JOHN KEPHART (1751-1822)
Minister of the Doylestown Mennonite Congregation (1806-1822)
A brief biography by Calvin Ira Kephart
The Mennonite Quarterly Review, April, 1928, Vol. II, No.2
During the Colonial and post-Revolutionary War periods, when the rural districts were sparsely settled, roads were poor, and the usual means of transportation was by horse or carriage, many a community enjoyed religious ministration only because of the self-sacrificing devotion and untiring energy of some inspired local preacher. Often these men were, in addition, the principal educational leaders of their respective sections. Our public school system had not yet been developed, and the people looked largely to them for guidance in this respect also. Less noteworthy and beneficial service has been the subject of song and prose. Too little is known about the noble work done by these unselfish individuals and of the ethical and moral benefit that thereby accrued to the communities served and the country at large during a vital period of its history.
A notable representative of the effective country ministers of the late post-Revolutionary War period was John Kephart, who from approximately 1806 to 1822 ministered to the Mennonite congregations at Doylestown and Deep Run in upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He was not born in a Mennonite family, but became a Mennonite after marriage, prior to which he had rendered equally as faithful service in another great cause, that of gaining our country's independence.
The second child and eldest son in a large family, Mr. Kephart was born in Europe on February 13, 1751. This Kephart (Gebhart) family is of Swiss and earlier Alsatian baronial origin, from the same stock from which descended notables of Alsace, Switzerland, and Baden. Members settled in the cantons Basel and Bern, Switzerland, in the later part of the 14th century. Their descendants became prominent in those districts, eleven having been members of the cantonal legislature at Basel. One in 1592 was mayor of that city.
The immigrant, Heinrich Gebhart (Kephart, Capehart), circa 1724-1795, with his wife, daughter Rachel, and sons John and Jacob, arrived at Philadelphia on the ship "Edinburgh" on September 30, 1754, and took the oath of allegiance to William Penn's province. Henry was a miller at or near Frankford, Philadelphia County, until forced to discontinue because his two sons were in the Continental army when the British seized Philadelphia in June, 1777. He and his third son Andrew then retired for a few years to Cumberland country, where both served in the milita. Thus, the father and four sons served in the American forces in attaining our independence. The "Kephart" form of the name persists in the lines of the sons John and Jacob, while that of "Capehart" persists in the lines of the sons Andrew and George.
John Kephart enlisted from Philadelphia county in Captain George Hubley's company of the German (or Second Pennsylvania) regiment of the Continental army on October 23, 1778. His brother Jacob was in the same regiment. This organization rendered exceptional service. It participated in the historic battles of the eastern Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware arena, including the famous crossing of the Delaware, the hardships of the memorable winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, and the punitive expedition against the Six Nations Indians after the Wyoming Valley massacre. While campaigning through northern Bucks County in 1779, he met and married Elizabeth Fretz, born June 30, 1756, daughter of Jacob and Magdalena (Nash) Fretz, a prominent Mennonite family of the Deep Run congregation, whose descendants have been active in the county's affairs from colonial times down to the present.
After the war, John and Elizabeth settled in Gwynedd township, Montgomery (formerly a part of Philadelphia) county. In 1802 he acquired a 140 acre plantation along beautiful Neshaminy creek in New Britain township, 3 miles west of Doylestown, Bucks county, to which they moved. They at once became communicant of the Doylestown Mennonite congregation. A few years later, when approximately 55 years old, Mr. Kephart was ordained to the ministry and faithfully served the Doylestown congregation until a short time prior to his death on August 31, 1822. His devoted wife followed him on February 13, 1831. They are buried in the graveyard of the Doylestown church, in the northeast corner, directly behind the church. The inscription on their tombstones and those of other members of the family is clear and legible today.
The church land, comprising originally 7 acres and 56 perches, was purchased December 5, 1774, for 45 pounds, current money of Pennsylvania, "paid by said grantees out of collections made for religious uses by the members of the church society of Christians called Mennonist Meeting in said township of New Britain." The grantors were David and Sarah Worthington and the grantees, the trustees for the congregation, were Jacob Rhoar and Jacob Haldeman, yeoman, of New Britain township, Ludwick Switzer, weaver, of Warwick township, and Jacob Kulp, yeoman, of Buckingham township, Bucks county. The site is about a mile northwest of Doylestown.
The original log meeting-house, among the first in the county, was erected in 1775 by members of the congregation. It was replaced about 1808, early in the ministry of John Kephart, by a stone structure, which was enlarged in 1849. The latter, in turn, was replaced by the present structure in 1900. the present building is of pointed stone, one story, 42 feet by 64 feet, and typical in appearance. It stands on an eminence, just away from the road, facing east by north. The burial ground, separated from the church-yard by a stone wall, lies immediately behind and to the south. As with most rural churches, there are sheds for teams and automobiles. These lie to the north of the building and graveyard.
The church is equipped with the usual plain, straight, high-backed, wooden seats across the main room and in the Sunday school room behind the pulpit. The later, which is somewhat elevated, is much like a narrow store counter. It extends the distance between the two aisles, which lead through the two rooms and out the rear as well as the front. Such a pulpit undoubtedly is a convenient one for the pastor, for, with his open Bible resting on the pulpit-stand before him, he can stride back and forth while impressively expounding the Gospel to his congregation. At the same time there is ample space for him to sit down when appropriate.
One can readily visualize John Kephart thus explaining the word of God to the good Mennonite people of that community over one hundred years ago. Around the triangular circuit of probably ten miles from his plantation on the Neshaminy creek to the Doylestown meeting house, to Deep Run, and then back home, he performed not only the duties but also the numerous humanitarian acts expected of and usually cheerfully performed by this type of public servant. Preaching, teaching religious classes, officiating at marriages, baptisms, and funerals, assisting perhaps in community education and singing clubs, advising members of his congregation on innumerable private matters and in their communications with relations in the old country, in addition to operating his own farm, all doubtless kept his time fully and beneficially occupied. This opportunity for service well fitted his temperament. There is no class of people who are more helpful to one another, or who more nearly practice what they preach, than the Mennonites.
The writer's aunt, Mrs. F. B. (Emma Kephart) Hampton, still living, states that when a young lady about 1875-1880 she was informed by Mary (nee Silvius) Geil, born 1798, died 1887, wife of Henry Geil and a member of the Doylestown congregation during the ministry of John Kephart and his successors, that the former was one of the most effective and impressive ministers that ever entered the pulpit. He was a medium height and weight, dark-eyed, robust, and handsome in appearance, vigorous, but calm and poised, sincere, and alert in manner. His German Bible one of the 1763 edition of Sauer, is now in the custody of the Bucks County Historical Society. In his worldly affairs, John Kephart was also quite successful and left a substantial estate for those times. His will is on file in the county court house at Doylestown. Mr. and Mrs. Kephart were the parents of a large family, as named below:
1. Magdalena, born January 29, 1780, married John Bear;
2. Jacob, born July 10, 1781, married Marry Magdealena Ruth;
3. Susanna, born January 15, 1785, married David Hiestand;
4. Elizabeth, born May 31, 1786, unmarried
5. Katherine, born in 1788, married ___________
6. John, born in 1791, married Christiana Hook;
7. Hannah, born in 1793, married Joseph Yocum;
8. Abraham, born April 19, 1796, married Deborah Brunner;
9. Anna, born March 19, 1799, married John Shutt.