Early Religious Life in Chester County, Pa.
From: History of Chester County, Pennsylvania
By: Charles William Heathcore, A. M., Ph. D.
Department of Social Studies, State Normal School
West Chester, PA 1926

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EARLY RELIGIOUS LIFE

Colonial days. - It was very unusual for people not to go to church or meeting in the colonial days. So common was the custom that it was almost compulsory. The services were very lengthy, lasting from two to three hours. During the winter season, the heating problem was a difficult one. One plan which was common in some parts of the county was to make a bag from the skin of some animal or heavy woolen goods. The bag was fastened tightly to the pew and the individual stepped into it and drew it up tightly about the knees.

Then later, the foot stove was introduced into the county. It was rectangular shaped, made of sheet iron, which was parforated and made to fit in a wooden frame. There was a small door at one side so that a small vessel containing live coals could be placed within.

Of course, during the winter time, the sleigh was commonly used so that the stove would be placed upon the floor of the sleigh which would serve as a foot warmer, and on arriving at church, the stove would be transferred to the church and serve as foot warmer and foot stool.

Then later, it was found that soap stone would retain heat for hours and since this was rather easily obtained and blocks could be cut to convenient size, folks began to use it instead of the foot stove. These soapstones would be placed in heavy woolen bags of appropriate size and taken along to church.

Later, in the churches, as well as in the houses, there cam? to be used stoves which were made of light weight metal. Three sides of the stove were inside the building and the door was outside. Wood was the only fuel used and so it was necessary for one to go outside in order to replenish the fire.

Then followed the Franklin Stove which was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1742 and which was made at Warwick Furnace. It was a great improvement over other similar experiments.

The improvements in stoves developed and followed quite rapidly. Today, as we sit in comfortable pews in well lighted, heated, and ventilated church buildings, there should be found in each soul and heart a spirit of gratitude to our pioneer ancestors because of their determination to worship and develop their religious ideals according to their various faiths and interpretations. It remains for us to carry on this same spirit of devotion, consecration and idealism for where there is no vision, a people perish.

Religious groups. - It would be very interesting if we had the space to trace the history of religious groups from the earliest development of the county and bring the records down to the present. Then we would note how many of these groups remain in the county which were started by the early colonists. We would also find, without doubt, several new denominations established. These historical facts may be secured' without the least bit of effort. In this chapter, however, we are concerned primarily about the early religious life and groupings of the settlers because their religious life was inseparable from their social, economic and, in many instances, from their political life.

The Friends. - The earliest religious organization in the history of the county were the Friends. As early as 1675, at Upland (now Chester) a meeting was held, and after 1677, the meetings were at regular intervals. After the coming of Penn and the arrival of large numbers of Friends, meetings were held regularly throughout the county and as time went on, many meeting houses were erected.

The Presbyterians. - This religious group, next to the Friends, is the oldest in the county. The Great Valley congregation (Tredyffrin township) held services in 1710 and was duly organized in 1714. Among other early congregations, may be mentioned : Upper Octoraro, near Parkesburg, was established 1720 New London, 1728. There are to be found many other old historic Presbyterian Churches throughout the county.

Baptists. - The first of the Baptist Churches to be organized was Great Valley, located at New Centreville 1711. Vincent was organized as a branch of the Great Valley in 1737. Later other congregations were established. Shortly after 1700, a small colony of German Baptists settled in Coventry, and in 1724 they were organized into a congregation.

The Episcopal Church. - This denomination, which touched the history of the county through one of its church organizations, resulted from the location of Welsh settlers, perhaps in 1685, at what is now the junction of Newtown township, Delaware County, and Easttown township, Chester County. Thus St. David's Church (Radnor) was established about 1700. Other early congregations were established as follows: - St. John's, West Cain township, 1729; St. Peter's Great Valley, was established shortly before 1744; St. John's, Penn Station, Penn township, was organized before 1744.

The Methodist Church. - This religious group was established in the county largely through the efforts of Rev.Isaac Rollins from Maryland who began missionary work in East Marlborough township, 1773. From this point, missionary activities were extended throughout the county. Among the earliest congregations established were Benson's Chapel, built 1781, near the Little Eagle (Uwchlan township) and likely organized in 1774 or 1775; the Grove, (West Whiteland township), 1774; Coventryville Church (South Coventry township) organized 1774; Laurel (West Bradford township) received its start from missionary activities begun in 1797.

The Lutheran Church - in America was largely established by the efforts of a pioneer missionary from Germany, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, 1742. It was through his efforts that Zion church was organized in Pikeland Township as early as 1751. In this section, Muhlenberg preached from house to house and was much beloved by the people. The German Lutherans and Reformed Calvinists frequently worshipped jointly in their houses and places of meeting. From his sphere of activities, other Lutheran congregations were eventually established. The larger number of Lutheran settlers were located in the northern portion of the county.

The German Reformed. - These people established a congregation as early as 1743 in East Coventry which became known as the "First Reformed Church of Coventry." Another congregation, known as the "Reformed Congregation of Vincent Township" was organized about 1758. Other congregations were later established, but most of them were located in the northern part of the county.

The Mennonites - who came largely from the Palatine section of Germany, as the results of religious persecutions, settled very early in the county. One of the earliest churches was established in East Coventry township about 1728. Several others were established in the northern part of the county where the sect was the strongest.

The Roman Catholic Church - began operations throughout the county about 1730. The missionary activities were directed by the church in Philadelphia. A congregation was established in West Chester in 1793. It was not long before church organizations were established throughout the county and prospered from their foundations.

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