Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving - the Oldest Continuing Thanksgiving Celebration

Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving is a holiday related to Thanksgiving, one of the most popular holidays in the USA. They share many similarities yet Schwenkfelder's Thanksgiving remains almost unknown to people outside of Schwenkfelder Church and the community in Pennsylvania. We intend to inform a bit about this interesting celebration in the article below.

Who is (was) Schwenkfelder?

Schwenkfelder is Schwenkfeld, actually Kaspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig (sometimes written as Caspar and Schwenckfeld). Kaspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig was one of the first Protestant reformers who lived between 1490 and 1561. Born in the area of today's Poland he was of noble origin.

kaspar schwenkfeld by theodor de beymartin luther by lucas cranach the elder

Kaspar Schwenkfeld (left) and Martin Luther (right) were enemies for most of their lives

Schwenkfeld studied in Cologne and Frankfurt before becoming an adviser in the Duchy of Liegnitz. When he was around 30 years old he turned to Protestantism, inspired by Martin Luther. He established a Brotherhood of followers and managed to turn Duke Friedrich II over Protestantism yet only a few years later broke from Luther while he interpreted sacraments and the character of Jesus Christ differently.

The most important points of Schwenkfeld's teachings were in opposition to war and infant baptism which led him and his followers to many troubles with the major religion and civil authorities. Subsequently, a number of his followers (Schwenkfeld never officially organized his Church which was in tune with his policy of toleration) were forced to leave their homes or convert.

While staying in relative obscurity Schwenkfelder's work importantly influenced Anabaptism, Pietism, and Puritanism.

Origin of Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving

Due to pressures on Schwenkfelders as the followers of Schwenkfelder's teachings were called several groups landed near Philadelphia between 1730 and 1735. They settled there and their religion was an important part of the success of their community in the rough times of today's Pennsylvania, which was then called the Thirteen Colonies of Great Britain.

It s believed it was the second group of settlers from Germany who arrived in America on September 22, 1734 and decided to express their gratitude to God by thanksgiving service. It was September 24, two days after arrival and their oath to the British king, when the first Thanksgiving for Schwenkfelders was organized. Since then every year, on the Sunday closest to 24 September the Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving is thrown which makes it the officially oldest Thanksgiving celebration in the world.

bread and butter

While this tradition remains pretty localized to the several thousand members of Schwenkfelder Church (established only in the 20th century - in 1909, officially called as Confessors of the Glory of Christ) still living in the area of wider Philadelphia, it's still an important part of world cultural and religious heritage.

What was served on Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving?

There were no crops when Schwenkfelders arrived, so their meal was very modest, consisting of bread, butter, and water. The only 'luxurious' addition was apple butter, a spread made of butter, apples, vinegar (sometimes substituted with lemon juice), sugar, and some spices (especially cinnamon and vanilla).

water pitcher
Apple butter is not a spread only as it can be used as an addition to improve the taste of different sweet and savory sauces. It goes well with a wide variety of foods from burgers to pies.
Here is an example recipe (please note, there is virtually no way to restore the original taste from the 1730s because the taste of today's apples is way sweeter than then) in 'slow' and 'fast' versions:

Slow:

slow version of apple butter make

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pju0OACe0FI

Fast

fast version of apple butter making

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ5Xsderi_w

Similarities and differences between Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving

  • both holidays are established as an expression of gratitude for survival in extreme living conditions in times when people massively perished of hunger, weather conditions, and diseases that are simply curable today,
  • while Thanksgiving in Plymouth, organized by Pilgrims, was first held in 1621, more than a century before Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving, the latter continued to be celebrated every year at the same time (Sunday closest to the 24 September), while the now more known Thanksgiving officially fixed the date of celebration (fourth Thursday in November) only in 1939,
  • food served on Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving is way more modest and it stayed like that until today while the original Thanksgiving food by Pilgrims was more abundant from the very beginning and differentiated a lot since the 17th century (for instance, there was no turkey in the original Thanksgiving dinner but there was probably different kind of venison),
  • Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving stayed closely connected with religious services from the very beginning, while Thanksgiving became much more of a family reunion with a lot of traveling and overeating.

schwenckfelder thanksgiving decor

How to observe Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving

If you would like to expand your intellectual and cultural horizons, you can:

  • attend a service in the church (preferably one of Schwenkfelder's),
  • host a meal based on original food served on Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving (a great excuse to learn how to make apple butter and find out about its uses),
  • learn about Schwenkfelder Church teachings and different religions generally by visiting a local library or browsing the web (go ahead, get your free printable copy of multi faith religious calendar for september and mark September 24th).
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