Rittenhouse, William (1644-1708)

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William Rittenhouse: the first Mennonite preacher in North America; born in 1644 in Mülheim on the Ruhr River near Essen, in the Lordship of Broich in Westphalia, Germany. His parents were Maria Hagerhoffs and George Rittenhausen. Almost nothing is known of his early life or the name of his wife by whom he had three children. In June 1678 he became a citizen of Amsterdam, signing as Willem Ruddinghysen of Mülheim, papermaker. Ten years later, in 1688,  he with his family were in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Lacking the capital to construct a paper mill, he and his son, Claus, formed a company that included the printer, William Bradford. In 1690 they built the first paper mill in the American colonies, located on a branch of the Wissahickon Creek in what is now Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The paper mill was successful; by about 1704 Claus, who was now running the mill, bought out the last partner. The Rittenhouse family owned and operated the mill for over a century.

It was probably in 1690 that Rittenhouse was chosen as the first preacher of the Germantown Mennonite congregation, a group of Lower Rhine (chiefly Krefeld) immigrants, which had been without a leader from its beginning in 1683-85. For many years no baptismal or communion services were held because Rittenhouse was not a bishop and did not therefore feel free to proceed in such bishop work. The Germantown Mennonites wrote to the ministers at Altona, Germany, in 1702 asking that a bishop come to America and ordain a bishop for them, so that baptism and communion could be performed. The Altona ministers replied that the trip to America was too great to undertake, and advised the Germantown ministers to proceed with the administration of the ordinances. Rittenhouse was not convinced. In 1706 he wrote to the Amsterdam Mennonites and got the same advice. He eventually felt sufficiently persuaded of the soundness of this advice to proceed, but became ill and died on 18 February 1708, before he was able to perform the services. It was probably D. K. Cassel who started the fiction that Rittenhouse was bishop. The man who actually carried out the instruction of the Altona preachers was Jacob Gottschalk (ca. 1670-1763), who had been ordained as assistant preacher to Rittenhouse in 1702.

One other bit of information is known about Rittenhouse. He made an effort to have the Dordrecht Confession of Faith translated into English so that the Mennonites' non-German speaking neighbors could better understand them and their beliefs. However, the price asked was so high that the project was abandoned. Jacob Gottschalk then took up the matter with the Amsterdam Mennonites, who successfully accomplished the task in 1712. Later in 1727 the Germantown Mennonites reprinted their own copies in Philadelphia.

William Rittenhouse had some distinguished descendants. His son Nicholas "Claus" Rittenhouse (1666-1734) served as a Mennonite preacher at Germantown. Nicholas had a son Henry, who located in what is now Montgomery County and who granted the land for the Worcester meetinghouse to the "Mennonist Society" in 1739. J. C. Clemens, minister in the Plains Mennonite Church and long-time secretary of the Franconia Conference, was a direct descendant. Henry Rittenhouse had a brother Mathias who became the father of the famous mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), thus a great-grandson of William the preacher. David built orreries for Princeton University and for the University of Pennsylvania. He also built an observatory and a transit telescope. In 1776 he was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He served as treasurer of Pennsylvania 1777-1789, and as the first director of the United States mint 1792-1795. He was president of the American Philosophical Society 1791-1796, succeeding Benjamin Franklin.


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Bender, H. S. "Was William Rittenhouse the First Mennonite Bishop in America?" Mennonite Quarterly Review XVIII (1944): 42-47.

Bender, H. S. "William Rittenhouse, 1644-1708: First Mennonite Minister in America." Mennonite Quarterly Review VIII (1934): 58-61.

Ford, Edward. David Rittenhouse, Astronomer-Patriot 1732-1796. Philadelphia, 1946.

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Author(s) John C. Wenger
Victor G. Wiebe
Date Published December 2012

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MLA style

Wenger, John C. and Victor G. Wiebe. "Rittenhouse, William (1644-1708)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. December 2012. Web. 22 Sep 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rittenhouse,_William_(1644-1708)&oldid=143721.

APA style

Wenger, John C. and Victor G. Wiebe. (December 2012). Rittenhouse, William (1644-1708). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rittenhouse,_William_(1644-1708)&oldid=143721.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 344. All rights reserved.

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