Caspar Schwenckfeld (1489-1561) was yet another Catholic priest who lost his mooring during turbulent times – in this case, the Reformation era. Born in Ossig, Silesia, to noble parents, he started university in Cologne in 1505, but after two years moved on to the university at Frankfurt on the Oder. After another year or two, he became adviser to successive dukes of Leignitz, the small German state in which he found himself. Reading Luther’s works, Fr Schwenckfeld soon identified with the Reformation, but broke with Luther over the Eucharist. Rejecting his former mentor’s views on the Sacrament, he held that its reception was a purely spiritual eating of the Body of Christ.
Continuing to develop new beliefs, he rejected infant baptism, came to hold that Jesus was becoming “evermore God”, and condemned oaths and most forms of government authority. Leaving Leignitz in 1529 to avoid causing his duke further embarrassment, Schwenckfeld continued to publish new doctrinal ideas, only to have them routinely condemned by Luther and other Reformers. In time, he came to reject the idea of an “outward Church” in favour of inner spiritual renewal. Nevertheless, in his lifetime he was seen as pursuing a “middle way” between the “Magisterial Reformers”, such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, and the Anabaptists.
Despite his rejection of Church structures, groups of followers developed around his writings. Persecuted in Germany, they began emigrating to Philadelphia. Most of the Schwenckfelders in the world today are in that area, organised in five churches. Probably the best – if not the only – known Schwenckfelder in American history was Richard Schweiker, Ronald Reagan’s putative vice president nominee in his unsuccessful 1976 bid. After Reagan’s 1980 victory. Schweiker served two years as US secretary of health and human services.
Today’s Schwenckfelders do not share all of their founder’s beliefs – especially regarding churches.