Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Schwenkfelders

This is my family story (or, more accurately, my husband's family.). You may use or adapt this story if you wish.

The text that I wrote for the story is as follows:

Schwenkfelder Migration

Until 1517, if you were a Christian, and you lived in Europe, you were Catholic. That’s the way it was. But, in 1517, with one hammer stroke, a single act calling for church reform changed the face of European—and church—history. Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, splitting the European Catholic church in half, mostly along nationalist lines. But, in the Holy Roman Empire, fragmented in feudal kingdoms, each kingdom faced off, divided in terms of ethnic pride and religious affiliation. The whole of Europe was choosing allies: Martin Luther or the Pope. Who would come out on top?
One Silesian, Caspar Schwenkfeld, initially sided with Martin Luther, but as he began to study the Bible more and more, split from Luther and formed the Middle Way. Not surprisingly, in this time of religious and political turmoil, Schwenkfeld was persecuted for his seeking an alternate path to the teachings of Luther and the Church. As he sought refuge in various safe houses, he amassed a group of followers throughout Germany and Silesia, who became known as the Schwenkfelders. This group, a paltry 1200, eventually settled in lower Silesia. The government, alternatingly Lutheran or Catholic, took turns persecuting the Silesians. By 1700, persecution was a matter of course for this group of tenacious followers.
The Catholic church ordered a pair of Jesuit priests to convert the Schwenkfelders. Finding this difficult, they made life difficult—refused baptism in the church, refused the Schwenkfelders to leave, and others. Quietly, 500 Schwenkfelders snuck out of town under the cloak of darkness, fleeing to Saxony and the hope of a safe life. When the Baron of Saxony was alive, the followers lived in relative peace; but, seven years after arriving in Saxony, he died. The Jesuits saw the opportunity to demand the return. Fearing for their way of life, the Schwenkfelders began to prepare to flee again. This time, they decided to try Pennsylvania because it already sheltered many German immigrants and other religious groups fleeing persecution in Europe.
They contacted the Dutch government, who paid for the transportation of the group. In 1734, the largest wave of Schwenkfelders landed in Pennsylvania. All men over age 16 took a loyalty oath to the British government and the group settled in America. Among that group were my husband’s ancestors, the Meschters (who were evidentally called Meyster prior to immigration).


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