Mennonites have long lauded rural settings as the ideal locations for faithful life and practice, nestled in the hard-working, simple- living communities away from the seductive evils of the city.
It’s ironic, then, that Germantown, Pa., home of the first permanent Mennonite settlement in the New World, was not agrarian but urban, surrounded by the diversity and openness that prompted one longtime Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference minister in 1921 to call cities “deteriorating to religious life, especially to our simple, nonconformed faith.”
Germantown was founded in 1683 by 13 families from Krefeld in western Germany. One family was Mennonite, but the rest were Mennonites who had become Quakers as a result of intense Quaker evangelism in Europe. The Krefelders landed in Philadelphia but didn’t stay in the 1-year-old settlement.
Instead, they turned their attention some six miles to the northwest, where they had acquired land through Daniel Francis Pastorius, their land agent. By the early 1690s, enough Mennonites had arrived from elsewhere in Europe that a Mennonite congregation was established.
But they were not the only ones. By the end of the 17th century, Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed immigrants had arrived in Germantown. All had been attracted to Pennsylvania by William Penn’s experiment in religious freedom. In 1681, the English king Charles II granted the land that would become Pennsylvania to William Penn to settle a debt to Penn’s father. Penn, who had become a Quaker, sought to turn Pennsylvania into a refuge for his fellow Quakers, who were being tormented in England, and for other persecuted European Christians.
One reason the first American Mennonites didn’t establish a farm-based presence was because Penn would not provide land to individuals. According to Pastorius, there were several reasons for that, “the most important of which is that in this manner the children can be kept at school, and much more conveniently instructed in what is good. Neighbors can also offer each other a kind and helping hand, and with united voices . . . praise and honor God’s goodness and magnify him.”
Such a location was agreeable to the Krefelders, who had been urban denizens in Europe. Persecution had forced many European Anabaptists to seek relative security in rural regions away from religious and civil authorities. But in western Germany, Mennonites found tolerance in Krefeld and brought with them expertise in textiles, turning the city into an international center of the industry.
So when the Krefelders immigrated to North America, the Mennonites and Mennonites-turned-Quakers brought their skills with them. Abraham op den Graeff is credited with starting Germantown’s linen industry and was honored by William Penn for producing the finest linen in the colony. Like Krefeld, Germantown soon became a major textile center. William Rittenhouse, the first minister of the Germantown Mennonite congregation, built the first paper mill in the colonies.
Germantown was also the home of Brethren printer Christopher Sauer, who published the first Bible in America as well as the Ausbund, the hymnal still used by the Old Order Amish.
Germantown became a commercial center, located between the outlying farms and the population of Philadelphia. Farmers sold eggs, meat and produce. Tanning and leather work became important occupations, as was blacksmithing. Crafts and processing would become Germantown’s economic backbone, as the workshops would outnumber stores by a ratio of seven to one.
In addition to the paper mill and textile manufacturing, there were grist mills, a sawmill, even a chocolate mill, plus tanneries, saddle makers, breweries and distilleries.
While later immigrants would seek to replicate their European rural environments elsewhere in America, the Germantown Mennonites would continue to live and work with a diversity of people. Germantown Mennonite Church thus became not only the first Mennonite congregation on the continent but the first urban one as well.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.