Foreword
COLONIAL GERMANTOWN MENNONITES


"I never saw more simplicity," recorded the famous evangelist George Whitefield in 1740, after preaching at Skippack in southeastern Pennsylvania. Had he ridden fifteen miles back through the woods to Germantown, and viewed the Mennonite meetinghouse there, he would doubtless have mused further. For even the successor of that log building of 1708, built of stone in 1770, greets a twenty-first century eye as a statement of simplicity.

More than that, as this guidebook explains, Germantown’s Mennonite meetinghouse is an expression of continuity. It was children and grandchildren of European Mennonites who gathered here along the town’s only major street, in the first of their people’s congregations to endure in America. The location was the site of a homestead bought by a Dutch-speaking paper-maker four years after the town’s founding in 1683.

Willem Rittinghuysen (William Rittenhouse) had immigrated from Amsterdam with his wife Gertruid and three children. The first paper-maker in the English colonies, he was also elected in 1698 as its first Mennonite minister. By then he and his partner-son Nicholas had already moved out of town to the site of their mill along the nearby Wissahickon Creek. It was in his Lower Rhenish accent, in the house of Mennonite neighbor Isaac van Bebber, that the slowly accruing congregation heard the scriptural message for a decade.

Willem himself never saw the log meetinghouse built in the months following his unexpected death in 1708. Nor will we see it. What we can visit is the sturdy stone replacement that served the congregation for two centuries after 1770. "Simple, substantial and beautiful," to use the phrase of a Lancaster County Mennonite preacher, it has become an icon of American Mennonite memory, even while its surroundings have changed beyond the imagination of its first users.

Location can speak. Standing in the doorway and looking outward, one faces, across the urban horizon, in the direction of the paper mill site on a branch of the Wissahickon Creek. A tiny village of buildings there, one bearing the date of 1707, evokes physicallyunlike the written-only records of earlier and temporary Mennonite dwellings in Manhattan or along the Delaware Baythe earliest permanent Mennonite dwelling outside of Europe. The quiet stream running through the dell still called Rittenhousetown reminds us of the mill it once powered. And back in the heart of the main town, the north-south angle of Germantown Avenue recalls the Indian trail along which a lot fell to the community’s first Mennonite couple, Jan and Mercken Lensen, at the town’s very beginning in the late fall of 1683.

The earliest stones clustered next to the meetinghouse do not reach far enough back to include Jan and Mercken’s names. But names such as Cassel, Funk, Keyser, and Rittenhouse declare that this Mennonite community was a convergence. The hearts that beat here came from at least four different regions of Europe, both urban and rural. Some names are Palatine, suggesting spiritual origins in Zurich, while others witness to the heritage of Menno Simons of Friesland. This realization flavors our recognition of the varieties of the present residents of this historic community. It also reminds us that the church of Christ will always be about bringing together a family that transcends nations, cultures and languages.

History is here in layers. Native Americans visited in the first huts; schoolmaster Christopher Dock held summer schools here; peach trees once picturesquely lined the street running by Dirk Keyser’s gracious residence; George Washington’s troops met in confused shock with British redcoats in front of the Meetinghouse; a congregation struggled for two centuries after most of their people had moved into the country. It was after 1960 when a flock surprisingly regathered from many points to worship in this modern urban setting with a long memory.

The miraculously enduring meetinghouse along Germantown Avenue has become a place to meditate on how spiritual concerns leave their testimony. Those miscellaneous Mennonites living in a straggling village three centuries ago had come from a variety of motives—including persecution and economic opportunity. But in this rustic village of linen-weavers they brought to common focus what they believed. Instead of merging their identities in a generic spirituality, they insisted on being responsible to their parental church fellowships in Europe. Even before electing a preacher, "they tried to instruct each other," meeting in homes. They waited twenty-five years to celebrate a communion which they believed was an accountable one. Then they chose leaders from all four of the main communities of their European backgrounds. And built a meetinghouse. In that remarkable, scrupulous convergence, they became the departing point, and an example, for a fellowship that would spread across North America.

May this careful guidebook, in both word and image, instruct our imagination, helping us to be intelligent and appreciative pilgrims as we come back to visit Germantown.

—John L. Ruth
Harleysville, Pennsylvania


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Copyright 2006 by Cascadia Publishing House
10/18/06