A Look Back in History: Freedom of religion granted to our Pennsylvania Dutch people

This Brethren house of worship in Pricetown, Oley Valley was erected in 1777 on land belonging to Martin Gaube and was later deeded to the Oley Congregation in 1807.  Known as the oldest unaltered church in America, some of the early Dunkard families were: Kinsey, Reublemoyer, Fiant, Price, and Gaube.
This Brethren house of worship in Pricetown, Oley Valley was erected in 1777 on land belonging to Martin Gaube and was later deeded to the Oley Congregation in 1807. Known as the oldest unaltered church in America, some of the early Dunkard families were: Kinsey, Reublemoyer, Fiant, Price, and Gaube. Submitted photo - Courtesy of American Folklife Collection

Our ancestors were working true-Grit individuals who turned the PA Dutch Country into an agrarian cradle of Liberty following in the ideas of Adam Smith, our founder of the “Free market private enterprise system.”

Few Americans were as dedicated to the ideals of the United States Democracy as these Colonial PA Dutch/ Deitsch people that included the Worldly Dutch, such as we are considered, and the Plain Dutch also known as the Horse and Buggy Dutch. Of this rural community, many a folklorist, historian, author has cherished the area and its people so much in their lectures, writings, and research. Prior to the 20th Century, there had only been one substantial migration of Plain Dutch within the Commonwealth since Colonial times, and that was to the “Big Valley” of Central Pennsylvania. Relocating specifically in Mifflin County as early as 1791, this group of Plain People, specifically Amish, consisted of nine distinct religious groups.

Since their migration to Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and being among the first people to settle Pennsylvania in 1683, the Plain Dutch-Swiss in heritage but as Pennsylvania Dutch people as any, built their homesteads on the fertile Lancaster Plain, and our Worldly Dutch (Germans, French Huguenots) in the fertile Oley and Penn Valley.

The Plain People have continued to center around Lancaster, and us Worldly people, the width and breadth of the Oley Valley and East Penn Valley with their center seemingly at Kutztown. Another but lesser known Plain Dutch group that need to be mentioned, who also resided in the county and nearby, were the German Brethren. As many more drivers pass through the obscure village of Pricetown at a quickened pace on route 12, they are unaware that an 18th Century “Dunkard” or Brethren community survived there.

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Their 1777 Pricetown Meetinghouse is known as “the oldest unaltered Church of the Brethren in America” is subtlety advertised by a quaint historical marker two blocks east of the old Village hotel, now Olyvia’s Restaurant, at their one stoplight intersection. Abandoned throughout the year, except for a rare annual congregational gathering of modern Brethren who would usually meet the first Sunday in June for this special worship, or a historically-minded individual, or other Brethren from out of state tracing their roots; regardless this historic Meetinghouse survives in pristine shape.

The last active Dunkard member of this Pricetown meeting was Elam Fox, Sr., who operated a nearby farm and cider press business a quarter-mile south of Pricetown, but died in 1973. He was survived by four children at the time, but only one of which (Ben) carries on and resides in Ruscombmanor Township at the family farm and attends an active branch of the Brethren church in Wyomissing.

In the 1700s, though, this was a heavily traveled highway at Pricetown for the time, because it was a major route farmers took along the Reading prong of the Appalachian Mountains, including their Brethren, to get to the city of Reading in buying and selling wares at a thriving city market. Pricetown, at the time, had three taverns to serve this busy trade with adjacent general stores, and despite being one of the most distant civilized outposts from Reading, became a successful town way beyond the needs of the immediate population.

The bulk of these Rhinelanders though that lived in southeastern Pennsylvania, known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch Country,” followed a number of religious Plain sect theologies and major Church religions, including the Moravian church known largely for their settlement in Bethlehem. But the Amish and Plain Mennonite pacifist groups stood out as the most active followers of a most merciful God, following their Bible and plow into the New World. In this 21st Century, there is no New World frontier for Old World farmers to immigrate to and seek freedom of religion. The principles of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee freedom of religion and should be cherished in a world today that needs desperately to respect the dignity of man and one’s divine ability to make his or her own choice.