Schwenkfelder (Schwenckfelder) Church, a body in Pennsylvania taking its name from the Silesian nobleman, lay evangelist, and reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489-1561). Within the first two decades of the 16th-century Reformation there were Christians in Europe known as Lutherans, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and Schwenckfelders, the followers of Caspar Schwenckfeld. Here and there in Silesia whole congregations and their pastors supported the teaching of the last named. Later on this was also true in isolated cities and areas of South Germany. Schwenckfeld never permitted his followers to form a body under his name, nor would he countenance the establishment of another ecclesiastical division. His followers were spoken of as brethren or brotherhoods; he himself came to speak of them as Confessors of the Glory of Christ. There never was an organization of them in Europe, where thousands adhered to them, from the Prussian shores of the Baltic, in parts of Poland, Silesia and Glatz, through South Germany to Lake Constance and to Strasbourg.
The persecutions they suffered even unto death for two hundred years were extremely bitter. But all this did not prevent peasants and artisans, merchants and professionals, statesmen and nobles, both Catholic and Protestant from following after them. However, by the end of the Thirty Years' War they had apparently disappeared from South Germany. Thereafter we find them only in Lower Silesia and in an area west of the cities of Liegnitz and Goldberg in the villages of Harpersdorf, Langneundorf, Armenruh, Lauterseifen, Hohenau, and Laubgrund. Here they were addressed by letter before 1670 by Philipp Jakob Spener, and the Quaker Roger Longworth in 1675 visited their physician Martin John Jr. (1624-1707) in Laubgrund, who was the first to notice that wax is a product of the body of the honeybee. They were given to diligent and intensive study of the Scriptures. From the time of Schwenckfeld himself they pursued the study of languages and mathematics; he had from 1523 on, the service and support of the erudite Valentine Crautwald, lector at Saint Thomas in Liegnitz, as his linguist. The Schwenckfelders have throughout their history been noted for their interest in education and learning, with extensive literary activity.
In Silesia the Anabaptists and Schwenckfelders were close ca. 1570, for the latter often had Anabaptist writings.
When it was found that they were not to be won for the established churches either by persecution or by persuasion it was reported to the Austrian authorities that in the Lower Silesian villages there were these unchurched heretical people. The eminent schoolman and 19th-century Schwenckfeld research scholar, A. F. H. Schneider (1806-90) of Berlin, believed that about 1719-20 they had at least 1,250 members. Emperor Charles VI authorized the creation of a special Jesuit mission to convert them to the Roman Catholic faith. Such a mission, composed of Johan Milan for Harpersdorf and Carolus Regent for Langneundorf, made its appearance in December 1719. Although the Schwenckfelders sent able representatives to the Austrian court in Vienna, who presented seventeen petitions pleading for toleration, by 1724 it was clear that their only hope for preservation was to flee from their homes and country. But where were they to go? Through the kindness of Count Zinzendorf they found temporary asylum on his estates in and around Herrnhut and Berthelsdorf in Saxony. They fled by night, a few families at a time, leaving cattle in the stall and their farms abandoned. About 500 men, women, and children fled in 1725-36. However, only a brief respite was given them. By 1730 there were signs that they must move again. In 1731 one of their young men reached Philadelphia; in 1733, when they were given a year's time to dispose of their property, 14 more came to Philadelphia; on 22 September 1734, the main body, 171 souls, arrived in Philadelphia; in 1736 eight more came, and a final 14 in 1737. The number of those who came to Pennsylvania in that period did not exceed 212. Melchior Dorn, the last survivor of those who remained in Europe, died in Harpersdorf in 1826.
The Mennonites of the Netherlands had come to the assistance of the Schwenckfelders during their sojourn in Saxony. When they set out for Pennsylvania Hinrich van der Smissen, a Mennonite minister in Hamburg, was host to them; he entertained the larger body of 1734 for ten days in Altona and fitted out three sailing vessels in which he had them transported to Amsterdam. Cornelis van Putten, the Mennonite pastor, showed them great kindness, and the Mennonite van Buyssant family in Haarlem munificently entertained them and in addition paid for their passage on the "Saint Andrew," besides an additional fund of 224 Rixthalers for their poor. They sailed from Rotterdam on 19 June 1734.
On 23 September 1734, the day after the arrival of the larger body in Philadelphia, the Schwenckfelder group gave their promise of loyalty to the Crown of England, sealing it with a handclasp. The following day was designated as a day of thanksgiving for their deliverance and safe arrival in Pennsylvania. Each succeeding year they and their descendants have held a service of remembrance on 24 September, calling it their "Gedächtnistag."
The Schwenckfelders settled in southeastern Pennsylvania on lands lying today in the counties of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Berks, and Lehigh. Their first minister in Pennsylvania was Georg Weiss (1687-1740), whom they chose before their arrival. Through the first 55 years of their life here their worship services were conducted in their homes; their first meetinghouse was built in 1789. To avoid total disintegration they finally, in 1782, organized themselves into the Society of Schwenckfelders, and under that name they functioned until 1909, when they were incorporated as the Schwenkfelder Church. Since then the five congregations have been individually incorporated. At the end of 1953 their total church membership was 2,540.
The Schwenkfelder Board of Missions was organized in 1895, their Board of Publication in 1898, succeeding the Publishing Committee appointed in 1884; under the combined auspices of the Schwenkfelder Church and the Hartford Theological Seminary it has published the Corpus Schwenckjeldianorum, a complete scholarly edition of the writings of Caspar Schwenckfeld. Volumes I to XV were issued in 1907-39. The Board of Charities has a fund resting back upon the 224 Rixthalers of 1734, now exceeding $12,000.
The General Conference is the official body of the Schwenckfelder Church. All its officers are laymen. Under its direction a committee began operations in 1885 that led to the creation of the Schwenckfelder Library, incorporated in 1946, at Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. Similarly also the General Conference in 1891 purchased the property of the Perkiomen Seminary, since 1916 known as Perkiomen School, originally founded in 1874-75. This is a college preparatory school for boys, enrolling 200 each year. The polity of the Schwenckfelders is congregational. For them the kingdom of God is a spiritual one revealed in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are the record of the voice of the Word of God. The Word of God is that which transcends whatever is written or printed whether on parchment or paper. The Christian must be free and unfettered by human creeds and human authority. The spirit must have free course to follow the light of truth as it advances. Government essential to maintain an orderly society has no right to interfere with or influence religious convictions.
The Schwenckfeldian, published monthly since 1903, was the official organ during the 1950s, published at Philadelphia. The secretary of the General Conference at this time was Wilber C. Kriebel, of Chester, Pennsylvania.
Beliefs and Teachings of the Schwenckfelder Church. Norristown, 1956.
Formula for the Government and Discipline of the Schwenckfelder Church. 1948.
Gerhard, Elmer Schultz. A Vindication of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig: An Elucidation of His Doctrine and the Vicissitudes of His Followers, translated from the German and edited. Allentown, 1942.
Kriebel, Howard W. The Schwenckfelders in Pennsylvania. Lancaster, 1904.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 487-488. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Kriebel, Wilber C. "Schwenkfelder Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S389.html.
APA style: Kriebel, Wilber C. (1959). Schwenkfelder Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S389.html.