the historian: Moral Lapses of Early Pennsylvania German Clergymen — Part 1

Very few Lutheran or Reformed clergymen immigrated to Pennsylvania along with the flood of German speaking immigrants in the early 18th century. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin despaired, “This will in a few years become a German speaking colony.” It was, in large part, German speaking already with about 100,000 immigrants from the war ravaged Palatinate who had risked their lives to get here in vessels little better than slave ships. About 90 percent of them were of the Lutheran or Reformed faith. And more were on the way.

It’s safe to say very few German ministers came to the rough-and-tumble wilderness of Pennsylvania. In Europe, clergymen were highly respected and well paid while leading a fairly upper-class life. They were “ordained.” Ordination was, in a sense, a type of priesthood wherein the clergyman was invested with authority to perform sacraments: baptism, marriage, and communion.

We often find some irregularity in the lives of the very few ministers who came to Pennsylvania that caused them to be “exiled” to the new land, or they may have simply fled some untenable situation.

As noted in previous articles, German immigrants had no cultural memory of building and staffing their own churches since in the Germanic provinces the church was, in part, a branch of the government; and people were taxed for its support. Here there were no taxes, no clergy, and few Lutheran or Reformed churches.

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Once here in the new land many of the “church people” were indifferent to religion. Rev. Muhlenberg noted with dismay that a rich farmer pointed to his manure pile and claimed that it was his God because it gave him “wheat and everything that he needed.” Still, with the burgeoning population many others felt a need for the familiar sacraments that they remembered. Also, there was always a need for funeral services.

The first German Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania was Anthony Jacob Henkel who for ten or eleven years was the only Lutheran pastor in the field having served several congregations in Germany from 1692 to 1717. He probably reached Pennsylvania in September of 1717 when three vessels were known to have arrived with about 300 German immigrants. There is evidence that some of his parishioners accompanied him. Henkel bought 250 acres of land about a mile north of the present New Hanover church beside the 250 acre tract of his son-in-law Valentine Geiger. There is abundant evidence that Rev. Henkel organized the first German Lutheran congregation in Pennsylvania at New Hanover and perhaps spent the rest of his life there.

Details of his leaving Europe are sketchy. Apparently he had run afoul of authorities there, as they had been “making threatening gestures” toward him. For whatever reason he left under a cloud, but all accounts of his ministry here indicate an upright life with his devoting as much time and effort to his ministerial duties as he could. He died in 1728 subsequent to falling from his horse or perhaps was stricken before he fell.

In a similar vein John Philip Boehm, schoolmaster and later ordained German Reformed minister, had a quarrelsome relationship with the authorities at his several unhappy postings in German lands. He too cast off the old world arriving in Philadelphia about1720. He assumed the office of pastor at the urging of the Falkner Swamp congregation in 1725 and served a circuit of congregations faithfully until his death in 1749. With a large family and having to make his own living, he still traveled over 24,000 miles ministering, preaching and administering the sacraments.

On the other hand, some men of the cloth were often found under the influence of “Old Demon Rum” or found themselves under the wrong sheets.

Daniel Falkner, who had studied for the ministry but was not then ordained, arrived in Germantown in 1694, a member of a pietistic society called Society of the Women in the Wilderness who named themselves the Hermits of the Wissahickon. He was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1701, but lived in Germantown and attempted to administer the large German Tract (now Pottstown, the Pottsgroves, New Hanover, and Upper Hanover). He preached in Germantown and according to one report was so intoxicated on occasions that he almost fell out of the pulpit. He was, “sometimes found sleeping on the side of the road with a brandy keg on his back.” When in 1704 he was taken to court on account of some action, he appeared hung over and used “an abundance of foul language, railing most grievously at the recorder and the bailiff.”

More seriously, it appears Falkner worked in concert with Philadelphia merchant Johannes Sprogel to defraud the European owners of the Frankfort Tract of their property rights and gain ownership of it. Falkner then left Germantown to serve a congregation in New Jersey.

Incidentally, there is no evidence that Daniel Falkner ever traveled to New Hanover or preached here.

Next week: Part 2