The Brethren Community of Pricetown
By RICHARD L.T. ORTH
As motorists speed by the small village of Pricetown on Route 12, they are hardly aware of the 18th Century Dunkard, or Brethren, community that once thrived there. The few indications of early settlement, such as the surviving rustic barns and log houses built by the original pioneers, are frequently overlooked. Conrad Price, the person for whom this community is named, was among the original twelve Brethren pioneer families who settled here about 1754. The new community was an outgrowth of the Brethren Plain Sect that had earlier settled in the Oley Valley.
The quaint, original fieldstone 1777 Brethren meetinghouse, situated on a knoll off the main thoroughfare, survives in pristine shape. Known as “the oldest unaltered Church of the Brethren in America,” it can be located, by a historical marker, just two blocks east of the village hotel and traffic-light intersection. The historic Meetinghouse lies idle throughout the year, except for the annual congregational gathering held by the Mohrsville Church of the Brethren on the first Sunday in June.
The attractive 18th Century Dunkard Preacher’s home, adjacent to the Brethren Meetinghouse, is credited as having been built in 1775 by Martin Gaube, who is buried in the church cemetery alongside it. An early, hand-built balcony above the main entrance may indicate that the Brethren, like other Colonials, stored grain in their attics. Alternatively, the balcony could be an architectural vestige of a bygone practice that provided a convenient way of moving heavy furniture into the second floor, in lieu of the narrow interior staircase, as was custom in Old World Germany.
Entering Pricetown from Fleetwood via Route 662, many motorists drive past an ancient, historic Brethren log barn found on the right hand side of the road, about midway between the two communities. Obscured behind the barn is one of the earlier log houses of this Brethren settlement (1773). This is the first home of Conrad Price, later given to his eldest son, Jacob. Its original hand-hewn back porch is still intact. A traditional one and a half story log home of the 18th Century, with a Continental Pennsylvania German floor plan, the Price log home survives in excellent shape. The whitewashed log wall of the back porch is a reminder that almost all log homes were whitewashed annually, a Pennsylvania Dutch practice which preserved some of these structures to the present day.
Just east of the village tavern along the Pricetown Road, stands another simple one story log house once belonging to the Price family. Built in the late 1770s, it has not been whitewashed for many years. Its rustic logs with repaired cement chinking are barely protected from the severe weather of the Pricetown Ridge, where ice storms are common. In the 1700s, the heavily traveled Pricetown highway was a major route that farmers traversed into Reading for the buying and selling of wares in the thriving market town. Pricetown itself had three taverns with adjacent general stores to serve this busy trade.
Another colorful period of trade occurred in the late 1800s, when Montana horses were brought into Temple by the railroads and drivers took them up the Pricetown Road to be sold at country auctions such as the Fredericksville Ascension Day auctions held by John Frey and others in the back country. Being one of the most distant civilized outposts from Reading, Pricetown became a successful town, serving needs beyond those of the immediate population. The several Brethren, who were shoemakers and saddle-harness tradesmen there, were in a unique position. Together with wheelwrights and blacksmiths, they met the needs of travelers going from the Oley Valley north to the East Penn Valley over the Oley Hills via Pricetown and Fleetwood.
The Dunkards who first settled Pricetown were pacifists (conscientious objectors) and certainly by way of their religion fell into William Penn’s utopian ideal of “brotherly love.” As it pertains to theology, the German Brethren are very similar to their Swiss-Mennonite and Amish cousins; however, they are exclusive in their observances of baptism and “love feasts.” Whereas they are all considered “Anabaptist,” and fled persecution from Europe for their religious beliefs, once the Brethren first accept Christ as their Savior (“an outward show of inward expression”), they are then baptized. The Brethren promote full triune (three times) immersion of the body in water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, baptism was followed by a love feast. Mennonites, on the other hand, become members of the church at marriage.
The last active Dunkard member of the Pricetown meeting was Elam Fox, Sr., who operated a nearby farm and cider-press one-half mile south of Pricetown. Fox died in 1973, but was survived by four children, two of whom (Ben and Elam, Jr.) still reside in Ruscombmanor Township and attend branches of the Brethren church. Although Fox and the other Plain men of the Dunkard Community of Pricetown no longer wore their black-brimmed hats in public in the late 1900s, their traditionally conservative 18th Century beliefs continued to be reflected in the religious and social climate of this farming community as late as the turn of the 20th Century.
The Brethren, like their Amish and Mennonite cousins, are frugal, successful farmers who seem to have instinctively understood Adam Smith’s principles of capitalism in the operation of their farms and roadside stands, never wasting time or goods for fear of eventual want. Smith (1723-1790), known generally as the “Father of Modern Economics,” took Isaac Newton’s vision of a universe running by itself according to natural laws and applied it to society as a whole and to economic activity in particular. Anyone who ever met the elder Fox knew that, as a member of the Brethren Sect, he did not engage in frivolous ideas or endeavors.
One of Elam Fox’s sons, Elam, Jr., still sells the fruits of his labor, gathered from his family orchard along the Fleetwood-Oley Memorial Highway, as his father did before him. The original Fox homestead, which features a dressed stone farmhouse built in 1782 and designed in the Federal style, bears evidence of the economic boom times of our early agrarian Republic. It is home to Elam, Sr.’s other surviving son, Ben Fox, and Betty Kurtz.
One of the most unique practices of the Pricetown congregation is the “liebesmahl” or “Love feast,” which is a part of the Brethren religious worship little understood by the outside world. In doing research for this article, I was able to vividly understand this unique ceremony, as traditionally performed, with the help of Clarence Kulp, Jr., one of the historians of the Brethren Sect in Montgomery County. “Liebesmahl,” more personal than other religious practices engaged in by Plain Sects in Pennsylvania, may, in part, be why this religious order is more fraternal than most. However, all the Plain Sects in Pennsylvania are in themselves unique.
Preparations for the weekend Love feast were usually made the week prior to this event. Generally, preparations involved a visit to the local Brethren by pairs of deacons, who were sent as witnesses to see if the Brethren had walked the right path of the Lord. To plan this most involved and important ceremony, the Church elders held a special council meeting. The preparatory service, which included cooking of all the meals, was mostly done by the Deacons wives. Sleeping accommodations, for distant worshippers, were arranged in nearby barns, attics, and homes.
All was felt essential for this two-day period, because visitors from all over the region traveled from Berks, Bucks, Montgomery, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties to participate – no matter where the Love feast was held. In recent times, only two Love feasts were held at the Pricetown Meeting-house, one in 1980 and the other in 1986. This most important ceremony on the Brethren calendar was considered a “great yearly reunion,” where old acquaintances were renewed and new ones formed.
In marking the start of the Love Feast on a Saturday, the Bishop announced the beginning of service and, with the rest of the ministers, entered the Brethren pulpit or, in recent years, the Preacher’s table, while the rest of the congregation took their places at the table. Men and women (or brothers and sisters), sat on their respective sides as they did with meetings and services. Generally, women and children were on the left and men on the right.
The first of a threefold service began with foot washing. The congregation filed to special benches for this ritual. Today, the foot washing takes place at the tables. The brother at the end of the first row, wearing an apron made of toweling material, started. He knelt before the next brother, washed his feet in a designated tub, and followed with a greeting of fellowship by the right hand. He then gave the holy kiss of charity lip to lip. The first brother continued on down the line washing several brothers until he retired and another brother picked up the task, until the row was completed.
The cleansed brothers filed back to their seats at the “Lord’s table” and another row began, until the whole congregation had participated. Sisters on the other side observed the same ritual. The next segment of the “liebesmahl” was the imitation of the Lord’s Supper or “nachtmahl,” as portrayed in the Gospels. At this mid-afternoon feast, all members ate together as one, regardless of their stations in life. Prayer, known as “return ing thanks,” was given before the meal and after.
The second fold was the rite or ordinance of the holy kiss or kiss of charity. This ritual started with the Bishop to minister and so on through the brotherhood with the right hand of fellowship and the kiss of charity on the lips. The last brother came to the pulpit or preacher’s table to complete or close the chain of fellowship. Then the Bishop greeted the first female of the bench, but with only the hand. The sisters then greeted the other women in the same fashion, but with the kiss. This ritual of solidarity was supposed to symbolize and bind the love between the members of the congregation. After the holy kiss and before the Holy Communion, the fellowship meal was eaten.
The third part of the Love feast was the rite of Holy Communion. The Bishop uncovered the “liebesmahl brote” or communion bread under a white muslin cloth. This holy brote had been pronged with five perforations symbolic of the five fatal wounds of Christ on the cross. The Bishop then asked for God’s blessing of the unleavened bread and had the congregation repeat a holy phrase. The Bishop, with the assistance of the ministry, distributed the bread to the tables. The bread was intentionally cut into long strips so brothers and sisters could break off portions. The ends were usually given to the children. Traditionally, sisters were not given the privilege of breaking bread, but instead received portions broken by the Bishop. Today, the women break their own bread.
Wine was then served from a common communion chalice or taken by individual cups. Traditionally, the wine was never bought, but made by the senior deacon. However, wine is substituted by grape juice today. The communion service generally concluded on a Saturday and the congregation was dismissed as “Herewith you are dismissed, go home.”
Accommodations were then made for sleeping arrangements, utilizing barns or the meetinghouse attic or garret for visitors. In the latter, the deacons’ wives supplied blankets and bedding. The farmer provided straw bedding in the barns in the early days. Most of the visiting brotherhood stayed overnight for the following, final day.
Typically, a Sunday morning worship service was held the next day, starting around 9:00 am. Following this lengthy service, performed by members or visiting ministers, a final fellowship meal was given, culminating a great two-day undertaking. After this meal, the final afternoon session of fellowship in singing and prayer took place, closing the Brethren weekend Love feast.
As visitors departed, the same phrase could be repeatedly heard whether in English or German, “if we don’t see one another at next years love feast, we will meet at the great love feast in Heaven.” Unfortunately, with today’s busier lifestyles, modernization, and the advancement of transportation faster than horse and buggy, today’s love feast observances only last half a day.
In previous years, when Franconian Brethren would travel to Pricetown from Harleysville to hold their worship services in the ancient 1777 meetinghouse, only a few learned Pricetown citizens knew why they were present. Worship, then held on a quarterly basis, was done at the Pricetown Meetinghouse in both English and German, continuing until the 1930s. Today, an annual session, held in the English language, upholds the Brethren traditions established at Pricetown when the community was yet a pioneer outpost.