The Germans Come to North America

Motives for German Migration

Over 100,000 Germans migrated to the English colonies in North America. Most of them settled in Pennsylvania. Others settled in New York, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. They formed the largest non-English-speaking community in colonial North America.

Why did so many Germans migrate to North America?

During the 1600s and 1700s, wars ravaged Germany. Marching armies trampled down fields of grain, stole cattle, and burned down farmsteads. In their wake, famines spread over the land. Taxes, levied to pay for the war, added to the people's plight.

Religious disputes also drove people to leave their homes. In Europe the rulers chose what church they wanted in their lands. Many pious Germans of strong convictions found this hard to bear. North America, especially Pennsylvania, offered them religious freedom.

The First Mennonites Come to Pennsylvania

Among the Germans looking for religious freedom were the Mennonites.

The first Mennonite, Jan Lensen, arrived in October 1683. He came with 12 other German families who were Quaker weavers from Krefeld. They laid out the village of Germantown, north of Philadelphia.

Following Jan Lensen's arrival in 1683, at least 20 other Mennonite families settled in Germantown. They were from northern Germany and the Netherlands. In 1698 they chose papermaker William Rittenhouse as their first minister.

The Swiss Brethren Immigrate to Pennsylvania

In 1708 four Kolb brothers from the Palatinate arrived in Germantown. These men were Swiss Brethren.

The Swiss Brethren were the spiritual descendants of Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock. They had been nicknamed Anabaptists by their enemies because they insisted that only believers should be baptized. They separated from the worldly state church and used the ban to discipline members who sinned. They also believed that Christians should follow Jesus' simple, nonresistant Gospel and should not swear oaths. Their plain, moral lives attracted many converts from the state church.

The first Swiss Brethren suffered martyrdom. Later the Swiss authorities jailed, beat, fined, or banished the steadfast Brethren. Around 1650 the ruler of the Palatinate, a neighboring German country, invited the Swiss Brethren to his land. He need these hard-working farmers to restore his wartorn land. There they prospered.

However, around 1700 a new ruler in the Palatinate began persecuting the Brethren. Many decided to go to Pennsylvania. Their fellow Anabaptists, the Dutch Mennonites, helped them with passage money. The English associated the Swiss with their Dutch brethren and therefore called them Mennonites. The name stuck with them in the New World.

Swiss Brethren Settlements in America

Most of the Swiss Brethren passed through Germantown and settled further inland. They sought out land along the creeks and rivers.

Some Swiss Brethren joined earlier Mennonite settlers at Skippack. In 1710 Bishop Hans Herr and his preacher son, Christian Herr, led a group who settled along the Pequea Creek. Inspired by the fertile land, they sent Martin Kendig back to the Palatinate to urge other Brethren to come over to Pennsylvania. After 1717 Swiss Brethren flooded into Pennsylvania. They overflowed the Skippack and Pequea settlements, spreading out in all directions. By the 1730s a few families located along the Conococheague Creek in the Cumberland Valley. Others ventured down the valley into Virginia and settled along the two forks of the Shenandoah River.

The Amish

The Amish, a smaller body of Swiss Brethren, also settled in Pennsylvania. They were the followers of Jacob Ammann, a Swiss Brethren bishop from the Alsace.

Ammann, after reading Dutch Mennonite writings, concluded that the church should avoid excommunicated members. He extended this even to eating with them. Most of the Swiss Brethren bishops believed that they should only ban the excommunicated from the Lord's Supper.

Ammann and his opponents also disagreed about the salvation of the true-hearted, members of the state church who fed and sheltered the persecuted Anabaptists. Ammann insisted that as long as they did not unite with the Brethren they were not saved. Most of the other Swiss bishops, led by Hans Reist, felt they should allow God to decide who was saved or not.

Ammann separated from the larger body of Swiss Brethren in 1693. Most of the Swiss Brethren in the Alsace sided with Ammann. But the majority of Anabaptists in Switzerland and the Palatinate favored Reist. The Amish refused to have any thing to do with their former brethren. One boatload of Swiss Brethren immigrants had members of both groups on it. The Amish aboard steadfastly avoided the other Swiss Brethren.

In 1736 the first Amish settled along the Northkill Creek in Berks County. By 1759 a few Amish began to move into Lancaster County where many Mennonites lived. A letter written in 1773 by Mennonite bishops stated that the Amish "hold very fast to the outward and ancient customs."

The German Pietists

Mennonites and Amish made up only about 5000 of the German immigrants. Most Germans immigrants were Pietists.

Pietism started as a revival movement among the Lutheran and Reformed state churches in Europe. It stressed a heart-felt conversion, reading the Bible, personal prayer, and living a holy life. In Pennsylvania, Lutheran ministers such as Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and Reformed pastors such as Michael Schlatter promoted Pietism..

A few radical Pietists sensed the need to separate from the unconverted in the state churches. They formed churches that their opponents called sects. These included the Moravians, the Schwenkfelders, and the German Baptist Brethren.

The Moravians traced their beginnings back to John Huss, a Bohemian priest. He was martyred in 1415 for speaking out against corruption in the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1722 a small band of Hussites fled Roman Catholic persecution in their homeland of Moravia. They set up their community of Herrnhut on the estate of Count Zinzendorf, a Pietist nobleman in Saxony.

In 1734 Moravian missionaries went to Georgia to work among the Indians. In 1740 the first Moravians settled the town of Nazareth in Pennsylvania. A year later Bethlehem was founded. In both places the Moravians shared their property and worked together. They sent out missionaries to preach the Gospel to the Indians.

The Schwenkfelders were very similar to the Moravians. They both allowed infant baptism and emphasized personal devotion to God. However the Schwenkfelders owned their property individually and were not evangelistic. The German Baptist Brethren practiced believer's baptism. Their founder Alexander Mack reached this conclusion by reading the Bible and Mennonite writings. They did not join the Mennonites because they disagreed with their mode of baptism. In 1708 Mack and his followers baptized each other by immersion in the river near Schwarzenau, Germany.

The first German Baptist Brethren came to Pennsylvania in 1721. They grew quickly in the New World as they evangelized among their fellow Germans. Their practices greatly resembled those of the Mennonites.

In 1735 a group left Mack's church and formed the Seventh-Day German Baptists. Their leader, Conrad Beissel, believed Christians could follow God better if they did not marry. A community of unmarried brothers and sisters at the Ephrata Cloister lived under his strict guidance. They dressed in simple robes of undyed homespun, ate no meat, and slept on hard wooden benches with a block of wood for a pillow.

All of the Pietist sects followed a simple, humble way of life. They dressed plainly, refused to swear oaths, and were nonresistant. William Penn welcomed them to his colony, but elsewhere in the colonies, they often had to pay taxes to support the state churches and were not considered full-fledged citizens.

Bishop Jacob Godshalk's History of the Germantown Mennonites

Jacob Godshalk (1670-1763) came to Pennsylvania in 1702. In 1708 he became the first Mennonite bishop in America. He later moved to Skippack. Here is Godshalk's account of the Mennonites in America from 1683 to 1708:

"The beginning of the community of Jesus Christ here at Germantown, who are called Mennonites, took its rise in this way. Some friends out of Holland and Germany came here together. They found it good to have meetings. They were regarded as sheep who had no shepherd since they had no preacher.

"In 1698 more friends came into the land, who were also of our brethren. These, with the first chose by unanimous votes a preacher and some deacons. Thereupon was William Rittenhouse chosen preacher and Jan Nice as a deacon. In 1702 Jacob Godshalk and Hans Nice were chosen preachers. Hans Nice later separated from the community.

"In 1707 some brethren came to us out of the Palatinate. In 1708 the first- chosen preacher William Rittenhouse died to the great sorrow of the community. Since Jacob Godshalk alone served the community, they considered it necessary to chose three deacons. There were besides three preachers chosen.

"After this we remained sometime living in good peace. Meanwhile some persons presented themselves to be taken into the community through baptism. The community having consulted together ordered that the request should be complied with. Accordingly this rite was conducted by Jacob Godshalk. Later we celebrated the Lord's Supper as instructed by the Apostles."

Source: Christian Light Education, Social Studies 8, LightUnit 1

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