Last week we began the story of Falkner Swamp pioneer Andreas Frey who as early as 1720 owned 400 acres along the Swamp Creek where the Antes House now stands. “Nothing is know of Frey’s early life or the date of his arrival in Pennsylvania. Passenger lists of arrivals were not kept in Philadelphia before 1725. A separatist who had become a Mennonite, he was baptized as a Dunkard in the Falkner Swamp region on March 8, 1728, by Conrad Beissel who made him an Elder of the new congregation.”
These were complicated times as the differences among the protestant sects that had racked Europe were, to some degree, transplanted here to the New Hanover region. The three decades between 1720 and 1750 were an era of spiritual turmoil, religious conflict and some local strife.
Frey’s congregation at Falkner Swamp were German Baptists called Dunkards. Peter Becker led the first Dunkard group to Germantown in 1719. They broke the ice on the Wissahickon Creek to hold the first adult baptisms in America on Christmas Day, 1723. Soon there were congregations in Skippack, Swamp, and Oley. Philosophically close to Mennonites, early Dunkards were pacifist, separatist, and believed in the separation of church and state.
Many of the congregation’s members dressed differently to show their separation from the world. They would not take up arms or swear oaths. Their central belief was to practice the life as modeled by Jesus and follow the church as described in the New Testament. The Bible and only the Bible was their religious authority. “A sizable minority, however, were of a mystical turn of mind and were such as saw visions, experienced spiritual ecstasy, and took occasional trips into the world of the spirits. The Falkner Swamp congregation seems to have been blessed with an inordinate number of this type…”. The Swamp Dunkards may have been influenced by the pietists, a small group of whom lived along the Wissahickon. Calling themselves “awakened souls” the pietists wanted to feel the Holy Spirit working within themselves and would, among other things, sing and dance to ecstasy.
In any case, Andreas Frey was the leader of the Swamp congregation when in 1728 Conrad Beissel appeared on the scene. Beissel, who was the bishop of the Conestoga Dunkard congregation, called himself Superintendent of the whole region. He baptized Frey and others in the Swamp Creek (baptism had to be by triple immersion in a flowing stream) and proclaimed Frey bishop of the congregation.
We must say a few words now about the enigmatic figure of Conrad Beissel who in 1732 founded the Ephrata Cloister, a communal village in what is now Lancaster County. Born in Germany in 1690 he was raised in poverty and appeared in Germantown as an apprentice weaver in 1720 with Peter Becker. Dissatisfied with Germantown, he lived for a time as a hermit in the Conestoga territory, came back and rejoined the Brethren, then returned to Conestoga as a leader of the congregation there. Later he moved beyond the administrative pale of Philadelphia County and established the community at Ephrata.
Based on cloistered separate dwellings for men and women, Beissel’s settlement on the Cocalico Creek required communal labor and living. Beissel demanded celibacy, extremely strict self denial, and separation from the world. The cloistered brothers and sisters had one small meal a day, slept on a narrow plank for only a few hours a night with a wood block for a pillow, and spent an eighteen hour day in prayer, meditation and labor. Beissel assured his sect that Christ would return in his (Beissel’s) lifetime. He allowed married couples and families to live surrounding the cloister to support it, but they were not of the inner circle.
Beissel was obviously an exceptional leader and administrator. An expert violinist, he wrote hundreds of hymns. Music, singing, active printing presses, as well as thrifty and successful industry characterized the Ephrata cloister. However, the community began to fall apart before Beissel’s death in 1768. During the nineteenth century the few remaining dwellers incorporated into the Seventh Day German Baptist Church. The site is now a tourist attraction operated by the State Historic and Museum Commission and well worth a visit.
Brethren literature and history does not treat Beissel too kindly. Described as possessing immense charisma, hypnotic charm and speaking ability; he is, however, also describe as a jealous despot, a self-styled demigod, and a cunning predator who raided neighboring congregations for converts to Ephrata. In any case, he certainly had the strength of his convictions.
Back at Swamp in 1730 there had developed a spirited struggle for the Dunkard congregation between the moderate Germantown Baptists under Peter Becker and the more extreme Beissel at Conestoga. Beissel prevailed.
Frey seems to have pulled away from the “Biesselieners” and become friends with neighbor Henry Antes. Antes at that time was a founding member of the Falkner Swamp Reformed Church. Beissel placed Michael Wohlfahrt as Elder of the Swamp congregation and later John Landes. Apparently neither was a strong leader and the Swamp congregation was drawn to Beissel. “In 1734 the awakened at Falkner’s Swamp, it being the seventh year of their awakening, began to break up and to move toward the settlement [at Ephrata]. They bought up the regions around Ephrata, so that in a few years the country for three or four miles around was taken up by them. Wherever there was a spring of water, no matter how unfertile the soil, there lived some household, waiting for the Lord’s salvation.”
“Thus did Ephrata absorb Falckner’s Swamp, which gave itself to Beissel. Falckner’s Swamp, above other places, seems to have peopled Beissel’s newly found home on the Conestoga”.
How many people were involved it is impossible to say. Andreas Frey at this time was associated with Henry Antes welcoming a minister named Spangenberg to his house who led the way for the Moravians.