Bishop Jacob Gross (1743-1810)
Written by Forrest Moyer on March 6, 2019
It’s been 15 years since I dove down the rabbit hole of genealogy. My interest continues to be piqued by my own ancestors, but has expanded to the stories of many others through my work at the Heritage Center and everyday conversations with folks from diverse backgrounds. The interesting characters among our ancestors are endless!
As a child, I knew that my grandmother Ruth was descended from an early American Mennonite bishop, Jacob Gross of Deep Run, Bucks County; but my family didn’t remember his wife, Mary, and knew virtually nothing about who he was as a person. Unlike some of my ancestral families, there was no published Gross genealogy to recall the immigrant’s life or descendants.
So it became my project, in my free time. I was greatly helped by the work of cousin Bud Gross, who had compiled a database that contained many branches of the family.
In the end, I produced a 727-page outline of the Descendants of Jacob and Mary Krall Gross, and placed a copy in the library at the Mennonite Heritage Center. I also created a PDF version that can be sent easily to anyone interested, at no cost. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a copy.
This article is drawn from my biography of the immigrant.
Jacob Gross was born in 1743 in Germany. He died on 12 December 1810 at the age of 67 in Bedminster or Plumstead, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (probably Bedminster, though sources disagree). He emigrated to Pennsylvania about 1763; lived in Hatfield Township in the 1770s, where several of his children were born; and settled finally in Bedminster Township circa 1780. A shoemaker by trade, he was also a farmer, preacher and bishop of the Mennonite church.
Mary Krall (Gross) was born in 1751 in Pennsylvania. She died on 10 February 1816 at the age of 65 in Plumstead Township. Both were buried in the Deep Run East Mennonite Cemetery, and their gravestones survive, though Mary’s is badly damaged.
They had five sons and one daughter:
- Isaac Gross (1773-1815) m. Magdalena Gehman
- Christian Gross (1776-1865) m. Barbara Wismer
- Mary Gross (1779-1861) m. Abraham Nash and Jacob Fry
- Jacob Gross (1780-1865) m. Anna Moyer and Salome Moyer
- Daniel Gross (1784-1875) m. Elizabeth Nash and Elizabeth Overholt
- John Gross (1786-1864) m. Mary Leatherman and Christiana Godshalk
Of the sons, all were ordained Mennonite ministers or deacons except Isaac who died in his early forties. Daughter Mary’s second husband Jacob Fry was also ordained. This amount of ordination among siblings is rare, though not unheard of. The immigrant Kolb family of Skippack had a similar number of brothers ordained.
After settling in Pennsylvania, Jacob Gross wrote letters back to Mennonite minister Peter Weber at Hardenburg-bei-Dürkheim in the Palatinate. The letters are in the collection of the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle in Weierhof, Germany, with copies at the Mennonite Church USA Archives, Elkhart, IN and the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville. These letters provide clues about Jacob’s family and place of origin in Germany.
According to a letter of 1767, Jacob had a brother Isaac in America, who (in Jacob’s opinion) had fallen away into error: As far as my brother, Isaac Gross, is concerned, as far as I know – although I have not seen him for a long time, for he never stays long with me – he is probably still in his troubled condition; and I cannot but recognize that by divine permission (if not actually divine decree) he is possessed by a shameless spirit, and in many instances I can see in him and occasionally almost understand from him that he got into that terrible condition through spiritual pride. I commit him and myself to God’s guidance and commit ourselves in all things to believing prayer. Nothing more is known of Isaac.
Another likely brother, Daniel Gross (sometimes spelled Groce) (1748-1790) of Hilltown Township, a weaver, married Sarah Landes, daughter of Deep Run Mennonite minister Abraham Landes, and had numerous descendants, many of whom moved west to Ohio.
Jacob mentions nothing about parents in his letters; likely they died during his childhood. However, he mentions a vetter (cousin or uncle) Johannes Forrer and another possible relative, Martin Röhtel, in the Palatinate. The Forrer family lived at Ibersheim near Worms, where they were listed in the 1743 census of Mennonites, along with Isaak Gross (probably the father of Jacob, Daniel and Isaac). Isaak’s wife was also living in 1743, along with two sons and three daughters. Earlier, in 1738, the Ibersheim census listed Jakob Gross, who may have been grandfather of immigrant Jacob. These are the only two Gross’ in the Mennonite census, suggesting the family were either converts to the church, or were recent immigrants from Switzerland. The Gross family does not appear before 1738 and is gone by the 1753 census. Isaak Gross and wife likely died between 1748 (the year of Daniel’s birth) and 1753, and their children, still minors, were placed as apprentices or servants.
In his letters from Pennsylvania, Jacob sent greetings to friends Abraham and Jacob Risser, Johannes Strohm, Johannes Leysi, Heinrich Neff, Margareta Möllinger from Gerolsheim, Christian Krämer of Seebach, Jacob Hirschler/Hertzler of Spitalhof (the 1764 letter was written to Hirschler, who made a copy for Peter Weber), and “all my friends and acquaintances at Friedelsheim”; also friends at Wachenheim-an-der-Haardt and “my master, Phillips Jacob Boehm”. Another master to whom Jacob sent greetings was Adam Rahm at Heppenheim-auf-der-Wiese (a suburb of Worms). Were these shoemakers with whom he apprenticed, or people for whom he worked as a servant? In any case, most of these friends lived in the vicinity of Bad Dürkheim, where Jacob must have spent his teenage years.
Jacob referred at length to a friend Mrs. Klein of Dürkheim, from whom he wished to purchase a Bible that belonged to her daughter Christina who had died. He sent a Spanish dollar, which Weber was to give Mrs. Klein for the Bible and then send the book to Jacob, “possibly with the Neulander Abraham Forrer from Ibersheimerhof, who is bringing you this letter if he has carried out the errand according to his promise. He was my bedfellow [on the voyage to America?].” Other mutual acquaintances mentioned were Maria Mellinger and brothers, who settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Maria’s brother Martin became an influential deacon in Lancaster County, and Mellinger Mennonite Church is named for him.
Peter Weber was a preacher with Pietist-Revivalist leanings, who was twice silenced by the Palatine Mennonite church. His influence as a friend and mentor to Jacob Gross was strong, and their letters discuss a mutual dissatisfaction with the spirituality (or lack thereof) among Mennonites. This is especially interesting because two of Jacob’s children converted to the Evangelical Association, and many descendants have embraced a Pietist-Methodist style.
Jacob wrote in 1774: …Please be informed that I have never yet been so endued with power from on high that I could flee altogether out of this Babel [the in-fighting Mennonite church]. But I keep hearing a voice in my spiritual ears, calling me out of my old self and selfishness, and I see my own nothingness better than I have ever seen it before. Other than this, I still stand outwardly (although not altogether inwardly) in a formal relationship with the Mennonite church – not altogether without event. On one side I hope to leave the church as soon as I get clear direction on the matter from the One who must direct in this. On the other hand I want to be ready to stay if that is what I should do. I see so many people leaving the church in an immature way that leaves neither light nor logic in the sight of those who look on. I believe that a true soldier will stand with his post until he is called by his commander to go elsewhere.
Chosen for church leadership
Despite his reservations about the Mennonite Church, Jacob was soon chosen as a preacher and bishop. In that role, he was well-loved. Four sons and a son-in-law were also ordained. Many descendants have lived with spiritual seriousness and sensitivity. “In the long series of ordained men from the Gross family at Deep Run and Doylestown it was eventually considered a recognizable trait, and produced a local phrase, ‘die grummliche [grumpy] Grosze.’” (John L. Ruth, Maintaining the Right Fellowship, p. 193). Tongue-in-cheek phrases aside, Gross leaders have been trusted and appreciated. The family tends toward spirituality, artistry and broad-mindedness, while maintaining respect for history and tradition. This is perhaps why many have been called to church leadership.
While moderator of the Mennonite conference of eastern Pennsylvania circa 1805, Jacob Gross took initiative in trying to make peace with excommunicated bishop Christian Funk, who had been silenced during the American Revolution. For details, see Funk’s memoir, A Mirror for All Mankind (1813), available at the Mennonite Heritage Center. Half a century later, progressive leader John H. Oberholtzer called Jacob Gross a “founder” of the conference.
When Jacob died, a notice was published in the Pennsylvania Correspondent, and Farmers’ Advertiser (Doylestown), December 24, 1810: Died, in Plumstead, on the 14th instant [sic, should be 12th, buried on 14th], Jacob Gross, a respectable preacher of the Mennonist Society.
Son Isaac wrote the following description of his father’s death. This manuscript was in the possession of descendant Eva Gross Taylor in 1994; current location unknown; photocopy at the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville; translated from German by Alan G. Keyser:
Set up as a remembrance that it pleased almighty God to take our dear father on December 12, 1810 between 4 and 5 in the morning, to redeem and release [him] from all the misery and distress of this world, which was his plea and wish. He was sickly for a long time with a wasting away, as much as we know, until he finally became bedfast, and spent several weeks in great pain without much complaint or one murmur. He uncommonly loved everyone without exception, and God arranged it so that nearly everyone in our neighborhood visited him. He sought to impress on everyone’s heart the misery in which we are by nature, and the necessity of a Savior. Few who visited him left without being moved and impressed by love. As weak and wasted as he always was, he always found himself strengthened to admonish the hearts of those who visited, and there were few who departed from him unmoved.
He uncommonly loved everyone without exception…
It was his earnest wish, desire, and prayer to his dear Savior that He would by this illness as though by a remedy accomplish a purification, yes so completely annihilate everything, so that God would be all and in all, and he nothing. Dying did not seem to frighten him, but on the contrary to be a joy. He did not like to hear at all when someone said that perhaps he would get better. Yes, he seemed assured that his release would come through this sickness, as it finally happened in the 67th year of his age. His lifeless body was brought to rest on the 14th in the presence of a large multitude of people. We saw and heard much good. It gave us much grace and there will be as great a judgment when these things shall be dug up and conditions shall be revealed. God grant that he shall bring many blessings, and make an unquenchable impression on many peoples’ hearts, Amen. His memory and understanding remained with him to the end, as much as we know. His funeral text was from I Thessalonians chapter 4 verses 13, 14 and 15.
Farewell to the church
Here follows a writing, which he wrote with shaking hand five days before his death:
My last sincere words to the Church, whom I must now leave, among whom I, as an unworthy servant, preached the word, especially the churches at Deep Run, Perkasie [Blooming Glen], and New Britain [Doylestown]. Brethren and sisters and others: I embrace you in the arms of love, precious, blood-bought souls; I regret that I must leave you under the circumstances of which the Lord spake; and because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold, but he that shall endure to the end shall be saved, Matt. 24:12. O love! O indispensable love to God and His word, how little room findest thou in the human heart towards Thee and Thy Word, towards friend and foe! O love of the world! O lust of the eye, and lust of the flesh! O pride of life, how high hast thou risen up! But farewell! This is my last admonition to you, written with my dying hand, therefore repent; come diligently to the public meeting and hear the word of God; love your teachers and ministers, so shall both they and you be strengthened, and if not, the candlestick shall be taken away altogether. No more. Any brother who is able to read so that he may be understood by all, may read this before the Church, as it is of interest to all of them. December 7th, 1810. Jacob Gross
Several copies of this farewell letter have survived, probably all from the time of Jacob’s death. One is in the manuscript by Isaac Gross; another by an unknown hand is in the collection of the Mennonite Heritage Center; and a third, from the papers of bishop Jacob Gottschall of Franconia, is in a private collection. This translation was published in a historical article about Bedminster Mennonites by J. Franklin Fretz in the Perkasie Central News, January 18, 1900.
Mary Krall (Gross) was born in 1751 in Pennsylvania. She died on 10 Feb 1816 at the age of 65 in Plumstead, Bucks, Pennsylvania. She was a daughter of Christian Krall (d. 1784) of New Britain Township, who moved in the 1770s to Frederick County, Maryland.
In the New Britain poor tax of 1766, Jacob Gross was listed with the Krall family. Earlier, in 1764, Gross lived with Jacob Rohr in New Britain (according to a letter). He and Mary also lived in Hatfield Township in the 1770s before moving to Bedminster.
In his 1774 letter to Peter Weber, Jacob described his marriage to Mary: …I am also getting ready for a trip to Maryland with my wife and four month old child. That is a 50 hour journey. We are going to Maryland primarily to see my parents-in-law…. That I am now married has already been stated, and that has been since before five years ago. We have a little boy called Isaak, as old as stated above. Concerning my marriage, I could no doubt have married better in the eyes of the world, that is, I could have married for more money, but when one considers the goals I had when we got married one could find reason both to praise and to criticize, however one would like to do. I still think my wife, as she was back then, is a better person and spiritually more faithful than I, even though one finds areas in which we need to encourage one another, like we do in ourselves as well. I am well satisfied with her, and as far as I know or believe, she is also satisfied with me. The hard times we have been through in our marriage cannot be blamed on her, neither can she blame them upon me. Rather we see them as something belonging to marriage in general.
Disposition of estate
At the two vendues (public auctions) for Jacob’s estate in January and March 1811 (original record at the Mennonite Heritage Center), his children purchased many tools and farm implements, including Jacob’s shoemaking equipment. Widow Mary purchased some grain and a barrel of vinegar, one cow, a few tools, a clock and case, some linens, and most of her dishes. At the time, all property belonged to men and widows inherited only what was specifically granted by will; other items had to be purchased back.
Other than two Bibles, one of which was purchased by son John Gross (the other by John Loux), Jacob’s books were not sold at auction, but privately to the children, along with clothing.
At the time of his death, Jacob Gross owned 66 acres in Bedminster Township and 37 acres in Plumstead Township (straddling the township line along Applebutter Road). The land was willed to his children in equal shares, and son Isaac purchased his siblings’ shares for £1,600 (approximately $130,000 in today’s currency).