“Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-Correspondents will please note: There is no such post office as Bryn Athyn. Letters so addressed will be apt to go to the Dead Letter Office at Washington. It is now the name of the nearest railroad station, however (formerly ‘Alnwick Grove’), and when the community has largely increased we may hope for greater postal and other conveniences. But of the future no man knoweth” (“Church News: Reports and Letters,” New Church Life 1899, 159).
When this notice appeared in New Church Life in 1899, the name “Bryn Athyn” had recently been chosen for the fledgling New Church community in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The intended meaning of the name was “hill of unity”—”Bryn” being the Welsh word for “hill,” and “Athyn” meaning “cohesion” (or so the community members believed). Today, however, if you look in The University of Wales Dictionary, said to be the most comprehensive and extensive dictionary of the Welsh language, you will find the word “Bryn,” but not the word “Athyn.”
It all began in 1898, when a “Village Association” was formed to take care of the wide variety of civil affairs facing the developing New Church community. During the previous decade, hundreds of acres of farmland had been purchased by John and Gertrude Pitcairn for the purpose of founding a New Church community and school, and the new settlement needed infrastructure. It also needed a name, and on September 10, 1898, a special meeting of the Village Association was called to discuss this matter. A formal name was considered to be the first step in securing a railroad station, a telegraph office, and eventually a post office.
The process was a slow one. The search for a name went on for more than a year, with many different suggestions proposed, including “Bonnnie Brae,” “Collyn,” “Gwynmont,” “Hillcrest,” “Manoli,” “Ridgemont,” “Rothlyn,” and even “Swedenborg.” One name, “Hillbrook,” was formally chosen in May of 1899, but when it failed to receive sufficient community support it was abandoned. Finally, on September 25, 1899, “Bryn Athyn” was chosen by the Village Association by a vote of 6 to 3 (Village Association Minutes, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA).
Bryn Athyn was first suggested as a possible name during an Association meeting on February 18, 1899. It was proposed by Bishop William F. Pendleton, who used An English Welsh Pronouncing Dictionary, published by William Spurrell, to look up the two Welsh words. The dictionary was purchased for him by Samuel Henry Hicks, a member of the Association who had been born in Wales and brought to the United States as an infant (see New Church Life, 1910, 51). The actual dictionary has been preserved in the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA. Bound together with the book is a typewritten note explaining the dictionary’s significance. Pencil marks are apparent beside the entries for “Bryn” and “Athyn” (see photos), with the entry for “Athyn” reading as follows: “Athyn a[djective], very tenacious; cohesive.”
William Spurrell, the publisher of the Welsh dictionary, believed “Athyn” to be a legitimate Welsh word. However, Athyn is now considered to be a neologism (a newly-created word), and we must go further back than Spurrell to discover its origin. The man who invented the word “Athyn” was William Owen Pughe, the author of A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, first published in 1803. Pughe, a Welsh lexicographer and grammarian, “was unable to resist the charms of the mythologists . . . so consuming was the fire of his passion for things Welsh, and he was sure that if one analysed Welsh it would yield the secrets of mankind’s primeval language. Further, if one dissected or dismantled Welsh words one could then reconstruct the language on rational lines, and extend its scope and use infinitely” (Morgan, Prys. “From a Death to a View: The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period.” In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger eds. Cambridge University Press: 73). So it seems that William Pughe “reconstructed” the word “Athyn,” and Spurrell incorporated this word and other examples of Pughe’s neologisms into his own dictionary, a copy of which was used by the founders of Bryn Athyn in the naming of their new community.
In Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll writes, “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean; neither more nor less.” Perhaps it is in this spirit that we should regard the question of the meaning of “Bryn Athyn.” All matters of Welsh lexicography aside, the men who named Bryn Athyn intended the words to mean “hill of unity”—neither more nor less.
The editors of NewChurchHistory.org would like to thank the Rev. Stephen Cole for suggesting this New Church History Fun Fact, and for providing his own personal research materials for our use.
Photos: The photograph of Bryn Athyn Station (formerly Alnwick Grove Station) was taken by Camille Vinet, and is in the collection of the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA. In 1902 a new building was constructed directly across the tracks from the former station to serve as a combined train station and post office. The building in the photograph is now a private residence. The Welsh dictionary pictured in the photographs is the one used by William F. Pendleton. It is stored in the rare book vault of the Swedenborg Library.
Klein, Eldric. “The Village Community Gets a Name.” In Bryn Athyn: from these beginnings. 50th anniversary of the incorporation of the borough of Bryn Athyn, 1916-1966: 5-11
Pearce, Ruth L. “Welsh Place-Names in Southeastern Pennsylvania.” Names, vol. 11, No. I (March 1963)
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