Cover image for The Practice of Pluralism: Congregational Life and Religious Diversity in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1730–1820 By Mark Häberlein

The Practice of Pluralism

Congregational Life and Religious Diversity in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1730–1820

Mark Häberlein


$94.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03521-5

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07483-2

288 pages
6" × 9"

Max Kade Research Institute: Germans Beyond Europe

The Practice of Pluralism

Congregational Life and Religious Diversity in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1730–1820

Mark Häberlein

“Thorough and persuasive. The people of Lancaster come across as devoted and essentially conservative, supporting their churches and attached to their ways of worship, even if individuals among them occasionally changed their minds. Häberlein persuasively shows that the laity provided the true continuity of the church.”


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The clash of modernity and an Amish buggy might be the first image that comes to one’s mind when imagining Lancaster, Pennsylvania, today. But in the early to mid-eighteenth century, Lancaster stood apart as an active and religiously diverse, ethnically complex, and bustling city. On the eve of the American Revolution, Lancaster’s population had risen to nearly three thousand inhabitants; it stood as a center of commerce, industry, and trade. While the German-speaking population—Anabaptists as well as German Lutherans, Moravians, and German Calvinists—made up the majority, about one-third were English-speaking Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Calvinists, and other Christian groups. A small group of Jewish families also lived in Lancaster, though they had no synagogue. Carefully mining historical records and documents, from tax records to church membership rolls, Mark Häberlein confirms that religion in Lancaster was neither on the decline nor rapidly changing; rather, steady and deliberate growth marked a diverse religious population.
“Thorough and persuasive. The people of Lancaster come across as devoted and essentially conservative, supporting their churches and attached to their ways of worship, even if individuals among them occasionally changed their minds. Häberlein persuasively shows that the laity provided the true continuity of the church.”
“No other recent scholarly study provides as thorough an account of the diversity of religious practice in a single community in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America.”
“One of the book’s major strengths is its research. Häberlein has meticulously assembled biographic and economic data on a large portion of the pastors, deacons, elders, vestrymen, and other lay leaders in Lancaster during this period. This excellent book adds much to the understanding of religion in the early mid-Atlantic and the maturation of backcountry American society.”
“This meticulously researched book explores the complex religious landscape of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during the long eighteenth century.”

Mark Häberlein is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Bamberg, Germany.




A Quest for Order:

The German Reformed Congregation, 1733–1775


Growth and Disruption: Lutherans and Moravians


The English Churches of Colonial Lancaster


Religious Pluralism in an Eighteenth-Century Town


Lancaster’s Churches in the New Republic


The Transformation of Charity, 1750–1820





As the European population of British North America expanded in the eighteenth century and settlements spread from the Atlantic seaboard to the interior of the continent, hundreds of new towns were founded in the colonial backcountry. Some of these new settlements developed into sizable population and market centers that linked the major seaport cities to the expanding colonial frontier and performed a variety of commercial and administrative functions for the inhabitants of the backcountry. In Pennsylvania, several new counties were created after 1729 in response to demographic and territorial growth, and county seats such as Lancaster, Reading, York, and Carlisle thrived as market and supply centers for the surrounding countryside. "Political, commercial, craft, and social functions, " historical geographer James T. Lemon wrote, "brought early rapid growth and later sustained growth to these county towns in the backcountry." The county courthouse became the focus of legal and political activity; wholesalers, retailers, and artisans provided an increasing variety of goods and services; and churches, fire companies, libraries, and eventually newspapers and secondary schools contributed to a thriving social life.

The oldest of these towns in the Pennsylvania backcountry, Lancaster (founded in 1730), became the administrative center of the surrounding county and an important commercial hub connecting the colonial metropolis of Philadelphia to a rapidly expanding hinterland. The town had about twenty–eight hundred inhabitants in 1770, and its population grew to about four thousand by the end of the eighteenth century. While these figures seem rather modest from today’s perspective, they made Lancaster one of largest inland towns in eighteenth–century North America, and Lancaster’s commercial functions foreshadowed, on a smaller scale, the role that Midwestern cities such as Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis would assume in the nineteenth century. Eighteenth –century Lancaster also resembled later Midwestern cities in one other crucial aspect: its ethnic and religious diversity. From its earliest days, German speakers formed a majority of Lancaster’s inhabitants, and up to the 1750s the town absorbed growing numbers of German immigrants. While some of them prospered as shopkeepers, innkeepers, or artisans, many more moved on after a brief stay. English speakers accounted for only one–third to two–fifths of Lancaster’s prerevolutionary population, but due to their command of the language and the legal system and their business connections and political ties to the Philadelphia elite, they were disproportionately influential. While Lancaster’s population was highly mobile—population turnover in the years 1772–82 has been estimated at 5 percent annually—the town also had a stable core of long-time residents who became active in community affairs.

Neither English nor German speakers were confessionally homogeneous groups. Describing the community to officers of the London–based Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the Anglican minister Thomas Barton wrote in 1760 that "Lancaster is a large Town having near 600 Houses, inhabited chiefly by Germans of almost every Religious Denomination. It contains one Church of England, which is but small, a large German Calvinist Church, a Lutheran Church, a Moravian Church, a large Quaker Meeting House, a Popish Chapel; and a Presbyterian Church is now erecting. " Thirty years after its founding, Lancaster housed seven Christian congregations, and all of them had built or were in the process of building their own places of worship. Only the small group of Jewish families, "who read and observe their Talmud with great exactness," did not have a synagogue.

Apart from the small clusters of Catholics and Jews, both German and English speakers were thus divided into three major Protestant groups. Many German settlers were Lutherans, adherents of the creed dating back to Martin Luther’s Reformation of the early sixteenth century. Spreading out from Saxony, Lutheranism had become the public religion in a number of German territories and free imperial cities and received official recognition in the Holy Roman Empire with the religious peace of Augsburg in 1555. The German Reformed church originated in the teachings of the Swiss theologians Ulrich Zwingli and Jean Calvin, who shared Luther’s emphasis on God’s saving grace and the sole authority of the Bible but differed in their views on the sacraments and church discipline. Moreover, they sought to purify the liturgy from "popish" elements to a greater extent than the Lutherans. Reformed German princes fused Calvinist doctrine with a hierarchical church organization that resembled the Lutheran one. With the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the Reformed religion also received official sanction in the Holy Roman Empire. In contrast to both Lutheran and Reformed churches, Moravianism remained outside the imperial constitution and was considered a "sect" by central European secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Originating in Jan Hus’s Reformation in Bohemia and Moravia in the early fifteenth century, the Moravian Brethren had survived lengthy periods of persecution until their remnants found shelter on the estate of a Lutheran nobleman in Saxony, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, in the early eighteenth century. The charismatic Zinzendorf first became a convert and then a leader of the Moravian brethren. Under his influence Moravianism developed into a highly personal "religion of the heart," and Zinzendorf’s followers spread the message of the renewed Moravian church with considerable missionary zeal.

Among the English speakers, Anglicans were adherents of the Church of England, established as the national church by the Tudor rulers Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century. While Anglicanism had absorbed elements of Calvinist doctrine, it retained a hierarchical, Episcopal form of ecclesiastical government. In the eighteenth century, the Church of England generally adopted a latitudinarian position, emphasizing reason and morality over fine points of doctrine, but the renewal movements of the revivalists George Whitefield and John Wesley also promoted a new emphasis on piety and spiritual rebirth. Presbyterians, heirs to Scottish Calvinism and English Puritanism who preferred congregational autonomy over hierarchical church organization, were restricted to the status of "dissenters" in eighteenth –century England but constituted the official church in Scotland. Finally, the Society of Friends, or Quakers—religious nonconformists who made their first appearance during the English Civil War of the mid–seventeenth century—emphasized the "inner light" within each individual over ecclesiastical and scriptural authority and suffered heavy persecution during the first decades of their existence on account of their antiauthoritarianism. Quakers were a relatively marginal and shrinking minority in eighteenth –century England but all the more prominent in Pennsylvania, a colony that their member William Penn had founded, in part, as an asylum for persecuted Christian minorities.

As Thomas Barton’s 1760 report indicates, church building in Lancaster had started almost as soon as town proprietor Andrew Hamilton had succeeded in making his town the new county seat: the German Reformed had completed their first wooden church by 1736, the Lutherans finished their first building two years later, the Roman Catholic chapel is referred to as early as 1741, and the Anglicans worshipped in their own church by 1744. Soon after their split from the Lutherans in 1746, the Moravians also built their own church. In later years, the congregations would enlarge and sometimes completely rebuild these early edifices, add towering steeples, import church bells from England, and adorn church interiors with elaborate pulpits, organs, pews, and galleries. Contemporary views of the town confirm that Lancaster was thoroughly "sacralized" by the later eighteenth century.

As these building activities demonstrate, congregations were of central importance to Lancaster’s early residents. Laypeople in the new town began to build churches before the arrival of regular ministers, and the organization of several congregations predates the incorporation of Lancaster as a borough in 1742. In Lancaster, as elsewhere in early America, "congregations provided the only regular small-group activities that included every colonist—men, women, and children." Congregational administration also involved far greater numbers of people than town government or voluntary societies such as the fire companies or the library company. Whereas only thirty–six men served as burgesses of Lancaster from 1742 to 1789, several times that many officiated as trustees, wardens, elders, and deacons of the town’s congregations. It was in the running of congregational affairs—the drafting of charters and bylaws, the acquisition of real estate for churches, schoolhouses, and graveyards, the management of funds—that many European immigrants acquired their first experiences in self–government on American soil. In their concern for public morality, the relief of poor members, and the schooling of the young, religious congregations fostered a "sense of communal responsibility." Moreover, it was their congregations that dozens of eighteenth –century Lancasterians thought of when they made charitable bequests in their last wills, and it was in the congregations that pastors and laypeople fought and argued over questions of power, authority, obedience, and order. Even the religious enthusiasm of the "First Great Awakening" was a distinctly congregational affair: the town as a whole never experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century, but "awakenings" repeatedly occurred within individual churches. In the 1740s the inspired preaching and Moravian sympathies of the Lutheran pastor Laurence Thorstensson Nyberg split the local Lutheran congregation and resulted in the establishment of a Moravian congregation. In the 1750s the young pastor Philipp Wilhelm Otterbein’s preaching invigorated piety and spirituality among Lancaster’s German Reformed, and in the early 1770s a newcomer from Halle, Justus Heinrich Christian Helmuth, led the Lutherans through another period of awakening. While Nyberg, Otterbein, and Helmuth drew inspiration from continental European traditions of Reformed, Lutheran, and Moravian pietism, they were only loosely connected to the Anglo–American revivalist networks that created—or "invented," as some scholars have argued—the Great Awakening. These observations suggest that congregations were pivotal social and cultural institutions in eighteenth –century Lancaster.

While scholars of colonial New England have long recognized the central significance of the church in the region’s communities, churches in the middle colonies have often been described as weak, fledgling, strife–ridden institutions. In the case of Pennsylvania and her neighbors, the Great Awakening of the 1740s has been interpreted as a response to crisis and decline, while the later eighteenth century has sometimes been described as a period of secularization. In her study of Germantown, for example, Stephanie Grauman Wolf has argued that individualism, geographic mobility, and the heterogeneity of the population led to a "growing lack of interest in the church as a vital center of life." Congregations were organized slowly, and close to half the population remained unchurched in the late eighteenth century. According to Wolf, Germantown’s churches "seem to have played a very small role in the overall life of the community." Ministers exerted little influence in a place where the courts and taverns allegedly were much more important public forums than houses of worship. The slight impact of Germantown’s congregations on education, charity, and public morality also indicated a "failure of institutional religion to carve out a meaningful niche for itself in the new secular world."

In the case of Lancaster nothing would be more misleading than to portray congregational development in terms of decline or secularization. Lancaster’s congregations grew throughout the eighteenth century, and they continued to absorb a majority of the town’s and many of the surrounding countryside’s inhabitants. While the population of Lancaster has been estimated at roughly three thousand on the eve of the Revolution, pastor Helmuth wrote in 1772 that almost thirteen hundred people had registered themselves as members of the Lutheran congregation; this figure probably excluded children under fifteen. The following year the Reformed pastor Carl Ludwig Boehme reported 218 families in his congregation to the annual Coetus of Reformed ministers, and one historical demographer has put the size of the congregation at 850 to 900 people. In 1775 the Moravian congregation counted 320 members (including children). Anglican minister Thomas Barton had only twenty-five communicants in Lancaster in 1770, but the number of people who regularly attended his church was certainly not below 150. While the numbers of Presbyterians, Quakers, and Catholics can only be guessed, it is still clear that at least twenty-seven hundred people were affiliated with one of Lancaster’s congregations in the early 1770s. Even if we estimate that one-fifth to one-quarter of these lived in surrounding townships, a significant majority of eighteenth-century Lancasterians adhered to a church. And these churches were experiencing steady growth. In the Lutheran church the number of Easter communicants increased by 78.5 percent, from 107 to 191, between 1749 and 1785, while the number of newly confirmed rose from fourteen to seventy over the same period. The 284 Lutherans who went to communion on Pentecost in 1785 represented a 67 percent increase over the 170 Pentecost communicants in 1749. The Reformed pastor Heinrich Wilhelm Stoy counted "about 100 families belonging to the congregation" upon his arrival in Lancaster in 1758. In 1790 his successor, Wilhelm Hendel, reported 183 families.

When Lancaster’s tax assessment lists are correlated with local church records, it becomes clear that church adherence was high even during a period for which many historians have claimed rising religious indifference. Lancaster’s earliest tax assessment dates from 1751 and includes 293 taxpaying householders. Sixty-three individuals (21.5 percent of the total) can be identified as Lutherans since they took communion in the Lutheran church at midcentury or were repeatedly present at pastoral acts there. A further fifty taxpayers (17.1 percent) appear in the Reformed church records at least twice or are identified as Reformed in the Lutheran church book, and thirty-four people (11.6 percent) are on a list of adherents compiled by the local Moravian pastor. Twenty-nine individuals (9.9 percent) on the tax list also appear on membership lists of the Anglican congregation, and fifteen (5.1 percent) can be identified as members of smaller religious groups in town—Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and Presbyterians. Altogether, 191 taxpayers or 65.2 percent of the people on the list were clearly affiliated with a religious group. At a time when Lancaster society was still in flux—the town was just twenty years old, German immigration to Pennsylvania was at its peak, geographical mobility rates were high, some religious groups were not yet formally organized, and others were experiencing interior conflict—a significant majority of the town’s household heads were "churched."

The 1773 tax list names 432 individuals and four estates of deceased persons. Of the 432 taxables, 93 (21.5 percent) could not be located in contemporary church records, but since there are no Presbyterian and Catholic records for the colonial period and the Anglican church books are patchy, we may assume that at least one–third of these taxables were not really "unchurched." A further twenty–six individuals (6.0 percent) could be found in only one church record; they may have been loosely affiliated with a local congregation or may have stayed in town only briefly. The remaining 313 individuals (72.5 percent), however, repeatedly appear in church records. At the very least, this means that they deemed religion important enough to have their children baptized or seek a Christian burial for family members. But many were involved to a much larger degree. One–hundred–twenty–six individuals on the 1773 tax list—almost 30 percent of all taxables—had rented pews in the Lutheran church. Fifty–eight Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican men were elected to church offices (trustee, elder, deacon, warden, vestryman) during the late 1760s and early 1770s. Since the Moravians, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Catholics also had their lay leaders, at least seventy individuals, or one out of six taxables, must have been active in congregational self–government. On the basis of the 1773 tax assessment it is also possible to give a rough estimate of the religious composition of prerevolutionary Lancaster. About 40 percent of household heads were Lutheran, 20 percent Reformed, and almost 10 percent Moravian; the three largest congregations were all German speaking and together comprised more than two-thirds of the town’s inhabitants. Anglicans and Presbyterians together may have accounted for another 10 percent of household heads and the smaller religious groups (Quakers, Catholics, and Jews) about 5 percent. This would leave only 15 percent of the taxables who were not affiliated with any congregation. Comparing these percentages with the 1751 data, it appears that the Lutherans had gained most from the heavy German immigration of the early 1750s while the share of the Reformed, Moravians, Anglicans and smaller groups remained relatively stable.

These figures suggest that Lancaster fits a pattern of continuing religious vitality, congregational growth, high levels of church adherence, and a proliferation of ecclesiastical institutions that some scholars have detected in eighteenth –century America. Jon Butler has noted an "expansion of diversity within colonial American Protestantism between 1680 and the 1770s," and Charles Cohen asserts that the work of Butler, Patricia Bonomi, and others amounts to a "post-Puritan paradigm"—a perspective on early American history that emphasizes "the varieties of colonial religious experience." According to Cohen, "the earnest if stolid fabrication of ecclesiastical institutions throughout Anglo–America during the so–called long eighteenth century" may have had a more lasting impact on religious patterns in the United States than either seventeenth –century New England Puritanism or nineteenth –century revivalism. Moreover, the construction of these institutions "engaged the laity; gathering churches, challenging ministerial prerogatives, and nurturing their own hermeneutics, they played a significant—at times paramount—role in defining their faiths." The history of church –building in Lancaster allows us to test some of the major tenets of this "post–Puritan paradigm." More particularly, Lancaster provides ample evidence for the pivotal role of laypeople in shaping local congregations. As the subsequent chapters will show, the laity actively participated in church affairs throughout the colonial and early national periods, and even conflicts with pastors testify to its intense concern for the ordering of congregational life and the distribution of authority.

Since Lancaster, unlike colonial New England towns, never knew a religious establishment but housed a plurality of congregations from its beginning, a study of congregational development also illuminates the diverse, pluralist character of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. To be sure, the microcosm of Lancaster does not fully represent the "crazy quilt" of religious groups that had formed in the colony on account of religious toleration and the diversity of immigration. German-speaking Anabaptist and radical pietistic groups such as the Mennonites, the Amish, the Dunkers, and Conrad Beissel’s sabbatarian Ephrata commune were prominent in rural Lancaster County, for example, but few of their members resided in the borough and they did not build meetinghouses or form congregations there. Nor did English –speaking residents establish Methodist or Baptist congregations in Lancaster before 1800. Still, a study of congregations in the borough and their relationships with one another can shed considerable light on the interactions of people from various national and religious backgrounds at the local level. With the exception of the small Catholic community, Lancaster’s congregations also mirrored the town’s ethnic divisions: the membership of the Reformed, Lutheran, and Moravian congregations was overwhelmingly German speaking throughout the period covered here, while the vast majority of English speakers attended the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. As historian E. Brooks Holifield has noted, however, "even the ethnic coloration of congregations exemplified their comprehensive character—their embrace of a larger community, their function in preserving larger communal values." Steven M. Nolt has asserted that "religion and religious institutions were often the chief means of mediating and propagating culture for minority groups in a pluralistic setting." Significantly, no single religious group comprised the majority of Lancaster’s inhabitants, and no group even came close to holding a monopoly on wealth or political influence. Among the thirty–four men with the highest assessment on the first borough tax list of 1751, we find eight Anglicans, eight Lutherans, seven Moravians, seven German Reformed, two Quakers, one Catholic, and one Jew. Members of all these groups except Catholics and Jews were elected to the borough council between 1742 and 1775.

In order to assess the nature of religious pluralism in Lancaster, two approaches are combined here: comparison and the study of interactions. Much scholarship on religious development in the middle colonies has focused on particular denominations—Dutch Calvinists, German Lutherans and Moravians, or Scots–Irish Presbyterians—and traced the transfer of their religious institutions from the Old World to the new as well as their encounters with a dominant English culture. While these works have placed colonial religious history in a transatlantic context and outlined the "Americanization" of European churches, a comparative perspective allows us to identify what was actually unique about the development of specific religious groups within a particular environment.

Thus the first three chapters of this study analyze the development of the major Protestant churches in colonial Lancaster—German Reformed, Lutheran, Moravian, Anglican, Presbyterian—in a comparative perspective. While each congregational history has its distinct features, there are also remarkable parallels. The argument pursued here is that a quest for order and stability was the dominant theme in each of these congregations. During the colonial period all major religious communities experienced similar problems: the adjustment of an immigrant population to a new environment, struggles between ministers and laymen for the control of congregational affairs, and conflicting concepts of church order. By later in the eighteenth century, however, congregations had achieved a large measure of stability and cohesion. They had built ornate churches, secured charters of incorporation, and attracted qualified ministers who usually served long, successful pastorates (chapter 5). Moreover, the Protestant congregations had developed traditions of charity and stewardship that had a significant impact on the establishment of local benevolent associations such as the Lancaster Bible Society, the German Society, and the Female Benevolent Society after 1815 (chapter 6).

In addition, this book examines the interactions between the various religious groups in the town. While pastors offered general comments on relations between Lancaster’s inhabitants, a detailed analysis of church records, wills, letters, and a variety of other sources reveals how frequently eighteenth –century Lancasterians switched allegiance from one congregation to another, how commonly townspeople married across denominational lines, and how often they made bequests to more than one congregation. A close study of the relationships between Englishmen and Germans, "church" and "sect" people, Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians, as well as blacks and whites enables us to assess the character of ethnic and religious boundaries and the meanings of pluralism in a major population center of the Pennsylvania backcountry (chapter 4). While there are several fine studies on the growth of toleration and religious liberty in the middle colonies, these tend to look at general developments at the provincial level, and they rely heavily on sources authored by political and clerical leaders. The adoption of a microhistorical perspective on actual interconfessional relations in a specific community broadens our understanding of the nature and evolution of religious pluralism.

The sources for a study of congregational development and religious pluralism in Lancaster are remarkably rich. Apart from the Presbyterians, for which few eighteenth –century records exist, church books, vestry minutes, pastors’ letters and diaries, and the protocols of ecclesiastical bodies such as the Lutheran Ministerium and the German Reformed Coetus of Pennsylvania provide a wealth of information on the major religious congregations. Indeed the Moravian diaries, with their day–to–day accounts of congregational affairs, tend to overwhelm the reader with their abundance of detail. While the pastors’ voluminous writings privilege their perspective over that of laypeople, a careful reading of the sources sheds light on the laity’s goals and aspirations as well. In addition, tax lists, deed books, wills, estate inventories, and newspaper advertisements reveal much about the social standing of laypersons who were involved in congregational leadership. While a local perspective is necessary to understand the importance of the congregation in the lives of eighteenth –century Lancasterians, the study of congregational life has implications far beyond the confines of one Pennsylvania town. The size and diversity of the community, as well as the quantity and quality of existing archival and printed sources, make Lancaster an ideal setting for a study of major problems in eighteenth –century American religious history: the development of institutional pluralism, the nature of religious toleration, the impact of the Great Awakening, and the meanings of power and authority within the churches.

© 2009 Penn State University

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