The Historian: Travails of the Early Protestant Ministers

By 1750 there were at least 20,000 Lutheran immigrants and as many Reformed in Pennsylvania. There were, however, very few ordained ministers to serve them. In the 1740’s, the Reverends Michael Schlatter, Reformed, and Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Lutheran, accepted the call from their church fathers in Europe to come to Pennsylvania as missionaries to try to organize the scattered congregations, such as they were. This was a difficult charge as William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” produced a very different world for protestant clergymen than they were used to in Europe.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, in the many small provinces that became Germany, there were three legal religions: Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran. Each church, along with its associated school and parish work was funded by the government through taxation. Church membership was a requirement. People did not tithe to support their church, they registered by religion and were taxed accordingly. Consequently, in addition to their ecclesiastical duties, clergymen were in a sense bureaucrats since they served their respective governments, the sources of their funding. Also, ministers had significant “clout” in the community and could compel church attendance or otherwise maintain social order. The clergy were highly respected professionals and ministers were among the most educated.

In Pennsylvania, however, separation of church and state was near the top of the list of William Penn’s principles. In Pennsylvania, a person could have any religion he pleased or no religion whatsoever, and there was to be no government involvement in religion. However, this principle also occasioned the loss of government funding for churches. Except for the sects, the immigrants themselves had no cultural memory of founding or funding their own churches; so in the early part of the 18th century organized congregations with church buildings were primitive and widely scattered at best.

In 1750, a good thirty years after local settlement began, there were just five Lutheran churches in what later became Montgomery County. They were at Old and New Goschenhoppen, Trappe, New Hanover, and Pottstown.

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Gottlieb Mittelberger writes in his “Journey to Pennsylvania in 1756” that: “The preachers throughout Pennsylvania have no power to punish anyone, or to compel anyone to go to church; nor has anyone a right to dictate to the other, because they are not supported by any Consistorio. Most preachers are hired by the year like cowherds in Germany; and if one does not preach to their liking, he must expect to be served with a notice that his services will no longer be required.”

“It is therefore very difficult to be a conscientious preacher, especially as they have to hear and suffer [allow] much from so many hostile and often wicked sects. The most exemplary preachers are often reviled, insulted and scoffed at like Jews, by the young and old, especially in the country. I would, therefore, rather perform the meanest herdsman’s duties in Germany than be a preacher in Pennsylvania.”

“Such unheard-of rudeness and wickedness spring from the excessive liberties of the land, and from the blind zeal of the many sects. To many a one’s soul and body, liberty in Pennsylvania is more hurtful than useful. There is a saying in the country: Pennsylvania is a haven of the farmers, the paradise of the mechanics [tradesmen], and the hell of the officials and preachers.”

It must be noted , though, that Mittelberger’s book and views are slanted since he was paid to write it by the Duke of Wurtenberg who was alarmed at the large number of his residents that he was losing to emigration. So the book is a sort of screed against the evils of the new land and the unfortunate Germans who find themselves there.

Pastor’s spouses, too, were often none too happy to be exiled from the center of civilization in Europe. “We live among so many religions!” wrote the widow of a Swiss Reformed pastor in Philadelphia to her sister in Switzerland in 1736. “There are Reformed, Lutherans, Catholics, Dunkers, Mennonites, Pietists, Quakers, Sabbatarians, Atheists---also those that have no name, who believe in no religion, no divine service, no churches, no schools, yes, no God, no Devil, no Heaven, and no hell.”

She goes on, “In short there is no end of religions and nationalities here — this country is a house of refuge for exiled sects, a disorderly Babel, a storehouse of impure spirits, a dwelling place of Devils, a primeval world, a Sodom…”

Then she started on the weather, “It is exceedingly cold here in the winter, and in summer very much warmer…” and so on.