Religious Freedom for German Immigrants
29 SEP 2017
For almost three centuries, the American colonies and later the United States became a landing place for Germans seeking religious freedom. Although large numbers of German Lutherans and Quakers immigrated to America, especially Pennsylvania, it was the smaller sects such as the Mennonites, Rappists, Moravians and others that fled religious persecution for religious freedom in America. The German provinces were all under Lutheran, Reformed or Catholic control, and any other religion became subject to abuse.
The first Germans to seek religious freedom in America were the Mennonites, who founded the town of Germantown, Pennsylvania in the late 17th century. The Mennonites are Anabaptists and oppose infant baptism as practiced among the Lutherans, Catholics and others. They became organized in northern Germany in the 1530s under an ex-Catholic priest, Menno Simons (1496-1561). The Mennonites suffered a great deal of oppression in Germany because they opposed military service and the German state churches, which were either Lutheran, Reformed or Catholic depending on province. Due to their rejection of military service, many left Pennsylvania for Canada during the American Revolution (1775-1783). However, by 2003, there were over 300,000 Mennonites in the United States.
The Schwenkfelders were a small religious group that originated in southern Germany, where they were greatly oppressed. They followed the teachings of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489–1561). Schwenckfeld joined Martin Luther in Protestant reform in the early 16th century. However, unlike Luther, Schwenckfeld did not believe in infant baptism nor the literal interpretation of the Bible. The Schwenkfelder immigration to Pennsylvania began in 1734, where they became farmers in the Philadelphia area. Over time their population declined as they joined other denominations.
Although Dutch Lutherans arrived in America in the 1620s, German Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants did not begin arriving in Pennsylvania until the first decade of the 18th century. By 1740, many had also settled in South Carolina and Georgia. Although the German Lutherans initially chose Pennsylvania because of its reputation for religious freedom, they mainly emigrated from Europe due to economic considerations. In particular, the German Lutherans sought farmland and eventually established farming communities throughout the colonies and later the midwestern United States. Some Lutheran separatists, like the Rappists, came to America solely for religious freedom. The Rappists arrived in the early 19th century, first in Pennsylvania and then in Indiana.
4 Quakers and Others
Pennsylvania also provided safe haven for German Quakers and Catholics. In addition, many from smaller sects such as the Dunkers and German Baptists also fled to Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. So many arrived that at least one observer referred to the colony as "an asylum for banished sects." Other German sects, such as the Moravians, emigrated beyond Pennsylvania. The Moravians came to Georgia in 1735 seeking religious freedom and acceptance. However, they did not get along with their German Lutheran neighbors, and the Georgian colony did not prosper.
- 1 Catholicity: Germans in the United States
- 2 Genealoger: Lutheran Genealogy
- 3 Library of Congress: Part 2: I. America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century
- 4 University of Southern Indiana: Historic New Harmony
- 5 Church of the Brethren Network: Pietism and the Brethren in 17th Century Germany