Finding Religious Freedom on Death’s Bed

In 1751, two men with conflicting views could only curse one another.



Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg

When it comes to victories, sometimes it’s hard to resist rubbing it in. It’s a natural instinct, but rarely a good idea.

Unfortunately, there was no one to whisper that into the ear of Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg as he prepared remarks for the 1751 funeral of a deceased farmer. The man’s low-ritual Mennonite family had discouraged his interest in Muhlenberg’s comparatively high-church Lutheranism. Still, Muhlenberg baptized Anthony Vanderslice before he died.

Muhlenberg’s funeral sermon would be taken from Zechariah 3:2: “And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”

For Muhlenberg, he had rescued Vanderslice from bad religious ideas so he could enter heaven. His relatives? They were “the fire.” Strange to say, his hearers did not take the admonition meekly,” wrote Pennsylvania historian Samuel W. Pennypacker. 

Particularly enraged was Vanderslice’s father-in-law, Heinrich Pannebecker, an immigrant ancestor of the clan. The sermon inspired in Pannebecker a fierce desire to trash-talk both the minister and his church. “He made every effort to preserve the children and the rest of the relatives from succumbing to the same fantasy, as he called it, and submitting to Christian discipline,” wrote Muhlenberg in a report to his superiors back in Germany.

Likely born in southwestern Germany, Pannebecker was the son of a Dutch family—Pannebecker is Dutch for “tile maker”—which had earlier moved up the Rhine from the Netherlands. His parents, Johannes and Sibylla, were Mennonites, a sect widely disliked and often forced to move, if not flee, to avoid persecution.

As a group, Mennonites are part of Central Europe’s ancient Anabaptist tradition, taking their name from Menno Simons, who led the religion in the mid-1500s. Mennonite historians trace the faith to similar movements as early as the 12th century. Mennonites opposed infant baptism, warfare and the taking of oaths, so they didn’t hold public office. Like the Quakers and Amish, they were simple in their manners. If converts had been baptized in childhood, they were rebaptized—a heresy to Catholics and Lutherans.

Persecution of Mennonites was draconian. In 1574, 54 men and women of the sect were burned at the stake in Antwerp, Belgium. Simons went about with a reward of 100 gold guilders (Dutch currency) on his head, and men were put to death for giving him shelter. “When the Reformed Lutherans at Basel, Switzerland, wanted to be merciful,” wrote Pennypacker, “they contented themselves with burning out the tongues of the heretics.”

Pannebecker’s interest in Pennsylvania likely originated with Quaker missionaries who first visited the Palatinate region of Germany—a Mennonite hub—about 20 years before he was born. In 1657, English Quakers William Ames and George Rolfe had won converts in Kriegsheim, Germany, where, according to Pennypacker, the Lutheran clergy had “excited the rabble disposed to evil, ‘to abuse those persons by scoffing, cursing, reviling, throwing stones and dirt at them, and breaking their windows.’” Such persecutions could only have endeared Quakers to the Mennonites, who were long accustomed to such injustices.

William Penn came to the region in the 1670s, and pamphlets describing his “Holy Experiment” (published in English, Dutch and German) were scattered in large numbers in Germany and the Netherlands. The opening wedge of German immigration—13 Mennonite families from Krefeld, near Düsseldorf—founded Germantown in 1683. 

Pannebecker’s arrival was not recorded, but he was in Germantown by 1699, when he married the daughter of another Mennonite immigrant. The couple lived there for three years, then in 1702, bought land and moved to Skippack Township in Montgomery County, settling about two miles from the village of Evansburg. Descendants of their eight children include numerous political and military figures, among them Civil War general Galusha Pennypacker, the youngest brigadier in U.S. history, and Samuel the historian, who served as Pennsylvania’s governor from 1903 to 1907.

Skippack was a Mennonite community founded on a thousand-acre tract that was originally sold to a Mennonite investor from Krefeld. Over the following decades, the area was sold off in parcels until, in 1727, the last remnant was purchased by Pannebecker—who, wrote Pennypacker, “had become the leading spirit in the affairs of this rural community.” His holdings eventually grew to 4,000 acres.

Pannebecker farmed, but his main occupation was surveyor. “He was the first and, so far as known, the only surveyor among early Dutch-German emigrants,” wrote Pennypacker. “From what has been discovered of the number and extent of his surveys, it is no exaggeration to assert that most of the manors, roads and townships of that period in Philadelphia County were laid out by him.” At the time, Philadelphia County included the city and present-day Montgomery County.

Pannebecker is also credited with laying out Skippack Road (Route 73), which connected the settlers to Germantown. He laid out the boundaries of Skippack, Perkiomen and Franconia townships, and what is now Route 23 from Norristown to Phoenixville. Clients included the Penn family and Pannebecker laid out their manors at Springfield, Manatawny and Perkasie.

In 1719, Pannebecker even laid out a 50-acre tract for a Lutheran church and burial ground in New Hanover Township. New Hanover Lutheran, which still exists, had no regular minister until 1742, when Muhlenberg arrived from Germany.

 

Born in Einbeck in Central Germany, Henry Muhlenberg was the son of Nicolaus Muhlenberg, a brewer, and his wife, Anna Maria. The senior Muhlenberg was a man of some influence, a deacon in the Lutheran Church and a member of the town council.

According to biographer William H. Frick, some evidence exists that the Muhlenbergs were descendants of the noble von Muhlenberg family, who had once lived splendidly in Lower Saxony, Germany. The Thirty Years’ War, however, placed Catholic monarchs over the Lutheran population and the Muhlenbergs were dispossessed. Though reduced from the status of his ancestors, Nicolaus saw that his children were educated. From ages 7 to 12, Henry attended the town’s German and Latin school.

The elder Muhlenberg passed away when Henry was 12, and his early education stopped there. He worked in business for an older brother until he was 18.

“Family tradition will have it that he clandestinely devoted every free moment to his books,” wrote William J. Mann in 1887, “and that, in a barn, he made his first homiletical attempts by preaching to the bare walls.”

Muhlenberg subsequently studied theology at the University of Göttingen and was ordained in Leipzig in 1739. For two years, he served as assistant minister and director of an orphanage in Großhennersdorf. The orphanage was supported by a local baroness, but, in 1741, its benefactress ran into financial difficulties. Rather than lay off Muhlenberg, his boss passed along the request of Lutherans in Pennsylvania that their German church send them a minister. 

“In all Germany, there was not a fitter man than he for the work,” wrote Frick. “He was in the prime of life; not a novice, yet not too old to be transplanted to another soil; a well-balanced man.”

When he arrived in Pennsylvania in 1742, Muhlenberg founded the Lutheran Church as an American institution. Today, his memory persists as the namesake of Allentown’s Muhlenberg College. 

Muhlenberg’s assignment included congregations at New Hanover, Providence (Trappe), and St. Michael’s in Philadelphia. At New Hanover, what he found was a deteriorating log church built on the land Pannebecker had earlier laid out. Among his first sermons was a defense of infant baptism.

“Everything is woods,” he wrote in his journal. “The women as well as the men come to church on horseback because, during, the winter roads are bad and they must go through high water.”

Vanderslice was an early supporter who, according to Muhlenberg, “was stirred and awakened through God’s Word after my coming to this country and gave very energetic assistance at the time when the church and schoolhouse were built, voluntarily contributing toward the necessary support of the pastor.”

But Vanderslice had drifted away, apparently due to criticism from his in-laws. The Pannebeckers, wrote Muhlenberg, “had a contemptuous dislike for the sacraments and the whole counsel of God concerning salvation.”

That was a matter of opinion. Lutherans recognized two sacraments: baptism and communion, which they deemed “necessary” for salvation. Mennonites recognized up to seven sacraments, including marriage and foot washing. However, they did so in a symbolic, non-liturgical way.

Things came to a head in 1751, when Vanderslice came down with his final illness. As he declined, he requested a visit by Muhlenberg. Upon his arrival, the pastor asked Vanderslice if he’d left the church because he had been offended in some way. 

“Oh, no, no,” protested Vanderslice. “I must confess before God that I have found no fault in your teaching or conduct—and that I was on the right road at the beginning.” 

Muhlenberg baptized and prayed for the dying man and his family. Vanderslice then begged his five children to join Muhlenberg’s church, and died soon after. Three of the five children fulfilled their father’s request and were also baptized by Muhlenberg.

“This vexed the old surveyor, the grandfather—a drunkard and a slanderer of our church and practice—beyond all measure,” wrote Muhlenberg. “He tried to ridicule the young people and also uttered all sorts of offensive speech against Holy Baptism and the office of the ministry.”

It was a small, bloodless battle. In the old country, either Muhlenberg or Pannebecker might have been burned at the stake, had his tongue burned out or at least lost property to confiscation. In Colonial Pennsylvania—a place dedicated to religious freedom—all they could do was cuss each other.

It was progress. 

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