By 1648 the countries of Europe stopped fighting. They were exhausted. For thirty years they had destroyed one another for the sake of what they believed. Untold numbers of young men and civilians lay dead. But now, those who survived began with new hope to rebuild ruined villages, to clear land grown up in brush, and to plant fields with barley and cabbages again.
Thirty years of war had left Europe divided into Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic lands. For most people that was a good arrangement. They simply belonged to the church their princes belonged to, and worshipped God however their princes said. But for those who loved Christ and sought to follow him, it was not a good arrangement at all.
The Wiegners, at Oberharpersdorf in Schlesien, loved Christ.
For two hundred years the Wiegners had belonged to a little secret congregation in the mountains. Every Lord’s day and in evenings during the week, they met to sing and pray. Sometimes they only read from the Scriptures. Sometimes they read from encouraging letters and books. And there were evenings when they simply sat together in friendly quietness, waiting on the Lord.
The Wiegners’ congregation and other little groups like it, scattered throughout Europe, had always refused to belong to a Christian “denomination.” While all Europeans fought, threatened, and argued with one another over points of doctrine, they had remained silent. They had refused to take positions on things Christ taught nothing about, and with all seriousness they had tried to obey what he did teach. That led them into a holy non-conformed way of life, humility in thought speech and action, and the returning of good for evil. Like one of the earliest teachers among them—a converted nobleman named Kaspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig—they believed that all congregations of believers belonged to one world-wide but humanly invisible body of Christ. Therefore they freely recognised believers from other groups (even from main-line denominations) as brothers and sisters, and they did not feel bad if members from their own group joined others.
Because Kaspar Schwenkfeld had written and taught much, people in Europe often called these little non-aligned congregations the “Schwenkfelder churches.” And the fact that they kept themselves non-aligned in no way spared them from persecution.
After the Thirty Years’ War, Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic churches all determined to get rid of the “Schwenkfelder people” in their midst. Especially true was this in Schlesien, the German province where the Georg Wiegner family lived.
In 1719 the emperor Charles VI of Austria authorised the Jesuits (a Roman Catholic teaching order) to open a mission in Schlesien to convert the Schwenkfelders. From that time onward their troubles increased.
The Jesuits did all they could to intimidate the believers of Oberharpersdorf and the other villagers where they lived. They made it illegal for them to buy or sell things. They kept them from finding work or income, and virtually forced them to starvation. What was even worse, they took the believers’ children, baptised them and forced them to attend Roman Catholic schools.
Through secret channels, in 1727, the persecuted Schwenkfelders sent a letter to the Mennonites in Amsterdam, telling of their troubles and asking for advice. The Mennonites sent word back, assuring them of their willingness to provide financial help. But because of distances involved, they recommended the Schwenkfelders first contact the Unity of Brothers at Herrnhut in Oberlausitz. (Schlesien, now part of southern Poland, lay next to Oberlausitz, now on the eastern border of Germany.)
In the Georg Wiegner home at Oberharpersdorf preparations began at once. Their son Christoph was already fifteen—old enough to be let in on secret plans that soon involved Schwenkfelder families throughout Schlesien.
So that no one would suffer on account of those who escaped, the Schwenkfelders decided to all leave together, over five hundred people on the same night.
The Lord answered their prayers and they escaped without the loss of one.
Like the children of Israel coming out of the Red Sea, the Schwenkfelders crossed the border into Germany after a difficult journey on foot, through the Sudeten mountains. Then, at Herrnhut, not far from the border, brothers and sisters took them in with open arms.
In many ways the Schwenkfelders sensed a deep unity with the people at Herrnhut. Like the Moravian Brothers, they sought to guide their lives by the Sermon on the Mount. They both lived peaceful lives and returned good for evil. Brothers and sisters of both groups dressed simply, the women in modest skirts and head coverings, and both Moravians and Schwenkfelders supported one another in loving community.
The only problem was that Herrnhut did not have room for all the refugees from Schlesien, and the German government wanted no more “sectarians.”
Soon after their arrival, the Schwenkfelder refugees began to make plans with the people at Herrnhut to settle on land an Englishman had offered them in Georgia. But their plans changed. The King of Prussia, knowing their skill in linen weaving (something most of them did as a side-line to farming) invited them to set up a linen factory near Berlin. Another group—almost half of the people who had left Schlesien—found their way to Amsterdam where under Mennonite influence they decided to move to Pennsylvania.
Young Christoph Wiegner’s seven years in Germany and the Netherlands had brought him much blessing. At Herrnhut he had given his life fully to Christ. He had gone out with the young men at night to pray. He had shared in the love feasts and daily meetings, and it was with warm love in his heart for Christ and his church that he boarded an English ship, the St. Andrew, at Rotterdam, on the evening of June 28, 1734.
Travelling with the Wiegners were two hundred others of the Schwenkfelder community. On July 11’th, after several stops along the coast of the Netherlands, they set sail for the open sea. Christoph, now twenty-two, wrote in his diary:
July 11: We went to sea. In the afternoon nearly all of us were sick.
July 12: Christopher Kriebel’s child died during the night.
July 17: We arrived at Plymouth, in England. In the afternoon we went into the town to refresh our bodies.
July 29: We left the harbour at Plymouth and went to sea.
Aug. 3: Hübner’s child died.
Aug. 4: We had side winds but it turned calm in the evening. At night a strong contrary wind arose. Because of this we were very ill until the 5th and 6th. On the 5th we had already gone 700 English miles.
Aug. 9: This night Gregorius Schultz’s child died.
Aug. 11: A contrary wind broke off the centre mast.
Aug. 14: A French ship from the West Indies came. There was great concern among us that it was a pirate ship because it flew no flag and turned around, after passing, and swung toward us as if to take fire.
Aug. 17: There was heavy rain and loud thunder.
Aug. 18: There was a contrary west wind with rain and thunder. Schubert’s child died.
Aug. 19 – 20: A contrary wind blew so strong it threw waves over the ship up to the sail cloth. Many were very sick. I was affected as well.
Aug. 22: David Schubert’s wife died. In the evening we were met by an English ship from the West Indies that caused us much fear because it did not raise a flag.
Aug. 25: We still have contrary winds. The waves struck ten cubits over the ship. Because I was not properly lodged, my head became fevered and my thoughts were not able to remain firm, struggle so hard as I might. It finally caused me much sorrow. I remembered how a Christian must conquer all in Christ. I called to him from the heart for strength. In the evening the dear Saviour took away the struggle and gave me such peace that I thought nothing and knew nothing except my Lamb and Saviour. I was much concerned with the question whether it was my calling to dedicate my life completely to chastity, poverty, voluntary discipleship and service, or not.
Aug. 26: We had a little north wind. This day I had a stirring impulse to pray to the dear Saviour to help me in the Pennsylvania trial.
Aug. 28: Hoffman’s George died. It turned calm in the evening.
Aug. 30: A ship from New England met us with herring.
Sept. 1: The wind was still from the Southeast. I lay sick. It was a very hot night. Almost everyone slept on the deck but I could not because of my sickness.
Sept. 4: On the 4th I promised the dear Savior without certain knowledge of his will that I would not marry nor purchase farm nor cattle. Be merciful unto me dear Lord Jesus. Teach me, and let me not become a disgrace, for I thought it was intended for me out of your grace. Lord Jesus, let me live according to your counsel.
Sept. 5: It turned calm and the night was very hot. Frau Reinwaldt is very sick.
Sept. 9: We had heavy rain with thunder.
Sept. 12: The wind was good, from the north. An English ship from Gibraltar met us. It was going to Marienland (Maryland). I got a chill again.
Sept. 13: A child of one of the families from the Pfalz was buried. They shot several times at a large fish. Several very large ones could be seen beside the ship. They fished. The man-eaters [sharks] bit at the small fish and ripped off 2 lines.
Sept. 16: We had a good wind. Today I was so angry that I was not able to consider anything other than it had ruined me. The cause was that I wished to eat a piece of dried fish and my mother gave it away. My heart was greatly moved to contrition and humility. This lasted until evening when I received a friendly glance of grace and that evening I was gladdened. Yesterday a small bird came to the ship and we believed it was a land bird. It allowed us to capture it. They also shot at a big bird but it fell into the water.
Sept. 17: Before midnight they still did not find bottom. In the morning, around 3 o’clock, they found bottom at 55 fathoms. They hung anchor. At noon the sailors saw land and found bottom at 16 fathoms. In the afternoon at 15 fathoms. The wind is still good.
Sept. 18: We saw land and forest. The bottom was 5 fathoms. My heart greatly hungered that Jesus would be for me the righteousness God requires.
Sept. 19: We entered the stream [the Delaware River]. An English ship met us and we exchanged letters. Two more ships met us with horses, goats, pigs and sheep on board.
Sept. 20: We had a good wind. Frau Reinwaldt died.
Sept. 21: We passed Newcastle. There we received the first apples and they were very good. In the afternoon the captain left us because the sailors did not return. They put a lantern out on the bowsprit and beat the drum. While this was going on they fought near the mast. After this the sailors beat one another frightfully.
Sept. 22: We arrived in Philadelphia in the morning. George Schultz, Klem and afterwards Schönfeld came to meet us.
With help they received from the Dutch Mennonites the Wiegner family and those with them made a new start in Pennsylvania. They cleared land, planted apple trees, and built log homes.
Even though Christoph often felt sick (he suffered from intestinal problems), he worked hard with the rest. But he did not forget his promise to Christ. In the midst of his family’s struggle to establish themselves in the wilderness he kept on speaking with Christ all day long. He encouraged his brothers and sisters in the Lord, and in 1736 he welcomed the arrival of August Gottlieb Spangenberg from Herrnhut.
Christoph had known August Gottlieb, a German seeker from the University of Jena, ever since he came to live among the Moravian Brothers in Oberlausitz. Now their friendship grew as they worked at clearing land and planting crops together—the university professor and the refugee from Schlesien. As they worked they prayed and discussed the challenges facing them in their new home.
“With the freedom everyone has in the New World,” August Gottlieb commented, “the people here have invented their own religion. I think we could call it the ‘Pennsylvania religion’ where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. But there is little love for Christ.”
Christoph agreed. “What all of us need to do,” he told August Gottlieb, “is to seek Christ together. If we could lay our sectarianism down and all come back into communion with the Head of the Church, the light would shine from its candlestick again.” With shining eyes he went on to tell of his vision for “God’s Spiritual Community” in Pennsylvania.
August Gottlieb listened, with a growing sense of wonder. The vision was identical to his own! And it was simple.
Already in 1736, Johann Adam Gruber, the Inspirationist, had called Pennsylvania settlers to lay aside their differences and seek unity in Christ alone. Now Christoph and August Gottlieb, pledged themselves to the same. They began to speak with their neighbours. Seekers from the Reformed church, Heinrich Antes and Johann Bechtel, caught the vision and began to work with them. So did Johann Adam Gruber, the two Dunkard brothers Wilhelm and Andreas Frey, Conrad Weiser (an interpreter for the Indians and part time member of the Ephrata Society), Christian Weber, Francis Ritter, Gottlob Büttner, Wilhelm Zander (who later went to Surinam) and others. Calling themselves the Vereinigte Skippack Brüder (United Brothers of the Skippack) they met in their homes to pray. They refused to argue about anything not clearly specified in the Scriptures, and committed themselves with great joy to seek unity in Christ.
After Nicholas Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf, came to Pennsylvania the “Skippack meetings” took on an even wider scope. At one of them, held in the barn of a Mennonite, Jan de Turck, the first three Indians who came to believe in Christ as a result of the Moravians’ teaching were baptised with the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Christoph Wiegner, always in poor health, lived only three years after that, and his “Skippack Friends” scattered—but not in disunity. Gottlob Büttner and Wilhelm Zander found their way to Surinam. Heinrich Antes’s son went to Egypt. Wilhelm Frey travelled to Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Of Christoph’s friends in the “Skippack meetings” only a few remained with the small Schwenkfelder community in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Nothing would have suited him better.
All Christoph desired was for the believers of his locality to live one with another as so many members of the body of Christ—for in that, the Kingdom of Heaven comes.
Main source: Erb, Peter C., (editor) The spiritual diary of Christopher Wiegner, 1712-1745, Society of Descendants of the Schwenkfeldian Exiles, Pennsburg PA, 1978