From Nicholas Stoltzfus to Klaus Greenywalt

Posted by Daniel Mast on

My books always start with an unresolved question or two. This is very much the case with Both My Sons, published by Masthof Press (2016).

Nicholas Stoltzfus is my great (7 greats) grandfather through my grandmother, Emma Yoder, born Emma Stoltzfus to Mast and Mary Stoltzfus. As a teenager, I wondered: Who was Nicholas? Why did he leave his homeland in Germany and his mother there and emigrate across the dangerous North Atlantic to a new land, at great risk to his life? His story has grown more relevant over the last three years. Like the Syrian boat refugees of 2016, fleeing religious persecution for a better life in Northern Europe, as many as thirty percent of the passengers on the teacup ships of the 18th Century also perished on the North Atlantic trip. What was his trip like for him?

What facts do we have on Nicholas? Our major document is a 1744 letter to the Count of Zweibrücken, asking permission to marry a Mennonite woman. This letter was discovered in the Archives of Zweibrücken, a town in southwest Germany that has changed hands a number of times between France and Germany over the centuries. German researcher Ernest Drumm published the letter in Zur Geschichte der Mennonite in Herzogtum Pfalz (History of the Mennonites in the County of the Palatinate of Zweibrücken). The letter was then translated into English and printed in Mennonite Research Journal, April, 1963 and reprinted by C.Z. Mast for the Berks County Historical Tour, July 18, 1968.

Nicholas Stoltzfus penned his letter to the Count of Zweibrücken. This would be somewhat comparable to a person today requesting permission to marry from the Governor of Pennsylvania or the Mayor of Lancaster. Was that normal? Nicholas states that he was born in Saxony, in eastern Germany. His father came to Zweibrücken, married his mother Catharina Rosina Bergmann, in 1717, and worked as a wigmaker. Nicholas was born about 1718. In 1721, his father died and Catharina returned with her young son to Saxony. At some point before 1744, Nicholas returned to Zweibrücken, found employment among the Mennonites (there were both Mennonite and Amish congregations in Zweibrücken. Nicholas uses the term ‘Täufer’, which was the term used in Switzerland for both groups.)

I reviewed this letter early in my research for Both My Sons. The letter raises some important questions. The Archives at Zweibrücken contain additional information about Nicholas Stoltzfus. It appears that the Secretary and Registrar of the Count of Zweibrücken requested information from higher officials on how to deal with ‘Täufer’ (Mennonites) or persons applying to become ‘Täufer’ in 1744. Nicholas’ letter had triggered a crisis. The president chancellor responded to their inquiry with his decision that Nicholas should not be permitted to marry a ‘Täufer’ because he was raised to the age of eight or nine years in the Evangelical (Lutheran) faith.

Observation One—Nicholas is asking permissions to change faiths, an illegal act in the states of Germany in the early 18th Century.

John Ruth’s masterpiece, The Earth is the Lord’s, fills in many details for us. After the Thirty Years’ War between the Catholics and Protestant armies, which devastated the Palatinate, the Elector Palatine Karl Ludwig in 1664 invited the persecuted Swiss Anabaptists (Mennonites) to settle in his territory, estabish farms and build lands. However, as a condition for coming, they were required to agree to a list of restrictions. Only three faiths were legally sanctioned in 17th Century Germany by the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism (Reformed) are the legally sanctioned faiths. All others—Judaism, Islam, gypsy (Roma) folk religions and Anabaptism were not legally permitted.

The Mennonites were forbidden in their 1664 Agreement with the Elector to evangelize or convert the local citizenry. Nicholas was asking for an exception to the law. His request will be denied.

Observation Two—Nicholas is seeking a career.

‘I went to strangers for a time for employment From the first time of my employment I . . . had opportunity to stay with Mennoites (Täufer) because the area was owned by them. . . while I stayed there and came to be employed by people of the group aroud Rinkweyler (Ringweiler), I decided upon marriage now that I am twenty-five years of age and I have no parents and cannot expect inheritance from them and through such a marriage I could come to the means of a livelihood.’

In Eighteeenth Century Germany, the route to becoming a practitioner of a trade or craft was the apprenticeship. This normally means three years of apprenticeship to an established miller or baker or shoemaker or wigmaker, e.g., after which the apprentice becomes a journeyman and can then establish his own shop or business. This practice continues to the present day in Germany.

If a young man or woman could not apprentice to a relative, they would be required to pay for an apprenticeship, a possibility likely out of the question for Nicholas and his widowed mother. Rather than ending up as a laborer the rest of his life, Nicholas returns from his native Saxony to Zweibrücken and apprentices himself to the heretic and socially restricted Mennonites. What exactly did he do? It appears he worked first as a farmer, later as both a woodcarver (carpenter?) and a caretaker of the trout ponds of a master builder and after his marriage he leased a mill as well. His marriage would solidify his employment.

Observation Three. He says he was ‘converted’ to the Mennonite ‘quiet manner of conduct’. I have not seen the original German letter and wording but the English word ‘converted’ is striking. It indicates more than a choice of a certain lifestyle. The Mennonite way of following Christ differed significantly from the Lutheran practice. A few distinctives were the emphasis on believer’s baptism (rather than incorporation into the religious community at birth, which is a core tenet of state-sanctioned religions) and nonresistance (rather than defending one’s family and country). Stoltzfus is ‘converting’ to this image of Jesus. Perhaps it is his first spiritual experience. In any case, it is a decisive step that has important consequences. Among other things, it will result in his proposed marriage being initially rejected by the Count of Zweibrücken and then he and his new bride undergo ‘deportation’ for a number of years.

Observation Four. Nicholas is eventually permitted to marry under condition that he and his wife leave the country ‘at least for a time’. He returns to Saxony but after seven years, we find him back in Rinckweyler Hof.

This is consistent with the Restriction on Mennonites that only allows 200 Mennonites in all of the Palatinate. In any case, he then emigrates on the ship Polly, with his son Christian and two younger children to Penn’s Woods, in 1766 and buys land on the Tulpehocken Creek in 1671, the place where the present-day Nicholas Stoltzfus has been restored, with a new barn. This location now serves as a lodestone for the Amish community of Pennsylvania, since 98% of Pennsylvania’s Amish now have some Stoltzfus genes! (Paul Kurtz)

As I began my research on Nicholas Stoltzfus, these were the facts I had in hand. Like almost every other Mennonite emigrant, Nicholas did not keep a journal, diary, write letters or draw pictures of his life. Nicholas and his family bought a farm and worked to make it successful. We know nothing of the trigger event behind his emigration, his journey across or what life was like when he got here.

The Earth is the Lord’s provides many facts that fill in the story. Ruth helps us understand:

  • The situation of the Swiss Anabaptist who settled the Palatine Elector’s South German lands
  • The causes of the 1710 and 1717 emigrations to America
  • What happened when the emigrants reached Penn’s Woods.

Accordingly, I made a decision to make the main character of my book a ‘compositie hero’. I would place Nicholas’s story about fifty years earlier because this is the great initial period of emigration, 1710 – 1717, for which we have a number of letters and historical documentation. In order to detail apprenticeship and the life of a craftman/tradesman I would merge his story with that of Caspar Wistar, a Palatinate Protestant (Rosalind Beiler, Immigrant & Entrepreneur: the Atlantic World of Caspar Wistar), the son of a forester, whose father also died early. For the Pequea Settlement piece of the story, I would incorporate the story of Martin Kendig, a miller and land-dealer who was part of the original band of 28 settlers who came to the Pequea Settlement. Finally, I saw my story as a modern rendition of biblical Abraham’s story. Abraham also made a faith decision because he heard the voice of the Lord, telling him to leave his native land and go out ‘he knew not where.’ Abraham made family decisions which resulted in a great deal of conflict within his family but he attempted to deal justly with all members of his family as he followed the Lord’s comandment. He is commended as the father of the faithful by the Apostle Paul. The final combination of characters is a fictitious character, so I gave him a new name as well, Nicholas (Klaus) Grünewald, or Greenywalt, as he was called by everyone in the New World.

I proposed this Coming to America storyline to a number of people whose opinions I respect highly, including John Lapp, John Ruth, Carolyn Wenger, Dick Thomas. They agreed that the Coming to America story of the Swiss Germans as told by historians has not been easily accessible to non-historians. A novel might do just that.

The Earth is the Lord’s introduces us to all four communities in early Pennslvania:

  • The Swiss-Germans, who initially settle land purchased from Penn’s secretary, James Logan, a Quaker
  • The Quakers, who govern Penns province, sell land to the Pennsylvania settlers, and attempt to carry out Penn’s Holy Experiment of peaceful life with the Native American.
  • The Native Americans, primarily the Delaware and Susqueshannock, who are vassals to the more powerful Iroquois, who collude with Penn’s sons to sell land to new settlers without agreement from the Delaware, precipitating the revenge war of 1755
  • The Scots-Irish. Like the Mennonites, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians (Calvinists) were also religious refugees. However, they were not pacifists. The Quaker government deliberately positioned them as a buffer between the pacifist German settlers and the frontier.

I incorporate these four communities into Both My Sons.

I believe the novel will help modern descendents of Nicholas Stoltzfus imagine his decision to follow the humble, suffering Christ that has so powerfully influenced his descendents. It will also help readers to picture the frontier setting of other settler stories, such as the story of Jacob Hochstetler and his sons and the families who settled the Pequea Settlement. Their descendants have now spread across the North American continent.

© Ken Yoder Reed, 2016

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