I’ve been meaning to write about this one for quite some time. This is truly one of those cases where the truth is stranger than fiction! By some incredible twist of fate, it turns out that a small group of PA Dutch farmers in the backwoods of Chester county PA in the mid 1800s were espousing 1960’s “Counter-Culture.” Makes one wonder exactly what crop it was that they were growing on their farms!!!
The story starts with a man named Theophilus R. Gates, who was born January 12, 1787 in a small town in Connecticut. By most accounts, Theophilus was a bit of an oddball and probably a social misfit. He supposedly suffered from hallucinations as a child, but became an itinerant school teacher and eventually a spiritual adviser. In 1837 he wrote and published pamphlets on his religious convictions. The basis of his beliefs centered around the idea that conventional marriage is repressive to both the man and the woman. Both would be happier if they could have relations with whomever they chose, whenever they chose. Their commitment to each other could last a day, a week, or a lifetime, but if at any time they found someone else they would rather be with, they were free to leave. He somehow twisted this concept around and claimed that it was God’s will.
By 1837, the time he wrote the religious pamphlet, Theophilus had apparently settled in Philadelphia. This was also when he managed to recruit one of his most ardent followers, a woman named Hannah Williamson. By 1840, however, both Theophilus and Hannah were having some legal problems in Philadelphia and fled to Chester County, PA. They somehow managed to amass a small group of followers in northern Chester County, PA, in the area of Shenkel’s Church (current day North Coventry township). The sect called themselves the “Battle-Axes of the Lord,” and although their numbers were relatively small (some say about 35 members), the area became known as free-love valley. Despite all this, Theophilus himself was reportedly married to a woman named Mary Rinehart and lived with her family in nearby East Coventry. Mary was apparently also part of the Battle-Axe sect.
According to local historians, the Battle-Axes would meet at each others houses for “services.” These services were rather loosely organized compared to those of conventional religions. It has been said that they involved nudity as that was the original state of Adam and Eve. It has also been reported that the Battle-Axes bathed nude in one or more of the local ponds. On at least one of these occasions they were caught and whipped by the local constable as they tried to run back to the house. The local citizens and law enforcement were not pleased with the antics and actions of the sect and various members were at times arrested. They were generally brought up on charges of adultery or fornication for which some of them served jail time.
One of the mostly flagrant acts of the Battle-Axes occurred in 1843, when members of the sect paraded naked up and down the aisles of Shenkel Church, waving their arms in the air. Keep in mind that many of the Battle Axes were probably former members of this church and that it was their outraged friends, neighbors and family members sitting in the pews! It has been said that another church, Temple Methodist, located about a half a mile down the road, was founded at least in part to bring religion to this “wild” group.
Theophilus Gates died October 30, 1846 and was buried in Brower’s Cemetery, now part of Oak Grove Cemetery, in Parkerford, PA. He is buried among members of his wife’s family. Hannah Williamson continued to lead the sect after Gates’ death, but she is said to have left the area about 1850. The sect slowly faded and most members either died or returned to conventional religion.
This story first came to my attention because one of the sect members, William Stubblebine, was married to Mary Ann Garber. She was the daughter of Conrad Garber and Anna Maria Bechtel and was a sister to my ancestor, Hannah Garber Hoff Bell. William and Mary Ann (Garber) Stubblebine were married in 1824 and had five or six children by the time Theophilus Gates and Hannah Williamson descended upon North Coventry. William apparently joined the Battle Axes and took up with a woman named Magdalena Snyder. The story is that Magdalena showed up at the Stubblebine farm house one day and announced that God had told her that William was her “soul-mate.” Shortly thereafter, Mary Ann and the children moved out. When William died in 1871, he left his money to Magdalena, giving nothing to his wife and children. The will was contested by his son Daniel. The jury found for Daniel, so I guess there was some small measure of justice.
As a bizarre footnote to a bizarre story, when I was at Brower’s/Oak Grove Cemetery photographing tombstones, I noticed that someone attached a homemade plaque to Theophilus Gates’ tombstone. The plaque claims that Gates was the “second angel spoken of in Chapter 14 of Revelations.” What?! According to the writer, “Gates declared that all man’s societies, sects and houses of worship were corrupt.” Does the person who wrote this even know what Gate’s preached?!! There was supposed to be some attached literature, but it was either all taken or removed. It just gets weirder and weirder!!!