Tom Masland
March 23, 1981 12:00 PM

As boys growing up in houses on the same farm north of Philadelphia, they trapped muskrats together, belonged to the same Scout troop and both attended Sunday school at the local Schwenkfelder church. Now, some 40 years later, Richard Schweiker, 54, and Andrew Lewis, 49, are reunited—in President Reagan’s Cabinet. As a result, the Schwenkfelder sect has suddenly become the best-represented religious minority in the upper reaches of U.S. government.

The Schwenkfelders, some 2,700 total, worship at five churches, all within 50 miles of Philadelphia. Since taking office, Transportation Secretary Lewis has attended services at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, Pa. about every other week, and Health and Human Services Secretary Schweiker somewhat less often. Rev. Jack Rothenberger, the 50-year-old minister, says he was troubled by Reagan’s support of right-wing groups like the Moral Majority until he “picked fine people like Dick and Drew for the Cabinet.” Both Secretaries have served as trustees of their Worcester congregation, and Lewis ran the Sunday school program for several years.

The church’s founder was Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig, a 16th-century German nobleman who spent most of his life as an itinerant preacher. (His followers dropped one “c” in the name 30 years ago.) Like contemporary Martin Luther, he broke with the Catholic church but felt that Luther was overly concerned with institutional change rather than the individual’s relationship with God. Schwenckfeld’s teaching emphasizes the direct daily experiencing of Christ. His followers were persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike and eventually fled to America in the 1730s, settling between Philadelphia and Allentown.

When the Schwenkfelders first arrived, they adopted the style of dress and some of the customs of their neighbors, the Mennonites and Quakers. And until the 1920s the Schwenkfelders conducted their services in German. But all that has changed. “The Mennonites and Amish say we’ve gone ‘gay,’ ” observes Schweiker, hastily adding, “in the old-fashioned sense of the word.” Except for their annual Day of Remembrance on the Sunday nearest September 24 (when a traditional meal of bread and apple butter is served to commemorate the landing of the Schwenkfelders’ original ship, the St. Andrew, in Philadelphia), there is little to distinguish the modern-day Schwenkfelder church from other Protestant denominations. The Rev. Rothenberger argues that this is because Protestant doctrine has finally caught up with Schwenckfeld, “an ecumenical person in an intolerant age.”

Like 40 percent of all Schwenkfelders, Rothenberger was born into a different denomination. Son of a Plymouth Brethren (Protestant) butcher, Jack grew up in nearby Boyertown and first attended Schwenkfelder services as a teenager while courting his future wife, Jean. A psychology major and star athlete at Juniata College, he decided to become a minister in his senior year. He studied at the Hartford Theological Seminary (there is no Schwenkfelder seminary, since the sect has just eight ministers in the U.S.) and was ordained in 1955. Rothenberger became senior minister of the Central Church in Worcester in 1975. “We call him the bishop,” teases Jean.

Services at the imposing granite structure are similar to those of the United Church of Christ. The minister keeps his sermons simple. “I don’t like theatrics from the pulpit,” he says. But Rothenberger and his fellow Schwenkfelders are delighted by the church’s sudden status. “When I was in the Senate,” recalls Schweiker, “the Schwenkfelders were the most over-represented sect in the U.S. Senate. Now that we have two in the Cabinet, I guess that’s even more true.”

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