This series of posts highlights families descended from 18th-century Mennonite immigrants to eastern Pennsylvania, in connection with the MHC’s exhibit Opportunity & Conscience: Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania, on display through March 31, 2018. The stories reflect the enrichment brought to communities over centuries by the descendants of immigrants.
Henry and Magdalena
The immigrant ancestor of the Bucks-Mont Ruth family, whose name was Henry, came to Pennsylvania probably in the fall of 1717 and purchased 200 acres of land at Salford in February 1718. He had a wife at the time of immigration (whose name is unknown) and a young son, Henry Jr. Within a few years, his wife died and he remarried to Magdalena, with whom he had nine children.
In 1730, Henry and Magdalena sold half their land to Christian Allebach, and in 1738 another chunk in the west corner to the trustees of the Salford Mennonite congregation. A meetinghouse had already been built there at least ten years before, when the “Baptist [i.e. Mennonite] Meetinghouse” was mentioned in a petition for a road to pass by the property.
The final sale was in 1747, when Henry and Magdalena pulled up stakes and moved east to Bucks County, along with other Mennonites who were settling the township of New Britain at that time. They became part of the newly forming Line Lexington congregation, where their descendants have been numerous and influential.
And so it resulted that the Ruth family story is of both Salford and New Britain/Line Lexington. Though none of Henry and Magdalena’s children remained at Salford, they had lived there for nearly 30 years before moving to New Britain. Generations later, descendants returned to the Salford community, and the name has been prominently associated with Salford in the 20th century.
Signatures of Henry and Magdalena from the 1738 deed to the Salford Mennonite trustees. Magdalena could not write her name, and simply made her mark “M”. The English scrivener spelled her name “Modlena”. This was also done in Henry’s will. It must have been the way English people heard the (perhaps abbreviated) German pronunciation of Magdalena. By 1747, she had learned to write her name, and on the deed for their Salford farm, she spelled it “Magdalena”.
The New Britain line
From New Britain come some interesting artifacts of the Ruth family that are now in the MHC collection.
One is a manuscript tunebook for Jacob Ruth, a great-grandson of the immigrant. The book is dated 1806 and made by an unidentified schoolmaster in the New Britain School. A second inscription reads “Jacob Ruth – Catharina Ruth – 1809”. This could be the date of their marriage. Jacob married his father’s much younger first cousin, Catherine, daughter of bishop David Ruth. Bishop Ruth was one of those who tried to bring reconciliation after the Funkite schism of the Revolutionary Era. More on that in a future post.
Jacob Ruth died in 1822, leaving Catherine with seven young daughters – Ann, Sarah, Amelia, Catherine, Mary, Elizabeth, and Fronica. Legend has it that local people, for fun, used to repeat the nicknames of all seven girls as fast as possible, making one long name: “Nancysalliemealiekittypollybetsyfranny” (Joyce Clemmer Munro, Some Local History of Franconia Township…, 63). The girls were raised by their father’s sister, Fronica Shoemaker and husband Michael of Franconia. It is unknown what became of their mother. She may have died soon after Jacob, or lived with the girls at Shoemaker’s, remarried, or worked as a domestic servant in another home.
An early wedding dress in the MHC collection is from a Ruth family of Line Lexington. This brown silk taffeta dress was worn by Rosa Moyer at her marriage to Charles G. Ruth in 1887. As was the case with many young adults, they were not yet baptized or members of the Mennonite church, so they dressed according to the fashions of the day. Eventually they did join the church, and their son Winfield M. Ruth (1909-2003) became a minister and bishop of the Swamp Mennonite Church near Quakertown.
Winfield grew up under the preaching and spiritual oversight of his uncle, Joseph G. Ruth (1857-1928), who was a minister at Line Lexington from 1905 to 1926 and bishop for a couple years before his death. Joseph’s obituary noted that his “executive ability was felt throughout his bishop district and he could speak authoritatively on any subject assigned to him. He was a deep thinker, a staunch defender of the faith and zealous in safeguarding the principles of his beloved church.” (Gospel Herald, 31 January 1929)
Joseph was succeeded in the role of bishop by Arthur D. Ruth (1892-1986), another nephew. Here again, leadership passed from one family member to another, as we’ve seen with the Kolb, Hunsicker, Allebach and other families. The lot was ostensibly directed by the hand of God, leaving our modern minds with a puzzle: Were the gifts of ministry placed by the Creator into the DNA of certain families, and the lot then directed by God to fall on those families repeatedly?
Charles and Joseph Ruth’s brother, Abraham (1855-1919) – an unordained member of Line Lexington Mennonite Church – had a lovely home and farm in New Britain Township, where these exceptional pictures were taken circa 1900. They were given to the MHC by his grandson, Russell Bishop.
The Salford line
The Ruth family eventually reconnected with Salford in the late 19th century through descendants of George and Mary Moyer Ruth. George Hunsicker Ruth (1851-1924) was raised in Franconia Township. At the age of 15, this birth record was made for him by fraktur artist Isaac Z. Hunsicker, a relative of his mother visiting from Canada.
George and Mary’s farm was located where Williams-Bergey-Koffel Funeral Home is today, not far from the Lower Salford Township line. Their son Henry (1877-1955) married a Salford girl, Mary Landes, and was ordained a deacon for the Salford congregation in 1925.
Henry and Mary had several children who served in ministry at Salford and other places. Son Paul (1905-1998) served for many years as pastor of the nearby Spring Mount Mennonite Mission. Son Henry (1918-1993) was pastor at Salford, 1951-1967, and then at Rockhill Mennonite Church until retirement. In 1985-86, he filled an interim position at Zion Mennonite Church, Souderton, and made an unusual sight in his plain coat pastoring an Eastern District congregation.
Daughter Ella Ruth (1910-2010) worked in the 1950s as a secretary for the Brunk Brothers Revival Campaign, traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada, before returning to Montgomery County where she worked for Harleysville Insurance and remained an active member of Salford Mennonite Church until her death at age 100. Ella’s scrapbooks from her time with the Brunk Campaign are preserved at the MHC.
A sister of deacon Henry, Emma Ruth Nyce (1886-1969), also attended Salford Mennonite Church, and her only child Edith later married John E. Lapp of Lansdale, who would serve many years as bishop for the Salford congregation. In John and Edith’s papers at the MHC are a charming series of photos from a Sunday afternoon on the Nyce farm near Harleysville, circa 1913. Emma’s husband, Allen Nyce, was a chorister (song leader) at Salford.
Less idyllic, but no less interesting, is this photo of Emma’s brother, Dr. Vincent M. Ruth (1885-1960), birthing a calf, circa 1960, with help from teenagers Glen and Arlin Landis at their family farm in Towamencin Township. Vincent had a long career as a veterinarian in Franconia. His account book, 1913-1916, is in the MHC collection.
A unique preacher-professor-historian
Our own time has seen a descendant of the Ruth family become well-known as a storyteller and historian, though his first career was as a preacher and professor of English.
John L. Ruth (b. 1930) has Line Lexington roots; his father came from there. But John was a Salford boy, growing up on his mother’s family farm in Lower Salford. His parents were Henry and Susan Landis Ruth, workers at the Finland Mennonite Mission near Pennsburg. When John reached adulthood, he also went to work at a Mennonite mission, though a very different environment, the urban mission at Conshohocken.
John’s parents, Susan and Henry Ruth, circa 1993; and a newspaper report of John’s ordination, held at the First Mennonite Church of Norristown, 1950.
John is one of a unique group of Franconia Conference ministers who were ordained by lot as very young men during the era of mission stations, and who continued to pursue higher education after ordination. He was age 20 when ordained to pastor the Conshohocken Mission, and just finished his freshman year at Eastern Mennonite College. Discontinuing formal education for a few years to focus on the work of the Mission, he enrolled at Eastern Baptist College in 1953; followed by Harvard University for graduate studies in 1957, with special permission from the Franconia Conference bishops to be away from the work at Conshohocken. Others who received similar dispensations for education were young bishop Paul Lederach (pictured above, shaking John’s hand) and Perkasie minister Richard Detweiler.
After a decade of teaching English at Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern University) and pastoring the King of Prussia Fellowship that grew out of the Conshohocken Mission, John was called in 1971 to join the pastoral team at Salford Mennonite Church, on land his immigrant ancestor had settled 250 years before.
During his years in the Salford ministry, John became an active historian, producing several books (including a landmark history of Mennonites in eastern Pennsylvania) and heritage films with his son Jay that captured the heart of the local community. In 1993, he retired from the pastorate in order to dedicate more time to heritage work and writing. Since then, he has had a very busy schedule with writing books (including a massive history of Lancaster Mennonite Conference), speaking engagements, and leading tours in Europe.
One of John’s unique gifts has been his ability to bridge the gap between academia and the Old Order community. It is rare that a person as highly-educated as John is embraced as a peer by members of the Old Order churches. But his respect for the old ways of Anabaptism and his interest in their story, combined with their respect for him as a minister and storyteller, has led to an unusual relationship that creates not only a personal bridge between himself and the Old Order, but interaction between disparate groups such as takes place at the annual Alleghenyville singing, of which John is the de facto chair.
John’s family is also talented. His wife, Roma, is a skilled fraktur artist who has created many commemorative pieces now displayed in homes of recipients throughout the local community and beyond. Sons Jay and Phil Ruth have published books on the history of local townships; and daughter Dawn Ruth Nelson, herself a pastor, has written a book on the life and spirituality of her grandmother, Susan Ruth.
John Ruth’s memoir, Branch: A Memoir with Pictures (2013), is available for purchase at the Mennonite Heritage Center.
Sources on the Ruth family
Kriebel, Warren R. Ruth Genealogy. Self-published. 1972. Supplements in 1978 and 1981. Available in the MHC library.
Miller, Reuben Z. and Joseph S. Miller, ed. The Measure of My Days: Engaging the Life and Thought of John L. Ruth. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House. 2004.
Nelson, Dawn Ruth. A Mennonite Woman: Exploring Spiritual Life and Identity. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House. 2010.
Ruth, John L. Branch: A Memoir with Pictures. Harleysville, PA: Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania. 2013.
Wenger, John C. and Cornelius Krahn. “Ruth family.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 28 Jun 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ruth_family