The Holy Experiment

Better, perhaps, than any other medium, books track the fundamentality of religious tolerance to colonial America. From the Flushing Remonstrance (1657), the New World offered European Christians the promise of peaceful coexistence. Six years later, John Eliot, the “apostle to the Indians” published the Bible for the first time in the New World (18) with the explicit aim of evangelizing; religious tolerance did not extend to native religions. As Puritans, Quakers and other Dissenters came to the New World, their settlements were balkanized in accordance with their own particular beliefs.

William Penn, the son of an admiral and one of history’s largest non-royal landowners, set out to make the promise into reality: to establish a place free of religious persecution, one in which cohabitation and coexistence were the laws of the land. In 1681, when he was granted the charter for Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods, named after his homonymous father), Europe had been embroiled in over a century of religious wars, initially between Catholics and Protestants, and eventually atomizing into internecine struggles over points of doctrine. Luther and Calvin, Menno (17) and Fox, Labadie and Beissel, all gained their adherents and fractured the religious landscape of Europe.

The Holy Experiment was radical — a true innovation. Penn traveled Europe seeking persecuted groups to buy in to his tolerant wooded utopia. Among the most enthusiastic partners were Dutch, German (13 is a bible brought over from Nuremberg) and Swiss — settled along the Rhine — who bought large tracts of land as a place of refuge in the New World (as did the Swedes as early as the 1630’s; 4 and 5 chronicle the “plantation” of its church in American soil). The German Reformation, with its emphasis on direct engagement with the Word, created one of the great book cultures of all time. The agent of one of the largest immigrant groups, the Frankfurter Landgesellschaft (Frankfurt Land Company), was Francis Daniel Pastorius. He became a close personal friend of Penn’s, and founded in 1683 the Rhinelanders’ new home in America: Germantown.

Pastorius kept track of the land and those who purchased tracts in it; thus it is fitting that this list should begin with the manuscript map in hisown hand (1) that likely passed into the collection of the Penn family, resurfacing at the end of XIXc in the collection of Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker. From the same collection come two further documents: the renewed contract of the Landgesellschaft (2) in 1686 and, after more than a decade of complaining, the manuscript letter of attorney (3) that allowed Pastorius to relinquish his responsibilities to the Landgesellschaft in 1700 and to finish his life as a private citizen.

Germantown — now subsumed into Philadelphia — continued to grow through the XVIIIc. It gained a large enough population of German-speakers to bring Christoph Sauer, who settled there in 1724, to set up a press catering to them, beginning a long tradition of Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e., Deutsch: German) bookmaking. Sauer’s wife left him for Conrad Beissel, whose mystical community at Ephrata was home to the second German press in America. Beissel’s Ephrata Cloister press printed the first American edition of John Bunyan’s wildly popular Pilgrim’s Progress in German (Eines Christen Reise, 9) as well as their own hymnal (12).

Such was the power of Penn’s Holy Experiment — which is said, perhaps unfairly, to have “failed” due to pacifist Quakers’ refusal to support a state militia — that despite their personal and theological qualms, Sauer and Beissel cooperated; the first blackletter book published in America, the 1739 Zionitischer Weyrauchs-Hügel (6) was published by Sauer for Beissel’s congregation. Tolerance — the essence of the Experiment — was in much readier supply in Pennsylvania than in the Old World. Sauer went on to produce what might be expected — hymnals (10, 11), religious poetry (15, 16: an unrecorded funeral song) — but his press also produced works that one wouldn’t expect from an Anabaptist press: the seminal text of Christian Universalism (now Unitarian Universalism, 8) and even a dissertation on pure love by a Catholic archbishop (7).

It is no accident that the Continental Congress met just over five miles from Germantown. Enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is Penn’s Holy Experiment: the signatories refer not to any particular religion but call as their witness “Nature’s God.” How can the Holy Experiment be said to have failed when the very first amendment to the Constitution stipulates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ”? Religious pluralism — however imperfect — is in the DNA of America, as these books so eloquently attest.

J.L. Rosenberg (D.Phil, Oxon.)
Head of Rare Books, Arader Galleries