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Though followers have held the teachings of Schwenkfeld since the 16th century, the Schwenkfelder Church did not come into existence until the 20th century, due in large part to Schwenkfeld's emphasis on inner spirituality over outward form. He also labored for a fellowship of all believers and one church. By the middle of the 16th century, there were thousands of followers of his "Reformation by the Middle Way". His ideas appear to be a middle ground between the ways of the Reformation of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, and the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.
Originally calling themselves Confessors of the Glory of Christ (after Schwenkfeld's 1541 book Great Confession on the Glory of Christ), the group later became known as Schwenkfelders. These Christians often suffered persecution like slavery, prison and fines at the hands of the government and state churches in Europe. Most of them lived in southern Germany and Lower Silesia. They tell a story about their origins in which the devil is taking a group of Schwenkfelders to Hades and the bag broke over Harpersdorf.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the remaining Schwenkfelders lived around Harpersdorf in the German province Silesia. As the persecution intensified around 1719–1725, they were given refuge in 1726 by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Saxony. When the Elector of Saxony died in 1733, Jesuits sought the new ruler to return the Schwenkfelders to Harpersdorf. With their freedom in jeopardy, they decided to look to the New World; toleration was also extended to them in Silesia in 1742 by King Frederick II of Prussia.
The immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church brought saffron to the Americas; Schwenkfelders may have grown saffron in Europe—there is some record that at least one member of the group traded in the spice. A group came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1731, and several migrations continued until 1737. The largest group, 180 Schwenkfelders, arrived in 1734. In 1782, the Society of Schwenkfelders was formed, and in 1909 the Schwenkfelder Church was incorporated. The Schwenkfelder Church has remained small: as of 2009 there are five congregations with about 2,500 members in southeastern Pennsylvania. All of these bodies are within a fifty-mile radius of Philadelphia: two in the city itself, and one each in East Norriton Township, Palm, and Worcester. The Schwenkfelder Church meets annually at a Spring General Conference. Sometimes Conferences are also held in the fall. The Society of the Descendants of the Schwenkfeldian Exiles is a related lineage society.
They teach that the Bible is the source of Christian theology, but also believe it is dead without the inner work of the Holy Spirit. They also continue his belief that the divinity of Jesus was progressive, and that the Lord's supper is a mystical spiritual partaking of the body of Christ in open communion. Adult baptism and both infant baptism and consecration of infants is practiced depending on the church. Adult members are also received into church membership through transfer of memberships from other churches and denominations. Their ecclesiastical tradition is congregational with a strong ecumenical focus. The Schwenkfelder churches recognize the right of the individual in decisions such as public service, armed combat, etc. Ministers are selected by individual autonomous congregations through a self regulated search process. Schwenkfelder Ordination, Licensure and Authorization of Ministry is regulated through the Schwenkfelder Ministerium and the Executive Council of The Schwenkfelder Church.
A distinct and separate Schwenkfeldian theology, based on the teachings and practices of the group as a whole, is no longer the case. Each congregation remains autonomous in theology and practice. Historic statements of faith inherited by the Christian Church as a whole: the Apostles' Creed, etc., along with a scriptural foundation remain the best representative statement on current Schwenkfeldian theology.
- Caspar Schwenckfeld (1907). Letters and Treaties of Caspar Schwenkfeld Von Ossig ...: A study of the earliest letters. Breitkopf & Härtel. pp. 10–.
- Churches listing
- Encyclopedia of American Religions, edited by J. Gordon Melton
- Handbook of Denominations in the United States, by Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood
- Profiles in Belief: the Religious Bodies of the United States and Canada, by Arthur Carl Piepkorn
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Schwenckfeldians". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.