History of St Michael's Church of Germantown


History of St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Germantown Pennsylvania

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Source: History of St Michael's Church

The beginnings of St. Michaels Church are difficult to trace, as the record of the earliest days is not to be found. Julius Sachse, in two volumes, which go back to the sources of the various migrations, has made an analysis of the constituent elements of the settlement of Germantown; in them we find the roots of the Lutheran Church.

Francis Daniel Pastorius brought to Germantown thirteen families: presumably Quakers, but in reality mostly Mennonites, who soon separated themselves from the Quakers, and built their own Church. The second distinctly sectarian group was led by Bernhard Koester. They were Pietists, but clung to their Lutheranism, and to the evangelical doctrine. Arriving in Germantown, their immediate goal was the home of van Bebber, “the Mennonite”, where they held a service of thanksgiving after the Lutheran form. Bernhard Koester, not a pastor, but a student of theology, at once began to hold services regularly in van Bebber’s house, which was attended by the Germans of the locality, and also by many Quakers who missed the services and the sacraments of former association in the evangelical churches of their native lands. These meetings led to similar services in Philadelphia; and from them developed Old Christ Church, on Second Street above Market.

With the evangelical zeal, which led to such beginnings of the church, it is difficult to think of a long period without Lutheran Services in Germantown. We should expect that Koester’s efforts had resulted in the gathering of a congregation here. The first actual record of such a group is found in the services held by Pastor Anthony Jacob Henckel, who died in 1728, and who is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Perhaps he served the group that had first been gathered by Koester and his associates. The first actual record we have is that of Pastor Henckel’s death and burial; the period of his services and the condition of the congregation we do not know. He was buried in a portion of ground deeded to the Lutheran Church by Peter Shoemaker; of the deeds dated 1738, this portion is described in the deed as the second, not the first; so that we conclude that earlier deeds must have been passed by Shoemaker to the Church.

Of Pastor Anthony Jacob Henckel very little has been known until recently. We owe the facts of the following account to Mr. B. Burt Bark, Vice-President of the University of Washington, who is President of the Henckel Family Association. Anthony Jacob Henckel, son of George Henckel and Eulalia Dentzer, was born and baptized in Merenberg, in Palatinate. His baptismal record, on December 27th, 1668, has been found in the church at Merenberg. George Henckel, preceptor or schoolmaster, at Merenberg, was a graduate of the University at Glessen. His wife was the daughter of an assistant judge of Steinberg, and was descended from a family prominent in Hesse-Darmstadt; her grandfather had been a pastor, and three of her brothers were pastors. The father died in 1768.

Anthony Jacob Henckel was matriculated at Giessen on May 5, 1688. In 1692 he left the following record in his first parish: The Churchbook of Eschelbronn. In the year 1692.His Highness, the nobly born Baron John Anton of the Feltz, together with his brother, Herr Philipp, has called me, Anthony Jacob Henckel, of Merenberg in Nassau, after the death of my predecessor, to the regular pastorate of Eschelbronn, and I was ordained here on the 28th of February by Herr John Christopher Wildius, Pastor of Hoffheim, after having been examined at Giessen University, and having the testimony thereof.” He served here until 1695; then at Daudenzell and Breitenbronn until 1714. The former of these places was in Darmstadt, the latter in the Palatinate. In 1714 he returned to Moenchzell, which had been a “filial” of his first pastorate. He came to America in 1717 with his entire family; and bought a farm at New Hanover, living there until his death in 1728.

Pastor Henckel’s ministry in America was far-reaching rather than intensive. He seems to have served the scattered Lutherans in many places, as occasion arose, but without leaving definite record of this service in the scattered congregations. There is a tradition that his authority, as a foreigner, to perform the marriage ceremony, was questioned and that he was put in jail in Philadelphia, pending decision; the family tells of silverware given as bail for him. The question was submitted by the Colonial Council, but there is no record of any decision returned. His ministry in Germantown is definite enough that we may say that he undoubtedly the first pastor of the congregation here. He died in the home of one of the members, in Springfield, on August 12, 1728, following a fall from his horse while traveling between Germantown and his home at New Hanover. Two of the witnesses to his will appear in the very earliest documents of the congregation as members of the Church Council; and we surmise that they were already members of such a body in 1728.

Other Pastors

After Pastor Henckel’s death, there was a period where records again are lacking. Possibly, before Henckel’s time, the Falckners—who were members of Koester’s group—followed up Koester’s early efforts. It is more than probably that the Swedish pastors also rendered service from time to time. Definitely we find the Rev. John Dylander serving the Germantown congregation in 1737, and dedicating a stone church, which, according to Acrelius, had been erected in 1730. We hold also a letter from the governor, dated 1738, in which permission is granted for the solicitation of money in the Province for the completion of a church, possibly the same mentioned by Acrelius. Pastor Dylander died in 1741, and is buried in the aisle of Gloria Dei Church.  Following the death of Pastor Dylander, Germantown was served by Valentine Kraft. The work did not flourish in this time; and Pastor Brunnholtz reports that the congregation was very small at that time of Muhlenber’s arrival in 1742.

Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg
Authorized to serve three Lutheran congregations in southeastern Pennsylvania, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg embarked from London in 1742.The congregation in Germantown had no part in the call for help in answer to which Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg came to Philadelphia. However, shortly after his arrival this group asked him to give them part of his time; and early in 1743 he preached for the first time to them, and assumed the pastorate, preaching, however, only on week-days, on account of having no other time for them. I n order to alleviate the problem, an assistant was sent to Muhlenberg so that the Lutherans in the then separate and distinct communities of Philadelphia and Germantown could be served by one pastor.  When Peter Brunnholtz arrived as Muhlenberg’s assistant in 1745, Germantown and Philadelphia were put in his care. But because of physical frailty, in 1745 began serving only Philadelphia and Germantown.

This period of the pastorate of Muhlenberg and his associates seems to have been one of more or less disturbance. At first great success crowned their work; and the congregation  grew so rapidly that in 1746 it was necessary to enlarge the church.

 By 1746 regular services could be held on alternate Sundays, and the church - seventy members strong - began to flourish. Extended that same year, by thirty feet in length and sixty feet in width, the building was readied for the laying of the cornerstone. The marble tablet commemorating the dedication was saved and installed in the west wall gable of the south narthex in the present building. Translated, its Latin inscription reads as follows:  “Under the guidance of the Most High, this church Has been build and dedicated for the use of the congregation, maintaining the doctrines and principles of the unaltered Augsburg Confession, in the year of our Lord 1746, being the twentieth of the reign of George the Second, King of Great Britain and Ireland.” The Ministerium of Pennsylvania had been organized in 1748. St. Michael’s had been represented by the Pastor and four laymen, and had in 1752 entertained the Ministerium, at the time of the dedication of the enlarged church building.  The consecration of the building was delayed, however, until 1752, while pews were placed and, in 1750, a sacristy added. In addition, the bell tower was erected and a pipe organ installed. Meanwhile, church membership increased greatly, influenced by the large number of Germans immigrating to America,. However, it also brought dissension and disruption of harmony, and the true spirituality of the members was often at a low ebb. There seems to have been some dissatisfaction with the way in which Muhlenberg personally conducted all the affairs of the congregation, with all finances in the hands of the  Pastor, and with little or no freedom in the work of the congregation left to the members.  Bad health and disillusionment over the contention caused Brunnholtz to resign in 1751. From Lancaster in that same year came John Frederick Handschuh. On October 1 of the next year, the consecration took place; and Dr. Muhlenberg preached the sermon. Hanschuh was at odds with Muhlenberg, and fell into disgrace with the church of Philadelphia. In January 1752 disruption broke out and two factions formed. One hundred thirty of the members wished to leave the Ministerium of Pennsylvania. This dissenting party eventually weakened, and at the Ministerium meeting in 1762, over one hundred families asked for a pastor and regular services once again in Germantown.  On April 17, 1763, Pastor Muhlenberg preached, and petitioners who had been given a key to use the church alternately with the dissenters could now use the graveyard as well. After ten long years of dissention and bad feeling, the work of the church resumed. Nicholas Kurtz had been called by the smaller group; in 1762 they received the use of the church on Sunday afternoons, by order of the Court; and the two parts of the congregation came together again, calling the Rev. John Ludwig Voigt in 1764. July 12, 1765, when John Ludwig Voight was elected pastor by both groups, the church was reunited.

The pastors of St. Michael’s Church have served at various periods a field which is surprising in its extent. We find that their services extended to groups of people in Rising Sun, Nicetown, Bristol, Chestnut Hill, Barren Hill, Manayunk, Roxborough, Frankfort, Upper Dublin, Whitemarsh, Whitpain (Center Square). The result of this work has been the participation of the congregation in the establishment of a number of other congregations; and also the sharing of pastoral oversight with other congregations.  From the closing years of the eighteenth century there had been a growing demand for English services. Evening services were held in the English language. The struggle between German and English came to an end with the calling of a pastor in 1846 who was unable to preach in German; German services were held intermittently, with increasing infrequency; and about 1860 St. Thomas’ German Church was organized, into which those members desiring German services entered, with all good will and harmony. Other congregations in which St. Michael’s has had a part are Christ Church, Chest Hill, organized in 1860; Ascension, which took a number of St. Michael’s members upon its organization in 1896; and Church of the Advocate was organized in the home of members of St. Michael’s in 1903.

The property belonging to St. Michael’s Church was bought in five parcels, at different times. Of the earliest deeds, several seem to be missing from both Archives and Court Records. The oldest, dated April 5, 1737, is a lease for a strip two perches (thirty-five feet) wide, extending from “the Great Road leading towards Plymouth forty perches (six hundred sixty feet) eastward.” The third deed, also a lease, dated April 30, 1741, is for a piece of land adjacent to the one before described, extending north two perches and five feet, to a cart road. This cart road, later Church Street, is now East Phil-Ellena Street. This piece, however, must have been the older in the possession of the Church, as Pastor Henckel was buried in it. The third parcel, purchased in 1752, but already is the possession of the Church, contained a stone house and half a well, and was fifty feet wide in front. This purchase brought the property of the Church to approximately 130×1000 feet, bit over four acres, extending to what is now Musgrave Street.