Caspar Schwenckfeld lived from 1489 to 1561. He was born into a family of nobility in Silesia (now part of Poland), was raised Roman Catholic, and was educated to be a diplomat in the European courts. He was a court advisor in Silesia in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, triggering the Protestant Reformation. Schwenckfeld was immediately attracted to the Reformation movement. He believed that the old world was passing away and a new world was appearing on the scene. He soon abandoned his affairs of state, and gave his full attention to studying the Scriptures and early church writings.
Schwenckfeld affirmed many of Luther’s views in the beginning but, the more he studied the Scriptures, the more he found areas of Luther’s theology with which he disagreed. A major disagreement occurred when he discussed the meaning of the Lord’s Supper with Luther and tried to reconcile conflicting interpretations. Agreement was impossible. In despair, Schwenckfeld declared that he could not approach the Lord’s Supper as long as Christian interpretations were divided and announced that he would abstain from communing until the differences were resolved.
This decision, called the Stillstand, was initiated in 1526. It was not Schwenckfeld’s intention to start a church bearing his name. However, he gained a following of people who believed as he did, and they formed religious groups which continued in Europe for nearly 200 years. These groups called themselves the “Confessors of the Glory of Christ” but others called them “Schwenkfelders.”
Schwenckfeld’s followers did not attend the established, dogmatic churches of the day. Instead, they conducted Christian worship in their homes, guided by Schwenckfeld’s writings. (Most people did not own Bibles at that time.) Schwenckfeld’s followers also participated in the Stillstand. The established churches deemed them un-churched heretical people and had fines and imprisonment imposed on them. Persecution throughout the 17th century reduced their numbers until, in 1719, the Austrian Emperor established a Jesuit mission to bring them back into the Catholic Church. Representatives of the Schwenkfelders traveled to Vienna to plead for religious tolerance but their pleas were futile. By 1726, only one alternative remained… to leave everything and escape.
In 1726, the most ardent of Schwenckfeld’s followers left their homes and began a migration to America. The largest group, numbering 171, landed in Philadelphia on September 22, 1734, on the sailing ship “St. Andrew.” On September 24, they held a
service of thanksgiving to God for their deliverance from persecution and safe arrival in the New World. They also shared a simple meal together. There is no documentation of what was served at the meal but Schwenkfelder tradition tells us that it included bread, butter and apple butter. Schwenkfelders have held a Day of Remembrance service every year since then, making this the oldest continuous thanksgiving observance in the country.
Early Schwenkfelders held worship services and religious instruction in their homes for almost 50 years after their arrival in Pennsylvania. Initially, they had no fixed places or times of worship but, in 1762, they instituted a system of religious meetings. The meetings were held in private homes selected for that purpose on a predetermined schedule of rotation. This simple structure for worship met their needs for another 20 years until 1782, when they formed the “Society of Schwenkfelders.” This organization was incorporated in 1909 as “The Schwenkfelder Church.” The Schwenkfelder Church grew to include six congregations at its peak, with four remaining today. All of them were within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia. Today’s congregations are located in Palm, Worcester, East Norriton, and Philadelphia.
Because the Schwenkfelder denomination is so small, a special committee was formed in 1961 to investigate if it should affiliate with a larger denomination. This was a difficult question because affiliation with another denomination could mean a loss of identity to some Schwenkfelders. The committee considered the pros and cons of affiliation, and evaluated the differences and similarities with the United Church of Christ (UCC), Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, and American Baptist denominations. In 1963, the committee reported that UCC affiliation was the best option for the future of the Schwenkfelder Church, but recommended that each congregation decide for itself. Some congregations decided to affiliate with the UCC and some did not. Palm Schwenkfelder Church voted in favor of affiliation and, today, is an Associate Member of the UCC.
Early Schwenkfelders established homesteads from Chestnut Hill, near Philadelphia, to what are now Berks and Lehigh Counties. However, most of them settled in Central and Upper Montgomery County. Schwenkfelders referred to the area covering Upper Montgomery, Berks and Lehigh Counties as the “Upper District.”
Schwenkfelders have historically been interested in education. They built the first log school in the Upper District near Hereford in 1765 and, soon thereafter, rented a structure for a school in the Hosensack area. Other school sessions in this district were held in private homes. In 1790, a combination school and meeting house was erected at Hosensack to replace the earlier facility. The first worship service was held in this building in August, 1790. This log school and meeting house was replaced by one of stone in 1838. The building was remodeled in 1893, and it remains to this day.
A second Schwenkfelder meeting house was built in Washington Township, Berks County, in 1791. The first services to be held in this meeting house were the Day of Remembrance services of September 24, 1791. Public school sessions were conducted by the Schwenkfelders in this building until 1824, when it was replaced by a more modern structure. This building was removed in 1911, and a granite monument was placed on the site.