Though followers have held the teachings of Schwenkfeld since the 16th century, the Schwenkfelder Church did not come into existence until the 20th century, due in large part to Schwenkfeld's emphasis on inner spirituality over outward form. He also labored for a fellowship of all believers and one church. By the middle of the 16th century, there were thousands of followers of his "Reformation by the Middle Way". His ideas appear to be a middle ground between the ways of the Reformation of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, and the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.
Originally calling themselves Confessors of the Glory of Christ, Schwenkfeld's followers later became known as Schwenkfelders. These Christians often suffered persecution like slavery, prison and fines at the hands of the government and state churches in Europe. Most of them lived in southern Germany and Lower Silesia. They tell a story about their origins in which the devil is taking a group of Schwenkfelders to Hades and the bag broke over Harpersdorf.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the remaining Schwenkfelders lived around Harpersdorf As the persecution intensified around 1719-1725, they were given refuge in 1726 by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Saxony. When the Elector of Saxony died in 1733, Jesuits sought the new ruler to return the Schwenkfelders to Harpersdorf. With their freedom in jeopardy, they decided to look to the New World; toleration was also extended to them in Silesia in 1742 by King Frederick II of Prussia.
The immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church brought saffron to the Americas; many Schwenkfelders had grown saffron in Europe. A group came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1731, and several migrations continued until 1737. The largest group, 180 Schwenkfelders, arrived in 1734. In 1782, the Society of Schwenkfelders was formed, and in 1909 the Schwenkfelder Church was organized. The Schwenkfelder Church has remained small: as of 2003 there are six congregations with about 3,000 members in southeastern Pennsylvania. All of these bodies are within a fifty-mile radius of Philadelphia. The General Conference of the Schwenkfelder Church meets annually.
They teach that the Bible is the source of Christian theology, but also believe it is dead without the inner work of the Holy Spirit. They also continue his belief that the divinity of Jesus was progressive, and that the Lord's supper is a mystical spiritual partaking of the body of Christ in open communion. Adult baptism and dedication of children is practiced. Their ecclesiastical tradition is congregational and ecumenical. The Schwenkfelder churches recognize the right of the individual in decisions such as public service, armed combat, etc. Ministers are chosen by lot. In the Schwenckfeldian teaching such stress is laid on the inner, spiritual, element in religion that it results in an utter depreciation of external worship. The sacraments are retained merely in a symbolical sense. The administration of baptism to infants is discarded as useless; it is considered legitimate for adults, but unnecessary. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is denied. The sacramental words "This is My Body; this is My Blood" mean to them "My Body is this (bread); My Blood is this (wine)", i. e., as bread and wine nourish and strengthen the body, so the Body and Blood of Christ are spiritual food and drink for the soul. Two distinct natures are indeed admitted in the incarnate Christ; but the human element in Him is said to be essentially different from the nature of an ordinary man. It was derived from the very beginning from the Divine substance and was deified by the sufferings, death and Resurrection of the Saviour.