by David Hersh, GMHT Board Chair
Mennonites, along with many religious minorities, came to colonial Pennsylvania from Krefeld, Germany to participate in William Penn’s “holy experiment” and escape persecution. In 1683, thirteen Dutch-speaking Mennonite and Quaker families settled in what is now known as Germantown, PA, becoming the first Europeans to colonize that area.
Upon their arrival, Mennonites and Quakers of Germantown worshipped together in homes. William Rittenhouse, who built America’s first mill in 1690 for the manufacturing of linen-based paper, served as their first minister. Mennonites coming from Germany were skilled in the paper and weaving fields. Farmers arrived in the late 1690s, but farmland was not available in Germantown, so they migrated north to Skippack, PA and west to Lancaster, PA.
Mennonite theology and conscience contributed to America’s first written petition against slavery, penned in 1688. In 1708, the first Mennonite Meetinghouse in the New World, a simple log cabin structure, was built (on the site of the present Meetinghouse).
In 1712, Jacob Gottschalk had the Dordrecht Confession, a statement of beliefs adopted by Dutch Mennonite leaders in 1632, translated into English and printed. At this time, membership was recorded at 99 members. In 1725, the same Dordrecht Confession was adopted in Germantown at the first inter-Mennonite conference in America, declaring that nonresistance is expected of all followers of Christ. Conestoga (Lancaster) and Skippack (Franconia) delegates attended and affirmed the Confession.
As membership grew, the log cabin Meetinghouse was no longer enough, so a new stone structure was constructed and dedicated in 1770. Also, in 1770, the first American book was published in Germantown: Christopher Dock’s Hundred Necessary Rules for Children.
In 1847, the Germantown congregation became part of the newly-formed Eastern District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church, but in 1851 left the conference, calling itself the Reformed Mennonite Church of Germantown.
By 1876, the congregation re-affiliated with the Eastern District Conference of the Mennonite Church. In 1888, Daniel Kolb Cassel’s History of the Mennonites was published as the first Mennonite history book in America (Cassell is interred in the Germantown Mennonite Cemetery).
In the early 1950s, the Germantown Mennonite Congregation outgrew the Meetinghouse and moved several blocks. It was at this time the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust (GMHT) was formed and is currently operated by a separate Board of Directors.
The Trust is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that cares for the 1770 Meetinghouse and associated buildings, a significant symbol of the first permanent Mennonite settlement in North America. We interpret and share the history, faith and witness of Mennonites in Germantown, PA from 1683 to present by preserving the historic Meetinghouse & Cemetery, maintaining the nearby buildings and grounds, preparing and implementing tours, exhibits, curricula, and public programs, and working with Mennonite and Anabaptist churches, conferences and organizations, the Germantown community, and other partners.
We have converted our vacant lot, 10 East Pastorius Street, into a community garden. Residents have individual plots where they grow their own vegetables. In addition, a large area is planted with vegetables. We have told the community if anyone needs food, you may take what you need. This has really brought the Trust and community together.
We are in the process of going through our archives, led by Board member Forrest Moyer, to update historic information that has been housed at our office and not fully cataloged. We have historic records housed at Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA, but we are trying to reduce duplication between the two sites.
All are welcome to visit the Meetinghouse by calling our office at 215-843-0943.