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Why did Paul Jünger leave his German speaking homeland?

 

Many books and articles have been published discussing the circumstances and conditions that existed in the Rhineland areas of German speaking Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I have read several of these publications and make the following broad summary statements based on my study of those materials.

 

In 1517 Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German Catholic monk, launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  He confronted the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope in this document regarding the sale of indulgences.  The Roman Catholic Church was raising money for rebuilding St. Peters Basilica in Rome with the sale of indulgences.

 

Luther led the way in challenging Catholic Church authority by protesting the notion that sins could be absolved by the Church and the Pope through payments into the church treasury.  He insisted that forgiveness for sins was achieved through faith alone in Jesus Christ and his atonement on the cross.  Within months, his protest document spread throughout Europe.  In time other like minded reformers including Huldrich Zwingli and John Calvin carried the theme of protesting corruption and errant theology and teaching within the Roman Catholic Church across much of Europe.

 

Some parts of Europe became substantially Protestant (i.e., England, Scotland, Sweden, Norway and Finland).  Other areas remained staunchly Catholic (i.e., Spain, Italy, Austria, and Ireland).  However, in Switzerland and Germany, and small parts of France, Protestant and Catholic forces fought back and forth for the upper hand. Secular leaders began choosing sides in the conflict.  In Germany, many princes sided with Luther and against the Catholic Church authorities.  Without their support, Luther might have lost his life as a martyr.

 

The religious conflict escalated into armed conflict that resulted in massive, horrific bloodshed and devastation.  This outcome was especially acute in the Rhineland of German speaking Europe.  Warring factions laid waste the formerly fertile and peaceful communities along the Southern and Middle Rhine and its principal tributaries.  Armies must be fed and the property and produce of the Germanic peasants and princes alike were despoiled and raped with reckless abandon by these invaders who were often mercenaries. 

 

The most infamous period of conflict lasted from 1618 until 1648 and it was known, therefore, as the “Thirty Years War”.  Estimates made by historians suggest that as much as 30% of the German population died during this period. Deaths from disease, famine and plague also accompanied deaths from armed combat. Thousands of towns and villages were also completely destroyed.  Historians estimate about one third of all German towns and villages were devastated. 

 

Mercifully, the “Peace of Westphalia” in 1648 ended this tragic period of religious war and the devastation that it produced.  However, later armed conflicts continued to beset the Rhineland throughout the succeeding decades.  In 1688-1689 Louis XIV of France (the “Sun King”) invaded Alsace and then the Palatinate, Baden and Württemberg.  He adopted a “scorched earth” policy and destroyed major towns and their surrounding villages including Mannheim, Heidelberg, Speyer, Mainz, and Worms to name only a portion of those he laid waste.

 

Wars continued to occur in the 18th century in central Europe.  They were political conflicts more than religious battles.   However, they did not impact the areas along the Rhine and its tributaries in southwestern Germany to the degree that the religious wars of the 17th century had.  Deserving mention are the “War of Spanish Succession” (1701-1714) and the “War of Austrian Succession” (1740-1748).  

 

Eventually, the devastated areas throughout southwestern Germany began a process of rebuilding and repopulating following the carnage caused by the religious wars of the 17th century.  Princes and other landowners sought to recover their losses through increased bureaucratic controls over peasants and the taxation of their subjects.

 

Repopulating of the southwestern Rhineland area of Germany in the 18th century occurred due to the abatement of war and its diseases and the reduction of mortality rates that resulted.  Also, considerable immigration of Swiss, French Huguenots, Flemish and other groups occurred filling the void left by the population declines of the previous century.  These immigrants brought with them different forms of Protestantism. 

 

German speaking immigrants who were members of the Reformed Church (led by Zwingli, Calvin and others) joined those who were members of the officially recognized religions in Germany, Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.   Other German speaking immigrants into the southwestern part of Germany were members of smaller Protestant sects.  Those fellowships included Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, Swiss Brethren, Huguenots and Dunkers to name only a few. 

 

Southwest Germany was a hodgepodge of many different principalities and “mini-kingdoms” as it had been for many centuries.  Each local ruler had the authority to expect his peasantry to accept his particular religious affiliation.  As rulers shifted back and forth in their religious persuasions, often their servants were caught in a dilemma of whether to obey the expectations of their lord or to follow their consciences in matters of religious conviction. 

 

This tension was particularly harsh for members of the smaller “pietist” groups like the Mennonites, Quakers and Huguenots.  Those who stood firm in their religious beliefs against their local lord’s religious preference where often persecuted for standing their ground.  The local potentate had leverage over the conduct of the peasants through controlling land rents they had to pay to him for working in his fields for a share of the produce. 

 

The significant population increase soon became an acute economic problem for the peasants who represented the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants.  Productive land was subdivided into parcels that were too small to support the rapidly growing number of families. 

 

Aaron Spencer Fogleman summarizes the circumstances well in his excellent work titled Hopeful Journeys published in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania Press:

 

“Eventually, the high rate of natural increase, combined with immigration, led to overpopulation…landholdings became too small to support a family…Faced with the prospect of making a living off a parcel of land a mere fraction of the size worked by their grandparents, in a land where the apparatus of government increasingly interfered with the affairs and customs of the village, many peasants chose to seek their fortune elsewhere, as they had done in previous centuries under similar pressures.”

 

Another very insightful publication by Frank Ried Diffenderffer titled The German Immigrants into Pennsylvania Through the Port of Philadelphia from 1700 to 1775 republished in 1988 by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. (originally published in 1900 by The Pennsylvania German Society) offers the following summary of the times and conditions that led so many German speaking people to leave their homelands:

 

“There was a spirit of unrest and dissatisfaction throughout Europe and especially in Germany.  That continent had been almost continuously torn by devastating wars for a hundred years previously.  Destruction and desolation had been carried into millions of homes.  In almost every kingdom and principality the tramp of the invader had been heard, and wherever he appeared ruin followed in his tracks by day, and his incendiary torch marked his course by night.  The peasant was no more considered in this clash of arms than the cattle in his fields.  Like them he was valued only for what he was worth to his lord and master, whoever that might be.  He was pressed into the ranks whenever his services were needed, while his substance was seized and converted to the public use.  To eke out a scanty existence where the fates had located him without hope of betterment or material progression seemed the aim and end of his being.  To rise from the plane of life to which he was born was a blessing vouchsafed to few. Generations of oppression and penury had in too many cases dwarfed the humanity within his soul, and he could only in exceptional cases look forward to anything better or higher.”

 

These were the circumstances and conditions that prompted hundreds of thousands of German speaking peasants of the Rhineland to leave southwestern Germany, Alsace and parts of Switzerland in the late 17th and entire 18th century prior to the American Revolutionary War to seek a better life elsewhere.  Johann Paul Jünger was among those much persecuted souls who sought a new homeland in distant lands.

 

 

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