While so much of our denomination is now centered in the midwest, it is important to be reminded that our American roots stem largely from the early migration of Germans through Pennsylvania. Names like J.P. Boehm and G.M. Weiss remind us of the early years when German Christians were hungry for spiritual food and ordained men were scarce.1
A name that may be less familiar to you, at least in the context of our early German heritage, is the name of the Englishman, Benjamin Rush. For those of you interested in American History, you might think of the name of Benjamin Rush in the context of his being a signer of the Declaration of Independence or of his role as Surgeon General for the Continental Army. Rush was also responsible for inoculating many of our nation’s founding fathers against smallpox, including Patrick Henry. Yet, Rush’s accomplishments extend far further than his work with medicine or the Declaration of Independence. Rush began his career as a chemistry professor at the age of twenty-four, was a champion of abolition and was co-founder of the first anti-slavery society in the Americas. On a trip to Edinburgh, Rush was largely responsible for inducing John Witherspoon to emigrate to America. He was chairman of the Provincial Conference of Pennsylvania when considering whether independence from England should be declared, and helped to mold the Federal Constitution for the new nation. He advocated for free schooling for all citizens, was the founder of the Philadelphia Bible Society, and was treasurer of the United States Mint. He founded the Philadelphia Dispensary and College of Physicians, and during the outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1793, it is recorded that he cared for an average of a hundred and twenty patients a day. In fact, it was Rush that discovered that Yellow Fever was not contagious through human contact and his writings on the subject were used by doctors worldwide. He even was responsible for bringing about a reconciliation between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. One biographer, Theodore Schmauk, said of Rush that “in peace and war, in politics and in society, in legislation and in letters, in labors for the welfare of humanity, in Pre-Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary activity, he was one of the makers of the nation and Pennsylvania had no more distinguished citizen.”2
Yet, as interesting and full as Rush’s life happened to be, for our purposes, one of the most valuable contributions that he made was his essay on the lifestyle of the early German settlers. Rush’s firsthand account of his interactions with and respect for these German immigrants provides us with an invaluable perspective on our early German forebears. And, on a personal note, given that Peter Groseclose3 immigrated to Pennsylvania around 1750, Rush’s writings also give me a bit of a taste for the life of my own forebear.
Rush begins his essay with these words:“The State of Pennsylvania is so much indebted for her prosperity and reputation to the German part of her citizens, that a short account of her manners may, perhaps, be useful and agreeable to their fellow citizens in every part of the United States.”4 Not only does his introduction demonstrate the respect that he held for the German immigrants, but it was also useful in assuaging many people’s concern over the fact that the majority of Germans who immigrated to America retained their native German language and did not embrace English. Rush goes on to say that though these German immigrants did not bring a great deal of physical belongings with them, they all came with “a bible and a prayer or hymnbook.”5 In fact, the early Germans valued their books dearly. As early as 1708, Justus Falkner published a book of devotions by a German Lutheran pastor near Philadelphia. As early as 1730, German hymnals were being published in Philadelphia as well. Benjamin Franklin would write in 1753, that of the 6 printing houses in the area of Philadelphia, two were entirely German, two were half-German and half-English, and only two were entirely English.6 It should be noted that these Germans had a high view of education and that in the 1800’s it is recorded that seventy-four percent of the males could both read and write.7 Michael Schlatter himself had a personal library of over 800 volumes.8
As the majority of these immigrants were farmers, Rush goes to a great length to compare the industriousness of the German farm community to the failures of the Irish farmers who also immigrated to the Colonies. For instance, when deforesting the land, the Germans took the time to burn out the roots of the trees they felled, rather than leaving them in the ground to rot. This allowed the Germans to till the land immediately rather than waiting for the old stump and roots to rot in place. They fed their horses well, knowing they relied on these animals for work and they chose to eat rye and corn-meal while selling their wheat.9 They built their homes around central stoves and not open fireplaces, which made more efficient use of the heat and this also allowed those who worked on handicrafts in the home (knitting, sewing, etc.) to be more productive as they did not battle with cold fingers. They also rejected strong alcoholic drinks because it made the farmer less productive.
In terms of priorities, when Germans settled a region, the first two things they built as a community was a church and a schoolhouse. After these structures were established, then personal homes and barns became a priority. Rush goes on to point out that the education of the children was given primarily to the Pastors and Elders of the congregation for the purpose of ensuring the children had a high view of Sabbath and personal worship.10 It was the understanding of these immigrants that the primary responsibility for educating children lay within the local community. Hence, children were also taught in German, not in English. Hence, the German communities largely rejected Franklin’s approach to the free schools supported by the government and taught in English.11
Because of the religious tolerance afforded in the colony of Pennsylvania, the German immigrants thrived as did their churches. Many of these churches would become large and well-furnished, and a fair and just salary was paid to their clergy.12 Rush notes the spirit of ecumenicity between German Calvinist and Lutheran churches (something that would contribute heavily to the deterioration of our denomination in the 19th century). Of course, in addition to Reformed and Lutheran Germans, there were also German Mennonites, Moravians, Swingelders13, Catholics, and“Dunkers,” which exposed Pennsylvanians to some diverse theological perspectives, both orthodox and unorthodox.14 Hence the attention that pastors and Elders would give to theological training.
Rush closes with an appeal to both citizens and legislators in the United States that we would do well to learn from these German immigrants. He asserts that we should recognize their industry and virtue, not be prejudiced against them because they hold to their native tongue, and that we should emulate their care for the theological training of their children, especially those of the poor. He writes:“the vices which follow the want of religious instruction among the children of poor people, lay the foundation of most of the jails, and places of public punishment in the state.”15
Rush goes into a great deal more detail when it comes to the various trades and associations that the German immigrants established as a part of their community, but I wanted to focus on what impressed him (as an English statesman) about the spiritual commitment of these German people. If you are curious to learn more, I encourage you to seek out a copy of his essay or the an- notated version from which I have cited.
I do want to leave you with this. Our German forebears believed that the hub of their community was the church. Everything they did was seen to connect to the church in one way, shape, or form. Sadly, I think that we have lost that commitment as a culture. Today, the local school and organized sporting events seem to have replaced the church as our community’s focal point. In many places, school loyalty and attention to sporting events has secured for itself a kind of religious fervor. In turn, our culture has followed suit and declined into secularism. I would encourage all of us in this new year to listen to the testimony of our German forefathers as related by Benjamin Rush. And, if we find ourselves placing more weight on our local school’s needs than that of our church’s needs, may we rethink that. And, if we find ourselves looking forward to a sporting event more than we look forward to the worship of the King of all Kings, let the words of our forebears echo in our ears: “Das sei ferne!”
"These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful.” Rev. 17:14 (NKJV)
Rev. Win Groseclose
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1amongst them. David B. Lady, The History of the Pittsburgh Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States. (Greensburg, PA: Chas. M Henry Printing Company, 1920), 10. 2 that the above information on Rush is also drawn from Schmauk’s biographical introduction along with the accompanying annotations by I.D. Rupp. 3 Grossklaus before it was anglicized. 4 Theodore E. Schmauk. An Account of the Manners of the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania by Benjamin Rush. “Introduction.” (Lancaster, PA: Pennsylvania German Society, 1910), 40-42. 5 ibid, 45. 6 ibid, 46. Annotations cite Franklin’s words from Spark’s Works of Franklin, VII, p71. 7 David Dunn. A History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. (Philadelphia: The Christian Education Press, 1961), 21. 8 Charles Glatfelter. Pastors and People: German Lutheran and Reformed Churches in the Pennsylvania Field, 1717-1793, Volume I. (Breiningsville, PA: Pennsylvania German Society, 1980), 117-119. Sadly, it should be noted that Schlatter’s library was seized by the British for his participation as a chaplain in the Sixtieth Regiment of Washington’s Army. 9 The wheat fetched better prices at market, but the corn provided more sustenance to the family and livestock. 10 Theodore E. Schmauk. An Account of the Manners of the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania by Benjamin Rush. “Introduction.” (Lancaster, PA: Pennsylvania German Society, 1910), 80-81. 11Note that this does not mean these Germans could not communicate in English; that would have made trade very difficult in a dominantly Engish-speaking world. They were bilingual, but they wanted to speak English with a German accent and not German with an English accent. 12 Theodore E. Schmauk. An Account of the Manners of the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania by Benjamin Rush 13 An anglicization of “Schwenkfelder,” a German anabaptist movement. 14 Ibid, 97. Note, a “Dunker” was an early name for those we today call “Baptist. 15 Ibid, 115-116."