twenty Conestoga Indians in 1763, attended this church. The Reverend John Elder, who served as pastor for more than half of the eighteenth-century, was responsible for defending the frontier from Indian invasion. Although he later claimed he attempted to stop the Paxton Boys from their murderous rampage, he may have been partly responsible for instilling in his congregation a hatred of native peoples.

Following my visit to Harrisburg, I crossed the Susquehanna River and headed west to Carlisle, an old frontier town rich in religious history. Like the Paxton Church, the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle was founded by Scots-Irish settlers in the Pennsylvania backcountry. The leaders of this church were influential in the 1773 founding of Dickinson College, a church-related school established to bring moral and religious order to the frontier. The Presbyterians were not alone in Carlisle, however. Located also on the town square is St. John’s Episcopal Church, a congregation that dates to 1752. One year after its founding, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Peters, and Isaac Norris met in the church to broker a treaty with Delaware Indians angered by the way they had been treated by the Pennsylvania government.

While the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches are important Carlisle landmarks, I spent most of my visit in the Cumberland County seat wandering along East Pomfret Street, the location of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Bethel’s facade is easy to miss — it looks more like a residence than a house of worship. Yet it has been serving Carlisle’s African American community for 190 years. The state historical marker installed by PHMC in 2009 in front of the church reminds passersby that Bethel AME was one of the first African American congregations organized west of the Susquehanna River. Several of Pennsylvania’s leading abolitionists were members, and the church building served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I was frustrated by my visit to Bethel AME. There seemed to be so much more to explore about the history of this church. Before I left, I jotted down a note to myself: “This congregation would make a wonderful research project for one of my history students!”

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, located across the street from Bethel AME, was the first Catholic Church in America named in honor of Ireland’s patron saint. I found myself trying to imagine what it must have been like for the earliest Catholic settlers in this largely Protestant community. What interested me the most about St. Patrick’s was its connection to the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Adjacent to the church stands St. Katharine’s Hall, a school founded in 1901 by Mother Katharine Drexel (1858–1955), canonized a saint on October 1, 2000, to teach Catholic students attending the school.

My newfound interest in the religious history of Carlisle’s East Pomfret Street, however, would have to be satisfied on another day. It was now time to head south, to Adams County, which played a pivotal role in American history.

My destination was the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, well-known for its role during the Battle of Gettysburg, but rarely studied for its contributions to the Commonwealth’s religious history. Founded in 1826, it is the oldest continuing Lutheran seminary in America. As I strolled about the campus, I was immediately intrigued by the life and work of Samuel Simon Schmucker (1799-1873), the seminary’s founder. Schmucker was not only a clergyman and theologian, but he was one of the most important nineteenth-century advocates of Protestant ecumenicalism, a staunch anti-slavery advocate whose Gettysburg home served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a controversial figure among Germans for his interest in assimilating the Lutheran Church into American religious culture. When I returned home and continued my research, I was shocked to find that there is no modern biography of the man.

In the end, I learned much about history during my little adventure through central Pennsylvania, but I did not even begin to scratch the surface of the Commonwealth’s fascinating religious past. This history is filled with colorful characters and compelling stories about the way churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, clergy, congregations, and laypersons have all contributed to the rich religious tapestry of the Keystone State. Make a “holy experiment” tour in your own neighborhood, community, or county and celebrate the diversity of Pennsylvania’s religions and religious experiences. William Penn would be proud.


John Fea is chair of the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Cumberland County. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America (2008) and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (2011). This is his second of four installments underscoring the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s annual theme for 2011, “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity.”