Schwenkfelders' Day Of Thanksgiving Embodies Group's History And Faith In Pennsylvania, They Escaped The Persecution They Had Faced In Europe.

Posted: September 22, 1996

WORCESTER — Today, the combined congregations of the Schwenkfelder churches will meet at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester to observe a Day of Remembrance and Thanksgiving (Gedaechtnisz Tag).

This memorial day, which has been celebrated for more than 260 years, embodies the history, heritage and faith of a small but unique group of Christians.

``It reminds us who we are, where we came from, and how we were rescued from intolerance,'' said the Rev. Karen Gallagher, associate pastor at the Central Schwenkfelder Church.

The Schwenkfelder Church is the spiritual descendant of a group of fewer than 200 people who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. They were followers of the Reformation theologian Casper Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489-1561), a native of Silesia, which is now mostly within the borders of the Czech Republic and Poland.

For more than 150 years, these Schwenkfelders were subject to bitter persecution by the orthodox Protestant Church and the Roman Catholic Church. They had come to the New World after first being exiled from Silesia, then traveling to Holland, where they received financial help from a Mennonite group. This enabled them to pay for their passage to William Penn's colony, a haven for those suffering religious persecution.

The records of the Schwenkfelder Library in Pennsbury indicate that these Silesian Schwenkfelders arrived in Philadelphia on Sept. 22, 1734, after a difficult crossing of the ocean on the English ship St. Andrew. Nine of their number had died on the voyage.

``If this group had not made this trip to the New World, the ideas of Casper Schwenckfeld may have been lost, and there would not have been a Schwenkfelder Church,'' said W. Kyrel Meschter, a retired banker from Worcester and author of 20th Century Schwenkfelders (1984).

The records of the Schwenkfelder Library report that the number of Schwenkfelders who remained in Europe began to dwindle. By the 1830s, the following had disappeared.

After their arrival at Philadelphia, the Schwenkfelders affirmed their allegiance to the British Crown. Two days later, on Sept. 24, 1734, they held a service of thanksgiving to God for their safe passage to a new life and new religious freedom. They ate a simple meal of water, bread, butter and apple butter. This tradition has continued to the present.

``It's the oldest continual thanksgiving in the country,'' Meschter said.

Casper Schwenckfeld did not attempt to organize a church. Mrs. Gallagher said he might be a little upset to see his name on today's churches. Yet his ideas were powerful enough to attract several thousand followers by the middle of the 16th century.

Schwenckfeld was born into a noble family in Silesia and studied at the Universities of Cologne and Frankfurt. When the Protestant Reformation came, he involved himself in the theology of the day and worked for a ``middle way'' between the orthodoxies of the Protestant and Catholic Churches. He disagreed with each side's dogma and looked for a reformation of life in which there would be just one Christian Church based on freedom of religious belief.

This put him at odds with such religious leaders as Martin Luther and the princes of the local German states. As a result, he and his followers were subjected to repression. Even after Schwenckfeld's death, this repression continued into the next two centuries.

Schwenkfelders were driven from their homes, imprisoned in dungeons, or sold as slaves to labor on the benches of galleys in foreign lands by the civil authorities. The churches refused to allow them to bury their dead in consecrated ground.

The Schwenkfelders finally made their way to the central and northern areas of what is now Montgomery County.

``The immigrants who came were mostly farmers and a few weavers,'' Meschter said. ``And they were looking for land where they could have their own farms but be close to each other to develop their idea of a Christian community.''

As a result, Schwenkfelder communities developed in Worcester, Pennsburg and Red Hill and in Palm and Here-ford in Berks County.

The communities established meetinghouses and schools, Meschter said, and, as did the other Pennsylvania Germans of the area, conducted their services and classes in German.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Schwenkfelders were not legally incorporated as a church, but churches operated in close cooperation through a General Conference.

The Board of Missions was established in 1895, and in the early 20th century, two people were sent to do missionary work in China. Missions continue into the present in a number of Third World countries.

Likewise, the Board of Publications was organized in 1898 and first published the Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum, a critical edition of the writings of Schwenckfeld. The board continues to publish books, pamphlets, and the church magazine, the Schwenkfeldian.

The General Conference also sponsored the founding of the Perkiomen School in 1892 as a college-preparatory school. It, too, continues, with most of the school's trustees elected by the General Conference.

The church was incorporated in 1909 so that, as an ecclesiastical organization, it could have a more firm control over the various trust funds that had been left to the General Conference.

Over time, the meetinghouses gave way to churches, of which there are five, in Palm, Worcester, Philadelphia, Norristown and Lansdale. Total church membership today is less than 3,000.

The reasons the Schwenkfelders have been able to sustain a religious presence in the region, Meschter said, are that they have maintained an active interest in their history, reflected in their library and museum in Pennsburg, and that they have kept up their traditions, such as the Day of Remembrance. This day is celebrated on the Sunday closest to Sept. 24.

So today, the service will take place in a church rather than a meetinghouse. And the observance will be spoken in English rather than German. But there will still be water, bread, butter and apple butter for the meal.

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