Account of an Anabaptist immigrant

Jan 10, 2018 by

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My name is Henry Clemmer. I was Henrich (or Heinrich) until I immigrated to an English-speaking colony in Pennsylvania. My last name also has many variations in Switzerland from where my family originates: Klemmer, Klymer, Klimmer or Kleiner, sometimes spelled with a “C” and sometimes with a “K”; take your pick.

I arrived in Pennsylvania in 1717 with my father Valentine, four brothers and a nephew. I was 16 years old at the time. My father told me, “There were so many emigrating from the Palatinate to Pennsylvania that we filled three ships.” I’ve been told that for a period of nearly 100 years, nearly 70,000 people emigrated from the Palatinate in Germany, although not all were Mennonite.

I was born in Friedelsheim, Germany in 1700. My father had moved there from Affoltern am Albis, Switzerland, after the persecution in Switzerland had become unbearable. Particularly in the Canton of Bern, the authorities were severe. Dad told me of family farms of Anabaptists that were confiscated, sold, and the proceeds divided up among the local magistrate, the local government and the Bernese government. To add insult to injury, some of the funds were used to build new Reformed churches in the area to try to restrain the Anabaptists from spreading.

Dad also told me that the Swiss authorities released prisoners if they agreed to hunt down Anabaptists, paying them a bounty for each one they turned in. Those turned in were sent to prison where they were tortured to reveal names of other Anabaptists. Some were sold as galley slaves, and some were exiled and shipped down the Rhine River to Holland, when Dutch Mennonites offered to pay their passage. They were warned never to return to Switzerland. If they returned to Switzerland they were imprisoned for life, or drowned. This happened to several of my dad’s acquaintances.

My dad tried to explain to me why the Anabaptists were hated so much that the Swiss government wanted to get rid of them completely. It began with believer’s baptism. They didn’t allow their infants to be baptized. The decision to follow Jesus could only be made by an adult. Since their infants weren’t baptized, the church and the government couldn’t control them. They also were hated because they refused to swear oaths and to bear arms. But there was another driving force. Switzerland was the only territory in the region that had a conscripted army. Other countries had mercenary armies, and the Swiss government hired out their conscripted soldiers to the armies of other countries. With Anabaptists refusing to be conscripted, the authorities were losing a significant source of income.

In spite of the persecution, the movement continued to grow. People saw how their Anabaptist neighbors lived holy lives and followed the hard teachings of Jesus that were often ignored by larger society. After my dad began reading the Bible carefully and began attending clandestine meetings of the Anabaptists, he became convicted and was converted. Most of his siblings remained Reformed.

Dad told me about the many superstitions that the peasants in Switzerland believed in more than freedom in Christ. The supposed presence of mountain spirits, devils and demons caused much fear and paralyzed their lives. The Reformed Church authorities allowed these superstitions to be propagated because it helped them to control the people. Anabaptism released the converted from these burdens and fears.

When the persecution became overbearing, many Anabaptists moved from Switzerland to the Palatinate in Germany. My dad and his family joined them. They moved to the village of Friedelsheim, near Mannheim, just west of the Rhine River around 1679. The ruler of the Palatinate invited people to resettle this region after it was devastated by the 30 years’ war; one of the most destructive wars in history. My uncle, Hans Jakob Klemmer, had already moved to Friedelsheim several years earlier. Even though my uncle was not an Anabaptist, there were many other Mennonites in the region, including the family of Christian Hershey. His family was one of the many who emigrated with us from the Palatinate to Pennsylvania. I don’t remember when my father became a bishop with the Mennonite church. I always remember him as a church leader.

Things in the Palatinate were better than Switzerland, but Mennonites were still considered second-class citizens. They couldn’t own property; they weren’t allowed to proselytize, and couldn’t meet in groups of more than 20. So, after my mother died, and after my dad heard about the invitation by William Penn and George Fox to come to Pennsylvania, and after he had spoken with many other Mennonites in the region, he decided to emigrate to Pennsylvania. I imagine he really didn’t know what lay ahead for him, but he figured that life couldn’t be much worse than it had been in Switzerland or now in the Palatinate. I was only 16 when we left Friedelsheim bound for Philadelphia.

The trip to Rotterdam then across the ocean was a real hardship. We endured a long, arduous journey that began with a six-week trip down the Rhine River to Rotterdam, Holland. We were delayed for several months in Holland waiting for a ship to take us across the ocean. We sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for seven weeks until we finally reached Pennsylvania. During the journey, I was seasick most of the voyage. We had trouble with rats scouring around the decks and getting into our supplies. We suffered from sour beer, worms in the drinking water and fighting among fellow passengers. Each passenger had a sleeping and sitting area of 2 feet by 6 feet. The meat, fish and butter were so heavily salted and smelled so terrible that I could barely swallow. I was always thirsty and either too hot or too cold! Someone opened our chests that we had put in the cargo area of the ship and our valuables were stolen. I remember my father Valentine and the other Mennonite Bishops sitting together and studying their German Bibles and the one map they had of William Penn’s Colony.

When we finally got to Pennsylvania, we spent some time in Germantown with other Mennonites and some Quakers. Germantown is a little north of Philadelphia. My father worked as a weaver until we accumulated enough money to buy some property and begin a homestead. We eventually settled in Bucks County, where dad started a church. I helped build what became the second Mennonite church in the USA, working as a mason. It was Skippack Mennonite Church, founded in 1720.

After I got married to Maria Bitzer in 1740, I bought land and built a house in 1748 between Allentown Road and Godshall Road in Franconia Township, Pa., just south of Souderton and Telford. I built my log house in the typical Swiss-German style. We had 156 acres to farm, kept about four horses for transportation and farm work, and four cows.

On Oct. 14, 1777, George Washington’s men from the Revolutionary army passed by my homestead as they retreated from the battle of Germantown. The soldiers took the Allentown Road with the wounded on their way to the hospital in Bethlehem. After all that my family had been through in Switzerland and Germany, you can imagine how we felt about this turn of events. Most of us had little problem being British subjects. The Revolutionary militia began soliciting us to fight for them. We suggested donating to destitute families who lost husbands and sons to the war. Pennsylvania countered with levying a war tax or paying for a substitute soldier. We couldn’t in good conscience do either. We could not in any way assist in the destruction of people’s lives. Some of my fellow Mennonites had their farms confiscated in order to pay the fines.

Some of my Mennonite friends were considered traitors by the patriots because they came to the aid of hungry and wounded soldiers on both sides. Life in what we thought was the promised land turned out to be just as hard to a true follower of Christ as it had been in Europe. As a result, some of my friends decided to move to Canada.

Eventually, things settled down and we joined Franconia Mennonite Church. Maria and I had eight children. We dedicated our lives to being good farmers and followers of Jesus.

My father continued as a bishop in the Mennonite church, and was one of the signers of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in 1724, which was first published in Holland in 1632. This statement of faith had helped to consolidate the beliefs of the disparate parts of the Radical Reformation in Europe, and now was available to influence our Mennonite church here in America.

In spite of everything, I lived a long life — 91 years. I died in 1791, and was buried beside my wife Maria in the Franconia Mennonite graveyard.

Sources: Clemmer book, Richard Davis,, Donna Basinger, Furgge, historical novel by Katharina Zimmerman, US Anabaptists during the Revolutionary War

Don Clymer recently retired as an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.

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