Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1991 Volume 29 Number 4, Pages 161–167

Mennonites in the Chester Valley

Joel D. Alderfer

Page 161

As a preface, I should point out that I am not a professional historian. I am a museum curator, librarian, archivist, and genealogist. I am also very interested in our local Mennonite history, though I do not claim to be an expert on the Mennonites in the Chester Valley.

I have been interested in this section of the Mennonite community for sometime. I've been down here before, "snooping" around in the graveyard and outside the old octagonal school house building, though I never got into it before. One reason for my interest in this area is that it was a part of our local Mennonite community, the Franconia Conference. It was the very westernmost part of the Franconia Conference back in the 1830s and 1840s, when the church here was prospering.

We will look specifically at the Mennonites in this area -- their coming here, where they came from, and why they came here. Among the sources that I used in gathering this information is the History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference. It is the standard reference for Mennonite history in this area, originally published in 1937, and written by John C. Wenger, one of our older historians. In it is a short two-page chapter on the Diamond Rock congregation.

The earliest settlement of Mennonites in the Schuylkill Valley occurred as early as 1710. The very first Mennonites settled here in the vicinity of what is now the Borough of Phoenixville. They came here between 1710 and 1715, families such as the Buckwalters, the Longacres, the Bauers,and others.

Page 162

At about the same time there were two other very early Mennonite settlements in Chester County northwest of the one at Phoenixville, up in Vincent and farther north up in Coventry, the one in Coventry as early as 1715 or 1717. [If you go from Phoenixville out Route 724, the old Schuylkill Road, you will go past the old Vincent Meeting House, and eventually past the site of the old Coventry Mennonite Meeting House.] The Coventry congregation died out in about 1910, but the Vincent church is still quite active, west of Spring City.

Other Mennonite families began to settle in the Phoenixville area in the early 1700s, and eventually they felt the need for some type of meetinghouse. According to tradition, in about 1750 a Union Meeting House was built, a cooperative undertaking by the Mennonites, Quakers, and Presbyterians. It was built some place in what is now Schuylkill Township, on the Charlestown Road a couple of miles from what is now Phoenixville. It was a meeting house not only for the Mennonites, but also for these other early groups; in those days it was not uncommon for various groups to work together in a cooperative effort to build a church or meeting house. Their resources were limited, and families had to pool their finances and work together to get a school or meeting house started.

In 1772 the Mennonites in the area built their own meeting house. It was later known as Buckwalter's School House, and stood near the corner of Main Street and Nutt Road. As was often the case in our early Mennonite communities, it was used as a combination meeting house and school house. The Mennonites felt that a basic education for their children was very important, and they started schools as early as they could, often right in the meeting house. (I have actually seen an old photograph of this old Buckwalter meeting house/school house.)

This building was later used only as a school house since in 1794 the Mennonites built a new meeting house. It was where the Central Lutheran Church building stands, on the corner of Main and Church streets. (In a process of history the property was acquired by the Lutherans in 1875.)

This was also the site of a very early Mennonite cemetery, but I think there are only a couple of gravestones left there. Most of them, unfortunately, were later taken up and buried in the ground. But we do have a record of all the gravestones that were at this site. Families such as the Buckwalters, the Showalters, the Pennypackers, Haldermans, Longacres, and Hallermans were members here and were buried here.

Toward the end of the 18th century a number of families started to move out into Charlestown Township. With this movement into Charlestown, before long there were enough Mennonite families there that in 1795 they also built a new meeting house at Charlestown. It was about a mile from the village of Charlestown, on what is now Pikeland Road.

The leader in the beginning of this church was Matthias Pennypacker, who was born in 1742 and died in 1808. He was a miller, on the Pickering Creek somewhere near the village of Charlestown. He was the first bishop of the Mennonites in this area, ordained in about 1790, and was instrumental in having the Charlestown Meeting House built. (He was also the grandfather of Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker of Pennsylvania, one of the great historians at the turn of the last century and the author of quite a few books on local history.)

Page 163

Matthias Pennypacker served as the bishop for a preaching circuit which comprised Phoenixville, Charlestown, and, later, Diamond Rock. It was known as the Phoenixville District or Schuylkill District.

The meeting house at Charlestown -- and it appears also to have been true of the meeting house later at Diamond Rock -- was never used extensively.

It seems that the Mennonite groups living on the fringe of the Mennonite community were faced with a number of forces that were working against the conservative Mennonite tradition. For one thing, they had a lot of non-German neighbors around them, so there was a pressure to switch their preaching and singing from German to English. For some years this was a major issue and caused divisions within the church. There was also pressure on the young Mennonite people to marry their non-Mennonite neighbors, of which there were many, Quakers, Lutherans, Episcopalians.

In many cases, these other churches were seemingly more active, and the young people were drawn away from the Mennonite Church to them. Many of them had started Sunday School earlier than the Mennonites did, or had other social activities that the young people became interested in. The Mennonites were always more conservative, more hesitant to become involved in these newer movements, and for this reason they lost a lot of their young people, especially in areas on the edge of the Mennonite community.

By 1860, at the latest, there was no longer a congregation or meeting at Charlestown. For a while the building was used by a literary society -- it was known as Lyceum Hall -- and later the meeting house was the home of a tramp! Finally it was only an empty shell, and eventually it almost collapsed, before it was torn down by the neighboring Elwood Detweiler family in 1927. Unfortunately, they also had the gravestones taken out and buried in a gully in one of the fields. It was very unfortunate, because now we have no record of the families and people who worshipped there other than the few deeds that exist concerning the property. The deeds are the only records we have of that place, for so far as I know no one saved a record of the tombstones that were in that cemetery. Some of the family names at Charlestown, according to these old deeds, were Buckwalter, Showalter, Halderman, Clemens, Johnson, High, Rhoads, Longacre, and Pennypacker.

A little more than a year ago we were fortunate, through the help of an older farmer, Harold Pyle, who lived in the area, to determine the exact site of both the meeting house and the graveyard, after its location had been lost to Mennonite historians for several decades. We also found a photograph of the old meeting house at Charlestown. A very poor photograph, it nonetheless is the the only one we have of that meeting house. It was taken a year or two before the meeting house was torn down, when the building was in very bad condition.

Page 164

This leads us up to the early Mennonite settlement here at Diamond Rock in Tredyffrin Township.

In 1802, for some reason the Jacob Beidler family came here to Tredyffrin Township, all the way from Milford and Buckminster townships in central and northern Bucks County. Why they came here I am not sure; I am trying to imagine what could have brought them here. There might have been talk of starting a new Mennonite settlement in this area, or maybe it was because there was more land and cheaper land available here. Maybe they had relatives down here already. It would take a great deal more research to discover why they moved here.

But in any case, this Jacob Beidler, who was born in about 1777 and died in 1864, came down here from Bucks County in 1802 to a farm about two miles west of Valley Forge. He was the father of two of the later leaders in the Diamond Rock Mennonite Church.

During the next three decades there must have been a number of other Mennonite families who settled here -- among them the Haldemans, Detweilers, Ruths, Souders, Showalters, and Wismers -- in large enough numbers to build a meeting house. In 1835 the Diamond Rock Meeting House was built, about two-thirds of a mile west of the Beidler farm.

It was through the influence of Jacob Beidler that this meeting house was built. As a result, it was sometimes known as Beidler's Meeting House as well as the Diamond Rock Meeting House, and was sometimes also called the Chester Valley Meeting House.

Jacob Beidler1s son, Jesse J. Beidler, became a preacher at Diamond Rock, and also at Phoenixville. As I mentioned earlier, Diamond Rock was part of a preaching district that included Phoenixville, Charlestown, and Diamond Rock, and Jesse Beidler was a preacher in this district. He had been ordained in about 1835 to 1840.

It would appear that worship was held at Diamond Rock maybe only once a month, or even less often. It was merely a preaching house, part of the district, and not a separate congregation. In the old tradition of the Mennonite Church each meeting house was not necessarily a separate congregation. One congregation could have two, or even three meeting houses, as was the case here. The congregation included all of the Phoenixville district, with meeting houses at Phoenixville, Charlestown, and Diamond Rock. The district all worked together as one large congregation with three meeting houses.

There was another preacher in the Beidler family, Israel Beidler, who was also a son of Jacob Beidler. He also preached at Diamond Rock and at Phoenixville, from about 1845 to 1876, and was the last preacher at Diamond Rock.

Page 165

During the time the Beidlers were preaching the Mennonite Church was going through a difficult time, with a lot of changes. A split occurred during this period, and Jesse and Israel Beidler found themselves caught up in some of the issues and problems. It actually started in the 1840s, when a group of younger, more progressive ministers from Montgomery and Bucks counties were pushing for changes in the Mennonite Church. They wanted things like Sunday School for the children, higher education, and freer dress regulations for the preacher. They wanted to keep minutes of their conference, and a record of their membership. (None of this had been done before by the old Mennonites.) They thought that their preachers should be trained for the ministry, something not done before. And they were also becoming more politically involved.

All this was leading up to a major schism in the Mennonite Church in Montgomery and Bucks counties in 1847, and it affected the Mennonite group here in the Chester Valley.

The preachers in this area -- the Beidlers and the ministers at Phoenixville -- went along with the new conference, which was led by John Oberholtzer, of Swamp in Bucks County, and by Abraham Hunsicker, of Skippack. The group was known as the New Mennonites, now known as the Eastern District Conference.

As if this weren't trouble enough, a couple of years after that split Abraham Hunsicker and his fellow ministers in this end of the conference became caught up in further controversy over other issues of church leadership and management. As a result, there was another split, with some ministers leaving to form another new group. And so Abraham Hunsicker and some of his fellow ministers, including Jesse and Israel Beidler, left the previous new group and started another new, even more progressive, group of Mennonites, known sometimes as the Hunsickerites. (It was this group that later began what is now Ursinus College in Collegeville, and eventually also started an independent church in Collegeville, the Trinity Christian Church, which ultimately had no Mennonite ties.)

All this, of course, added to the overall problem, and was part of the dissolution that eventually led to the disbanding of the Mennonites here in the Phoenixville area.

Because the Beidlers were so caught up in the movement, when they died off there was basically no leadership to carry on. According to Wenger's history of the Franconia Conference, when Jacob and Jesse Beidler died, Jesse in 1863 and Jacob in 1864, it was really the signal of the end and disbanding of the Diamond Rock Mennonite Meeting House. Although Israel Beidler continued to preach here occasionally until his death in 1876, in these years apparently very few religious services were held. But the main reason the group disbanded was internal dissension, and by the time Israel Beidler died the congregation was gone and the meeting house had begun to fall into disrepair.

For about thirty years after that the meeting house here at Diamond Rock stood empty. (It could be that tramps lived here too!)

Page 166

Then in 1908, thirty-two years after Israel Beidler's death, mission work was started in the old Diamond Rock Meeting House by a group of workers under the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities of the Lancaster Conference. The leaders were John W. Weaver, Cornelius Haldeman, of Malvern, and Adam Stoltzfus, of Amish background.

This was actually the beginning of the Frazer Mennonite Church. After two years, the group decided to leave the old meeting house -- it was in disrepair -- and hold their meetings in the school house at Frazer. This then became the Frazer Mennonite Church. (Incidentally, I think it is appropriate that the Trustees of the Frazer Church take over the care of the old cemetery at Diamond Rock, because this was where their church had its beginning.)

After that the old meeting house fell into decay, and finally, in 1927, it was torn down by George Detweiler. He was a descendant of the Detweiler family that lived near Diamond Rock for many years, and was of Mennonite background. After the meeting house was torn down, the stones were used to repair the cemetery wall, and some of them were used in the wall in front of the Diamond Rock School House, nearby.

Fortunately, we have a couple of photographs of the old meeting house. They were taken shortly before the building was torn down, in about 1925. (These are the only photographs of the building that I know of; if any of you know of other pictures of the Diamond Rock Meeting House, I'd like to know about them.)

The photographs show the outside appearance of the building. It was located close to the wall along the road, with the cemetery on either side and in the back. I think, if I am not mistaken, you can still discern some traces of the foundations, which gives an idea of where the meetinghouse stood.

The Diamond Rock Meeting House
Drawing by Caroline Logan

Page 167

There were two doors at the front -- actually they were on the long side of the building, near the road -- with the date stone over a small semi-circular window, between the doors and above them. One door was used by the men, the other by the women. There were two windows on each end of the building, and two windows on the long side away from the road.

On the inside, between the two doors, was a long pulpit that in German we call the Prediger Schtul, or preacher's bench. All the ordained leaders of the church sat on this bench, though there were probably only two or three ordained ministers at Diamond Rock, a preacher and perhaps a deacon.

In front of the pulpit there was a section of seats, facing the pulpit, with a section of benches on each side, facing towards the center. The men usually sat on the left side of the church as you face the pulpit, in this case the west side of the building, while the women sat on the other side.

The meeting house was a very simple building. In fact, all our meeting houses were very simple and plain, with simple furnishings. A few of the old benches from the Diamond Rock Meeting House are still in the Frazer Mennonite Church, and some are in the Diamond Rock School House.

That is the story of the Diamond Rock Meeting House. All that is left is the old cemetery and the stones in the wall around the old graveyard, including the date stone of the meeting house:



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