Schwenkfelder immigrationThe Schwenkfelders were a small, pietistic sect that emigrated from southern Germany and lower Silesia in the Austrian Empire beginning in 1731. After being persecuted for two centuries, and denied the right to Christian burial, they decided to follow like-minded German immigrants to the Pennsylvania colony where religious freedom was guaranteed. They arrived in Philadelphia in six migrations between 1731 to 1737, with the largest group of 200 sailing from Rotterdam in 1734. They settled farmsteads around Philadelphia, especially in modern Berks and Lehigh Counties. By 2003, almost all Schwenkfelders had joined more established Christian denominations, though many still claimed to be followers of the old doctrine.
Schwenkfelders followed the teachings of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489–1561), a devout Catholic and member of the Silesian nobility. He was drawn to Martin Luther’s reform teachings but disagreed with him over the exact nature of the Lord’s Supper and the baptism of infants. Schwenckfeld believed that the Bible should not be literally interpreted or used as a “paper pope” but rather that believers should trust the Holy Spirit for insight into its meaning. Family was central to Schwenkfelder worship, with house churches the norm. As a result, the Society of Schwenkfelders was loosely organized, and its members freely associated with more established churches, where they could share their gifts of spiritual insight. In 2003, there was still an organized church, consisting of five congregations and about 2,600 members associated with the United Church of Christ, though many who claim Schwenkfelder roots are associated with the religious work of the Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, American Baptists, the Christian Missionary Alliance, the Evangelical Association, and the Holiness Movement.