Brethren Historical Library and Archives
Germantown Meetinghouse Tours
The first Brethren arrived in America in 1719 and settled around Germantown, Pennsylvania, a village near Philadelphia where other German-speaking people were already living. The first Brethren congregation in America was organized on Christmas Day, 1723, when baptisms and a love feast were held in Germantown. It became known as the Germantown congregation. Over the next fifty years the Brethren movement continued to grow in America. By 1770 there were fifteen congregations in Pennsylvania, five in Maryland, and one in New Jersey.
After 1800 the congregation had periods of growth and decline. Today a congregation worships in the church and ministers to the community with an anti-drug program, youth program, evangelistic outreach, homeless outreach, and a food distribution program.
Brethren congregations met in homes until 1770 when the Germantown congregation built the first meetinghouse in America along what is now known as Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. It was a thirty-foot-square stone building with a loft and basement. The basement provided a place to prepare the meal for love feast, and the loft provided places to sleep for those traveling long distances for love feast. During the 1800s several alterations of the meetinghouse were made, including the removal of the loft and an outside stairway. Additions were also added to the back of the meetinghouse in 1896-97 and 1915. In 1995 interpretative displays were placed in the original meetinghouse section of the church. These displays included historical panels, a suggested loft with love feast equipment and a spinning wheel, and interior display windows.
Today the property is owned by the Church of the Brethren and is cared for by the Germantown Trust. Members of the trust include representatives from the congregation, the district, the Mission and Ministry Board, and several Brethren groups that trace their beginnings in America to the Germantown congregation. The congregation and the trust are separate entities. The congregation supports its programs and services, while the trust maintains the building and grounds and provides for historical interpretation of the site.
In 1793 the area behind the meetinghouse was designated as a cemetery for members of the congregation. This action was prompted by a yellow fever epidemic which struck Philadelphia that year. Over 1000 people are buried in the cemetery including several Brethren leaders, such as Alexander Mack, Sr. (1679-1735), Alexander Mack, Jr. (1712-1803), and his wife Elizabeth Nice (1726-1811), Peter Keyser (1766-1849) and his wife Catherine Clemens (1770-1854), Louis S. Bauman (1875-1950), and Jacob C. Cassel (1849-1919).
Visits to the meetinghouse and cemetery can be arranged by contacting Jeff Bach (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). When visiting the meetinghouse, it is also possible to visit the nearby Wissahickon Creek baptismal site, where the first Brethren baptisms took place in America on Christmas Day 1723.