What on Earth is a Schwenkfelder?

🌺  Written by Amanda Whittington

You’re familiar with mainline denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. You know without a doubt what a Catholic is. But have you ever heard of a Schwenkfelder?

You might be surprised to discover this tiny denomination that is seated in South-eastern Pennsylvania. At first glance, this tiny group of churches might seem cult-like in their history, but they are a legitimate, if not small, denomination that believes in the major tenants of Christianity.

Schwenkfelders are important because they are a tiny sect of Christianity that has its roots in Martin Luther’s protestant reformation. They are only known in the United States today because they left Europe to escape religious persecution and they still believe in religious freedom to this day.

Here’s what you’re missing about Schwenkfelders and their tenants of belief.


There Are Just Four Schwenkfelder Churches

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The Schwenkfelder denomination is tiny and only consists of four churches. Of the four churches, two are in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the other two are within 50 miles of those. The four churches are Central Schwenkfelder, Palm, Olivet, and Mission. There were other Schwenkfelder churches at one time, but they didn’t survive and have since closed their doors and sold their buildings.


It All Started with One Man

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Schwenkfelders got their name from their founder, Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig. He was born around 1490 and was a writer, German theologian, physician, and a preacher who became a protestant reformer. He initially studied the works of Martin Luther, but branched out into some slightly different beliefs. The Schwenkfelder denomination is now more closely related to the beliefs of the Anabaptists rather than Lutherans.


Schwenkfelders Suffered Religious Persecution

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Just like other believers, Schwenkfelders suffered religious persecution in Europe. They escaped to the United States between 1731 and 1737 to find religious freedom. In Europe, they suffered slavery, fines, and even prison for their beliefs.

Upon coming to America, the Schwenkfelders have continued to support and celebrate religious freedom.


Schwenkfelders Are Similar to Anabaptists

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Just like the Anabaptists, Schwenkfelders have a strong history of nonviolence and pacifism. They were opposed to war and even against swearing oaths.


Schwenkfelder Churches Do Their Own Thing

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Schwenkfelder churches are autonomous but linked through history. They celebrate their own Thanksgiving on September 24, to commemorate their arrival in the United States and celebrating their religious freedom.

Otherwise, though, the individual churches are free to govern themselves however they like. While some of the churches are more traditional in style, otherwise lean towards Gospel music and even contemporary songs.

As each church governs its own people, they are free to hire pastors and appoint laypeople as they see fit. There is no denominational head like a Pope or Bishop in other denominations.


Schwenkfelders Have Their Own Magazine

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Called the Schwenkfeldian, the denomination publishes a full-color, print magazine. This is a deeply historical publication that is published three times a year. It focuses on church history and what its members are doing to support their community and beliefs.


The Founder Didn’t Like Denominations

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Schwenkfelders didn’t become a formal denomination until the 20th century. While the initially called themselves the Confessors of the Glory of Christ, Schwenkfelder himself rejected outward church forms and denominations. He did not permit them to form an organized religion, instead, referring to them as a brotherhood of Christians.

Schwenkfelder’s dislike of formal church organizations is what prevented the sect from forming an actual denomination until much later.


They Keep Worship Services Simple

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This community of believers does not focus on any type of formal liturgy. Instead, they prefer to keep the worship services simple. They incorporated a few hymns, Scripture, and a sermon, but not much more.

More recently, Schwenkfelder churches have used everything from pipe organs to worship teams to lead worship services, but still kept the grassroots style of service without formal liturgy.


They Don’t Baptize Babies

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Schwenkfelders don’t do infant baptism. Schwenkfelder himself was against it. As a denomination, Schwenkfelders focus on believer baptism, instead. This means that a person couldn’t be baptized until they could make their own profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Tradition varies between churches as to whether baptism is by sprinkling or immersion.


They Don’t Celebrate a Mystical Communion

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Schwenkfelders don’t ascribe to the sacrament of communion like Catholic churches do. Instead, they view communion as a means of celebrating what Christ has done. It is more a commemoration than a sacrament. Communion time is quiet and reflective and focused on repentance and forgiveness.


They Believe in a Personal Experience of Christ

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Schwenkfelders believe that everyone can (and should) have a personal relationship with Christ. They focus on the mystical and supernatural aspects of Christ more than the human aspects and historical events of Christ’s life. You do not need a pastor or priest to intercede for you, instead, the focus is on Christ inside of you.


They Believe the Bible is God’s Word

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This denomination takes a very high view of Scripture, believing that it is God’s Spoken Word to His people.


They Have Their Own Library

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As small a denomination as they are, it might be surprising to discover they have their own library. The Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center holds events, talks, and preserves the history and cultural heritage of the Schwenkfelder denomination.


Schwenkfelders Are Not a Cult

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Although some of their history and beliefs may seem cult-like, Schwenkfelders are not an actual cult. Their belief system is similar – if not the same – as many mainline Protestant churches. They believe in Jesus, salvation, baptism, and communion, just like many other Christian churches do.

Today’s Schwenkfelder churches are groups of Christians with a love of history and Christ. In a period of time when churches and denominations seem to be shrinking, perhaps the Schwenkfelders will continue to stand the test of time.


15 Quirky Things Protestant Do That No One Else Understands

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A large and wildly diverse group without one central authority, it’s difficult to pinpoint Protestant culture exactly.

From Baptists to Methodists to Evangelicals to Lutherans, each individual denomination has its own practices, traditions, and beliefs. A common trait that applies to one rarely (if ever) applies to all.

That being said, there are a few practices that are distinctly Protestant — practices that others find a bit weird or quirky.

Whether your church is guilty of all of these or none of these, you might just get a chuckle at these 13 quirky things Protestants do that no one else understands!

15 Quirky Things Protestant Do That No One Else Understands


15 Important Issues Catholics and Protestants Can’t Seem to Agree On

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Have you ever wondered what Catholics or Protestants really believe?

Maybe you were taught that the “other side” is completely wrong, misguided, and sinful, but you’re not sure why (or if that’s even accurate).

As someone who grew up in a very Protestant home and culture (my grandpa was a pastor) before marrying into a very Catholic family (we attend mass every week), I’ve had a front row seat to see how these two major branches of Christianity compare.

In many ways, Catholics and Protestants really aren’t that different.

And, interestingly enough, some of the biggest differences between Catholic and Protestant Churches aren’t limited only to differences in belief. There are some pretty big cultural differences as well.

So, at the risk of oversimplifying (obviously, every individual church is different), here are the biggest differences between Catholic vs. Protestant worship and belief.

15 Important Issues Catholics and Protestants Can’t Seem to Agree On

Amanda Whittington
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Brittany Ann Equipping Godly Women

About the author

Brittany Ann is an ECPA bestselling author of “Fall in Love with God’s Word” and “Follow God’s Will” and the founder of EquippingGodlyWomen.com, a popular Christian-living website dedicated to helping busy Christian moms find practical ways to go "all in" in faith and family. Her work has been featured on CBN, The Christian Post, Crosswalk, and more.

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