Germantown Mennonite Church is the Oldest Mennonite Congregation In North America
Thirteen Dutch Mennonite families led the way, when on October 6, 1683, they arrived in Philadelphia on the ship, “Concord,” and settled in what became known as Germantown, a small settlement about seven miles northwest of the seaport of Philadelphia.
At first, these families met in private homes and worshipped with Quaker families. By 1690, the Mennonite families began worshipping separately. Dutch Mennonites continued arriving, and then in 1707, Palatine Mennonite (Swiss-German) families followed, uniting with the Germantown congregation.
This west European ethnicity still largely flavors the Germantown congregation today, since approximately half of our members are of Dutch and Swiss-German ancestries. We rejoice in our ever-growing diversity in both ethnic background and religious experiences. One member expresses it this way:
“I appreciate the way Germantown Mennonite Church strives to affirm that God’s love embraces all people. Christ invites us to offer hospitality to all. I have found here a congregation seeking to worship God together and work to both respect and transcend differences of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual identity, physical ability, marital status, and class. Germantown Mennonite strives to create a safe yet open space for diverse people to offer praise, find healing, nurture spiritual growth, celebrate the Spirit, and explore both new and old paths of discipleship.”
— John Linscheid
First meeting in private homes, the early settlers erected a log meetinghouse in 1708. In 1770, the log building was replaced with a stone structure that was the regular meeting place for the congregation until the early Nineties. In the mid-Fifties, with most of the regular attendees coming from the rural suburbs, this historic meetinghouse was almost sold.
The church’s revival began in the mid-Seventies, when a concerted effort was made to gather the varied Mennonite graduate students and volunteer service workers within Philadelphia. The congregation began to grow numerically and assume an identity and vision for Mennonites who loved the city and felt a spiritual calling to live in an urban setting. A growing congregation soon made the 1770 meetinghouse obsolete. In 1993, after a couple of years as tenants in neighboring facilities, the Congregation purchased the present site at 21 West Washington Lane.
Relationship to the Mennonite Church
For much of its history the congregation has been associated with the Eastern District of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC). In the earliest years, until a schism in mid-19th century occurred, the congregation was loosely connected with the Franconia Conference of the (old) Mennonite Church (MC). In the 1970’s with the renewed vitality and growing membership of the congregation, our church was reunited with the Franconia Conference.
However, it is fair to say that Germantown’s relationship with the larger Mennonite world, including the present times, has long been tenuous. What historian John Ruth has written: “By the 1790’s the once primary Germantown congregation was increasingly isolated from the larger Mennonite community …” has been all too true for much of our 325 years.
Until recent years, Germantown was a dually-affiliated congregation, being a member of both the Franconia (MC) and the Eastern (GCMC) district conferences.
In February 2002, these two main bodies (MC and GCMC) in North America merged as the Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. This merger was accomplished in the context of diverse theologies pertaining to scripture and to the welcoming of gay and lesbian persons into membership.
As a consequence, the relationship with Franconia lasted until October 1997 when Germantown was removed as a conference member, due to our full inclusion of sexual minorities into membership. For similar reasons, the Eastern District also removed Germantown as a member congregation in November 2002. Not all of the district conferences interpret membership guidelines of the new denomination, Mennonite Church USA, in a comparably strict manner.
Today then, our church still finds itself somewhat “isolated” from the mainstream of the larger Mennonite community. We continue to experience spiritual union with the Mennonite Church USA as we embrace core values of Anabaptism, including:
- discipleship to follow Christ in daily life;
- voluntary believers baptism, for a maturing, adult faith in the adventure of faith;
- nonresistance to promote peace and just relationships;
- to continuously re-encounter the Bible and its message in contemporary context;
- and the importance of the gathered community of faith, for discernment of faith issues, mutual counsel and mutual aid.
It is in one area, that of welcoming sexual minorities and honoring all monogamous covenants, that we depart from the majority teaching on human sexuality.
Ties to Other Bodies
With denominational connections tenuous, we are intentional about creating networks of spiritual support and mutual counsel. There are significant relationships in less formal ways with other Mennonite groups and the larger Christian community in Germantown. Among these, we value our connections through:
Supportive Communities Network (SCN)
A network of Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations who openly affirm and welcome gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people to participate actively in all aspects of congregational life. SCN is a program of The Brethren/Mennonite Council for LGBTQ Concerns (BMC) founded in 1976.
Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry
Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry provides support for families and individuals in transition by helping with housing and job needs. Our congregation collects a food offering each Sunday for the food pantry located at First Presbyterian Church of Germantown.
An informal gathering of all the Mennonite churches in Philadelphia for pastors’ prayer fellowship, an annual picnic, and other citywide worship events. Leonard Dow, Pastor of the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church provides leadership to the group along with Freeman Miller, Bishop for Lancaster Conference churches in Philadelphia.