The Hard Journey to America
Pennsylvania offered freedom and peace for the Schenkfelders. Founded by the Quaker William Penn, it was a place where groups who were persecuted and driven away elsewhere were welcomed. But though the journey to freedom was one of hope, it was also one of pain and fear; much that the travelers had known was left behind forever. Ocean travel could be a frightening experience.
The Schwenckfelders settled into their new life amidst other folk with similar tales of persecution and flight; many of them were from Germany (the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch—the “Dutch” is actually from Deutsch, the German word for “German”). They were hardworking, industrious farmers. They decorated their homes, furniture, wagons, written documents with colorful, symbolic designs—the folk art we still immediately associate with the “Pennsylvania Dutch” traditions.
Schwenckfelders emphasized learning and were careful to preserve and transmit their rich intellectual tradition, making new copies of their loved books by hand into the 19th century.
One Schwenckfelder who left us an account, in diary form, of the crossing to Pennsylvania was Christopher Wiegner, who was born in Ober-Harpersdorf, Silesia, on February 24, 1712. He died at 33 years in 1745 in Towamencin township in Pennsylvania. The Jesuit persecution of Schwenckfelders arose when Wiegner was a young boy; Schwenckfelders were forbidden to sell their goods or land, or to emigrate; they were denied Christian burial. At 14, Christopher secretly fled with his family to Saxony to escape the persecution. When more trouble arose there they fled to America.
The following account is taken from The Spiritual Diary of Christopher Wiegner, translated and edited by Peter C. Erb and published by the The Society of the Descendants of the Schwenckfeldian Exiles, Pennsburg, PA. This excerpt is a shortened selection, beginning from page 87, of Wiegner’s more complete account.
June 28 On the 28th we left Rotterdam [Holland] in the evening.
July 10 … we arrived at Helfort Schleis. The captain came to us.
July 11 On the 11th we went to sea. In the afternoon nearly all of us were sick.
July 12 … Christopher Kriebel’s child died at night.
July 13 On the 13th it began to be better.
July 17 … we arrived at Plymouth [England]. In the afternoon we went to the town to refresh our bodies.
July 18–19 On the 18th and on the 19th a woman gave us some money.
July 29 On the 29th we left the harbor …
Aug 3 On the 3rd Hubner’s child died.
Aug 4 On the 4th side wind. Becalmed in the evening. At night a strong contrary wind arose. Because of this we were very ill until the 5th and 6th. On the 5th we had already gone 700 English miles.
Aug 8–9 … This night Gregorious Schultz’s child died.
Aug 11 On the 11th a contrary wind broke off the centre mast.
Aug 14 … a French populated ship from the West Indies came. [There was great concern among the members on board that it was a pirate ship since it flew no flag and turned around, after passing, and swung toward us as if to take fire…
Aug 17 … heavy rain and loud thunder.
Aug 18 … a contrary west wind with rain and thunder. Schubert’s child died.
Aug 19–20 … a contrary wind so strong it threw waves over the ship up to the sail cloth. Many were very ill. I was affected as well.
Aug 22 … Mrs. David Schubert died. In the evening we were met by an English ship from the West Indies which caused much fear since it did not raise a flag.
Aug 25 On the 25th still contrary winds. The waves struck 10 ells over the ship. Because I was not properly lodged, my head became fevered and my thoughts were not able to remain firm, struggle so hard as I might. It finally caused me much sorrow. I remembered how a Christian must conquer all in Christ. I called to him from the heart for strength. In the evening the dear Saviour took away the struggle and gave me such peace that I thought of nothing nor knew nothing except my: Lamb and Saviour. It was a heavy concern with me to know if it was not my calling to dedicate my life completely to chastity, poverty and voluntary discipleship and service.
Aug 26 … a little north wind. This day I had a stirring impulse to pray to the dear Saviour to help me in the Pennsylvania trial.
Aug 28 On the 28th Hoffman’s George died. Be calmed in the evening…
Aug 30 Once again a ship from New England met us with herring.
Sept 1 On the 1st the wind was still south east. I still lay sick. On the same day a very hot night. Almost everyone slept on the deck. I could not because of my weakness.
Sept 4 On the 4th I promised the dear Saviour without certain knowledge of his will that I would not marry nor purchase farm nor cattle. Be merciful unto me dear Lord Jesus. Teach me and let me not become a disgrace, for I thought it was intended for me out of your grace. Lord Jesus, let me live according to your counsel.
Sept 5 … becalmed. A very great heat at night … Mrs. Reinwalt failed.
Sept 9 … heavy rain with thunder.
Sept 12 … the wind good, from the north. An English ship from Gibraltar met us. It was going to Marienland (Maryland). I got a chill again.
Sept 13 …A Palatine child was buried. They shot several times at a large fish. Several very large ones could be seen beside the ship. They fished. The man-eaters bit at the small fish and ripped off 2 lines ….
Sept 16 … a good wind. Today I was so angry that I was not able to consider anything other than it had ruined me. The cause was that I wished to eat Stockfisk and my mother gave it away. My heart was greatly moved to contrition and humility. This lasted until evening when I received a friendly glance of grace and that evening I was gladdened.
On the 15th a small bird came to the ship which we believed to be a land bird. It allowed itself to be captured.
On the 16th they shot a big bird but it fell in the water. Before midnight they still did not find the bottom.
On the 17th in the morning around 3 o’clock they found the bottom at 55 fathoms. They hung anchor. At noon the sailors saw land and found the bottom at 16 fathoms. In the afternoon at 15 fathoms. The wind still good.
Sept 18 On the 18th we saw land and forest. The bottom was 5 fathoms…. My heart greatly hungered that Jesus would be for me essential righteousness.
Sept 19 …we travelled into the stream. An English ship met us with whom we exchanged letters. Two more met us with horses, goats, pigs and sheep.
Sept 20 … a good wind. Mrs. Reinwalt died.
Sept 21 … we went by New Castle. There we received the first apples which were very good. In the afternoon the captain left because the sailors didn’t return. They held out a lantern on the shipstick and beat the drum. While this was going on they fought near the mast. After this the sailors beat each other frightfully.
Sept 22 On the 22nd we arrived in Philadelphia in the morning. George Scholtz and Klem and afterward Schonfeld came to meet us there.
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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