Simon Snyder, His Character and Christian Life
Simon Snyder is a man of interest to us at All Saints because he lived in Selinsgrove from his mid twenties until his death at age 60. After serving several years in the legislature, he became speaker of the house and then the 3rd Governor of the Commonwealth from 1808 to 1818. The last three years of his life he lived in our neighborhood, in the stone house just up the street from our church.
However, the Governor’s ties to us are even stronger because he was the grandfather of our founder, Mary Kittera Snyder, the daughter of his oldest son, John. Although Snyder died before she was born, she held him in high regard. She engaged a well known artist in Philadelphia to make etchings, one of the Governor and the other of herself. Copies of these hang in our library. From early in life Mary and her older sister Elizabeth lived in Philadelphia with her mother’s family. Her mother had died soon after she was born and her father was not considered able to care for them. When she was 45 years old she moved back to Selinsgrove and two years later was running a private school for children. Within a decade she had moved into the house which is now between All Saints and the Governor’s mansion. After she died and All Saints was built, it became the property of the church and it began to be called The Rectory.
I’ve found only a few personal letters written by Simon Snyder among the many letters and documents from his time as governor. I suppose the same is true of us. We are lucky if we have even one letter from an ancestor who lived back in the 18th and 19th centuries. No biography has been written about his life, however, Emerson Derr wrote a PhD dissertation about the Governor. A few personal letters and comments of his contemporaries and historians provide us a glimpse of Simon Snyder’s character and religious life.
Simon Snyder was born at seven o’clock in the morning, November 5th, 1759 and was baptized 2 days later, in the evening, at the regular evening services of a congregation of the Moravian Church in Litiz. His parents had moved to Pennsylvania from the Palatine area of Germany. When Snyder was 15 years old and living with his family in Lancaster, his father died. It’s believed that his mother’s death, two years later, triggered his move from Lancaster to York in 1776. His brother John had already left home hurriedly and moved to wilderness of Selinsgrove area after a run in with a British soldier in Lancaster who demanded a shoeshine which John declined to give him.
As an older man Simon wrote a few paragraphs about his life and he said of himself that he” learned the tanning and currying business, serving an apprenticeship of four years without being bound by any indenture or written contract.” Completing the apprenticeship was considered a sign of integrity, as once a person learned a skill as an apprentice, there was a strong temptation to break the agreement and leave to work for himself.
While in York he studied with “John Jones, a worthy member of the Society of Friends, who kept a night school.” From Jones Snyder learned “reading, writing, and arithmetic, and made some progress in mathematics.” He wrote about himself, “Often, at the midnight hour, after a hard day’s work, he was found in the pursuit of knowledge, and his Sundays were also constantly devoted to his studies.” His studies not only made him literate in English and German, they made it possible for him to change professions to storekeeper and later, mill owner and to become a scrivener who wrote documents, wills, deeds, leases and contracts. It has been said that he was one of five literate people in this area in 1808.
When Simon moved to the Selinsgrove area in 1784, his brother John already lived here and the town was known as Snyder’s. He entered a partnership in a store and later a mill with Anthony Selin, an older man, a Swiss Catholic who had been a Captain in the Revolutionary War. As early as 1785, Selin and Snyder were taxed with a store, a negro slave and 40 acres of land. Subsequent records do not mention a slave and Snyder, as a legislator and governor, was strong in his opposition to slavery. Snyder was soon elected Justice of the Peace. As such he dealt with the many quarrels, disputes, assaults and batteries common to newly settled areas. He was able to reconcile many of the actions brought before him and his decisions were respected and rarely appealed. About this time he became friends with Aaron Levy, a Jewish business man, land owner, speculator and founder of the town of Aaronsburg. When Levy’s wife became ill, he moved to Philadelphia where, he could take care of Snyder’s business in the city and Snyder managed Levy’s affairs in this part of Pennsylvania. Snyder did not limit his friendships to the many Germans who settled this area but was also friendly with people of English, Irish, Jewish, and French backgrounds.
Three years after Simon moved to this area, his brother John was giving his favorite mare a workout before a race, when he was thrown and killed. Thereafter, Simon developed a strong and lasting opposition to horse racing and the gambling associated with it.
The next year John and Simon’s younger sister Catherine, a widow, married Anthony Selin and they lived on the Isle of Que.
In 1790Simon was elected to represent Northumberland County, which stretched across the river, at the Convention in Philadelphia which was to draft the Constitution of the Commonwealth. At that time, travel to Philadelphia took about 5 days. “Though but a mere novice in politics, his votes point him out as the steady supporter of those invaluable rights which protect the religious freedom, and the persons and property of the people of this free country.”
A later writer (Armor) wrote that though Snyder had little skill in the management of deliberative bodies, yet his votes and personal influence were uniformly given in the interest of enlightened statesmanship, and he showed himself a conscientious and painstaking representative of the popular will.
When he was 31, in 1790, Simon married Elizabeth Michael of Lancaster. They had two children John and Amelia in the three years before she died.
When the German Reformed Synod met in Reading, in May 1794, the Rev. George Geistweit was licensed as a minister and a call was immediately presented him from the Shamokin churches. He preached at Selinsgrove, Sunbury, and occasionally in Buffalo Valley, in the newly built town of New Berlin. At this time worship was taking place in people’s homes or barns. Services were not scheduled very regularly. People in the rural areas were pretty well scattered. Consequently, with a pastor serving anywhere from two or three to eight or ten different congregations he didn’t get around to them all each Sunday. Once-a-month services were more like the norm. Even then, there may or may not have been a pastor present to conduct baptisms or administer holy communion regularly—communion was offered only once or twice a year in most places.
About this time Snyder wrote Levy and asked him to obtain three dozen Lutheran and three dozen Reformed German hymnbooks, with black or flowered covers, for his church.
In 1796 Snyder married again. Catherine Antes of Northumberland, from a well known and respected family, was 19 years old to his 37. They had both been baptized in the Moravian church as infants. In the 12 years before she died, they had five children, all boys, one of whom died as an infant.
A later historian (Charles Snyder) wrote, “Although Simon never studied law and lacked eloquence as a speaker, he had an open friendly manner and a willingness to listen. He had a preference for simplicity in his daily life and a reputation for integrity. In his dealing with others he was conciliatory.”
In 1800 the Lutherans of Selinsgrove decided to go ahead and build a church in cooperation with the Reformed folks of the town. The first subscription list for building the church was circulated on January 1, 1801. On the list there is no indication of who was Lutheran and who was Reformed. Among the contributors of money Simon Snyder appeared to be one of the seven or so most generous persons. The church was built of pine logs which were donated, delivered, and erected by the people.
Simon was first elected governor in 1808. The capitol of the state was Lancaster. When the legislature was in session, after harvest and before planting season, he took rooms there in a tavern. The rest of the year he lived in Selinsgrove. After Catherine died in 1810. His daughter Amelia seems to have been left in charge of the household. When she was 21 he wrote her a letter copies of which survive. In it he encouraged her and the boys to read “a chapter in the New Testament or one of Blair’s sermons on a Sunday, when there is no worship in our church. When there is, and the weather is tolerable, I trust you and all the boys attend. Your example may influence them.” Blair was a Scottish preacher whose popular book of sermons was owned by the Snyder family. His sermons focused on questions of morality. Blair encouraged people to improve their natural talents through hard work and urged them to play an active role in society, enjoy the pleasures of life, do good works, and maintain faith in God. We find this approach to life in what we know about Simon Snyder.
His letter continued, “I would advise you to set apart, say two hours each day, for reading, and endeavor to store your mind with all that is worth recollecting. Write to me when you have the opportunity, or rather write when anything occurs to your mind worth communicating, and then you will be ready and not hurried, when an opportunity offers. This is my method,, or I never could get through half my business.” The young man who studied at night and on Sundays, became the mature man who set apart two hours each day for reading and thinking. Others wrote of him (Shankman) “he was self taught, and (Derr) like Lincoln, was a man who did his best to overcome educational handicaps.”
Snyder’s 20 year old son John had a health problem that distressed the Governor. “I hope that no pains or expense will be spared to restore him. God grant that he may recover, and become sensible of the necessity to alter his mind, and prove thankful and grateful to God for his mercies. His God from who’s hand the thread of his life is suspended, will hear him, if, with a contrite heart he calls for mercy and forgiveness. I write under strong emotions of pain. God have him and you in all in his Holy keeping, is the prayer of your father.”
In 1814 Snyder married for the 3rd time, a widow of Harrisburg, Mary Slough Scott. Simon Cameron said she was a very superior woman. Snyder wrote to a friend on the day of the wedding, “I shall be united to her in bonds indissoluble. I pray God to grant me the happiness I anticipate.” The new Mrs. Snyder was a member of the Episcopal church and the first person to begin a Sabbath School at Selinsgrove.
In 1817, as he ended his third term as Governor, Snyder wrote the following in his long, final address to the legislature: “In the discharge of executive functions, I heard with attention, and endeavored to decide with integrity. I had a wish, it is true, to regard (or listen to) the public voice, and I confess myself to have been ambitious to conciliate and enjoy the public confidence. But I could never abandon the superior claims of self approbation and conscious rectitude. Satisfied on these points, (and ever aware that in the performance of executive duties by a merely practical man, it is difficult if not impossible to avoid error) I have ever acted without in the least regarding what the world might say about it and those who know me best can bear witness, that I have borne with patience the consequences which resulted from them. For the errors I may have committed, I am consoled with the reflection that perhaps no important good was ever altogether free from alloy.”
A recent historian (Wood) wrote about him, “Snyder was representative of the new democratic politicians emerging in the North in the early nineteenth century. Unpretentious and deeply religious, he won office, including the governorship of Pennsylvania, by celebrating his lack of gentility.”
In 1818 Mary Snyder traveled to Philadelphia without Simon for John Snyder’s wedding to Mary Kittera. She wrote her step daughter Amelia, “At length I have a moment to devote to you on the morning of the important day which is to connect us with Mary Kittera. At nine o’clock this evening Doctor Wilson will tie the knot.” Simon Snyder was not at the wedding. He was not well and his finances were in disarray. A recent law that had been passed over Snyder’s veto led to the creation of many new banks and allowed them to print their own paper money. The panic of 1819 ensued when many banks failed. His fears had become a reality. He died that year, before his affairs were in order.
Earlier in life, Snyder had written about himself, “He was ever the friend of the poor and distressed.” After serving as Governor he retired to Selinsgrove. There he was almost immediately chosen to serve as overseer of the poor of Penn Township and began to discharge the duties of the office with his characteristic earnestness and efficiency. (Dunkelberger). “He knew by experience the lot of the lowly and poor.” (Wagenseller)
When Snyder died of typhoid fever at his home in Selinsgrove on November 9, 1819, he was 60 years old. The Rev. John Peter Schindel Sr. of Sunbury conducted his funeral service and preached in German. He was buried in the old Lutheran church cemetery on the corner of Bough and High Streets. A writer (Lynn) from Lewisburg wrote , “His heart went out at all times in deeds of kindness to the poor and the unfortunate. He was long mourned with sincere grief by them, and the few old people still surviving, when he was buried out of their sight, tell how tenderly (his kindness) was manifested.”
The Harrisburg Republican newspaper account said of him, “Governor Snyder was a Christian, but his piety, like the rest of his virtues, was manifested, not in ostentation and parade, but in the practical influence which it had on his life and conversation.”