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  • The Trial of Frederick Eberle: Language, Patriotism, and Citizenship in Philadelphia’s German Community, 1790 to 1830
  • Wolfgang Splitter (bio)

Philadelphia, Germans, Lutherans

The Trial of Frederick Eberle: Language, Patriotism, and Citizenship in Philadelphia’s German Community, 1790 to 1830. By Friederike Baer. (New York: New York University Press, 2008. Pp. viii + 272. Cloth, $48.00.)

In her book on a militant conflict about the use of English in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia’s German Lutheran congregation, Friederike Baer tells the intriguing story of a community that was bitterly torn between fidelity to German culture and the Lutheran creed on the one hand and the inevitable need to adapt to Anglo American society with its promises of social advancement, political participation, and economic independence on the other. After the 1806 secession of numerous reputable [End Page 711] families and individuals, this conflict culminated in July of 1816 when the state of Pennsylvania tried 59 proponents of the exclusive use of German in the church on charges of conspiracy and rioting for beating several champions of English as the second language for preaching. Eventually, the court convicted the defendants, who received relatively mild sentences.

Caught in an aporetic battle that held out little more than a Pyrrhic victory to the winner, both sides could justly claim a deep-felt commitment to their ancestral heritage and to the ideals of the American republic. Whereas the so-called German party insisted that the essence of the Lutheran teachings were captured best in the original German and therefore should be handed down to posterity in no language other than Martin Luther’s mother tongue, the English party was concerned that more and more young Americans of German descent, socialized in an English-speaking society, would no longer be able to follow a Sunday sermon or understand Luther’s catechism and hence were likely to leave the Lutheran church sooner or later. While the German party pleaded the right of American citizens strictly to abide by the language of their forefathers—which was not at stake here anyway—and to regulate all church matters free from encroachment by the authorities, the English party protested that their opponents not only put the survival of the congregation at risk by causing a mass exodus of young parishioners but also attempted to curtail their property rights by driving them out of a church to which they and their forebears had made substantial contributions. In addition, they emphasized the great benefits of moving with the times by cautiously yielding to the predominant influence of English.

Based on her intimate knowledge of the relevant primary sources and secondary literature, Friederike Baer convincingly shows in her clearly structured work that this fierce and protracted controversy was much more than a family feud antagonizing recent arrivals and long-established Americans, German speakers and English speakers, “true” Lutherans and “sham” Lutherans. In analyzing this passionate as much as self-destructive struggle, her analysis unfolds a complex interplay of historical, cultural, social, economic, and political factors that, in a similar setting, also troubled Reformed and Catholic Christians of German extraction.

If there is anything at all that Baer’s insightful book leaves to be desired, one might think of three points. First, since the author rightly stresses the importance of the protagonists’ socioeconomic background, [End Page 712] it would have been useful to find the scattered biographic information that she actually provides for certain individuals (especially in chapters 3 and 4) briefly summarized in a table listing age, date of immigration, profession, taxes paid, place of residence in Philadelphia, and membership in other German organizations. Such a table would have corroborated her arguments even more pointedly by facilitating the collation of the respective data for the two parties.

Second, although Baer touches on marriage patterns of the English party in passing (139–40), she generally pays scant attention to intermarriage between German Americans and non-German Americans, European-born and American-born persons, Lutherans and non-Lutherans. Since marriage patterns are a crucial indicator of social cohesion, it would have been interesting to know more about both groups in this respect. After all, with German immigration slowing down markedly during and...


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