“I deplore two principles in religion, obedience upon authority without conviction and destroying them that differ with me for Christ’ sake.” William Penn, (1644-1718) founder and Proprietor of Pennsylvania Colony
William Penn not only wished his colony to be a refuge for fellow Quakers but for all people – even Jews, unheard of in the 17th century. As a businessman, he intended that Pennsylvania would prosper to the benefit of all landholders. Land grants were made to a number of families within what is today Philadelphia and the four surrounding counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware. A road system was planned as early as 1683 connecting the new townships to the city creating the best and most extensive systems of its day. Germantown Avenue/Pike extended from Philadelphia – today’s historic square mile Old City – linking important communities such as Northern Liberties, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, Plymouth Meeting, Evansburg and Collegeville.
Mennonites, Amish, Methodist, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Baptist all flocked to the new colony. The abundance of fertile land, water power, quarry and limestone brought the promised prosperity. German farmers brought the technology of burning limestone in kilns into powder that fertilized the farmland. Yet would the same groups that may have been both persecutor and persecuted during Europe’s interminable religious upheavals cooperate to govern the new towns? Would the “holy experiment” work?
Evansburg was a very early 1700’s planned community in religious cooperation. Although Plymouth Meeting (1702) served the needs of area Quakers, The 1698 Norriton Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest churches anywhere in Pennsylvania. The beautiful tiny stone structure is surrounded by an American Revolutionary cemetery. The new building for the congregation is next door.
Quakers do not believe in proselytizing their beliefs, yet there was no issue when St. James Episcopal (Anglican) Church, 1721, established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The above 1780’s building was a recreation of the 1721 log church. The cemetery holds a number of Revolutionary War soldiers who died in the Battle of Germantown. In 1838 the building became one of America’s first public school buildings. Today it’s the St. James Community History Center.
Their current 19th century St. James Church is across the street. Next door, at 3814 Germantown Pike, is the 1737 Glebe House. A “glebe house” was a self-supporting farm for the Anglican priests of the parish. St. James’ is one of the earliest existing glebe houses in the American Episcopal Church.
Stephen Rush operated an Inn in his house (1803) and later purchased the Evansburg Inn. Stephen was related to Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Rush house is private today, but the former Evansburg Inn is still serving food and spirits as Osteria Restaurant, 3835 Germantown Pike.
The Casselberry family is one of many that can trace their ancestry back to the founding of Pennsylvania, but are among the few still living on their original land. Henry Casselberry emigrated from Germany in 1683 settling in Evansburg in 1729, towards the end of his life. His son Derrick created a prosperous farm with his inheritance and built a sizable house in 1734. Now owned by a non-profit, it is undergoing restoration. A generation later, his daughter-in-law, Ann, purchased an elegant 1798 plaster-over-stone house and barn. The house, and barn, just north on Evansburg Road off Germantown Pike, is still the home of the Casselberry family.
The waterways of the region provided both transportation and power for dozens of mills throughout Penn’s colony. Skippack Creek in Evansburg State Park, which is the southern boundary of the town, provided the “fuel” for 18th and early 19th century industry such as Keyser’s Mill, now maintained by the Park.
In 1792 an eight arch stone bridge on Germantown Pike was constructed over the creek. On the National Register of Historic Places, this bridge is still in use! It’s considered the oldest bridge of its size in America certified to support heavy traffic.
If Evansburg is an example, William Penn’s Holy Experiment continues to succeed.