The Historian by Robert Wood: Andreas Frey, Pious Layman of New Hanover, Part 1

Before Rev. Muhlenberg came to Swamp, New Hanover, in 1742 to permanently establish the Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania and the Rev. Leidich (Leidy) in 1748 to do the same for the Reformed, the region was for a time a tempestuous hub of religious ferment. The participants in this drama are remarkable for their spiritual intensity, fervor, and commitment.

The principal player in our story is Andreas Frey of the German Baptist Brethren sect. In 1719 Frey bought about 400 acres bisected by the Swamp Creek where in recent memory there existed Grubb’s Dam and Mill. Currently the restored Antes House on Colonial Road is the principal feature of this site. Andreas Frey was a Dunkard (German Baptist Brethren) and Bishop of the Swamp, New Hanover, congregation, who with at least 15 others, was baptized by Trine Immersion in the Swamp Creek on March 8, 1728, by no lesser figure that Conrad Beissel himself. Beissel, an enigmatic zealot, later established the Ephrata Cloister. More about him later.

Andreas Frey owned this large tract before Henry Antes and George Huber bought parts of it to build the first grist mill in the area. Later, around 1740, Frey joined Henry Antes and welcomed to this spot the first immigrant groups that evolved into the Moravian Church in America.

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To begin to tell the story of Andreas Frey, who, through an odd chain of events, was for a time the most widely read American author in the world, it is necessary to do a bit of back-story of the arrival of the German Baptists to America.

When Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, Ulrich Zwingli, a priest in Zurich, was publishing statements along the same lines. But Zwingli and some followers went further. After scrupulously examining the Bible they concluded that infant baptism was scripturally groundless, and that the source for creeds and beliefs was only the Bible as interpreted at the local community level. In short they didn’t try to re-form the Roman Catholic Church as did Luther, but cast it out altogether. Zwingli pulled back from this extreme stance and his work eventually led to the founding of the German Reformed Church.

But some of Zwingli’s associates continued on more extreme routes rejecting the established church altogether. This led to their deaths but also in time to a host of various sects. One common belief among many of the sects was their rejection of the practice of infant baptism. Since they were rebaptised as adults, they became known as Anabaptists (ana--Greek prefix for again). The Diet of Speyer in 1529 pronounced death to all Anabaptists and their leaders met violent ends. By the end of that century, religious wars devastated the Germanic region.

Through the 1600’s, many thousands of Germany’s people were slaughtered, the economy was in ruins while farmland and villages were reduced to wasteland. The bubonic plague was rampant, but later incursions of French armies under France’s Louis XIV, who hated all protestants, again devastated the land for decades. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years War and brought a measure of peace, but it was not to last.

This treaty finally legitimized the Lutheran and Reformed religions and gave each German elector the authority to decide which religion—Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed—was to be the sanctioned religion in his territory. Sects were disallowed on pain of death. To be an Anabaptist was an act of civil disobedience.

There was a divide between church-Germans (Lutherans and Reformed who, indeed, built churches), and the Anabaptist sects who believed in total separation from the state. Conduct for the sectarians was to be based on the life of Christ and the early Christian church as described in the Bible and interpreted at the personal and local level and from no other source. There was to be no educated, anointed clergy or distant headquarters to set policy and practice. The great majority of Anabaptists lived simple, peaceful, quiet and productive lives. A good example would be the followers of Menno Simons later called Mennonites who found refuge in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

It was against this background in 1708 that 8 believers under the leadership of Alexander Mack publicly and defiantly rebaptised themselves in the Eder River (Germany) at Schwarzenau (Blackmeadow). It was from this group that grew to be called NeuTaufer Brudern (New Baptist Brethren) that Peter Becker led the first group of German Baptists, called “Dunkards” by the English, to Germantown in 1719. It is possible that Andreas Frey was among them.

Next week, part 2.