As we see our church numbers seemingly dwindle every year and only somewhat filling during the Christmas and Easter times, we should take a step back and remember how strong religion and faith was to our ancestors. Driven to pave the way and persevere in a new and unknowing World with unparalleled bravery in crossing the mighty Atlantic and the tremendous hardship, they faced in death of loved ones, cold, hunger, and doubt. Even if your heritage is not Pennsylvania Dutch, perhaps one can read, appreciate, and draw parallels to the earlier Pilgrims or Puritans or one’s own ancestry to understand how life was then and the importance and driving force of religion.
These earliest of churches that still dot our countryside have for around 300 years been inseparable from community life, and thus ( religion) had always been a daily affair here, never a social nicety. There were no prestigious salaries for the clergy or for fancy church edifices, but the pure and simple country church gained dignity from passing time and use. The ingenious valley folk, furthermore, followed a church calendar year that was an integral part of agrarian life and the planting of crops was never done on Good Friday or Ascension Day, but instead days given to fellowship with one’s neighbors at a farm sale or get-together. During this period of time when the exercise of religion in America has been on the decline, the versatility of the valleys’ folk religion has sustained its exercise and folk calendar in the rural countryside still practiced.
The churches of the PA Dutch had long been basically Protestant-German, and as such, followed the broader, early American folk religious customs known of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Shrove Tuesday, for example, the day before Ash Wednesday is still for some a day to store up on fastnachts, a deep fried cake similar to a doughnut because lard could not be used during Lent. Hunting young dandelion on Holy Thursday (Green Thursday) is still practiced by a few for making a hot salad, but has by and large a custom fallen by the wayside. Harvest Home, though very important to the Pennsylvania Dutch people, was celebrated at the end of the growing season and a time to adorn the church altars with the fruits of a laborious and humble people.
Religion was once known only a few generations ago as simply listening to the community’s children recite their Christmas pieces from the altar while seated in the quaint choir loft of church, taking Holy Communion during a showery spring Sunday with home baked bread and homemade elderberry wine representing the body and blood of Christ. To share daily news at church quilting socials, see a neighbor spill his communion cup and say “Oye du Gott”- there goes God’s blood, or eating kettle soup at one of the church picnics. Older members of the community are eager to share their fondest memories with those interesting in listening, especially over the holiday season.
In frontier times though priests and various clergy did not have a congregation, just the immediate neighborhood, but did God’s bidding by traveling a number of miles to see their flock in frontier abodes they had built to secure a living for themselves and their offspring, but most importantly, making sure each one was baptized. Certainly, the German press of Pennsylvania was crucial for printing German Bibles and necessary religious documents to support German-dialect teachings by numerous religious sects and churches in a day when education was almost non-existent for the common man.