The Wise Men of Silesia

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Throughout much of January and often into February, I spend close to 20-30 hours every week visiting the homes of parishioners and blessing them as part of the annual Theophany celebrations. I put several hundred miles on my car’s odometer during this time. Aside from the extra workload and of course the joy of visiting parishioners in their homes, I also particularly enjoy driving around the countryside in and near the Lehigh Valley. If I have some extra time, I may wander a bit and follow some rabbit trails that my GPS or simply something catching my eye might take me down. This past Saturday, the sign depicted in the photo above is what quite suddenly caught my attention.

As you no doubt know (especially if you’ve read this), I have a great curiosity for obscure religious groups. I must admit that, though they are perhaps somewhat known to many of my fellow Pennsylvanians, I had never heard of the Schwenkfelders. What could they be? And what was this remote little spot out in the woods with the weathered sign?

After seeing the sign, I pulled over, parked my car, and walked up the hillside in the direction of the sign’s arrow. There, I was greeted by a remarkably picturesque little cemetery. And of course, I find old cemeteries utterly irresistible.

Nearby was a fairly unremarkable building (the meeting house) that looked like a small church whose windows were boarded up and yet curiously seemed to have recently received a fresh coat of paint.

At one end of the meeting house was a stone set into the ground that gave some details of its use just over a century ago.

One of the things that fascinated me most about this site was one large memorial stone toward the back of the cemetery that was dedicated to the original Silesian Schwenkfelder immigrants who had come to the area almost 300 years before. The stone is of course interesting for its historical significance, but what particularly delighted my eye was to see that three of these eleven Schwenkfelders in fact bore the traditional names of the Three Wise Men who came from Persia to visit the child Jesus after His birth: Melchior, Casper and Balthaser (the latter two are most often spelled in English as Caspar and Balthazar).

It seems curiously coincidental that all three Magi would be represented among these folks, but perhaps there is a tradition among the the Schwenkfelders of using these names, if only because their namesake, Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig, bore one of them.

So who are these people? You can of course read about them on Wikipedia or at the website of the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center, not to mention the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (which often has rather droll entries for non-Roman Catholic religious entities), and there are of course whole books dedicated to these folks. But here’s the brief version of their story:

Caspar Schwenckfeld (ca. 1489 – 1561) himself was a Radical Reformation theologian in Silesia, having had a conversion experience when he was about 30, joining the Lutheran church. He eventually came to disagree on the sacramental reality of Holy Communion contra Luther and also held some rather odd Christological views (namely, that Jesus’ humanity was indeed real but was not consubstantial with Adam’s seed but represented a new creation, derived from His divinity). He broke from the Lutherans and gathered a small group of followers, who over the years were persecuted by the Lutheran state church.

About 1,500 Schwenkfelders still persisted at the opening of the 18th century, and they fled Austrian imperial persecution in Silesia, many finding refuge with the famous Count Zinzendorf, who is perhaps more notable for his connection with the Moravians (he later came to America and actually preached right here in Emmaus). In the 1730s, a number of Schwenkfelders immigrated to the Philadelphia area, forming a Society of Schenkfelders some fifty years later. They did not form an actual denominational body until 1909, by which time the Schwenkfelder community in Europe had become extinct. There are now only five Schwenkfelder churches in the world, and they are all within fifty miles of Philadelphia. It does not seem that they explicitly retain a common theology based on Schwenckfeld’s teachings but have become essentially congregationalist in that regard.

During my wandering on Saturday, I also found the new location of the old Kraussdale Schwenkfelders in Palm, Pennsylvania (a whimsically named town, considering our climate). It looks little different from most of the Lutheran churches in our area.

A mystery still remains for me, though, and that is how these Wise Men of Silesia came to bear these remarkably uncommon names in common with those ancient Persian magi. Perhaps that will be the occasion of a future visit to the aforesaid library.