Back Home in Distelfink Country

The expression has reference to “Pennsylvania Dutch country.”  We once thought Deuteronomy 11:12 could apply to it: “A land which the Lord thy God careth for.  The eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year unto the end of the year.”  By the way, this would make a good sermon text for New Year’s Day or for Old Year’s night.  The earliest, if not the original, inhabitants of the above-mentioned land thought of it in terms of this Deuteronomic text.  For they had come to it seeking religious freedom.  They came to it from Saxony, that part of Europe called that long before there was a Germany.  Of course, God in His providence has a care for the whole world and all its parts.  For the earth is His and the fullness of it.  God’s providential care reaches everywhere.  But the land which we call the Holy Land is representative of the church, the place God had chosen for His own residence, the place of His worship as a habitation for His peculiar people.  Doth God care for lands?  He does.  Why?  Because of, and for the sake of, His church in those lands.

The well-known Quaker, William Penn, became owner of the vast wilderness of Pennsylvania, securing its sylvan acreage on March 4, 1681.  However, the Pennsylvania Dutch were already there before Penn.  Migration had begun with another pietist, Pastorius, who arrived in what was called Germanopolis, later Germantown, on August 20, 1683.  Streets in this new town had to have names.  One was named after this Christian pioneer, Pastorius Street (near 6200 Germantown Avenue); Pastorius Park (near 8200 Germantown Avenue) was also named after him.  The settlers at this time were linen weavers, so Germantown early became known for its knitting mills, and adopted for its motto, Vinum, linum et textrum, or Wine, Flax and Weaving. As an example of phenomenal growth of this area, William Frey, from Altheim, Alsace, settled in Germantown, in 1683 on 57 acres, which, on his acquiring more land was soon enlarged to 2,750 acres in 1689.  Another well-known Germantown street is Penn Street, within two blocks of which we all lived.

Later, many of the Germantown streets were named after Revolutionary War generals, as (Gen. “Mad Anthony”) Wayne Ave., (Gen. Nathanael) Greene St., (Gen. Philip John) Schuyler St., (Gen. Henry) Knox St., (Gen. Count Casimir) Pulaski Ave., Rittenhouse St., named after David Rittenhouse, mathematician/astronomer in Revolutionary War days; Sherman St., named after the signer of the Declaration of Independence, Roger Sherman.  Logan St. was named after secretary to William Penn, James Logan.  Washington Lane was named for Gen. George Washington.

Some positive critical comment is necessary at this point.  When the British occupied Germantown during the War, the Continental Army retreated to Valley Forge.  Pennsylvania farmers would not come to the aid of Washington’s men with supplies because Contintental money had depreciated.  Evidently so had Pennsylvania patriotism, at least until that patriotic naming of Germantown’s streets, later, which had the effect of setting up as permanently as possible memorials to America’s revolutionary resistance to authority.  Scripture forbids such resistance.  Consider Rom. 13:1-4, in one of the most faithful translations of the original, that of the New American Standard Bible: 1. “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is (exists) no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  2. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  3. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.  Do you want to have no fear of authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  4. For it is a minister of God to you for good.  But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (bold added).  It has been argued that this passage allows for forcibly opposing a lawless, tyrannical authority, appealing to I Sam. 14:45, which, however, not only does not prove this, but shows rather that the people did not oppose the authority, but instead had successfully protested an injustice, which gained the day for Jonathan.  Later, Jonathan himself did not forcibly oppose the authority, but effectually protested another injustice: I Sam. 19:5.  It has also been argued on the ground of this passage that the American Revolution was a revolution of necessity.  But it is not necessary to resist and oppose the authorities in order to preserve property, liberty and life. These may be lost in the way of dutifully submitting to authority.  The one and only necessity in relation to what is owed the authorities is to ensure that in obeying them we do not disobey God.  The revolutionary under General George Washington and the rebel under Confederate President Jefferson Davis thought that they were fighting only men, but they were fighting against God!

So, “Distelfink country” is Pennsylvania Dutch country.  The word Dutch means both “Belonging to the Netherlands, or its people; Hollandish; and belonging or relating to the Teutonic or Germanic race.”  Formerly Dutch and Dutchland were used in England for German and Germany.  The dictionary also has Dutch consolation: “it might have been worse;” and Dutch nightingale: a frog.  Further, the dictionary states, “Dutch, the Low Germans, especially the Hollanders; the Teutonic German race in general, including the High German and the Low German; Pennsylvania Dutch: the High German dialect spoken in Pennsylvania by descendants of emigrants from German and Swiss provinces of the Upper Rhine, many of them fleeing from religious persecution and received by Pennsylvania at the beginning of the 18th century; a Dutcher, a Hollander, a German.  Low German, German of the Netherlands, including Friesian, Dutch, Flemish, and Old Saxon; High German, Alsatian, Swiss and Bavarian dialects.  Modern High German was made the literary language of Luther’s Germany by his translation of the Bible. “The Low German dialects of the Continent are yielding to its influence.”

As children we had but a fleeting glimpse of our paternal Pennsylvania German grandfather.  Some of our aunts, teasing us, warned not to get too close to him, as his “fat tummy was always ready to explode.”  In those days we loved to get our fellow Sunday School pupils talking like the comic strip Katzenjammer Kids, and like early radio fame’s Baron Munchhausen (patterned after Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Munchhausen, a Hanoverian cavalry officer, 1720-1797, known for his amusing “tall stories.”)  The radio Baron when interrupted with an objection, in annoyed disbelief would invariably reply, “Vus you dare, Sharley?” (or Sharlotte?).  All this greatly appealed to the Pennsylvania Dutch sense of humor.  But humor must be purified and sanctified, so that we do not laugh at sin, whether lying, childhood naughtiness, disrespect to parents, or whatever.  Another sample of P.D. humor: Pop-Pop and Nanny are looking at a modern painting.  Nanny: “Vot iss it?”  Pop-Pop: “I sink it giffs beans mit ham all beat up viss eggs!”  Nanny: “Ach! No vunder I got hiccups zo sodden!”  Or, tourist asks her: “Will you attend the annual Hershey Fair’s Pennsylvania Dutch Days this year?  Answer: “Vy, I don’ sink so; I guess I’m Dutch enough viss out!”  Or, a kitchen plaque in a P.D. home reads: “Kissin’ wear out—Cookin’ don’t!”  Or, perhaps a wall plaque hanging in the hall reads: “NECK is something which if you don’t stick out you don’t get into trouble up to!” Or more modern P.D. humor may suggest:  “Fill your waterbed with Lebanon’s Birch Beer and get a foam mattress.”

Pennsylvania Dutch food, even up to within about forty years ago, was incomparable.  For this reason, General George Washington made Christopher Ludwig, a P.D. farmer in Germantown, “Baker-General of the Continental Army.”  His bakery products were magnificent as long as the ingredients were available to him.  Another man from Germany, Jung by name, became a neighbor of ours in Germantown, Americanized his name to Young and opened up a famous candy and ice cream store.  His ice cream was the best in Philadelphia, the Ice Cream City.  At a P.D. restaurant in Lancaster, we were seated at a round family-size table loaded with the entire meal—bowls of oyster soup, with the spherical, hard oyster crackers, vegetables, meats, chicken-and-dumplings, homemade bread and butter, apple butter, hard rolls, milk, buttermilk, schmierkase, shoo fly pie…A very food-conscious people, providing the most ambrosial, gastronomic delights. Yet no one thinks of the Amish, Mennonite, Moravian, Dunke, German Reformed farmers, dairymen, confectioners, butchers, and restaurateurs as idol-worshippers of the “belly-god.”  No, for the Pennsylvania German had learned on the farm this doggerel:   “He who prayerless starts to eat and prayerless finishes his meat is like my ox and stupid mule, who does not live by God’s good rule.”  Furthermore, “Distelfink country” from of old has been dotted with churches of every denomination, and the towns, as in Germantown, had a church located at about every two-and-a-half blocks.

Some of us were baptized from infancy in a Presbyterian church allied with those ministers who did not sign the notorious “Auburn Affirmation.”  Through this church connection we were introduced to the radio ministry of Dr. J. Gresham Machen who preached Sundays the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  We learned, even in the poor, hungry Depression years, that the Creator/Redeemer God above gives all things richly to enjoy, not the least, but the most important of which is the spiritual food of the Reformed faith.  Then this must be said: aside from Martin Luther, and the Protestant Reformation under his leadership, his works, and his German Bible, I am ashamed of my paternal German descent, ashamed of all the German destructive higher criticism, the German Liberalism, Modernism, rationalism, irrationalism, Barthianism and Neo-Orthodoxy.”

“Distelfink country” is, outwardly, still there.   But old Germantown is no more.  It has become a “Soweto” with its own Apartheid.  True, nothing remains the same.  (We recall Southeast Grand Rapids, MI).  What will our own present home areas be like a few years hence?  But instead of living in the past, sentimentally dreaming over those “dear, dead days beyond recall,” let us labor to have the Faith of our churches “spoken of throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8).  Know the trend of the times, and fight against it.  The trend is, first, faith is gone, then the preaching of the Word is gone, the evening worship is then abandoned, mid-week Bible Study ceases, the church becomes a second-class restaurant, a soup kitchen, or a Bingo arcade.  Finally, the church is no more at all.  Therefore, let us pray and labor that the existing true churches abide and thrive until Jesus comes!