For the Glory of God and My Neighbor’s Good

Christopher Sauer, the Sauer Press, and Their Impact on Early Colonial and Church of the Brethren History

By Allison Snyder

As a group of immigrants in colonial America, the Germanic culture was often treated as one of primitive, uneducated peoples but from among their numbers emerged a figure that would establish a printing press and influence that rivaled Benjamin Franklin both as a political and professional competitor. This individual not only criticized Franklin’s endeavors on multiple occasions but also held such a grasp on the Germanic collective with his publications as to sway elections and make the Sauer family a rich and important one in colonial Pennsylvania. One must consider, given Christopher Sauer’s success in both the field of printing, enterprise, and politics, if Franklin’s actions and attitude toward Sauer was inspired by professional jealousy of the German upstart. Sauer existed as a constant hindrance to Franklin’s political ambitions and attempts to usurp the Sauer press, by Franklin and other printers, would remain unsuccessful until well past the senior Sauer’s lifetime. The impact of the Sauer Press on the early life of the colonial Germanic religions (including the Church of the Brethren) and people, focusing especially on Christopher Sauer I and II, shaped both the spiritual and political stance of a community and was integral to maintaining a growing church and Germanic cultural community in colonial America.[1]

It must be stated, at the beginning, that the spelling and presentation of Sauer’s name is different between sources and that there were three Christopher Sauers, I, II and III. The multiple accepted spellings (Johann Christoph, Christopher, Sauer, Sower, Saur) and individuals sharing the name led to misidentification and confusion in the scholarship surrounding them.[2] I will be using “Christopher Sauer” when referring to them in this writing and will generally differentiate between them with I, II (and occasionally III) or Sr. and Jr.

Christopher Sauer Sr. was born in the village of Labenburg in the Palatinate area of Germany in 1695 and was baptized “Johann Christoph Saur” on record February 2nd of that year. It was custom at that time to give a son the father’s first name but be known by the middle name. By age 18, Sauer lived in Schwarzenau and had begun work as a tailor. He married Maria Christine Gross in 1720 and the following year, the couple had their only child, Christopher II on September 26th. In 1724 the couple and young son immigrated to Pennsylvania.[3] Sauer reported favorably about the trip but would later renounce his words and become an advocate for German travelers to follow when conditions and treatment worsened aboard the ships; he felt guilty that his words enticed German populations to follow when they were manipulated and exploited, even petitioning the Pennsylvania government on behalf of new, German immigrants. [4]

Upon arrival in Germantown, Sauer began farming 60 miles from Philadelphia due to finding that tailoring wasn’t productive enough to support his family. Shortly after their arrival, the Sauer family found themselves in the middle of the COBs first big schism involving Conrad Biesel and the Ephrata Colony. Having split with the main church before encountering Sauer and his wife, Marie Christine, the Ephrata Colony interested Marie who became a member in 1731 and remained there until 1744, leaving her husband and young son to do so. Due to this and the difficulty of maintaining a farm without his wife, Sauer Sr. left his Conestoga life and returned to Germantown where his life entered a new professional phase. He earned a living mastering a variety of trades including cabinetmaker, carpenter, wheelright, optician and repairer of cuckoo clocks. He also sold religious books and medicines. Sauer Sr. desired to add printing to his skills when he perceived a need for a printer who understood the German language. English printers would do the job but not very well and not in the style that the Germanic people were used to and expected from their printers; prior to the Sauer press, many of these people purchased items from Germany, which Sauer Sr. distributed as well. Sauer Sr. secured a press and type in 1738. According to tradition, the press itself was constructed by Sauer himself. It was the first one built in the US and the first imported German typeset in the Colonial United States as well.[5] Sauer taught himself how to make his own typeset and ink (this he would begin selling to other printers and the ink was regarded as a high-quality product).[6]

Printed page from 1786 showing boats landing

There were two types of publications that the press produced, long-form projects (bound book type items that could take years to complete) and periodicals (published and distributed regularly). Both were important to establishing the press and the Sauer family as the preeminent and esteemed printers of their respective generations but for different reasons: the long-running, constant publications brought about a great deal of financial and political success to both father and son and the flashpoint projects tended to represent significant historical items and demonstrate the level of skill both Sauers utilized when producing these items. Both are impressive forms and considerably valuable items for inclusion in archives (including the BHLA) both for their age as items and the insight they give on Early Colonial America from the perspective of the Germanic community of citizens in the Germantown area (represented by the Schwartzenau Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, and other German speaking immigrants).

Setting to work immediately, the first item produced by the Sauer press was a religious pamphlet entitled “Eine Ernstliche Ermahuung an Junge und Alte…” (A Serious Admonition to Young and Old) in 1738. He would also begin work on a behemoth of a project, especially for a novice beginner such as Sauer I, a German language hymnal for the Ephrata Colony which faced many roadblocks on its way to publication. Book production was a project that colonial printers shied away from due to difficulties with type and paper supplies and while having the answers to 2 of the 3, paper became an issue at the onset of this project. There was a paper shortage and Benjamin Franklin, who controlled the supply of materials of production and paper supply, refused to sell to Sauer I on credit. This short deprivation of paper delayed the start of the project until a fellow German, Conrad Weiser, pledged to pay if Sauer defaulted on the payment. Sauer Sr. produced a German language almanac that would introduce the press to the public in 1738. The next year, Sauer Sr. began printing and distributing a German newspaper, entitled Hoch-Deutsch Pennsylvanische Geschict-Schreiber, a bi-weekly production and keystone to the press. This periodical flourished where a Franklin and Louis Timothee publication failed after two issues in 1732. Franklin would try to compete with the Sauer newspaper and almanac once again beginning in 1749, partnering with Johann Bohm but that attempt folded within a year and a half-German/half-English Franklin production limping along from 1751-1753. Other printers and publishers would also try to break into the German market but Sauer dominance continued. It was estimated that the paying subscriptions of Sauer’s publication numbered from 8,000-10,000 people. [7] Both Sauer production types are notable because of their continuity, reach and influence in the community. Also, throughout the Sauer Press’s run, these two productions represented commercial success both for Sauer Sr and Jr.[8]

"Sauer Bible" printed in red and black ink

The most significant publications from the Sauer press were the Sauer Bibles with emphasis on the 1743 edition. As previously noted, this type of project itself was daunting considering Sauer, Sr.’s novice position and the difficulties of colonial printing but this production was recognized as an artistic success, though it wasn’t very profitable. Sauer employed a dual-tone method called rubrication for the title page, using red and black ink. This was a reserved process for special jobs, even in the Sauer press because it was time consuming and red ink was difficult to obtain due to its difficult production process[9]. It is impressive that a novice printer would take this on as a project at all, given the length of the work but the fact that Sauer Sr. made it more difficult but adding the rubrication method to this print as well, is an impressive testament to the type of worker he was. Not only did he identify a need for a Bible in the Germanic language, but he also made it widely accessible, both in distribution and by eating the cost of the project. The original run of the Bible totaled 1,000 copies with the price for purchase being 14 shillings for subscribers to his newspaper and 20 for others.[10] The project began in 1740 and took 3 years to complete. It faced criticism for including part of the Berleburg Bible, but most would agree that it is a stunning piece visually. This was the first European language Bible printed in the Colonial United States and two more editions would follow in 1763 and 1776, done by Sauer Jr.[11]

Although sympathetic and passionate about the spiritual wellbeing of the German population, especially the anabaptists, and identifying as a Christian, Sauer Sr. himself was not a member of any recognized religious body (a Separatist). He was incredibly critical of religious organizations and would often happily report on the failings of Lutheran and Reformed clergy in Pennsylvania and although he was incredibly supportive to the young German church, the Church of the Brethren was not exempt to Sauer’s critique with this following assessment, “the Brethren have erected a fence around themselves; they admit and expel, and are jealous and quarrelsome with others.” [12] He was sympathetic to the Brethren and other Anabaptist groups and became an outspoken voice both advocating for and listened to by these German-speaking groups. Readers of his publications trusted Sauer, established from the fact that Sauer sought to only produce and publish accurate reporting, waiting to confirm news before distributing it. The following quote from Sauer I’s own writing demonstrates his moral and ethical standards he held for both himself and the publications that came from his press asserting that he would provide text for the “glory of God and the physical or eternal good of my neighbors.” “Whatever does not meet these standards, I will not print… I am happier when I can distribute something of value among the people for a small price, than if I had a large profit without a good conscience.” [13] This sway provided him with influence over a percentage of the German-speaking population that decided the results of multiple votes and elections, with this voting block often siding with the pacifist Quaker segment of voters and lawmakers. That meant that if Sauer criticized you, it would be near impossible to win over the German-speaking community and Benjamin Franklin (and some of his allies) found himself on the wrong side of three notable situations: opposition to his plan for a militia, a 1764 Assembly election run and the Charity School Scheme.[14]

It is most unfortunate that the Sauer Press and the Sauer family have gone unremembered in the long scope of historical study. Christopher Sauer Sr and Jr both demonstrated that they were a formidable contemporary and competitor and matched Benjamin Franklin in their ability, talent and creative genius. It is unfortunate and left to the nostalgic imagination to consider what could have been accomplished and achieved if Sauer Sr (especially) and Franklin were of like minds on a movement or sentiment. However, the large portion of their contention resulted from their differing views on immigration, assimilation, and citizenship due in part to their different perspectives with the Sauers representing the immigrants and Franklin representing an outsider’s view of the German community of colonial Pennsylvania.

By 1753, 100,000 of the 190,000 residents of Pennsylvania were German, surprising proprietor Thomas Penn.[15] This German community that had surprisingly become the majority population, remained reluctant to assimilate to the English-speaking mainstream, remaining isolated at first but as they became more active, this community posed a serious threat to the balance of power in the realm of politics. The proprietarian group was composed of the English middle and upper classes; they sought to woo the Germans away from the Quakers, whom the Germans tended to support due to a like-mindedness on the pacifist principles, with the use of cynical pamphlets. Sauer, Sr. responded in kind to these pamphlets, convincing the German immigrants that the proprietary party was tricking them with a plot to force young men into being soldiers. This unification and sudden political activism alarmed Franklin and the 1742 election saw rising tension and in some cases violence meant to scare Germans away from the polls. Also, the pacifist Germans tried to remain in peaceful existence with the Native Tribes on moral grounds and by questioning the cost and expressing a concern that they would become serfs to a military state which was similar to the Germany they immigrated from. In the summer of 1747, in the midst of a war against France and Spain for England, the perceived need for a militia and the Quaker and German pacifist stance came to a head and Franklin broke a legislative stalemate on the topic with his pamphlet Plain Truth that convincingly presented a compromise of a voluntary provincial militia. His effective argument and plan for this was approved within days and militia companies formed themselves into militia companies. The Quakers begrudgingly accepted this compromise but despite Franklin’s flattery of them in their courage and steadiness, the German population did not supply enlistment numbers that would have indicated support for this plan, influenced more by Sauer I’s criticism of it, Franklin’s character, and concern that the voluntary status could become mandatory. [16]

Naturally, Sauer’ Sr.’s criticism and the reluctance of the majority of Germans to defend the city cemented Franklin’s existing negative view of the ethnic group as is demonstrated in his essay, Observation Concerning the Increase of Mankind, written and sent to his friend Peter Collinson (who himself showed it to Richard Jackson) in 1751 and published in 1755 with the following phrase in particular standing out when it comes to his assessment of the German population:

…why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.[17]

This sentiment and the actions Franklin would take in the future demonstrated that his understanding of immigrants and assimilation was rooted in a perceived necessity and fear that the German immigrants would eventually replace the Anglo population and their culture. This publication is a difficult read, especially with the reverence given to founding fathers but this article especially demonstrates a prejudice against those that Franklin saw and categorized as not “purely white”. [18] These words would come back to haunt Franklin during his failed run at an election in 1764, with the “Palatine Boors” statement in particular when the proprietarian party distributed these statements in the hopes to turn the German/Quaker voting block against him with success and Franklin’s loss. [19]

Championed by Rev. William Smith, the Charity School Scheme began as a social and religious movement with the intention to provide free English education and spiritual formation for the rural German populace in 1754. Despite its intended philanthropic intention, establishing these German charity schools became a politically charged ambition with two goals: anglicize the youth’s thinking and behavior and assert independent thinking for them in an attempt to break Sauer I’s influence on the population. Smith’s plan would move forward with the establishment of the Society for the Relief and Instruction of Poor Germans who began collecting funds and contributions from both Europe and America and opened schools in predominantly German towns. Franklin was asked to be a trustee of the society and accepted. Sauer Sr. recognized the plan as a veiled attempt to culturally indoctrinate Germans, attacking it vigorously in his Pensylvanische Berichte and editorialized that the society intended to force the English language and culture on German immigrants, even in church. Franklin, in support of the plan, attempted for the fifth time to challenge Sauer’s press, partnering with Anton Armbruster for another half German/half-English biweekly newspaper in 1955. By that year, 4 schools were open with 6 more in the works and 15 being considered. However, once again, Franklin’s “Palatine Boor” comment and publication came back to haunt him, alongside equally derogatory writing from Smith undermined the scheme and solidified German’s distrust of the society spelling its failure. [20] 

Unlike his father, Sauer Jr. was and can be confirmed as a Church of the Brethren member, being baptized in 1737 and selected for leadership. He also built up the family press to peak productivity, surpassing his father in terms of production and monetary gain, inheriting the press upon Sauer Sr.’s death in 1758.Being a more vocal Brethren figure, Sauer, Jr. clarified Brethren stances on several public issues such as education, peace, slavery, and morality. He also led two more Sauer Bible reprints in 1763 and 1776. The lead up and events of the Revolutionary War diminished the popularity of the Sauer publications and the political influence of the Quaker voting block and leaders and it was during this time that the domination of the Sauer Press in the Germanic market diminished substantially. Sauer Jr. did not openly display Loyalist actions, but he did warn against the violence of war and his son, Sauer III was an outspoken critic. Sensing danger, Sauer II relocated to Philadelphia for a time. Upon his return to his Germantown home, he was targeted by American soldiers, taken prisoner, and marched to Valley Forge on charges of being a traitor. His properties were then auctioned off to support war efforts, including the press which effectively ended both the Sauer Press’s influence and commercial success.[21]

The significance of the Sauer Press to the Church of the Brethren is due in part to its ability for the young Germanic church to sustain its culture, language and identity in the face of the pressure to assimilate to the English culture around them. The presence of a German press that reflected the ideals and theological standpoint and a figurehead in Sauer (and other Brethren leaders) was crucial to the survival of the young church in a new nation, facing the challenges of immigration and maintaining cultural autonomy. The press itself was arguably significant, both in its production of early Brethren works and the voice that the senior Sauer provided in defense of Anabaptist and pacifist ideals.

[1] Leaman, Hans. “Johann Christoph Sauer.” Immigrant Entrepreneurship. German Historical Institute, August 22, 2018.

[2] Stephen L. Longenecker, The Christopher Sauers: Courageous Printers Who Defended Religious Freedom in Early America The Brethren Press (Elgin, IL: 1981),

[3] “Sauer (Sower, Saur), Johann Christoph I.” The Brethren Encyclopedia. Vol. 2 (K-Z). Oak Brook, IL: The Brethren Encyclopedia Inc., 1983. Pg. 419.

[4] Longenecker, 11-21.

[5] Leaman.

[6] Longenecker, 35-43.

[7] Frasca, Ralph. “‘To Rescue the Germans out of Sauer’s Hands’: Benjamin Franklin’s German-Language Printing Partnerships.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 121, no. 4 (1997): 337-339.

[8] Longenecker, 45.

[9] Red ink was produced using by mixing vermilion (red lead) and varnish together when done incorrectly would dry to quickly on the equipment both the form and ink balls, Logenecker, 43.

[10] Ruppenstein, Andrew & Sinnott, Roger W., “Johann Christoph Sauer (1695-1758)” The Historical Marker Database, rev. January 28, 2022.

[11] Durnbaugh, 128-134.

[12] Durnbaugh, Donald F. ed., “Two Early Letters from Germantown,” PMHBy LXXXIV (1960), 219-233; the excerpt is from pages 230-231; it is also published in Donald F. Durnbaugh, ed., The Brethren in Colonial America (Elgin, 111., 1967), 36.

[13]Sauer to Luther, (Oct. 11, 1740), in Egenolff-Luthersche Schriftgiesserei, 39; quoted in Durnbaugh, “Christopher Sauer,” 329.

[14] Frasca, Ralph. “‘To Rescue the Germans out of Sauer’s Hands’: Benjamin Franklin’s German-Language Printing Partnerships.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 121, no. 4 (1997): 329–50.

[15] Penn, Thomas to Richard Peters, March 9, 1754, Thomas Penn Letterbook, American Antiquarian Society.

[16] Frasca, 332-334.

[17] Franklin, Benjamin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 4, July 1, 1750, through June 30, 1753, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, 225–234.

[18] Franklin, Benjamin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751,” 225–234.

[19]Frantz, John B. “Franklin and the Pennsylvania Germans.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 65, no. 1 (1998):, 27.

[20]Frasca, 344-347.

[21] Durnbaugh, 136, 159-160.