Early Church Schools
In the late 17th century a group of six German Pietists (a religious movement within Lutheranism) wanted to start a community of their faith in Pennsylvania. To that end, on October 13, 1701, a warrant was issued by William Penn to the Frankford Land Company for 22,377 acres in what was then western Philadelphia County. Starting at the Schuylkill River two lines were surveyed running in northerly direction to Bucks County.
The “Fraknford Tract” today includes the townships of Upper Hanover, New Hanover, the Pottsgroves and much of Pottstown.
Starting about 1720 this tract was settled almost exclusively by farmers and tradesmen who spoke a German dialect since known as Pennsylvania Dutch. The northern half of this tract was known as the Goschenhoppen (word origin obscure) and eventually became Upper Hanover Township and the southern lowlands or Schwamm (lowland, meadows) became Anglicized to “Swamp” New Hanover. They settlers were protestants mainly of the Lutheran and German Reformed faiths, but there were also a few Mennonites and Schwenkfelders settling on the northern part of the tract.
The Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg wrote in his Journals of his arrival in New Hanover, November 28, 1742: “About nine o’clock I rode with the deacon to the church which is located almost in the center of New Hanover. The church is built of plain logs, erected about a year before, but not yet finished on the inside….There is a plantation here, and another one or two miles away, and everything is woods” (67).
The 18th century immigrants who settled locally left no personal records, but we can infer from local sources that they placed a premium on education their children.
Just two months after his arrival on January 30, Rev. Muhlenberg records in his Journals,
“Preached here in New Hanover to a numerous assembly of all sorts. After the sermon requested the members to tarry a while that I might say a word to them concerning the building of their school. Only a few stayed, however, most of them going home. …I learned there was disagreement…some elders had a proposal to build a schoolhouse and parsonage in one, and, with this in view, had already had the timber felled and come to terms with the carpenter. Some of the deacons and the congregation opposed having the two buildings under one roof. They said it would be disturbing to the pastor to have the school in his home every day. He must have privacy…there would be a great deal of noise and it would be inconvenient for both. They wanted to build a schoolhouse of moderate size so that the cost would not run too high. In time they wanted to build a parsonage also…”
What we can take from this report was that both school master and minister living in the school house was an accepted practice.
Built of stone, the present New Hanover Lutheran Church was dedicated 25 years later on November 6, 1768.
School and schoolhouses are prominently mentioned in most early records. Usually when land was donated to a congregation or purchased, the deed specified it was for a “church, burying ground, and schoolhouse.” Along with a church, a log schoolhouse was usually erected in its shadow.
Surprisingly, one of these early log buildings still exists. Behind the Old Goschenhoppen Church in Woxall stands a log “school house” erected, it is claimed, about 1732.
The first recorded schoolmaster at Old Goschenhoppen is John Conrad Wirts in 1748. He would have, no doubt, lived in that schoolhouse.
Writing of Old Goschenhoppen Church history in 1971, Rev. Amos Seldomridge noted: “Who was the schoolmaster from 1732 until Wirtz came? We can never know from the records. The majority of the early ministers were highly educated men, and some Early Church Schools of them doubled as school teachers. Such a one was our famous preacher, the Rev. John Peter Miller…. It is recorded that he could speak Latin…better than others could speak English. General George Washington had Dr. Miller translate the Declaration of Independence into seven European languages so these nations could know what we were about as a nation in rebellion. Yes, the best scholars of the day served the church…” (Seldomridge. The Goschenhoppen Region. 1971).
Back in New Hanover, across the Minister Creek from the stone Lutheran church is the brick Falkner Swamp Reformed Church. That structure was finished in 1790, and it’s recorded that there was a church building on that site fifty years before that. Oral tradition places it even earlier.
In 1739 John Philip Boehm the first Reformed minister at Swamp reported there was not as yet a church building but that John Reifschneider was the schoolmaster.
A Reformed Church history notes that later: “In the spring of 1744, Rev. Boehm wrote in his report: ‘The congregation at Falckner Schwamm has erected a well built church, which may last a long time, but they still owe nearly sixty pounds on it. They had as yet no dwelling house for either pastor or reader [school master].’ There was and still is an idea prevalent that the congregation had a log church at an earlier date…. If a log building were used as a church, it would have been outgrown soon. It is very possible that the log building preserved in oral tradition was used as a schoolhouse.”
At Old Goschenhoppen Church, pastor Seldomridge wrote in 1971:
“ In this wilderness out schoolhouse was the only building that could be thought of as a center of community life. You see, it was not just a schoolhouse; it is only the last century of use that put that name on it. In the beginning it was a home, a church, and a school. Examine the excavation at the site yourself. You will see that there are three rooms clearly defined: A large room where worship took place, a smaller room behind it, and a kitchen.
“All around[three sides of] the main room there were [school] desks facing the wall which are still in place today. Evidently the scholars faced the wall so as not to be distracted by the others.
“I believe you could find buildings similar to this one in the south of France, In Switzerland, in Germany, and perhaps even in Holland. When, on a Sunday, services were held in the big room, the worshippers could sit facing inward from the desks around the walls, since benches without backs were used for seats, thus having the three sided arrangement that is so popular in churches today.
So I think the term ‘church houses’ could describe the first log meeting houses which were probably built here soon after 1725: a church, a school, a meeting house, and a dwelling for the teacher, who functioned as an assistant pastor, all in one. And that perhaps is what the log buildings of the Lutheran and Reformed congregations in the very early days might have been.”
Church schools continued to be a vital part of the community until the mid 19th century when the townships’ “one room schools” made them obsolete and they soon disappeared.
– Robert Wood