My Ongoing Sojourn with those Radical Moravians

1 1747 Johann Valentin Hadit. The original Erstlingsbild“ in Zeist, Netherlands

Haidt’s 1747 Erstlingsbuild (“First Fruits”) famously depicts the global reach of Moravians. Representatives from many nations come to worship Jesus Christ (who just happens to look a lot like Zinzendorf!)

Even though Moravians comprise part of the tagline of this blog, they haven’t received much attention recently! I hope to remedy that a bit through this week’s post. I have been sojourning with the Moravians for over a decade now. This is not say that I’m a card-carrying member of a Moravian congregation, though I could be quite content worshiping with the Moravians, I’m sure. Rather, my sojourn has been an academic journey and one that I have come to deeply cherish. The circle of Moravian students of history, public history professionals, and theologian/historian types has been a wonderful bunch of folks and I owe a lot to them. This fall, many of these folks will gather in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for a conference on Moravian history and music held every two years. If this post piques your interest, consider joining us in October!

Moravians were known as such (at least in North America) because a large part of their original core of zinzendorf_nlpeople were from Moravia. Comprised partly  of Czech Brethren (Hussites) and harassed by Catholic authorities, some migrated north into Saxony. There they found refuge on the estate of Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran with Pietist sensibilities. He provided money, leadership, and a new vision. After building a settlement (Herrnhut) and overcoming their differences, the “Brüdergemeine” was born. Herrnhut became a vibrant Pietist center and the Brüdergemeine/Moravians spread out across the globe planting mission stations and expanding their numbers. The reference to Moravians as religious “radicals” comes from the Moravians’ controversial eighteenth-century reputation.

I stumbled onto Moravian territory early in my graduate school career as I was thinking about a dissertation topic. I had settled on writing something about religion in early America and Pennsylvania specifically, which is where I grew up. At the time, I was reading a lot of synod records from German Reformed churches in Pennsylvania as part of a paper I wrote for a graduate seminar on Calvin’s Geneva with Ray Mentzer, an expert on Reformed consistories. For leaders of these churches in Pennsylvania, where authority structure and old-world hierarchies were inadequate for keeping order, the Moravians seemed to be a persistent irritant in the 1740s. Moravians kept infiltrating Reformed churches, drew their members away, and disseminated corrupt theology — at least according to the perspective of Calvinist hard-liners like John Philip Boehm. With all due respect to my reformed friends, it didn’t take me long to realize that the Moravians were a much more interesting group than the German Reformed. Its also important to say that I was working directly with T. Dwight Bozeman, who had a serious interest in outsider groups. He is known for his work in Puritan studies but taught courses that included everything from white supremacists to Shakers and lots in between. He helped me see that outsider groups could and should be taken seriously as a field of study. A dissertation on the Moravians seemed like a perfect fit.

So I called the Moravian Archives (northern province) cold turkey. I talked with Paul Peucker, who I later learned had really just begun his tenure as archivist in Bethlehem at the time, but had spent years as archivist a the Unity Archives in Germany. Paul is an amazing scholar and has taken the archives at Bethlehem to a whole new level in the years since my first phone call to him. I spent several weeks the following summer living with my in-laws and sifting through the archives — mostly being overwhelmed. The holdings are extensive and I quickly realized I would only be able to skim the surface. I filled my hard drive with so many digital photos of documents that I still have yet to study them all. Most researchers can relate to this. I was overwhelmed with the nature of the documents — Letters from Benjamin Franklin and George Washington; correspondence from George Whitfield and colonial officials, hand-written copies of declarations of royal proclamations, colonial legislation, journals recounting revolutionary battles and the British occupation of New York, Original land surveys and maps, and on an on it went. I remember thinking that Paul must have made a mistake in thinking I was qualified to handle such heady materials! Then there is the German script. Yep, many of these materials are notoriously difficult to read. I wish I was a polyglot like some of my academic friends, but I have come to admit the fact that I am not going to be one. Though I can muddle through the German when I’m forced to, I’m glad there are plenty of English language Moravian sources to keep me busy.

I came to discover that 18th century Moravians were even crazier than I had imagined.They developed unique communal living arrangements, imbued marital sexual intercourse with sacred value, intentionally blurred confessional boundaries, empowered women to lead, and routinely sparked heated and sometimes violent eruptions from their enemies. While I was working on my dissertation, Aaron Foglemann came out with a book about the Moravians with the provocative title, Jesus is Female. In it, he focused on why Moravian spirituality and expansion caused so much opposition.

Kate Carté Engel finished up her book, Religion and Profit, as did Craig Atwood who published a new history of the Czech Brethren (forerunners of the Moravians), and Rachel Wheeler, who published To Live Upon Hope. Lots of edited volumes have focused on the Moravians and other Pietists. Journal articles also keep the research humming. The Moravian archives in Bethlehem established the Journal of Moravian History as well as the biannual conference on Moravian history and music mentioned above. More recently, Paul Peucker, Katherine Faull, Scott Paul Gordon have contributed volumes to a new series published by Penn State University Press on Moravian, Pietist, and Anabaptist studies. In short, it seems like Moravian scholarship has been experiencing a renaissance for some time now.

My own work has focused on the relationship between Moravians and the Great Awakening in North America. Besides many visits to Bethlehem, I’ve had the chance to visit Moravian archives in Herrnhut as well as in Winston-Salem. More recently, I have focused on Moravian interaction with American evangelicals — especially how they transcended their radical reputation. I hope to share more about this in future posts as I try to drum up interest in what I hope may be a future book. (Though its proving to be a much more daunting task than I anticipated!) I look forward to another ten years with this radical bunch.



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