Old First's Historic School

Old First's Historic School

The history of the school house is the product of larger developments in the local community and our religious tradition, as well as of specific decisions by the congregation. 

Unlike the class-stratified society of early Virginia, where education was an upper class privilege, or homogeneous New England, where Puritan beliefs and educational basics were provided by town-supported schools, the religiously and ethnically diverse Pennsylvania colony left education to the ethnic groups.  Despite the large number of different religious groups, there were only two real language groups – English and German.  Various faith communities established their own schools, but the language division and the large number of German-speakers in an English-ruled colony made it inevitable that education would become entangled with ethnic identity and conflict.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the Philadelphians active in organizing charity (free) schools for the city’s poor in the 1750’s.  Apparently a product of concern for the poor, these schools were also seen as a way to anglicize the Germans; English was the language of instruction and most of the “poor” children recruited were German-speaking.  German inhabitants had already seen publishing in German, and the importation of German books prohibited, and they angrily protested and avoided the new schools as just another attempt to suppress their culture.

We know that Old First had a schoolmaster/chorister, and therefore, presumably a parochial (parish) school, by the time the first church building was built in 1747.  In 1753-54, the first school house was constructed, on the site of the present one.  It is not coincidental that the German congregation saw fit to provide its school with a fine building just as the English in the city were trying to attract German children to English schools. 

Both students and the congregation paid the teacher, who was also the choirmaster and organist, and substituted for the pastor when necessary.  Teacher and sexton lived in the school house.  Church and school prospered, and a new school house replaced the old one in 1796.

This was the congregation’s multi-purpose building – consistory met there, Thursday evening lectures were given there, staff lived there, and, of course, the school was held there.  This parochial school provided (1) a basic education, (2) religious instruction, and (3) reinforcement of German culture and the use of the German language.

The third purpose was the first to change, as with much conflict the congregation made the transition to using English for worship and church business by the 1830s.  “Common schools” – free public schools for all children – began to appear in the mid-1800’s, but the Reformed Classis (Association) of Philadelphia continued to urge congregations to provide parochial schools, and it was only in the later 19th Century that public schools became the basic providers of fundamental education.

One intermediate step was the Sunday school, originally a free school for poor children of the neighborhood, providing the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic.  Such schools came to the U.S. from Britain in the 1790’s and spread rapidly in the cities. 

The one opened by Old First in 1806 – in the school house – appears to be the first Sunday school sponsored by a German Reformed Church in the United States.  As public schools arose to provide elementary education for all, the Sunday school lost its first purpose, and became instead an important missionary tool and, eventually, the major means by which congregations taught the faith to their children.  As a form of religious education it involved volunteers from the congregation, and replace catechizing by the pastor (now busy running a large institution) and the religious function of the parochial school.

The fate of Old First’s parochial school is unclear; presumably it declined after 1850 because its three basic purposes were being met in other ways.  Preserving German culture was no longer an issue; public schools provided elementary education; and the Sunday school handed down the faith to the children of the congregation.  The school house probably continued in use as a needed space – for a large congregation with an old building – for meetings and the Sunday school.  When Old First moved to 10th and Wallace Streets in 1882, the first Sunday school provided for in the new building, and there is no evidence of a parochial school being continued.

Buildings constructed by religious groups, like all buildings, can both serve practical purposes and be used to “make statement” about the group’s beliefs.  Like their fellow Calvinists in New England, German Reformed Christians tended to see church buildings as useful places to meet for worship, but no artistic expressions of their faith.  Certainly the school houses built in 1753 and 1796 were simple, functional buildings. They made statements not in their architecture, but by what was done in them.  As a place for education, religious nurture, and cultural reaffirmation, the school house was a vehicle for creating and strengthening the individual and communal identity of Old First members.  The church is not a building, the Reformed insisted, along with the Puritans and Quakers.  The church is faithful people doing what they need to do.

Robert Schneider, Ph.D, Temple University, 11/6/88