A Look Back in History: The Bible in Iron, America's Frontier Livelihood

Submitted photo One of our PA German cast iron stove plate with a Biblical Old Testament scene, called îElijah and the Ravens,î cast by the Oley Furnace in 1760 by Dietrich Welcker. Note the four flat hearts at the top, Oley Valley folk Christian symbols.

As we modern Christians face the current chaotic polar vortex weather, we cannot help but recall our brave ancestors who pioneered living in crude log cabins and houses facing never before climatic conditions in our New World clinging to their Bibles and faith in God. These PA Dutch pioneers sought shelter in Colonial log structures, heated by quaint cast iron stoves designed with Biblical scenes from their Bibles to reinforce their faith in the Almighty. These large ”walk-in” fireplaces built in the middle of their Germanic log cabins had an adjoining room heated behind their kitchen fire places that heated a ”Great room” in which they worked and also held worship.

Although most English pioneers built their fireplaces on the gable end of their log cabins, PA Germans put their central fireplace in the middle of the log cabin, where butted up to the back wall of the fireplace was a German type style cast iron stove that was fed by an opening in the hearth fireplace wall in which smoke exited up the chimney of the same central walk-in fireplace. This was an ingenious idea for the cast iron stove to use the same dual chimney of the central hearth fireplace.

But more importantly, was the fact that these German five plate stoves had relief designs molded on their plates, which often told of a Biblical motif story. So in the Great Room where the German five plate stove was located, pioneers seeking to warm themselves in Colonial days had a cast iron stove often molded with Biblical scenes of the Holy Bible. A crude Germanic invention pre-dating the American Benjamin Franklin stove, these Germanic five plate stoves cast among the early Iron Furnaces of Pennsylvania provided needed warmth among immigrant pioneers who worshipped in the ”Great Rooms,” of Germanic log and stone cabins of America’s frontier period.

Indicative of the thousands of PA Germans who almost outnumbered William Penn’s English Quakers, these early American Germanic five plate stoves were made by Rhinelanders who cherished the Biblical motifs that they brought to America at William Penn’s personal invitation. Thus, these PA German furnace stoves were Colonial works of art done by Christian folk artists before the American Revolution. Among numerous Colonial Iron Furnaces that made these early five plate stoves with Biblical motifs was the Oley Furnace, founded circa 1768 by Dietrich Welcker, who also cast Fireback plates to be placed at the rear wall of the hearth fireplace to lessen the wear and tear of the fireplace masonry.

However, an original five plate stove consists of five plates moulded in a Germanic style. Therefore, there were so many Colonial plates with Biblical scenes from the Holy Bible, researchers have coined the term, ”The Bible in Iron,” although other floral designs had also become popular subjects. Realizing the devoted nomenclature of the PA Dutch people and their worship of Jesus Christ, the Bible in Iron motifs that have survived from Colonial times are excellent examples of several classic designs used by these Christian pioneers.

PA German historians owe a debt of gratitude to researcher, Dr. Henry C. Mercer, who wrote The Bible in Iron in 1961, covering a number of Colonial Iron Furnaces and Forges in Pennsylvania with images of their moulded cast iron plates, a salute to Americana folk art craftsmanship. The primitive five plates stoves of the PA Germans that butted up to their rear hearth fireplaces were eventually replaced by artistically designed ten plate stoves of the early American period. Besides the Bucks County Historical Society at Doylestown, the Historical Society of Berks County collected a significant number of these regional Germanic stove plates and firebacks moulded with artistic pioneer motifs of the PA Dutch people.

At the Daniel Boone Homestead in Exeter Township, Berks County, there is an exceptional Colonial American log cabin, which has the three room layout of Kitchen, Kammer (bedroom), and Great Room (Stove room) where a five plate iron stove was used to heat the workroom or worship chapel. It shows how these five plate stoves were fired with hot coals from the 18th Century fireplace hearth through an opening in the rear wall, with brick chimney opening at top. In the Kammer (downstairs bedroom), there’s an opening in the log wall, called a Salen Fenster or ”Soul Window,” where should the person sleeping in the room die, the family would open the small soul window in order that the departed person’s soul would go to heaven, a Rhineland tradition of the 17th and 18th century PA Deitsch still observe today.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.