War Caspar Kühner ein Schwenkfelder?

Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig (1489 or 1490–10 December 1561),

“No one is quite sure just what a Schwenkfelder is these days, including many of those who call themselves Schwenkfelders.” — Stefany Anne Golberg (2014)

In my first edition eBook, I claim that Abraham and Casper (also Gaspar, Caspar, Gaspen, Kaspar) Kühner came to Amerika in the 18th Century to escape wars and religious persecution by a Catholic “Sun King” (Louis XIV of France). However, as early as 1543, Martin Luther had denounced another Casper as a “poor simpleton” who was “possessed of the devil.” Luther rejected this fellow (but lay) German Reformer’s “Middle Way” between “literal biblicism” and “blind sacramentalism” as the “spue” of the devil (Goldberg, 2014). As a result, Caspar Schwenkfeld would end up in “polite, voluntary exile” but is said to have “named [Luther] in prayer to his dying day” according to Martha B. Kriebel (2017).

“In 1734 the majority of remaining Schwenkfelder descendants, about 200, got on a boat to America, and settled in the outlands of Philadelphia among the Anabaptists and other outcasts from Europe. The Schwenkfelders built no churches and spread themselves around the southeastern Pennsylvania countryside, worshipping casually as they had in Europe. By 1775, there were no more Schwenkfelders left in Silesia. The only remaining Schwenkfelders were American.” — Golberg (2014)

Casper Kühner arrived in Amerika aboard the Thistle in 1738, and Abraham followed him to Philadelphia in 1741. Abraham’s son, John E. Keener, was apparently born and baptized in Pennsylvania, but the family was already in the Carolina Backcountry by 1752 when Casper was officially granted land in Anson (later the Old Lincoln) County by the Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire (George II).

Schwenkfeld was apparently no fan of infant baptism (like Richard Dawkins perhaps?), but Kriebe indicates that his “Middle Way” didn’t require his “followers” to re-baptize them as adults. And as Stefany Anne Golberg notes, Schwenkfeld “never [even] codified his theology into doctrine, and never tried to organize his followers into a church.”

Abraham was baptized, or not, in Germany. I have no evidence either way. His father, like Schwenkfeld, may have rejected “outward unity or uniformity, either in doctrine or ceremonies, or rules or sacraments” as far as I know. Unlike for Abraham and John, I have no direct evidence that Casper ever attended any church. He may have abstained, as my own father was so fond of doing (although my mom was successful in occasionally dragging him down to the local Reformed Church to see me play with fire).

“Some attended the recognized churches (Roman Catholic and Lutheran), others refused; some communed, others abstained.” — Martha B. Kriebel (2017)

But at the time die Familie Kühner arrived in the Carolina Backcountry, there were very few homes (cabins) in the area, much less any churches. In 1893, descendants of Casper, Abraham, John, and Johann Nikolas Schramm would grant the land on which the Kühner-Schramm Family Cemetery still exists for the purpose building a “Union” church that was called the “Do as you please church” for years — but “it ain’t that no more.”

Old Union Baptist Church (in the older Kühner “Do as you please”) building.

Several local Baptist congregations first met there before building their own facilities in the area, and the property is the current home of a small, conservative “Union Baptist Church.” Of course, to Schwenkfeld, church wasn’t a building, but it did help to have a place for “like-minded” people to meet. And since there were (are) many different sects of “like-minded” people, not to mention a limited set of qualified pastors (teachers) and few places to meet, Germans often built ecumenical “Union” churches in early Amerika as they had been doing for years in Germany in the wake of the Reformation.

“Stymied at first by the few numbers in any one faith, they learned that they had kindred souls in a number of Protestant faiths, so it was only logical to join forces for worship, be they Lutheran, Reformed, Moravian, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and many others.” — Bernard W. Cruse, Jr., Union Churches in North Carolina During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (2001).

But according to Kriebel, “[a]fter 1734 a Schwenkfelder was not so much a spiritual heir of Reformer Caspar Schwenckfeld as a bloodline descendant of the Schwenkfelders who came to colonial Pennsylvania on the Saint Andrew.” On this point, Golberg provides the following interpretation of their Zeitgeist with respect to genealogy which resonates for me with respect to my own (emphasis added):

The word “heritage” is somewhat paradoxical. It means “to take something on.” But the root of the word, *ghe-, means something like “to be empty,” or “left behind”. It is a word that captures the paradox of the Schwenkfelders’ survival, a survival that seems to depend upon living in a state of perpetual disappearance. Caspar Schwenckfeld produced many words, but he held onto them lightly and communicated them in a whisper. This is to say that Schwenkfelders are rooted in air. Their story has developed a bit like southeastern Pennsylvania, an erasure by collection. The more Schwenkfelder history that is saved the less Schwenkfelder there seems to be…

When I first started (less than a year ago) investigating my own genealogy, which neither I nor any of my nearest relatives knew much of anything about (except that we came to North Carolina relatively early and have been here ever since), I was surprised at how much information was actually available. However, the information was scattered with few comprehensive references or good narratives about the people involved and their motivations and experiences. New information has slowed to a trickle, but I am still attempting to correct the deficiencies in the narrative and references.

One of the most frequent questions I get about my book is: When will it be available in paperback? I get it, and I’ve asked myself the same question — many times. I really do want to finish this project and move on to other things, but the sifting and sorting takes time. And I did not take this on lightly or to ensure “erasure by collection” — so there will be a paperback eventually (even if my family has to publish it posthumously 😉).

But first, I want to take a minute to remember the Casper who converted Frederick the Quarrelsome to Protestantism and then started a breakaway “Brotherhood” of converts in exile to talk secretly, without fear of persecution, about the cultivation of individual freedom and justice, nonviolence, and their opposition to war, sectarian strife, secret societies, and oath-taking.

I’ll have more to say about the Schwenkfelders in the second edition (including a paperback version) of my book — perhaps it will be the final chapter in this 600-year-old tradition of “erasure by collection” that will be “left behind” for a future time when people start reading again? 😉

“What have we done to show…our regard for him as the originator of a most profound religious movement, of which you, brethren, are the most direct representatives, but whose influence has reached into innumerable channels of modem thought and society? It is due to ourselves to devise some competent expression of our gratitude for the man, who, of all the leaders of the Reformation, penetrated furthest into the spirit of religious liberty, who asserted its principles with unequivocal faithfulness and unflinching courage. We who inherit the results of these principles, and whom God has favored with so opposite a lot, cannot withhold our recognition of his spiritual greatness ; nay, do we not owe these principles themselves some emphatic reassertion?” — C. D. Hartranft (1884), as quoted in The Corpus Schwenkfeldianorum, Volume 1.

So, what do you think? Do we owe the Schwenkfelder “principles themselves some emphatic reassertion” even though they are just “rooted in air” and in “a state of perpetual disappearance?” Or are they the “spue” of the devil? War Caspar Kühner ein Schwenkfelder? Are you a Schwenkfelder? And if so, would you even know — or admit to — it? 😉

“Schwenckfeld was interested in discussion, the Anabaptists in commitment within a covenantal community.” — Klassen & Erb (1989), from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.

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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.