Historic Germantown Homecoming
by Leonard Gross
The Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust held a homecoming
weekend October 18-20 to celebrate its 50th anniversary of ownership
of the historic Germantown Mennonite meetinghouse and its witness
of "Preserving a heritage. . . Telling a story." Close
to one hundred persons came for the weekend to reflect on the
meaning of Germantown and the place it holds in the faith and
heritage of all North American Mennonites. The program committee
led by Phil Weber in cooperation with the Randy Nyce, the new
executive director, planned the weekend.
In the late 1940s the Germantown Mennonite congregation was down
to a handful of aging members. Fearing, that if the congregation
died out, the historic Germantown meetinghouse might fall into
non-Mennonite hands, Walter Temple, a prominent member of the
congregation, approached the Historical Committee of the General
Conference Mennonite Church asking that the General Conference
take ownership of the building. The conference executive committee
agreed to do so and authorized the historical committee to form
a Board for that purpose.
In 1951 a board was formed with representatives from the General
Conference, the Eastern District and the congregation. In 1952
the charter was amended to create the corporation known today
as the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust. Because of this action
the 1770 Germantown Mennonite meetinghouse remains in its historic
significance as the symbol of North American Mennonitism for
all Mennonites living in the New World.
The board met for its annual meeting on Friday afternoon, October
18. Following that they held the ceremonial unveiling of a bronze
plaque, marking the six-apartment building alongside the meetinghouse,
as the Stanley R. Fretz Center. Stanley Fretz joined the Board
in 1962, serving energetically as its chairman for thirty years,
and was instrumental in developing the campus of buildings around
the meetinghouse. Fretz's daughter, Mary Lou Fretz Roush, attended
the unveiling and spoke of her father as a warmly human and humorous
A Friday evening dinner for current and past board members was
a time of reminiscing and honoring past board members. Walter
Temple and his sister, Eleanor, both deceased, were long-time
active members in the congregation and served on the board in
its earlier years. Among former board members present who shared
memories were J. Herbert Fretz, brother of Stanley, who served
seventeen years from the board's beginning in 1951, and Mahlon
Hess, one of the first to represent the Mennonite Church, who
also served seventeen years beginning in 1971. The Mennonite
Church and the Franconia Conference became part of the trust
in 1970, in partial fulfillment of another of Stanley Fretz's
dreams that the Germantown meetinghouse belongs to all North
Also remembered were historian Melvin Gingerich, who spent nine
months in Germantown in 1971-72, laying the foundation for the
program and mission of Germantown; and former administrators/executive
directors, Roman and Marianna Stutzman, Robert Ulle, Marcus Miller
and Galen Horst-Martz.
Saturday a steady stream of people came to tour the meetinghouse
and other historical sites in Germantown and to attend the four
workshops. Mary Jane Hershey, noted fraktur historian, gave a
presentation on "Christopher Dock in Germantown, Skippack
and Salford." Though best known for his work at Skippack
and Salford, Dock also taught several summers in Germantown.
Jan Gleysteen, well-known artist, historian and writer gave a
presentation on "Mennonite Meetinghouse Architecture,"
focusing first on European meetinghouses and than on those built
in the New World, of which the Germantown meetinghouse is one
of the earliest examples.
In the afternoon, Mary Sprunger, associate professor of history
at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA, spoke about
her ongoing studies of Dutch and Lower Rhine Anabaptism and its
connection with the Germantown settlement. Leonard Gross, historian
and writer on Anabaptist, Hutterite, Amish and Mennonite themes,
spoke about "Mennonites and Urbanism," pointing out
the urban beginnings of Anabaptism in Zurich, Switzerland, and
other examples of urban Mennonitism through the centuries, of
which Germantown has been an urban phenomenon in the United States
since its beginning in 1683.
The highlight of the afternoon was the keynote address by Dr.
Leroy Hopkins, professor of German at Millersville (PA) University.
With deep interest in the interaction of Africans and Germans
in Europe, Africa and the New World, he spoke on "Uneasy
Neighbors: African Americans and Germans in Colonial America."
He noted that the 1688 protest against slavery, written only
five years after the Germantown settlers arrived, was Mennonite
in spirit and substance. Though the writers were at that time
Quaker, they had been Mennonite and their Mennonite roots were
evident in the protest. The Philadelphia Mennonite High School
choir, directed by Wendell Holmes, sang following his presentation.
Completing the afternoon was the ceremonial transfer of the Johnson
House to the recently formed Johnson House Historic Site Board.
The Johnson House is one of the few documented Underground Railroad
sites from the 1850s and the only one in Philadelphia in nearly
original condition and open to the public. The Johnson House
was built for the Johnsons, a Quaker family, in the 1760s by
a Mennonite, Jacob Knorr, who also built the meetinghouse. It
has been owned by Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust since 1980.
At the closing session Sunday afternoon, Jan Gleysteen made a
slide presentation entitled "Anabaptist History: Pre and
Post Germantown." He examined the migrations from Europe
to the New World beginning with the presence of Mennonites in
New Amsterdam (New York), the ill-fated utopian colony of Pieter
Cornelisz Plockhoy, the story of Germantown and successive migrations
west. The afternoon ended with a recognition and reception to
honor Galen Horst-Martz for his recently concluded twelve years
of service as executive director of the trust.
Germantown was the first and, for two centuries, the only urban
Mennonite congregation in the United States. The Germantown meetinghouse,
though no longer used by the congregation, stands as the site
of the oldest Mennonite congregation in the country and as a
forerunner of how Mennonites would eventually move from being
the "quiet in the land" to being a vital witness, both
rural and urban, to the message of Christ that is the faith and
heritage of all Mennonites. As it looks to the future the Germantown
Mennonite Historic Trust is committed to being a part of that
Leonard Gross is a long-time member of the GMHT board,
and is the retired director of the Historical Committee and Archives
of the Mennonite Church.