The Swamp College

Robert Wood


The Swamp College, Part 1

Father Dubbs’ Calling


The Reformed church in America was started as a mission of the Dutch Calvinist Reformed Church in Holland. When the German Reformed Church in the Unites States broke with Holland in 1793, they not only lost the financial backing of the Dutch, but the supply of ordained ministers dried up as well. For decades the ministers in America had been asking Holland for a theological seminary here to train men for the ministry, but to no avail. Now it was a necessity. However, it wasn’t until 1825  that one was opened in Carlisle with one professor. In the interim, ordained ministers were supplied from the parsonage of Lebrecht Frederick Herman minister of Falkner Swamp Reformed Church.


Rev. Herman (1761-1848) was probably the last missionary sent here by the Synod in Holland. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1786 and labored for a while in Easton and Germantown. Then in 1800 we find him in Swamp having accepted a charge that included Pottstown and St. Vincent as well. One of the first things he did was to organize the effort to pay off the debt on the new brick church that was erected in 1790. Early in his pastorate Rev. Herman established a school at his house for the preparation of young men to enter the Reformed clergy. Herman was a thorough scholar and good teacher. As well as perfecting their German, students studied, to some degree, the Biblical languages: Greek, Hebrew and Latin. His course was three years long and over the next thirty years sixteen men were ordained from his school, the last one in 1830. It’s doubtful if it was ever named the “Swamp College” except as a joking reference by the students that attended.  The school-parsonage was said to be one and one-quarter miles up the Swamp Pike just over the line of Douglass Township. The house was demolished in the 1970’s for a commercial business.


We know a good deal about the “Swamp College” because of a lengthy article in the 1877 Reformed Messenger  reprinted in the 1949 Pennsylvania Dutchman newspaper edited and produced by professors  Don Yoder and Alfred Shoemaker. This article is titled “Father Dubbs Reminisces” and recounts the life story of “that ancient servant of the Lord, the Rev. Dr. J. S. Dubbs (1796-1877), who was familiarly known as ‘Father Dubbs’. These [reminiscences] were gathered years ago from his conversation in the pleasant circle of his family and most intimate friends.” The original article probably comes from the pen of Joseph H. Dubbs, his son. As luck would have it, Joseph S. Dubbs, “Father Dubbs,” was a graduate of the Swamp College in 1821, and through his reminiscences we get a valuable glimpse of that school and community.

During Joseph Dubbs’ boyhood, their pastor made his home with Dubbs’ father Daniel Dubbs on the headwaters of the Saucon Creek. This site is not far from the point where Bucks, Montgomery, and Lehigh counties meet at a corner. The elder Dubbs was one of those remarkable and successful men who seemingly did it all. He erected various mills and a distillery as well as a forge where one of his sons during the War if 1812 did much work for the government. Additionally, he was said to have built the first brick house in Lehigh County. Daniel Dubbs is described as “having been a man of gigantic frame and marvelous strength, but gentle in his manners, and rather reserved.” When he came of age, young Joseph Dubbs decided to enter the ministry, but his father gave him little encouragement.


In 1816 there were only 35 ordained ministers in the Reformed Church of America. Many of the congregations were miserably poor and a minister usually had several in his charge which combined could offer him little more than subsistence. But eventually his father relented  and said, “Joseph, if you still desire to study for the ministry, you have my full consent. If you can find a preceptor, I will furnish the means.” And so, supplied with $200 per year, a  large amount of money in those days, Joseph Dubbs arrived at Rev. Herman’s door in Swamp.


The early school preparation of the half dozen or so theological students in Rev. Herman’s “college” was quite uneven. There were no public schools.  The best schools were the church parochial schools where a literate schoolmaster was  also the church organist, choirmaster, and catechist. Both churches in New Hanover had a large school and employed a teacher.  But there were few churches in those days, and any child living more than a few miles away had to rely on the neighborhood “pay school.” Here the schoolmaster was paid a few cents per day per student to tutor whomever might show up with whatever schoolbooks they might bring. On sunny days the place would be almost empty, on rainy days stuffed, and brutal discipline held sway.


Rev. Dubbs had little good to say about them: “The schoolhouses were miserable hovels, and the teachers were generally foreign Germans who had ‘left their country for their country’s good.’ Among the latter were many old soldiers who could barely spell out their New Testament or Psalter, and who were suffered [allowed] to teach school as a mere matter of charity. … Of his earliest schoolmaster Father Dubbs only remembered that he was a tall and stately personage, who wore his hair tied up in a cue, or pigtail, ornamented with ribbons which hung far down his back. After reading a chapter with the school, it was his custom, both in the morning and afternoon, to lean back in his chair and take a long nap, during which the scholars were required to preserve absolute silence so as not to disturb his slumbers.


“On one occasion, however, an adventurous youngster, not having the fear of the law before his eyes, ventured to steal up to the desk and tie the cue of the sleeping master to a projecting nail; so that when he was roused by a noise a few moments afterwards and attempted to rise to his feet, he received a dreadful pull-back. Fearful would have been the fate of the boy who played the trick if he could have been discovered, but as no one would reveal the culprit the master took his revenge by whipping the whole school.”


Dubbs goes on to say: “A single such instance is enough to show the character of country schools of seventy years ago [1807]; but it must not be forgotten that with all their imperfections, these schools had certain merits which are but rarely found in the public schools of today [1877]….The hymns of the church were sung and committed to memory and the scriptures so constantly read that their very language was indelibly imprinted on the minds of the young. After all, was not the instruction thus imparted of vastly more value than much of what passes for practical knowledge at the present day?”

Next week, Part Two


The Swamp College, Part 2

Father Dubbs’ Education


The Lutheran and Reformed churches brought to the untamed new world the European heritage of an educated clergy; however, when the Reformed Church in the United States broke with the parent church in Holland in 1793 they lost their source of European university trained ministers. For thirty years Rev. F. L. Herman of Falkner Swamp Reformed Church operated a seminary in his home where he prepared sixteen ministers for ordination: George Geistweit (1793), Samuel Weyberg (1793), Charles G. Herman (1809), Frederick A. Herman (1814), John Guldin (1819), J. David Young (1819), Joseph S. Dubbs (1821), Augustus L. Herman (1821), Thomas Leinbach (1821), Isaac Stiele (1822), Peter Fisher (1824), Benjamin S. Scheck (1824), Richard Fisher (1825), Abraham Berge (1828), Reuben T. Herman (1828), and Lewis C. Herman (1830). As described in part one, the reminiscences of one of the above, Rev. Dubbs, were recorded by his son, and so we have a description of the “Swamp College.”  


Rev. Dubbs relates that after securing his father’s permission and an annual stipend of $200 he set off over the hills to Rev. Lebrecht Herman’s door who was said to enjoy an extensive reputation as an instructor of young men. He found the good preacher at home and at work with his circle of students. It was said that only after he was convinced of the sincere and earnest motives of the applicant did Rev. Herman “grasp him by the hand, and pressing it heartily exclaim, ‘I will stand by you in life and death!’ ” Auf Tod und Leben.  


Rev. Dubbs recalls, “The discipline of this primitive ‘college’ was of the strictest character, though easily enforced, as all the students were thoroughly in earnest, in endeavoring to secure an education. All day long they labored uncomplainingly never asking for a vacation or even a holiday; and only allowing themselves the occasional recreation of a game of quoits or ‘long bullets’ or perhaps of going to the woods in the evening to hunt for ‘coons.’ ”


One value of the Reminiscence is that it provides us with some idea of  what exactly the students were laboring upon all day long. First and foremost was the perfecting of the German language, spoken and written. There would have been theological vocabulary to master. All church services and preaching were in formal German, not Pennsylvania “Dutch.”  


The next most important subject was Latin, and here Dr. Herman pursued the system to which he had been accustomed in Germany. In England it was known as the Hamiltonian method. First, basic vocabulary and definitions  were committed to memory. Armed with this basic vocabulary, the student was then assigned to construct sentences where he learned the conventions of grammar as he went along. This method didn’t require mastery of Latin grammar (surely a daunting and discouraging task for these farm boys) as a starting point. Herman was also fond of teaching Latin vocabulary with rhymes, many of which Dubbs remembered in his old age:


Mensa-der Tisch (table)

Piscis-der Fisch (fish)

Nasus-der Nas’ (nose)

Lepus-der Haus (rabbit)


The main object of teaching Greek was to enable students to read the Greek testament. Hebrew was lightly touched upon. Dubbbs said they did little beyond “filling a few small volumes with exercises, and reading a few chapters from the Hebrew bible.”


“In teaching theology Dr. Herman employed a manuscript compendium of the lectures of his favorite professor, Dr. Mursina, of Halle, with numerous original modifications and additions. This volume every student was required to transcribe, reciting a section every day to his preceptor. In a similar manner a  large volume of lectures on church history was copied and recited.” “Recited” means committed to memory and then spoken aloud. Education in the old days usually required a vast quantity of text be memorized and then spoken before the teacher or class. (Interestingly the German University of Halle also provided this community with Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who organized the Lutheran Church in America.)


Although Dr. Herman and his wife spoke English freely---she was native of New Jersey---he never used it in the classroom. No one ever suspected that English would ever be used to any extent in the Reformed Church in Pennsylvania. Indeed, it was fifty or more years before some churches made the slow transition to English.


Dr. Herman had an old album, called a hortus amicorum ( Latin: “garden of friends“)  started in his college days containing autographs and words of encouragement and affection from teachers and friends back in Germany. Rev. Dubbs recalled one page of his teacher’s book in particular. Among his friends in Germany was a young law student who wore a heavy beard which was very unusual in those days. This aspiring lawyer had the disagreeable habit of calling his friend by the term “Pfaffen,” a derogatory term for preacher or priest.  One day Herman asked him to sign his album, and he dashed off the following rhyming poem:


Schoene Maedchen sind geschaffen

Fuer Juresten, nicht fuer Pfaffen;

Darum waehlt ich diesen Orden

Sonst waer ich ein Pfaff geworden.

Which roughly translates as:

Pretty girls are made

For lawyers, not for preachers

Therefore I’ll choose this profession

Otherwise I’d have become a preacher.


Another theology student---Troldenier, subsequently Reformed pastor in Baltimore---entered the room and seeing what the law student had written wrote the following beneath it.


Und alle die da sagen Pfaffen

Zaehlt man unter die Zahl der Affen,

Mit einem haarigen Gesicht-

Nein! Da liebt kein Maedchen nicht.

And all who use the term “Pfaffen”

Are numbered with the class of apes

With hairy faces-

No girl loves them.


In the year 1820 when Father Dubbs had been a student for three years he was sent as an intern to preach a sermon at Limerick. The church had just received the gift of a stove from Squire Brooke. Many in the congregation considered it a useless luxury that they could well do without. The stove had no pipe and it was difficult to get one to extend the whole height of the church; so, hard as it is to believe, before every service they made fire in the stove with no stove pipe! The church was so full of smoke that the people could hardly see the preacher. “In that church,” said the aged minister, “I preached my first sermon amid the coughing and the sneezing of the congregation, and between nervousness and smoke I almost feared I would choke to death.” Being accustomed to the smoke, the people assured the preacher that all was well and that he had no reason to be discouraged.

Next week, Part 3


The Swamp College, Part 3

Father Dubbs’ First Funeral


We have been following the schooling of Rev. Joseph S. Dubbs which is of interest because he graduated from the theological seminary of Rev. L. F. Herman in Swamp, New Hanover, in 1821.  Apparently from 1800 to 1830 Swamp was the only source of Reformed Church ministers in America.


Last week’s column noted how Rev. Dubbs preached his first sermon in the Limerick church which had a stove but no stovepipe. Between the smoke and his nervousness he almost choked on his sermon, but everyone seemed pleased with his efforts. His first funeral was little better. The story goes like this.


At that time in the Fox Hills, west of Ringing Hill, there lived a well-to-do man of the Reformed faith who was an infamous miser. When the deacon from Falkner Swamp visited him to ask for a subscription for the year he said, “Oh, don’t you know. I belong to Boyertown.” When the deacon from Boyertown came to call he said in apparent astonishment, Don’t you know I belong to Falkner Swamp.” Likewise Pottstown’s deacon got the same treatment. So one day all three of them called at the same time. Being cornered, he finally relented and subscribed to pay to the support of  Falkner Swamp Church the sum of ten cents for the year! This was the man then who had a death in the family, and young Rev. Dubbs was assigned to conduct the funeral.


Now in those days at the funeral it was the custom to give the minister a gratuity of several dollars and the organist a somewhat smaller amount. However after the service the miser slipped the young Rev. Dubbs fifty cents and the organist twenty-five. The minister quietly accepted his small honorarium, but the organist inquired in a loud voice, “What is this for?”

“That is your fee,” was the reply.

“You miserable skinflint!” responded the organist. “Do you imagine that I can afford to close my school, hire a horse, and give you a whole day’s service for twenty-five cents? I insist on having another dollar,” he shouted.” Caught before the funeral congregation, many of whom knew him and his reputation well, he relented and paid the dollar. Then, as if struck by conscience he exclaimed: “The minister deserves a dollar as well as the organist.” But, of course, his apparent largess was still well below the usual rate.


It seems Rev. Dubbs’ father was wrong in his fear that his son wouldn’t get a church or a charge (group of churches) after he was ordained, but he was right about the poverty. The younger Dubbs relates that his father received a call from the Windsor and Albany charge in western Berks County. Those churches are known as “Ziegel” and “Weiss” respectively. This charge was situated in a region then known by the “Pa. Dutch” term “Allemangel” or “all wants,” the term deriving from early times when the settles there were said to be in need of all things. In the early days it was said to be known as an area of privation. “In the winter it was sometimes almost inaccessible, and on several occasions the minister narrowly escaped with his life while attempting to force his way through the deep snowdrifts, which are characteristic of that region.”


Father Dubbs relates the hardship of a colleague there, Rev. John Zuilch, “who needed to keep an appointment on the other side of the Blue Mountain when the area was covered in ice. After struggling to the top, he found the footing too treacherous for his horse, so leaving the animal in the care of a charcoal burner he sat down, gathered his overcoat around his feet, and slid on his backside down the western slope of the mountain. Afterwards the minister declared that he had never traveled more rapidly.”


Ziegel’s Church historian and author Mary Redline notes in an email that we find Rev. Dubbs in Lehigh county in 1832 when he received a call from the Allentown charge, Lehigh County and took up his residence in North Whitehall Township near the present village of Ironton.  


The 1975 history of the Falkner Swamp Reformed Church notes that Rev. Herman was active for more than 60 years at the various churches he served and is credited with 8,555 baptisms; 4,600 confirmations; 2,600 marriages; 2,280 funerals; and 8-10,000 sermons. His pastorate closed in 1833; he died in 1848 and is buried at Zion’s U.C.C. Pottstown. Several of Rev. Herman’s sons went into the ministry, and he was the progenitor of a whole line of Reformed pastors.


In the year that Rev. Herman retired from Swamp, 1833,  Rev. Benjamin Schneider, a son of that congregation, sailed to Turkey as a missionary, the first missionary sent to a foreign land by the Reformed Church in America. Rev. Schneider was educated in Presbyterian schools; there being then no Reformed colleges in America other than Rev. Herman’s.


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