Francis Daniel Pastorius: The German-born educator and social activist famed for his anti-slavery advocacy

On August 20th, 1683, German-born Francis Daniel Pastorius arrived in Pennsylvania from Germany to help set up Germantown, the first permanent German-American settlement, which eventually became a haven for other German migrants. He wore several hats: he was a lawyer, author, civil worker, and educator. As a result, he was able to help the Germantown grow and become prosperous.

Pastorius is also famed for being one of the first people to write a petition against slavery. Though he might not have have lived long enough to see his pursuits come to fruition, his contribution definitely played a significant role in the fight against slavery in America.

Francis Daniel Pastorius

Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-1720): The German-born educator and social activist is best known for his anti-slavery advocacy as well as the founding of Germantown, Pennsylvania, which is now part of the city of Philadelphia.

The Early Years of Pastorius: Birth, Education, Religion & Early Career

Francis Daniel Pastorius was born on September 26, 1651 in Sommerhausen, which was a township located in the present-day district of Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany. His parents were Melchior Adam Pastorius and Magdalena Dietz. Not much is known about his mother Magdalena. His father, Melchior, on the other hand, worked for the local government. His work sent him on various travels and when he was older, he became a lawyer and mayor of the Imperial City of Windsheim.

Pastorius was the only child of Melchior and Magdalena, at least until his mother’s death in 1657. But before then, they were a very religious household and followers of Lutheranism. Melchior was a talented poet and sermon writer. After his wife’s death, he remarried three times. It was during his fourth marriage that he welcomed more children with his new wife. Thus, Pastorius now had other half-siblings.

As a young boy, Pastorius spent most of his early years in Windsheim, where his father worked. Like his father, he was also well-educated. He attended some of the best German universities of his time, with the bulk of his studies focused heavily on law and languages. Pastorius could speak Latin, Italian, and French.  Some of the schools he attended were the Nurnberg University of Altdorf, University of Strassburg, and the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena.

Eventually, he completed his studies at Nurnberg, which earned him a doctorate in law in 1675. He opened a law firm in Windsheim, which he operated until 1679 before moving to Frankfurt. But his decision to leave Windsheim was largely influenced by his strained relationship with his father, as well as his displeasure with the Lutheran Church, and how the Age of Absolutism (when the monarchy had limitless power) affected the lives of many German young adults. Pastorius’ ideologies clashed against his wealthy father’s. Following his family involvement in the suppression of a revolt (between 1677-1679) against the oligarchy in Windsheim, a disgruntled Pastorius left for Frankfurt.

While in the new city, he befriended a man named Philipp Jakob Spener through his mentor, Dr. Johann Heinrich Horb, who in turn introduced Pastorius to Pietism. Spener was a Lutheran theologian whose works touched extensively on topics like spiritual rebirth, holiness, and devotion to God. The main goal of Pietism among the Lutherans of the 17th century was to live a holy life.

Through Dr. Horb, Pastorius also received the opportunity to tutor a nobleman called Johann Bonaventura von Bodeck, who eventually became the first millionaire in Frankfurt. During his time as von Bodeck’s tutor, Pastorius traveled across Europe, visiting countries like Switzerland, England, France, and the Netherlands.

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A New Opportunity in Philadelphia & the Establishment of Germantown

Pastorius received the opportunity to travel to North America in 1683 when he was approached by members of Frankfurt Company to purchase a parcel of land in Pennsylvania for them. The Frankfurt Company was a group of individuals from various Christian sects, including Pietists, Quakers, and Mennonites, as well as one man named Abraham op den Graeff, who was related to London-born Quaker entrepreneur and philosopher William Penn (1644-1718), the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania.

Armed with a letter giving him permission to handle the affairs of the new land, Pastorius, then in his early 30s, set off to North America on a ship aptly called “America.” He went with eighty other Germans. The voyage to the New World was challenging, and Pastorius wrote about his experience at sea. He described it as “dangerous” and “unpleasant.” He also described the weather conditions as “unfavorable.”

He fell sick a number of times en route to North America, stating:

…I underwent other accidents, namely, that the two carved lugs over the ship’s bell fell right upon my back, and on the 9th of July during a storm in the night I fell so severely upon my left side that for some days I had to keep to my bed.

Pastorius also stated that many other passengers also sustained falls, skin diseases, and even insanity. Concerning food, he wrote:

The rations upon the ship were very bad…Every ten persons received three pounds of butter a week, four cans of beer and two cans of water a day, two platters full of peas every noon, meat four dinners in the week and fish three…the worst of all was that both the meat and fish were salted to such an extent and had become so rancid that we could hardly eat half of them.

In his writings, he thanked some English friends for providing him with meals, which made his voyage more bearable. On August 20, 1683, he arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival, he met with Penn, and the two negotiated for the sale of a 15,000-acre land. With the land secure, Pastorius set forth in establishing and running Germantown. He became the colony’s first mayor and would spend the rest of his life living there.

However, life in Germantown wasn’t all that blissful. For one, most of the earliest immigrants who had settled in the town were primarily weavers. At the time, the colony needed more farmers and other laborers. As a result, life in Germantown was wrought with challenges, which took a heavy toll on Pastorius.

In 1685, two years after arriving, he wrote a letter to the Frankfurt Company, requesting that he be relieved of his duties. Although his request wasn’t granted, his letter led to the restructuring of the company.

In both 1687 and 1691, he became a member of the Pennsylvania legislature when he  joined the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Despite the lack of laborers, Pastorius decided to take advantage of the high number of weavers and set his sights on making Germantown the home of the linen industry.

Eventually though, in 1700, he ceased to be the main overseer of Germantown. The Frankfurt Company brought in three new agents: Johannes Kelpius, Johannes Jawert, and Daniel Faulkner. But these appointments brought yet again another set of challenges. In 1707, a man named Johann Henrich Sprogel boldly declared that he had purchased all the lands under the Frankfurt Company and that included Germantown. It turned out that one of the newly-appointed agents, Faulkner, had taken a bribe from Sprogel in exchange for his support. It was Pastorius who used his in-depth knowledge of the law to challenge Sprogel and stop him from taking Germantown from its people.

Pastorius served as mayor and administrator of the colony for seventeen years. His religious ideals underwent another change while in North America. He became more liberal and aligned more with Quakerism. It’s even likely that he converted at some point.

Francis Daniel Pastorius - founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania

Francis Daniel Pastorius arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683 and thereafter set about to secure a 15,000-acre land in the colony of Pennsylvania. The German-born lawyer and activist had been commissioned by the Frankfort Land Company and a group of German merchants. He penned a brilliant report, which was published in 1684, encouraging Germans in Europe to make the trip across the Atlantic and settle in Germantown, a settlement he had helped found.

Pastorius’ Achievements & Legacy

Throughout his life, particularly during his time in North America, Francis Daniel Pastorius embarked on several successful projects. Here are some of his major feats:

Literary Works

Pastorius was a learned and knowledgeable man who was familiar with several topics, including religion and even beekeeping. In fact, most of his written works were usually in either English or German. He wrote a letter to encourage more Germans to settle in the newly-found colony. His famous letter resembled a modern-day “Frequently Asked Questions” document, where he answered the burning questions other Germans back in Europe might have wondered about. He wrote about how the colony was governed, relationship with the Native Americans, and religion, among many others.

He was also a talented poet, like his father. In fact, in Harrison Meserole’s 1968 book “Seventeenth-Century American Poetry”, Pastorius was described as “one of the most important poets of early America.”

Pastorius’ most renowned book is the “Beehive”, which consists of poems and thought pieces on subjects like politics, philosophy, and law. He also wrote the “Geographical Description of Pennsylvania”, which was published in 1700 in German. It is in that book that readers would find many of the letters he wrote back to Germany, as well as essays on topics in medicine, agriculture, and law. He wrote seven books and forty-three manuscripts in his life.

Francis Daniel Pastorius - founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania

For close to two decades, Pastorius effectively led Germantown, which was mainly made of Quakers and Mennonites. In his time a leader, he promoted the colony as haven for religious freedom and enlightened ideas.

Anti-Slavery Advocacy

Pastorius is recognized as one of the earliest advocates against slavery in the American colonies. In 1688, he wrote a petition against slavery and described the practice as “irreconcilable with the precepts of the Christian religion.”

Unfortunately, his efforts to gain more signatures for the petition was met with opposition, especially from his group, the Society of Friends, which consisted of several Quaker members. Nearly half of the Quakers that lived in Germantown and Philadelphia owned slaves, and some of them also countered Pastorius’ arguments using the Bible as the source of defense. While it’s not known exactly where in the Bible Pastorius’ naysayers had used to defend slavery, there were two common texts that most Christian slave owners used to justify the act:

  • The first text came from Genesis 9:20-27 in the Old Testament, where Noah cursed the descendants of his son Ham (the father of Canaan) after Ham had seen him unclothed. According to the King James version, a portion of the text reads: “…And he said, cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren…” In the more popular account of this story, titled “The Curse of Ham”, Ham’s complexion darkened and his descendants were known as the Africans. Thus, they believed that Africans were destined to be slaves.
  • The second text came from the New Testament in the book of Ephesians 6:5-7. In the Apostle Paul’s letter, he wrote: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ…knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.”

Unable to come to a decision, the Society of Friends forwarded the petition to the Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, and it was again sent to the Yearly Meeting in New Jersey. Still, no decision came out of both efforts.

As per the rules of the Society, Pastorius and any of his supporters were required to stay silent on the matter and rather wait for the “Inner Light” (a divine directive from God) to convince the other members that slavery was a sinful practice.

Although Pastorius never lived to see slavery abolished, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting eventually put an end to slave ownership in 1776, about some 50 years after his death. Later, the Pennsylvania Quakers set up The Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Although, it would take several more years for slavery and the slave trade to be abolished, Pastorius’ petition, which was the first of its kind in all of the Thirteen Colonies, helped set the tone.

Read More: A brief look at how slavery started in the American colonies

Popular biographies about Francis Daniel Pastorius

Francis Daniel Pastorius’ life and accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. Many authors throughout history have written biographies about him. Much of his life and his works have been thoroughly discussed in academic papers. For example, a professor from Princeton University, Anthony Grafton, wrote about Pastorius and how he was a symbol of European intellectual culture.

Many other authors have written about the lawyer and founder of Germantown, including “A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania” by Patrick Erben, and “Mediation, Assimilation, and German Foundations in North America: Francis Daniel Pastorius as a Cultural Broker” by Margo Lambert.

Buildings & Monuments

Pastorius’ legacy can best be seen in the monuments named in his honor. In 2015, a 16-acre park in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia was named in his honor. There is also the Pastorius Monument, which is located at the Vernon Park in Northwest Philadelphia.

A non-profit organization called the Pastorius Home Association owns a lodging space called Pastorius Haus located in both Windsheim, Germany and Germansville, Pennsylvania.

During his lifetime, Pastorius also oversaw the construction of a school in Germantown. He ensured that both boys and girls had equal access to education.

Personal Life & Death

Five years after arriving in North America, Pastorius married Ennecke Klostermanns (1658-1723). Together, they had two children: Johann Samuel Pastorius and Heinrich Pastorius.

It’s not exactly clear when Pastorius died, but it is thought to have occurred between December 26,1719 and January 13, 1720.

Other interesting facts about Francis Daniel Pastorius

Pastorius Monument in Vernon Park in Northwest Philadelphia, PA

Life and accomplishments of Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-c.1720), also known as Franz Pastorius, Founder of Germantown, PA. Image: Pastorius Monument in Vernon Park in Northwest Philadelphia, PA

  • Pastorius was the personification of the term “Jack of All Trades.” While in Germantown, he worked in various occupations. In addition to being a lawyer and mayor, he was also a teacher, rent collector, and poet. He also oversaw marriages, archived court documents, and ensured that there was peace in court when sessions were in place.

  • He wrote the “Beehive” in different languages! Currently, the book can be found at the University of Pennsylvania. Readers aren’t allowed to make photocopies of the book. It is also believed that he wrote “Beehive” for his sons.

  • Pastorius had many friends. Among some of his closest friends were William Penn himself, the one who sold the land of Germantown to him. He also met and befriended a Welsh immigrant called Thomas Lloyd aboard the ship to Pennsylvania. Penn later appointed Lloyd as the Master of the Rolls, which was the highest position of a civil judge back in England and Wales. Pastorius was also friends with a man named Griffith Owen, who was a poet and Methodist minister. Owen often shared medical advice with Pastorius.

  • His home in Germantown was located at 25 East High Street and it’s likely he built it around 1696. His great-grandson Daniel built a mansion south of the home in 1796. Daniel and Pastorius shared similar traits. They were both vital members of the Germantown community. Together with other residents, Daniel helped in the establishment of the colony’s first public school, Germantown Academy, and also gave some of his lands to build the first Methodist church. These two institutions remain in present-day Pennsylvania.

  • Francis Daniel Pastorius is a distant relative to the American jazz bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius.

Germantown, Philadelphia, PA

Germantown, Philadelphia

About five years after its founding, Germantown became the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America. Much of the activism was done by the town’s founder, German-born preacher and lawyer Francis Daniel Pastorious. Image: Location of Germantown (left) and Seal of Germantown, 1691

Located in Northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Germantown was established in the earl 1680s by a Sommerhausen, German-born lawyer and social activist Francis Daniel Pastorius. The town would go on to become a very important place in the history of our nation. For example, it is widely acclaimed as the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America. The town also became the temporary residence of our nation’s first president, George Washington. Germantown was also where the first bank of the United States was set up.

Read More: 15 Notable Accomplishments of George Washington, 1st President of the United States

Old Germantown, Pennsylvania

Did you know?

Unbeknownst to many people the first first thirteen Quaker and Mennonite families that settled in Germantown weren’t Germans; instead they were Dutch. It’s said that those families had fled from Holland to Germany a few years prior in order to avoid religious persecution. This explains why Germantown remained largely Dutch-speaking in its first few decades.

German-American Day

German-American Day is celebrated on October 6 to celebrate the impact German immigrants and their descendants have made on the nation. The year 2023 marks 340 years since the founding of Germantown.

October 6 is commemorated in the United States as German-American Day. The day celebrates the impact German immigrants and their descendants have made on our nation’s culture and history. The day celebrates the founding of Germantown, Pennsylvania.

In 1983, which was the 300th anniversary of the founding of Germantown, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October 6 as German-American Day. Four years later, Congress approved S.J. Resolution 108, designating October 6, 1987, as German-American Day.

Since then, U.S. presidents and all of America have observed the day with the appropriate ceremonies and activities.

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