Perhaps for the first time in our history, two members of the President’s cabinet attend the same small country church. Contributor John Maass of Philadelphia points out that Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard S. Schweiker and Secretary of Transportation Andrew L. Lewis are both active members of the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, Pennsylvania. “The Schwenkfelders are one of the smallest denominations in the United States,” he writes.“They have only five churches in southeastern Pennsylvania and 2,748 members.
“Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1490–1561) was a worldly German nobleman of Silesia who gave up his career as a courtier to become a dedicated preacher and reformer. In a time of cruel bigotry Schwenckfeld pleaded for peace, tolerance, and ecumenism: ‘A true Christian life is not bound to place, time, vestment, person, meats, and similarly purely formal matter. Quite the contrary,’ he said, ‘it consists in the individual trust in God.’ His followers were persecuted by both Catholics and Lutherans and finally fled their homes to seek refuge in the Quakers’ Pennsylvania, where all creeds were welcomed. The Schwenkfelders’ Mayflower was the St. Andrew , which brought 164 Germans to Philadelphia on September 22, 1734. Two days later they held a Thanksgiving service. Their descendants still celebrate that day with a traditional meal of bread, apple butter, and cider. Schwenckfeld’s followers in Europe died out long ago, but the American Schwenkfelder Church prospers. American scholars worked for sixty-three years to collect and publish Schwenckfeld’s writings in nineteen thick volumes. The Schwenkfelders have always stood for the separation of church and state, and they send their children to the public schools. What makes an American join such a minute community? The very smallness may be an asset: to be a Schwenkfelder is like belonging to one big family.
“The recent history of the First Schwenkfelder Church of Philadelphia also tells something of these people’s spirit. Founded in 1898, the church stood in what is now called ‘a changing neighborhood.’ After old Pastor Kriebel died, the membership dwindled to fifteen, but the Schwenkfelders refused to give up their church. In 1974 they recruited a minister who was working with juvenile gangs. Now the Reverend T. Arnold Brooker ministers to a congregation of 250 black Schwenkfelders.”