A Look Back In History: William Penn’s legacy of Christian love & the Pennsylvania Dutch

Many of the religious sects of the 1700s are still here in Berks County today.
Many of the religious sects of the 1700s are still here in Berks County today.
Religious freedom was the reason many Palatinate immigrants came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s.
Religious freedom was the reason many Palatinate immigrants came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s.

Prior to 1727, a number of Rhineland immigrants who embarked at Philadelphia had the luxury of worldly possessions to enable them to become prosperous settlers. But after that year, those Rhinelanders that didn’t, were sold as redemptioners to pay off their passage to previous settlers. They became such a human labor force that collectively they rivaled black slaves entering the southern United States, and there were many sea captains eager to make a buck. These waves of Old World Germanic peasants in 1728, 1729, and 1737, 1741, 1750, and 1751 were usually farmers with some skilled craftsmen, and including French Huguenots, Swiss, and Germans all from the Palatinate. These Rhineland immigrants during Colonial times were desperate for economic and religious freedom and were sold into three-five years of servitude by as redemptioners to pay their passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes whole families were split up until they had served enough hard labor for their husbands or wives to redeem spouse and their children from the contracts they signed with sea captains when they reached the docks of Philadelphia.

But through their courage, perseverance, and hard work, William Penn’s legacy of Christian love and fellowship is still alive today and can be seen generations later with a number of PA Dutch Plain People here in Pennsylvania and beyond who, with their Amish cousins in Lancaster County, are a vibrant folklife reminder of Christianity every time one sees or meets these Horse and Buggy Dutch people sharing our roadways in the Commonwealth. Our Christian faith can also be seen readily in PA Dutch folk art manuscripts, which proclaimed their steadfast love of Christian folkways in Fraktur birth certificates and dower chests decorated in Germanic motifs that can escalate to $100,000 or more at current public art auctions. Sometimes these early 18th and 19th Century folk art decorated frakturs were made several years after the child was born, as a memento of love and compassion paid for by their parents; a keepsake item which was often pasted under the lid of the child’s dower chest.

Since William Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, was himself a member of the Quaker faith in England that was outlawed by the Anglican Church of England, he knew how other Reformation Protestant faiths were disadvantaged when national governments forbid their existence. Thus, Penn traveled to Central Europe and encouraged Quaker and Protestant groups to settle in his Commonwealth, where they would all be considered “equal” in their faith and the eyes of God; a universal ideal carried out by all these Christian denominations. Another unique advantage of Penn’s “Society of Friends” Quaker religion and philosophy was one’s inner light was known as their “conscious,” and in the eyes of an all-knowing God, one better treat everyone as you would treat yourself!

Of the numerous redemptioner French Huguenots who along with German and Swiss that came to Pennsylvania was Albert Gallatin, who eventually became the Secretary of The United States Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson. And, as later German Quaker and Mennonites arrived in Philadelphia, they were followed by Moravians, Lutherans, and other Protestants from Europe. Religious sects as the German Brethren or Baptists were also equally attracted to Penn’s Holy Experiment, void of persecution. There are still an outstanding number of religious sect individuals even to this day, including the English Quakers, nostalgically following Penn’s footprints at the nearby 1758 Exeter Township-Quaker meeting house that remains an active congregation or seen during the summer months at the historic Maiden Creek Meeting house at Shoemakersville & Kindts Corner Roads.

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