There is a small church in Delaware Township with a very long history. It is known as the Amwell Church of the Brethren, sometimes called the Dunkard Church for its practice of adult baptism. It seems to be a sort of outlier, quite different from the major religious groups who first appeared in Hunterdon County. Those were Quaker, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican (Episcopalian), Lutheran, Methodist, German Calvinist, and Dutch Reformed. They all had congregations throughout the county and hundreds of worshippers. But the Brethren church didn’t even have a church building until 1811, and never grew to any great size, despite two spin-off churches. And yet, it has endured for 283 years. Although that is a long time, there are eight church in Hunterdon County that were founded before 1733. They are:
1714, the Zion Lutheran Church in Oldwick
1715, the First Presbyterian Church in Raritan twp.
1718, the Dutch Reformed Church of Readington
1720, Quakertown Friends Meeting in Quakertown
1723, St. Thomas Episcopalian Church in Alexandria twp.
1727, Fairmont Presbyterian Church
1730, Bethlehem Presbyterian Church and
1732, St. Andrew’s Episcopalian Church, now in Lambertville, but first established in Ringoes.1
To understand the church’s early history, we must go back to the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism has a lot to answer for. On its good side, writers have claimed that it was responsible for the beginning of scientific inquiry, for the Enlightenment, for capitalism and free markets, and for the eventual development of modern democratic government. That may be true, but it also had a dark side. It triggered nearly two centuries of warfare in Europe. And very brutal warfare it was.
The underlying principle of the new Protestant religions was that everyone should be able to read the Bible and decide on a form of religious worship for themselves. This was in contrast to the Catholic religion in which priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope did the interpreting and wrote the rules. They had maintained a universal church through all of Europe and beyond for fourteen centuries.
The wars that followed the Protestant Revolution were certainly based on land-grabs—all those little fiefdoms and states were constantly encroaching on their neighbors’ borders. But the justification for these constant mini-wars was often religious. Perhaps the worst period of fighting was the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. It was concluded not with a victory but from exhaustion, with the Peace of Westphalia.2 One of the most significant provisions of the peace allowed each ruler to decide what religion would be practiced in his (almost always ‘his’) country without interference or challenge from his neighbors. This was a return to the notion of an established state church, as the Catholic church had once been, but on a smaller scale than before. In Westphalia, an odd combination of Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Churches was created that demanded allegiance to one or the other of them, but to no others.
An aside: When I was a child (oh so long ago) a favorite challenge was to say the longest word in the English language. It hasn’t been the longest word for many years, but back then the word was Antidisestablishmentarianism. Let’s break it down: establishmentarianism was the movement to create state religions begun by Henry VIII in the 16th century and then codified in the 17th century in the Peace of Westphalia. In the 18th century under the influence of the Enlightenment, disestablishmentarianism began to take hold, and in the 19th century, when a new plan was proposed to disestablish the Anglican church in England, conservatives who opposed it were known as antidisestablishmentarians. If anyone tried to explain that to me when I was a kid, I’d be rolling my eyes around now and looking for a quick exit. Back to the story—
The nature of the Protestant movement guaranteed that people would question established religion, whether it was Catholic or other Protestant sects, because it inspired so many people to think about religion for themselves, and of course, once people think for themselves, they tend to have opinions that differ from those expressed by authorities.
In the 16th century, a former priest named Menno Simons of Friesland came to believe that the Anabaptists of Germany were correct about many things, but wrong about violence. He was surrounded by violence in his birth country and throughout his travels, and advocated for a peaceful resistance, and if that failed, flight to a more welcoming state. There were several such places because many rulers preferred these “Mennonites” to the more disruptive Anabaptists.
The Pietist movement came into being after the Huguenots were subjected to persecution in France in the late 17th century. Bernard Bailyn has written3 that in the early 18th century, “. . . a wave of pietistic fervor . . . broke over the German states. Everywhere in the Rhineland this pietistic awakening created new radical movements.” They rejected the liturgical practices of the Lutherans and other Reformed churches, as well as infant baptism. The religious sects that were formed as a result were perfectionist, and determined to return to the original Church of the Apostles, and preferred to gather in segregated utopian communities. The movement spread to Berleburg in Westphalia. One of the followers of the Pietist movement in Schwarzenau, a village in Berleburg, was Christoph Sauer (1695–1758), who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1724. In 1743 he printed the first German-language Bible in North America with a Fraktur type formerly used by the Berleburg Pietists.
Today Schwarzenau is now part of the town of Bad Berleburg, in southeast Westphalia on the River Eder. A man named Alexander Mack lived there. He was born in Schriesheim in the Palatinate in 1679, but had moved to Berleburg in the early 1700s because the Count (Heinrich Albrect Sayn-Wittgenstein) was providing a refuge to religious dissenters from other German states.
In 1708, Mack gathered a few people into a new church. They called themselves the Schwarzenau Brethren, and were at first just a study group with four other men and three women. Later they decided that baptism was a necessity and then called themselves New Baptists (German: Neue Täufer), a twist on the name of Täufer (Baptists) commonly used by the Mennonites. Following their first baptism, they were filled with the spirit and set about evangelizing so effectively that by 1715 they had a large church in Schwarzenau and another in Marienborn, which was (and still is) in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, quite a distance north from Schwarzenau. The church had grown to 40 families with about 200 members. One of those who joined the church at Marienborn was Johannes Naas.
Johannes Naas is one of the most interesting people to settle in Amwell Township. According to J. S. Flory, he was born at Noorden in Westphalia in 1669, to “a good Westphalian family, from whom he inherited that native grace and refinement that comes from generations of culture. His educational opportunities were good for his day, and were doubtless well employed.”4 He was also very good looking, apparently. All the church histories take the trouble to point that out. He was tall and very strong, but also possessed of “a beautiful nature.”
Naas joined the church at Marienborn in 1713, when he was 44 years old. It was not long before he was chosen to minister to the church, probably because of his charismatic presence. He was also something of a poet and wrote many hymns that were still sung in the church 200 years later. But there were troubles in Marienborn, so the church members fled to Creyfelt, which was at the time a haven for Mennonites.
Creyfelt (or Creyfeld, now known as Krefeld) is important to this story. It is part of North Rhine Westphalia, and a few miles northwest of Dussëldorf. The town of Bad Berlesburg where Alexander Mack was living was on the southeast side of Westphalia. Both towns were part of Prussia in the early 18th century (Prussia was created out of several German states in 1701). In Creyfelt, Naas was named an elder of the church and was greatly admired there. Other New Baptists who came to Creyfelt were Peter Becker, John Henry Trout and his brothers [unnamed], and Heinrich Holsapple. 5
It was during this time that Naas had a very close call. Abraham H. Cassel wrote of this event in his biography of Johann Naas.6 Allowances must be made for this quaint and somewhat florid writing style. But first, in should be noted that in 1715, the King of Prussia was Frederick William I (1688-1740), who succeeded his father, Frederick I in 1713. He was an autocrat, but an excellent manager, leaving his country much stronger than it was when he got it. He was known as the “Soldier-King,” and made many reforms to the army.
In the year 1715-16, Johann Naas and Jacob Preiss traveled together, preaching and proclaiming the gospel of our Lord through the country of Creyfelt, to Marienborn and Epstein, at the time when the King of Prussia’s recruiting officers were canvassing the country to recruit his forces. They compelled everyone they met of a goodly appearance to enlist in the ranks of the soldiers and more particularly did they aim at those of a tall stature, for to be his body, or life guard, which was composed of such. Therefore they let none of that class slip.
Johann Naas was just such a one, being a head taller than almost any other man in that vicinity, and also of a very stout athletic constitution accompanied with such grace and nobleness of demeanor as almost to strike a stranger with awe at the sight of him. Preiss, on the contrary, was a small decrepit kind of man. So one day as it happened, they came in contact with the recruiting officers when Naas was immediately seized and taken up to enlist. But he refused; upon which they put him to various tortures to compel him, such as pinching and thumb screwing him. He still resisted, however, until at length they took him and hung him up with a cord by his left thumb and right great toe, in which ignominious posture they meant to leave him suspended until he would yield to their wishes. But he still continued so steadfast and immovable that they began to despair of accomplishing anything by torture, and also to fear that he might give up the ghost if they left him longer suspended, so they took him down again and dragged him along by force into the king’s presence, stating how they had tried by persuasion, and by torture, to accomplish their designs, but all to no purpose, as he still resisted. And yet he were too choice and too desirable an object to let pass. They had therefore brought him to the king to dispose of as he thought proper.
The king then eyeing him very closely said, “Why yes, I should like to have him very much—tell me why won’t you enlist with me?” “Because I cannot,” he replied, “As I have already enlisted in one of the noblest and best of enrollments long ago, and I cannot become a traitor to him.” “Why, to whom then, or who is your captain?” asked the astonished king. “My captain,” said he, “is the great Prince Immanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ. I have espoused his cause, and therefore cannot and will not forsake him.” “Neither do I will that you should,” answered the noble king, at the same time reaching in his pocket to present him with a gold coin as a reward for his fidelity, and bid him adieu.
The Wikipedia biography of Frederick William I gives no insight into what sort of religion the king practiced. Judging by the episode with Johannes Naas, he seems to have had some respect for reformist religions. But as a recruiting technique, hanging a man by a thumb and a toe seems to be counterproductive. And since when do kings carry coins in their pockets?
But getting back to Creyfelt, after his return home, trouble arose when Naas’ fellow elder in the congregation, one Christian Libe, insisted on rigid discipline in the church and expelled some members for taking liberties like marrying non-church members. Naas was very much opposed to this approach being far more inclined to treat people with kindness and sympathy. By 1717 the division in the church was so great that a grieving Naas “withdrew from the neighborhood” and retired from “Christian work.”7 This is too bad, since, according to Abraham Cassel, Naas was considered to be “unequalled as a preacher – being a German Whitefield.” (George Whitefield was a charismatic preacher of the 18th century who inspired the “Great Awakening.”)
Church histories often stated that these New German Baptists were forced to emigrate because of persecution, but Bernard Bailyn has shown that the peoples of the German states were always moving around for many different reasons, that war and persecution cannot be the only explanation for the restlessness. People were continually looking for a better place to work and to live. In the 18th century about 500,000 immigrants left their home countries in Germany and Switzerland for other parts of Europe, including the lower Danube, and Russia. But almost 200,000 moved to Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.8
The disputes among the New Baptists that had so alienated Johannes Naas are probably responsible for the departure in 1719 of twenty Creyfelt families under the leadership of Peter Becker. Their destination was Germantown in Pennsylvania, about six miles north of Philadelphia, where many Mennonites from Creyfelt had already settled. Back in Schwarzenau, there may have been pressure, if not persecution, from “the interfaith community” there, as Wikipedia claims. Enough so that in 1720 Alexander Mack and his followers decided to leave for East Friesland in the Netherlands, where they stayed for nine years, struggling to create a self-sustaining community. Failing that, they determined to join the Becker contingent in Germantown. They sailed from Rotterdam on July 7, 1729 in the ship “Allen,” landing at Philadelphia on Sept. 15, 1729. In Germantown, Mack was welcomed and took over leadership of the church in America until his death in 1735. During that time, Mack got in touch with Johannes Naas and persuaded him to return to the fold and to join them in America. Naas made the journey in the summer of 1733. Fortunately for us, he wrote a long letter describing his journey to his son Jacob Wilhelm Naas, who had remained behind in Switzerland.9
The voyage to America was a harrowing one. Accompanying Naas were his wife Margaret, and daughter Elizabeth, along with Endick (Hendrick) Endt (Ent) and sons Valentine Ent and Daniel Ent, and also Catharina Endt who may have been the wife of Endick. Also listed was Mathias Kish and Andreus and Susan Fry.10 Naas and his fellow travelers sailed on the “Pennsylvania Merchant” from Rotterdam on June 24, 1733, and with some difficulty managed to get to Plymouth, England on July 13th. What with the usual bureaucracy and the need to resupply, the ship could not leave for America until July 21st. Only four days later, the first death took place, “a little child.” Naas wrote: “When the body fell from the plank into the water I saw with great astonishment that a large number of big fish appeared and darted quickly away in front of the ship, as if they wished to flee from the corpse.”
They sailed on for ten days with a good breeze, but after the 28th, the weather changed for the worse, slowing down their progress so much that “in 3 weeks we made only 60 hours (about 180 miles), which we could have done in one day.” On August 3rd, Naas tripped on a slippery ladder, falling so hard that he ended up lying on his back for two weeks. Fortunately, his injuries were not permanent.
On August 7th, another child died and “at the same hour a little boy was born.” On the 11th and 12th, a storm that lasted 48 hours caused distress among the passengers, who had to sit in the dark, rocking back and forth with the boat, many of them vomiting. Another storm arrived on the 17th followed by such a calm that the boat did not move at all. Once the ship got moving again, another child died. On September 6th, one of the sailors speared a dolphin, and Naas was surprised to see that it looked nothing like the pictures he had seen of them back in Germany. He was probably thinking of those monster fishes that appeared on early world maps.
Then came more deaths. A child died on the 11th, and on the 13th a young woman died in childbirth. The newborn also died, as well as two others earlier, leaving the husband completely alone. On the 16th, a 50-year-old woman died.
The trip was taking much longer than the six weeks that were was planned, which meant people were running out of the provisions they had brought along, and having to get by on the dreadful ship’s provisions. There was much complaining and discouragement, but on the 17th of September, a land bird perched on the ship and on the 18th they met with a ship from Rhode Island that provided them with a very limited amount of food (half a bag of apples, a goose, a duck and two chickens). There was much admiration for “the beautiful American apples.”
On the 20th, “a young married woman” died. Then another storm arose that lasted the whole night and dumped great amounts of water into the ship, leaving everyone soaked through. On the 23rd, the first soundings were made that struck ground, but it was quite a while before land was sighted. The ship was well-captained because it arrived at the mouth of the Delaware River, just where it was supposed to be. The ship was greeted by three pilot boats, which was necessary to avoid all the shoals in the Delaware Bay. But just as they were beginning their trip up the river, another storm arrived, forcing them to set their anchor—the first time that had been done since they left Plymouth.
They set sail on the morning of the 25th and saw on both sides of the river “with so much joy as can easily be imagined, the land and the beautiful trees near the shore just as if they had been planted there.” But the deaths were not over; another baby died on the 26th. During the night, the ship sailed into “the narrows of the river, which is indeed very delightful to see, as wide as the Rhine where it is the widest, and on both banks are the most beautiful woods and groves and here and there houses stand on the banks which have fish nets hanging to dry in front of them.” The ship finally arrived at Philadelphia on September 29, 1733, after a journey of three months and the deaths of eight people, most of them infants. Naas and his companions were greeted on the river by Alexander Mack and other Brethren who took small boats out to the ship to provide the travelers with fresh food and water.
The Brethren in Amwell
It seems that when word reached Amwell of the arrival of Johannes Naas, the German settlers there quickly traveled to Germantown to urge Naas to come to New Jersey to begin a new congregation among them. This must have appealed to Naas because in only a month or so, Naas, with his wife Margaret and daughter Elizabeth, traveled there, accompanied by the Amwell residents. There is no record of exactly who they were, but it is likely that some or all of them were the men who became the original trustees of the church. They were Johannes petter Laascheet, Antony Derdorf, Jacob Moor and Gants Rudolf Harle (Harley). These names were found in the papers of Herbert Harley, whose history of the Amwell Church includes a page in which he or someone else has copied the signatures of the founding members of the Amwell Church of the Brethren from various sources. (This was done by hand, long before copiers and scanners were available. The signatures not all appear on the same document.)
In 1734, Jacob “Moor,” yeoman, sold a tract of 25 acres in Amwell to Johannes Naas, gentleman, for £24. The deed was witnessed by Antony Dirdorff, Benjamin Severns (who wrote his mark), and Samuel Green. This was Rev. Naas’ home until his death seven years later. It was located on today’s Dunkard Church Road.11
Abraham K. Cassel wrote12 that the Brethren first appeared in Amwell in 1733, when five followers of Alexander Mack arrived from Germantown. He listed them as Reverend Johann Naas, Anthony Deerdorf, Jacob More, Budolph Harley and John Peter van Laushe. This is misleading. In fact, Moore, Dierdorf, Harley and Lawshe were already resident in Amwell, long before 1733, and had traveled to Germantown to recruit the newly arrived Johannes Naas to be their minister in Amwell. As to the other members of this first congregation of Brethren, we cannot know their names for certain. In 1790, Morgan Edwards visited Amwell while preparing his major work on the Baptists of New Jersey,13 and discovered that “These people keep no records.”
We do know that Rev. Naas acquired an additional preacher for his Amwell Church. This was John Bechleshammer, who remained with the church for many years. He was present there in 1738 when an apostate named Conrad Beissel (1691-1768) came to visit from Ephrata, Pennsylvania where he had established a new order in 1732. They were known as German Sabbatarians or Seventh Day Baptists, for their practice of worshipping on Saturdays, rather than Sundays. Beissel had been an elder in the Pennsylvania Brethren Church from 1724 to 1728. He was visiting Amwell to spread the word of a revival his followers were experiencing, and probably hoping to bring some converts back with him. He soon returned for a second visit, hoping to see a branch cloister established in Hunterdon County. He sent one of his ministers, Emanuel Eckerling, to act as a teacher, and a log house was built for him on land belonging to one of the Amwell brethren, Johann Peter van Laaschett (Lawshe). Eckerling got the idea that midnight meetings would inspire more religious fervor. But he made the mistake of inviting the daughters of church members. It took no time at all to dismiss him and send him back to Ephrata. But he did not return alone; some members were sympathetic and followed him there (Dietrich Fahnstick, Conrad Boldhauser, John Mohr (brother of Jacob Moore?) and Bernard Gitter.14
The Death of Rev. Naas
Rev. Johannes Naas died on May 12, 1741 at the age of 72. It is widely believed that Rev. Naas was buried in the old Moore Cemetery, and we must assume that his wife Margaret was also buried there. Their stones did not survive the years; in the 1950s, members of the Amwell Church of the Brethren installed a new stone to mark the approximate area where he was buried. I imagine there was much grieving and lamentation at his funeral.
He left a church with a strong foundation. By 1790 there were 46 church members and 28 families.15 Many other original church members were to die in the 18th century. Sometime before 1803, when he died, Alexander Mack, Jr., son of the founder, made a list of church members who had died in his lifetime. His father, Alexander Sr. died in 1735. The others, 27 of them, were:
Johannes and Margaret Naas, and their daughter Elizabeth Naas Landis
Johannes von Laashett and wife Christina
Rudolf and Barbara Herli [Harley]
Jacob Moore and his wife [not named] and Jacob Moore Jr.
Antony Dierdorf and wife [Christina]
Peter Dierdorf and Henrich Dierdorf and wife [Anna]
Peter and Wilhelm Wertz
Johannes Bechtelsheimer, Sr. and Jr. and the wife of Johannes (the list did not say which Johannes)
Peter Jaeger (Yawger) and wife
Brother Kempel, Brother Haecker, Brother Wagener and Sister Engel
This has been the story of how the Amwell Church of the Brethren began. How it survived the centuries is a story for another time.
- From Less Stately Mansions by Frank Greenagle. Oddly enough, Mr. Greenagle did not include the Amwell Church of the Brethren in this otherwise very useful book, even though he did include the offshoots located in Sergeantsville and Sand Brook. ↩
- Probably the best book about this strange war is The Thirty Years’ War, written by C. V. Wedgwood in 1938. ↩
- Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of North America, An Introduction, 1986. ↩
- John Samuel Flory, “Literary Activity of the German Baptist Brethren in the 18th Century,” 1908. Available on Google Books. ↩
- Martin Grove Brumbaugh, History of the German Baptist Brethren in Europe and America, 1899. Available on Google Books. ↩
- Typed Ms. of Cassel’s biography of Johannes Naas found among the papers of Blanche Carl, later transferred to the Amwell Church of the Brethren. ↩
- Flory. ↩
- Bailyn, p. 16. ↩
- I bless the people who translated, preserved and reproduced this amazing letter. A typed copy is in the possession of the Amwell Church of the Brethren. ↩
- Ships passenger list published in Pennsylvania German Pioneers by Wm. Hinke. ↩
- Abstract of deed from the papers of Rhoda Wagner. Unfortunately, the abstract did not include a boundary description. ↩
- In “Notices of the Brethren’s Early Church, With Biographical Sketches of Some of their First Ministers.”↩
- Morgan Edwards, A. M., Materials Towards A History of the Baptists in Jersey, vol. 2, 1792; available on Google Books.↩
- History of East Amwell, 1976, pp. 196-197, citing Committee of the Church of the Brethren, “History of the Church of the Brethren in New Jersey of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania” by the Committee Appointed by the District Conference, Lancaster, PA, 1915, pp. 164, 196-97.↩
- From Edward Morgan’s Report of 1790, on the Baptist Churches of New Jersey. ↩