Item: Abraham Harley Cassel

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Record Number: 7130
Depicts: Cassel, Abraham Harley, 1820-1908
Image description: Abraham Harley Cassel (1820-1908) was a book collector and historian who acquired more than 50,000 books, pamphlets and documents about Pennsylvania history.

Born to German-speaking members of the Dunkard Church, Cassel grew up on a farm in Harleysville, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. As a child, he was obsessed with books and reading even though his parents wanted their children to remain "piously ignorant." He thus had to feed his love of learning in secret, reading by candlelight after the rest of the family was asleep and teaching himself English from a pocket dictionary. Cassek did attend school briefly, for six weeks when he was eleven years old, but left because he was needed on the family farm.

Despite the lack of formal education, Cassel became a school teacher in 1840. Seven years later, with a wife and family to support, he took over the family farm, acquiring more money and time to devote to his passion for reading. He became an avid collector of books, building a personal library he begun as a child. In 1852 Cassel began to write about the history of the Church of the Brethren for church periodicals and became known as an expert not only on Dunkard history, but also the religious, political, and social history of Pennsylvania Germans. Reflecting his scholarship, Cassel’s library focused on the early religious history of the Philadelphia area and especially early German American religious groups, including: the Seventh Day Baptist group at the Ephrata Cloister and the followers of Kaspar Schwenkfeld who settled in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In 1882 the Historical Society of Pennsylvania purchased a portion of Cassel’s library. The acquisition consisted of forty-seven items that date from 1680 to 1893,and include hymn books, religious tracts and catechism, diaries, letters, genealogical records, and examples of Pennsylvania German folk art and fraktur. Cassel provided for the remainder of his library to be divided between the Beeghly Library at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and the Bethany Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois.