The Berks History Center’s textile collection includes a signature quilt, which was presented to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Reading in 1885. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, such quilts are of interest to scholars because they contain signatures, in embroidery or ink, of a particular community’s members. Signature quilts became popular in the 1800s and were typically used in fundraisers – featuring the names of those who contributed – or as gifts of friendship and appreciation to an individual. The St. Luke’s signature quilt contains dozens of signatures and serves as a veritable membership roster of the congregation at that time.
Local traditions like the signature quilt are embodied in many of our artifacts. They help us understand the past and preserve the identities of Berks County’s diverse communities over time. Do you have a long-standing family or community tradition? How do you preserve your family’s history?
The Himmelsbrief or ‘heaven’s letter’ was a charm which a person carried or hung in their home for protection against evil. The most common iteration was the Magdeburg Letter which purportedly fell from the sky in 1783 after having been written by God Himself. Scholars have discovered that the text of the Magdeburg Himmelsbrief existed in central Europe at least as early as the fifteenth century, and would have already been known for centuries when German-speaking immigrants brought the concept with them to Pennsylvania. This particular Himmelsbrief belonged to John Huyett, a Pennsylvania-German who lived in Cumru Township from 1798 to 1887. It was printed by a J. Rohr of Philadelphia, probably about 1850.
The Rev. Ella Nace, of West Conshohocken, PA, is the first woman to be appointed, officially, as pastor in a Pennsylvania church. She is the only one in the Holiness Christian denomination in the United States. Born in Hamburg, Berks County, in 1867, Sister Nace passed her 75th birthday last July. In spite of her advancing years this servant of the Lord continues to preach to multitudes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. She is known as the Pennsylvania Dutch Evangelist.
Born to a Lutheran family, Mrs. Nace was converted to the faith of the Holiness Christian Church when she was 25 years of age. “I received the Holy Spirit, just as in the day of Pentecost,” she says. For half a century she has brough the Lord’s message to all who would hear it. In addition to her religious activities she has carried on as a member as a mother and housewife, rearing two daughters. She is now a grandmother and a great-grandmother.
Lacking formal training for the ministry Sister Nace is a self-made woman. Unlike many evangelists of the past she does not mesmerize her audience with hysterical gesticulations and flights of oratory. She is dignified, sedate and convinces through her honest sincerity of purpose and devotion. Many of her principles find their roots in “old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch philosophy.” This fact together with her singing of dialectical hymns, has won her title “A Pennsylvania Dutch Evangelist.”
There was a time when she was not welcome in the pulpits of some of the churches of interior Pennsylvania. Those who were opposed to her warned people that she was a “Strawweler”. This was a term of reproach originally used against the followers of the Rev. Jacob Albright and other founders of the Evangelical Association.
Sister Nace relates an incident which occurred in Norfolk, VA. After the sermon one of the male worshippers approached her and planted a kiss upon her cheek. Lasping into the Dutch idiom she declares: “if they didn’t have it on me after that!”
Here are some of the dialect hymns which Rev. Nace sings during her service:
The Rev. John Waldschmid was one of the early Reformed clergymen of western Berks and northeastern Lancaster counties. In 1752 he assumed the duties of the Lancaster charge, which included congregations at the Swamp Weiseichenland (White Oak, near Denver) and Modecreek (Muddy Creek). The Swamp Church was originally known as the Cocalico congregation and the White Oak appears in the early records as Sebastian Reicher’s.
One unique feature of Waldschmid’s services at White Oak was the establishment of one of the first Sunday schools, an institution which has served continuously from that early day to this at the White Oak School.
Dr. William Stoy, the learned pastor at Host and Tulpehocken in Berks County, was not constant in the service of the church, alternating between preaching and practicing medicine. During one of the periods of Stoy’s absence, Waldschmid served these Berks congrefations, but it appears that his performance of pastoral duties was not always in accord with the wishes of those of the Berks Congregations. In 1760 the members of his Berks churches asked to have him removed.
Other Reasons Hinted
Somewhat naively, Doctor Harbaugh in his “Fathers of the Reformed Church, hints at other reasons for Waldschmid’s failure in Berks, saying “He may have needed at times, impulse of a special stimulus, to keep him moving with freshness, ministerial dignity and pastoral earnestness.” (Volume 11 pp.88-92)
Waldschmid died in September, 1786, and was buried in the churchyard at Swamp Church, Cocalico Township, Lancaster County. The Rev. Mr. Boas, pastor of First Church, Reading preached the funeral sermon. A tombstone was erected one year later at a cost of approximately $35.
Rev. Mr. Waldschmid’s wife the former Mary Elizabeth Grub, had the misfortune to lose some of her senses late in life. She survived her husband by many years and was thought by many to be demented. One evidence of her state of mind was that she never uttered a word from the time of her husband’s death until June 2, 1793. On that date a strange thing happened.
She Regained Speech
There is more to support the following story than mere tradition. It is recorded in the Church Book of the Cocalico congregation.
On Sunday, June 2, 1793, the worshipers at Swamp were listening to a fine sermon by Rev. Waldschmid’s successor. There was no storm, not even a breeze blowing when the top of the Waldschmid tombstone broke at it’s base and fell to the ground. “Many saw it,” says the record, “and all heard it fall.”
By strange coincidence, the mute Mrs. Waldschmid regained the power of speech on the very same day!
Today a very fine, tall monument is erected in the Swamp Churchyard in honor of their early pastor, John Waldschmid.
If the three words which form the above caption seem unfamiliar, it is because they are the names of three Mohican Indians, the first Indians to be baptized in Pennsylvania, at the home of John DeTurck, in Oley in 1742.
In 1740, Christian Henry Rauch, a Moravian missionary, established a mission at Shekomeko, in Dutchess County, New York, near the borders of Connecticut and also to Stissik Mountain. IN 1742, Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf, great leader of Moravians, arrived in American and began to call synods of all interested persons. The second of these synods was to be held in the DeTurck home in Oley. In advance of the meeting Gottlieb Buttner, an ardent teacher of Moravian doctrines was sent to Shekomeko to invite Rauch to bring all Mohicans who wished to be baptized to Oley. On January 22, Rauch and his three converts left their village on foot, arriving at the DeTurck home on February 9, after enduring several hardships en route.
Two days later the red men were baptized in the barn of the DeTurck farmstead, Count Zinnendorf being present at the ceremony. The preliminaries of the administration of the sacrament called for hymns and prayer. These were offered and sung during the morning.
Some “ill-disposed” persons in the neighborhood gathered and created a disturbance outside of the barn but the ceremonies were not interrupted. The Rev. Mr. Rauch baptized the three Indians while Deacon Buttner and Bishop Davide Nitschman looked on. Christian names were substituted for the Mohican, thus Shabash became Abraham; Seim became Isaac, and Kiop became Jacob.
Later Seim, or Isaac, became a very important assistant to the missionaries who carried the gospel westward across the Alleghenies and in several instances Isaac proved himself of great value to the British authorities.
After the ceremony, the Indians were so filled with the Spirit that they began to preach in relays; when one tired another began and exhorted the unconverted Delawares who had come to witness the ceremonies.
The Oley ceremony was the first baptism of Indians within the borders of Pennsylvania.
Archival Notes: “You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?” — Tecumseh 1810, speaking to Governor William Harrison of Indiana Territory. Shabash, Seim, and Kiop were the first Indians baptized in Pennsylvania, by the Moravian church, in 1742. The baptismal took place within the barn of the Deturck homestead, in Oley. Conversion to Christianity would not provide safety for the Indians. Tribal members of Shabash, Seim, and Kiop who also converted to Christianity were massacared at Gnadenhutten, Ohio by the Pennsylvania in militia in 1782. 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children were murdered and scalped by the Pennsylvania Militia.
In the writings of dialect poet, L.L. Grumbine, circa 1900, we find a reference to a day as “Abduhn Daag;” a day dedicated to the performance of farm tasks. Chief among these tasks was the mowing of the weeds in fence corners, or abduhn, taking off the briers and brambles. Grumbine mentions that the day set for this task was late in July, but fails to mention the specific date.
In the old Pennsylvania German Almanacs we find the 30th of July designated in the calendar of ‘saint’s days as “M. Abdon.” Abdon was one of the judges of Israel and was honored by the Catholic Church by having a day designated for him. The Protestant calendar marked the day July 30 as the day of Ruth.
Now we will hazard a theory and invite your analysis and criticism. The name Abdon lingered in the minds of the early settlers when they came to this country, 100 years after the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic significance of the term was forgotten as was the true significance of the word Abdon. But suiting action to the phonetic sound of the word the early farmer interpreted abdon as “abduhn” and the proper thing to remove from the farm at that season of the year is weeds and briers from fence corners in preparation for fall plowing.
Superstition! Yes, perhaps, But note, the fences were kept neat and clean.
Most of us know the legend of Maria’s annual journey “over the mountain” on July 2, but do we know that among our forebears she was believed to return early July 22 to examine the walls and ceilings of her home. If she found cobwebs she was highly displeased. Therefore, good housewives saw to it that all cobwebs were cleaned before July 22.
Superstiton! Yes, perhaps, but note, the cobwebs disappeared.
H.R. Keplinger, of Lancaster, is a keen student of symbols and the myths which underlie them. Several years ago he turned his attention to the fasnacht, or fat cake, that makes its appearance annually, on Shrove Tuesday, at the beginning of the Lenten season. Remember the old saying in your home “Der letscht aus em Bett is der Fasnacht heit?” The delicacy and the folklore connected with the day are both distinctly Pennsylvania Dutch. The English serve hot cross buns on Good Friday. The underlying myths giving origin to these customs are very much alike.
“Why is the fasnacht round, with a hole in the center” asks Keplinger. He finds an answer in Smith’s Classical Dictionary. The form of the cake is the ancient symbol of the sun.
“Why is it fried in lard?” From the same source Keplinger shows the boar, or wild pig, was the ancient’s symbol for winter. In mythology Adonis, representing the sun was killed by a boar representing winter. Venus, Adonis’ mate, lamented the loss of her companion until summer once again restored Adonis to life. The end of the winter solstice therefore marked the triumph of the sun over the boar, winter, and the doughnut, the product of the grain fields, was fried in the fat of the boar to seal the triumph.
“Why, at the beginning of the Lenten season?” Kepligner asked himself. Because the sun regains his revivifying power at the “time of the lengthening of the days,” which corresponds to our Lenten season.
We submit Keplinger’s conclusions and deductions for the perusal of our readers. His ideas are at variance with the traditional concepts of the origin of the fasnacht. The name itself implies something else. In English it would be a night of fasting. We will welcome the suggestions of readers.
Archival Notes: While the recipe for making fasnachts is simple, there is great variation in the customs of making fasnachts. Culture and customs are fluid changing with each generation as they add their mark to their traditions, or with their passing their knowledge is lost. While the debates will rage on about the proper preparation and production of fasnachts, as long as they are delicious we can all enjoy them.
The Land of Goshenhoppen By Wilbur H. Oda Ph. D. Bally, PA
In the land of Goshenhoppen, in the valley of the Perkiomen, at the foot of Crow Hill (Grabbebaerrick), about half way between Boyertown and Allentown, is found a quiet, peaceful little town with the somewhat romantic name of Bally. In spite of its peaceful atmosphere, Bally is a busy manufacturing town with five factories, many of them, at present, running day and night in order to fill orders that come from all part of the United States.
The town has not always been known by its present name. At first, the site and the region round about was known as Goshenhopper. Later, because of its churches it was called Churchville. In the year 1883 the government established a postoffice and changed the name to Bally.
The Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the first Catholic church to be established in Berks County, (only two parishes in Pennsylvania are older; St. Josephs’s in Willing’s Alley, Philadelphia and Church of the Sacred Heart, Conewago, Adams County), began its existence in 1741 when Theodore Schneider, a native of Bavaria and a member of the Society of Jesus, came to the region as a missionary. Two years later, with the help and support of the Mennonites and Schwenkfelders, who had settled in the valley several years before, a church was erected and called the Chapel of Saint Paul. At about the same time Father Schneider founded a school that was in existence until the township adopted the common school system, about 1850, when the congregation established a parochial school. This chool, at the present time, is under the direction of the Sisters of Saint Francis and has an enrollment of about 150.
One of the most interesting parts of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament is the old Chapel of Saint Paul in which the old mission bell still hangs. This bell, which is almost 50 years older than the historic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, is often called “the Liberty Bell of Catholicism.”
The old altar is almost 200 years old and is constructed of wood material which is believed to have been brought from Europe. Under the floor of the old chapel, near the altar, lies the body of Father Schneider, who died in 1764, and two of his successors.
Among the interesting relics of the old church are the “klingel beutels.” These interesting objects were used to arouse drowsy members of the congregation when the collection was being taken and consist of a little bell fastened to a small basket, which in turn, is attached to the end of a rod. An old Bible, printed in the 16th century and bound with wooden covers is another interesting memento of former days.
In the church yard are found the names of many persons who have been prominent in the development of the community. One name – Isaac Jones is worthy of special mention because it shows the lack of racial prejudice in the early days. Jones was a negro who fought in the Continental Army during the Revolution and died at the age of 94.
It was not until 1827 after the construction of the present bulidng that the name of the church was changed to the Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The old Chapel of Saint Paul was made a part of the new church.
Augustin Bally, a native of Belgium, who came to the church in 1837 was one of the most interesting and picturesque of all the former pastors. He died on January 28, 1882, after serving the congregation for 44 years. A year later when the government established a post office in the town the name Churchville was changed to Bally by unanimous consent.
Six years before Conrad Weiser migrated from the Schoharie settlement in New York to make his home in Tulpehocken, Leonard Rieth led a band of 33 families into the broad valley that forms between the Blue and South mountains. In paying tribute to Conrad Weiser we sometimes forget that others shared the glory of those early years and Leonard Rieth was one of them.
Three Rieth brothers, Adam, Michael, and Leonhard, were members of the group of distressed Palatines who found their way to New York province in 1710 after suffering terrible hardships. For some time there was doubt about the name Rieth, because it did not appear on the printed lists of Palatines but recent research along these lines reveal that scholars misread the Niederlandish script on the original records of the ship lists of Palatines being transported from Rotterdam to London in 1709. The Rieth’s were among them but the first letter of the name was interpreted as a V instead of an R.
Leonhard Rieth was naturalized at Albany in 1715. His naturalization papers bore the signatures of two prominent names in New York, namely those of Peter Schuyler and Phillip Livingstone. When the trek to Pennsylvania began, in 1723, Leonhard was the acknowledged leader of the vanguard of Tulpehocken settlers. He took up 1,000 acres of land where the Millbach creek joins with the Tulpehocken, near present-day Stouchsburg. His house was built about a quarter of a mile below the junction of the two streams.
The name Rieth has been perpetuated in Berks history, largely through the erection of Rieth, or Reed Church in 1727. The original church the oldest Lutheran church outside of Philadelphia, stood upon a rising slop of land north of the Tulpehocken, on land donated by the Rieth’s. The churchyard is still there and the John Reed family of Stouchsburg, direct descendants of Leonhard Rieth are actively interested in maintaining the present Reed’s Church in Stouchsburg.
The death of Leonhard Rieth was one of the most tragic events in the early history of the Tulpehocken colony. He had erected a gristmill on the north bank of the Tulpehocken, not far from the junction of the two creeks. One day in February, 1747, Leonhard Rieth was caught in the cog-wheels of his mill and his body was terrible mangled. The first duty of the new clergyman at Tulpehocken, the youthful Rev. J.N. Kurtz, was to officiate at Rieth’s funeral. At the time there was great deal of dissension in the congregation at Rieth’s church and one of the factions tried to prevent the new pastor from performing his solemn duties.
A few miles east of the Hamburg Sanatorium is situated St. Paul’s Reformed Church, universally known as the “Smoke Church,” The nickname is of ancient origin. E. Douglas Kains, of Wyomissing sends us the following account of how the “Smoke Church” got its odd nickname. Kains does not state that his account is historically accurate, but gives us an interesting and amusing legend.
St. Paul’s had engaged a long winded minister. As time went on his sermons grew longer and longer each successive Sunday and, obviously, his audiences became smaller and smaller. It was noticeable that the men folks were boycotting the services.
A funeral feast in the neighborhood of Hamburg drew many of the men of the congregation and the parson found opportunity to speak to them about their backsliding ways, upraiding them for their non-attendance at services. For some time the sinners took their drubbing silently, until one of the more courageous of them spoke up:
“Yah! Parre, awwer witt du wise was der Druwvel iss?”
“Was iss es?” asked the parson.
“Ei, du breddichscht ganz zullang, un mer kenne net duh unne die Peif schmoke.”
(You preach too long and we cannot do without our smoke pipes.)
The resourceful preacher then made a bargain with his parishioners. Those who could not wait until the sermon was concluded were to be permitted to light up their pipes at the beginning of the exhortation from the pulpit. On the following Sunday the church was crowded. Every smoker in the neighborhood brought his pipe to church and many other wayward ones in the community came to the services out of “wunnerfitz,” curiosity.
When the sermon began an air of suppressed excitement pervaded the church. All eyes were fastened upon the pipe-smoking men folks, would they dare? They certainly did.
As soon as the test was announced someone struck a match – another – then another, all over the church matches flickered and pipes went into action. In a short time the smoke was so thick that the minister could scarcely be seen. Hence the nickname “Smoke Church”.