Community of the Cross
Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem
Craig D. Atwood
Community of the Cross
Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem
Craig D. Atwood
“This excellent religious history supplements earlier books that focus on the social history of early Bethlehem. A necessary purchase for collections emphasizing Colonial America, American religious history, and communitarian experiments, it will also interest those studying women and religion.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Winner of the 2005 Dale W. Brown Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies Winner of a 2004 Choice Award for an Outstanding Academic Title
Visitors to Bethlehem, such as Benjamin Franklin, remarked on the orderly and peaceful nature of life in the community, its impressive architecture, and its "high" culture. However, many non-Moravians were embarrassed or even offended by the social and devotional life of the Moravians. The adoration of the crucified Jesus, especially his wounds, was the focus of intense devotion for adults and children alike. Moravians worshiped the Holy Spirit as "Mother," and they made the mystical marriage to Christ central to their marital intimacy. Everything, even family life, was to be a form of worship.
Atwood reveals the deep connection between life in Bethlehem and the religious symbolism of controversial German theologian Nicholas von Zinzendorf, whose provocative and erotic adoration of the wounds of Jesus was an essential part of private and communal life. Using the theories of René Girard, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner, Atwood shows that it was the Moravians’ liturgy and devotion that united the community and inspired both its unique social structure and its missionary efforts.
“This excellent religious history supplements earlier books that focus on the social history of early Bethlehem. A necessary purchase for collections emphasizing Colonial America, American religious history, and communitarian experiments, it will also interest those studying women and religion.”
“Nonetheless, Atwood's study is a superb contribution to Moravian studies. For readers interested in learning about eighteenth-century Moravians, this book is the place to start.”
“Atwood’s volume provides a much needed balance to the historical account of the Moravian Church in North America with its exclusive focus on the radical theology behind the founding and organization of the congregation in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”
“Atwood’s central focus on the function of religious ritual in community formation will make Community of the Cross a welcome addition to history of religions scholarship, and his careful explication of Moravian piety will be invaluable to historians interested in Moravians for their unique role in colonial intercultural relations.”
“Consider Community of the Cross required reading for each person who calls himself or herself a ‘Moravian.’ It took Craig Atwood 10 years to complete this work. It will take you a couple of days of easy reading to fully appreciate our heritage, reflect on the past, and think about opportunities for the future.”
“Atwood’s book provides a valuable addition to our understanding of this fascinating community and of the people who built it.”
“Craig Atwood has successfully interpreted a difficult component of Moravian liturgy, shedding light on colonial Bethlehem in the process. Roman Catholic readers may well be intrigued by this Protestant group’s devotions to Christ’s wounds. Atwood’s Community of the Cross persuasively interprets the unique conclusions that the Moravians drew from this devotion.”
Craig D. Atwood is Charles D. Couch Associate Professor of Moravian Theology and Ministry and Director of the Center for Moravian Studies at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
1. The Moravians and Transatlantic German Pietism
2. Zinzendorf and the Theology of the Heart
3. The Body of Christ
6. Union with Christ
7. Living in the Side Wound of Christ
Dearest wounds of Jesus, Whoever does not love you, and does not give his whole heart to you, holds nothing dear.
Wondrous wounds of Jesus, Holy fissures, you make sinners holy, and thieves from saints. How amazing!
Powerful wounds of Jesus, So moist, so gory, bleed on my heart so that I may remain brave and like the wounds.
Mysterious wounds of Jesus, I thank the pastors, who made the bruises and gashes of my Lamb known to me.
Cavernous wounds of Jesus, In your treasure hoard, roomily sit many thousands kinds of sinners.
Purple wounds of Jesus, You are so succulent, whatever comes near becomes like wounds and flows with blood.
Juicy wounds of Jesus, Whoever sharpens the pen and with it pierces you just a little, licks and tastes it.
Warm wounds of Jesus, In no pillow can a little child feel itself so secure before cold air.
Soft wounds of Jesus, I like lying calm, gentle, and quiet and warm. What should I do? I crawl to you.
These petitions are from the Litany of the Wounds of the Husband, a German litany that arrived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on November 7, 1744. When it was read to the residents, “Everything was very bloody and heart warming,” according to the community’s diarist. Six weeks later, August Gottlieb Spangenberg, who had recently been sent from Europe to be the leader of the new community, taught the worshippers how to sing the Litany. For the next two decades this would be sung regularly in worship, in private devotions, and at funerals. Though the eighteenth-century Moravian community of Bethlehem continues to be admired, aspects of their religious life often baffle those who study them. To understand Bethlehem and the Moravians, though, we need to make sense of their unusual piety.
This book is a study of colonial Bethlehem, but it is also a book about the body: human bodies in Bethlehem, the social body of Bethlehem, and the symbolic body of Christ. It will examine the theology and piety of the Moravians in Bethlehem in order to make sense of their religious symbolism and see how it was intricately related to their unique social life. In doing so, this study will shed light on the complex relationship between religion and culture as well as give new insight into the complex world of colonial Pennsylvania.
Significance of Colonial Bethlehem
Much of the writing on American colonial history and culture, and especially on religion, tells a story of immigration from the British Isles and the influence of English-speaking Protestant churches on America. This is certainly understandable and valuable, for the dominant story is important; but there are other stories, voices, and influences that should be considered. The approximately 100,000 German speakers who came to the American colonies, especially to Pennsylvania, brought with them a different approach to Christianity and culture. Because of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” and the response of German dissenter groups, the Pennsylvania colony was the most religiously diverse and tolerant in America.
Within the story of German immigration and religious experimentation in Pennsylvania, the Moravians play a prominent but little examined role. The Moravians represent a distinct voice in the history of the Great Awakening and religion in America, for they combined early evangelical sensitivities, communal living, and gender equity with Lutheran doctrine and liturgy. The Moravian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was one of the most significant, successful, and unusual religious communities in colonial North America.
During the first twenty years of its existence, Bethlehem was a complete commune where labor and other resources were shared for the common mission of bringing the gospel to American natives and European colonists. Missionaries went out from Bethlehem to live and preach among the Delaware and other native tribes, Bethlehem’s preachers ministered to German-speaking immigrants and other colonists, and Bethlehem established schools for girls as well as boys. The communal economy facilitated this Moravian mission, but it was also an expression of Moravian religious ideals. Residents of Bethlehem attempted to live together in a foretaste of paradise while laboring for Christ. All of life was to be a form of worship, as they experienced a daily awareness of the presence of Christ and the heavenly community. Unlike many of the sectarian German groups in Pennsylvania, Bethlehem combined a Lutheran sense of liturgy and devotion with radical Pietist spirituality and communal living.
Bethlehem is also important because it was part of an international, interdenominational religious fellowship called the Brüdergemeine (Community of the Brethren). The residents of Bethlehem stayed in regular contact with their religious brothers and sisters in Germany, England, the Baltic, and the Caribbean through letters, reports, and personal visits. The Moravian story is transatlantic in many senses of the word, and this book will show how the ideas of a theologian in Europe profoundly shaped the lived existence of people in Pennsylvania.
For anyone wishing to study the Moravians, the use of names can be quite confusing. The Brüdergemeine is now known in the United States as the Moravian Church. The name “Moravian” implies a strong Czech ethnicity, but in the eighteenth century most members of the “Moravian Church” were German. Even those who came from Moravia (and Bohemia) spoke German. To complicate things further, in the eighteenth century the Brüdergemeine included Lutheran, Reformed, and Moravian groups, known as Tropoi (or Tropuses). The term “Moravian” was applied only to those members of the Brüdergemeine (from Moravia and Bohemia) who claimed membership in the Unitas Fratrum, a pre-Reformation Protestant church. It is common today in English, however, to refer to the Brüdergemeine as a whole as “Moravian.” In this book, “Moravian” will be used primarily for ethnic Moravians in the Brüdergemeine and for the residents of Bethlehem.
One reason for the strong international and interracial character of the Moravian Church was its missionary zeal. The success of the Moravians in the eighteenth century was indeed remarkable. In a thirty-year span missionaries went to North America, St. Thomas, Surinam, South Africa, the Gold Coast, Greenland, Algeria, Russia, Ceylon, Persia, Egypt, Labrador, and Jamaica. In addition to missions to non-Christian peoples, the Brüdergemeine set up less formal groups of believers within the official churches in the Baltic region, Poland, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Scandinavia. Tens of thousands were influenced through this “diaspora” ministry.
More important for my purposes, the Moravians also established several carefully regulated Christian communities (called Ortsgemeinen) in Europe and America. In these communities European nobles joined their voices with Moravian peasants, German students, English artisans, African slaves, and American natives in singing about the glories and blessings of Christ. During an era when the world was being torn apart by colonialism and absolutism, the Moravians created an international and interracial community, despite racial and class tensions within the community. Bethlehem was probably the closest approximation to an egalitarian ideal in the Moravian Church, perhaps in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.
Visitors to Bethlehem, such as Benjamin Franklin, remarked on the orderly and peaceful nature of life in the community as well as on its impressive architecture and “high” culture. Bethlehem’s missionaries and converts appear in James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, but for the most part, after the American Revolution, the Moravians receded from the larger American scene. The residents of the communities gradually adopted American values and attitudes, and by 1850 the church had given up the remnants of communal life. The Moravians who had once inspired passionate controversy in Europe and America became just another Protestant denomination.
Although Moravian archivists and historians published some material before 1960 on the history of the Moravians in America, it is really only in recent decades that Bethlehem has begun to receive the attention it deserves from critical scholars, particularly those working in the areas of colonial history, sociology, and American religious history. Many researchers have been attracted to Bethlehem because of its rich archival resources, which include thousands of short biographies of the residents and offer first- and secondhand accounts of contact with Native Americans.
Missing from this research on the early Moravians has been sustained attention to theology and piety in their social context. Like visitors to colonial Bethlehem, researchers have generally been impressed with the social and economic life of the community, but the worship and spiritual life of Bethlehem during its communal period has generally offended or embarrassed Moravian and non-Moravian researchers alike.
Bethlehem was founded as a “congregation of the cross.” The adoration of the crucified Jesus, especially his wounds, was the focus of intense devotion for both adults and children. The adoration of the blood and wounds of Christ, devotion to the Holy Spirit as mother, and other unusual aspects of eighteenth-century Moravian devotion were an integral part of their communal life, interracial mission, economic activity, and sexual practices. It was the Moravians’ liturgy and devotion that united the community and inspired both its unique social structure and its mission effort.
Theology, Piety, and Society in Bethlehem
The major figure behind Bethlehem’s piety, mission, and communal life was a Lutheran nobleman named Nikolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf. In the United States, Zinzendorf is known mainly for his role in the religious development of John Wesley and in the establishment of Protestant missions. In his own day, however, Zinzendorf was one of the most famous (and controversial) figures in Germany. He was a noted preacher, hymn writer, patron of Christian missions, advocate of religious toleration, and social critic. His hymns, litanies, sermons, and discourses presented a vision of Christian community that attracted thousands of adherents from all social classes and many different races. The literature on Zinzendorf is enormous because his activities touched so many aspects of early modern German culture. In direct and indirect ways, his work influenced such luminaries as Goethe, Schleiermacher, Herder, and Novalis. He remains, arguably, the most discussed German religious figure of the eighteenth century, in part because of his controversial piety.
Zinzendorf’s “theology of the heart” was a creative, antirationalist approach to Christianity that offered a vigorous alternative to contemporary Protestantism, which had grown rigid in its quest for doctrinal precision and moral purity. Zinzendorf focused intently on the atoning death of Jesus and made the blood and wounds of Christ the primary object of devotion for his followers. This blood mysticism was joined to the idea of the soul’s mystical marriage to Christ. All believers, men and women, were to be brides of Christ. Furthermore, Zinzendorf and his followers also worshipped the Holy Spirit as “mother.” This language of motherhood and the soul’s marriage to the crucified Jesus offended many of Zinzendorf’s contemporaries, including John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent. Despite the controversy generated by such polemics, Zinzendorf’s heart theology attracted thousands of converts during the 1730s and 1740s, the period when this piety was being developed.
Had his ideas remained in the realm of private devotion or even been simply literary expressions, the count’s writings would merit a prominent place in the history of poetry and mysticism. Unlike most poets and mystics, however, Zinzendorf gave his ideas practical expression in the life of Moravian communities such as Bethlehem. In order to make sense of transatlantic Pietism, religion in early Pennsylvania, Moravian missions to native peoples, and even the early history of Methodism, it is necessary to understand Moravian communal life and the theology of Zinzendorf together.
Although Bethlehem and the Moravians in colonial America have attracted the interest of scholars in many disciplines, Zinzendorf’s vital role in Bethlehem’s life has often been de-emphasized or even distorted. Zinzendorf and his theology have generally been seen as a negative influence on Bethlehem and the Moravian work in America. But Bethlehem was the embodiment of Zinzendorf’s vision.
As a Moravian settlement, Bethlehem was a closed society for about one hundred years. No one was allowed to live there without being accepted as part of the Moravian Church and agreeing to live according to the church’s rules. From the earliest days of Bethlehem, the leadership insisted that the community must be vigilant when admitting residents. “Our rule must remain that of keeping the door open for everyone to leave us, yet of being more cautious in admitting them.” Simply being Christian was not sufficient for living in Bethlehem. Even Moravians had to be examined before being admitted into the Bethlehem community, and the final decision on who lived and worked in Bethlehem lay with the Lord through the drawing of the lot.
The practice of drawing the lot was intended to bring the individual and the community into line with the wishes of Christ and to avoid all self-will. When there were important decisions to make, the elders would pray for guidance and then draw a slip of paper from the lot box. The paper indicated “yes,” “no,” or “wait,” and this was accepted as the will of Christ. Thus it was Christ who had the final say on who could live and lead in Bethlehem. For this reason the Moravians often referred to their system as a “theocracy.”
The most unique feature of the Moravian communities was the “choir system.” This will be discussed in detail in a separate chapter, but a few words may be helpful here. “Choir” referred not to a singing group but to social groups within a community. The entire Moravian community was divided into close-knit groups according to age, sex, and marital status. The precise structure of the choirs varied from settlement to settlement, but all of the Moravian communities implemented some variation of this system. As we shall see, Bethlehem’s choir system was the most developed in the Moravian world. Its choirs covered every stage of life, from conception to burial.
In order to gain a picture of the choir system, let us briefly trace the choirs that a typical Moravian female would progress through during her life. She would begin life in the Infants’ Choir, and at about age five or six she would be received into the Little Girls’ Choir. At the onset of puberty she would be transferred into the Older Girls’ Choir, and when she turned seventeen (usually) she would be received into the Single Sisters’ Choir, which was sometimes called the Maidens’ Choir. This meant that she was at an age appropriate for marriage. If she chose to marry, then she immediately became part of the Married Choir. If her husband died, she joined the Widows’ Choir. There were corresponding male choirs, and men served their apprenticeship in the Single Brothers’ Choir. This scheme was altered from time to time and from place to place. Sometimes the older and the younger girls, or the older girls and the single women, would be combined into one choir.
Sociologists and social historians have been attracted to Bethlehem because of its unique social structure and economic system, and they have uncovered much about how Bethlehem functioned. But the heart and soul of the community was its religious life. This book will attempt to adjust our understanding of Bethlehem by examining the deep connection between life in Bethlehem and the religious symbolism of Zinzendorf. This will be an exercise in both historical theology and cultural history because it will examine the nexus between theology, religious experience, and social praxis. In doing so, it will focus attention on those aspects of Bethlehem’s life that have most confused or offended outsiders (including modern scholars) but that were central to the residents of Bethlehem, namely, their liturgy and ritual.
It is in their adoration of the wounds of Jesus and their longing for mystical marriage with the Savior that the colonial Moravians appear most alien to us, and yet it was this piety that most clearly defined them and their mission. By examining this exotic and even disturbing devotion, we can come closer to unraveling the mystery of the Moravians and their mission. In many ways, this will be a study of ritual and how it shapes life. Clifford Geertz’s comment that “in a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turn out to be the same world” describes life in colonial Bethlehem.
After placing Bethlehem in the context of the eighteenth century, especially the complex and fluid Pietist movement that affected Germany, England, and America, I explore the heart religion of Zinzendorf and show how such controversial themes as the motherhood of the Holy Spirit, the mystical marriage of the soul with Christ, the full humanity of Christ, and the blood-and-wounds theology form an organic theology. Then I will show how this theology was communicated to the residents of Bethlehem through sermons, hymns, litanies, and rituals. Bethlehem tried to be a town where “the life, sufferings, and death” of the Savior were a present reality that gave meaning to the most mundane aspects of life. Employment, education, family life, and even marriage and sexuality were all understood in the light of the incarnation of the Creator in the form of the Savior. The social system, rituals, and theology of Bethlehem were so intricately joined that it would be hard to conceive of them as existing separately.
This study concentrates on the theology that Zinzendorf communicated, not his private reflections. It examines Zinzendorf’s printed works produced in the period 1738-56, the time of the greatest expansion of the Brüdergemeine, the establishment and development of the community of Bethlehem, and the period when Zinzendorf was forced to defend his thoughts. Interestingly enough, it does not matter to this study whether his sermons were preached in America or Europe. There were very few Moravians in America when Zinzendorf made his famous visit to Pennsylvania (late 1741-early 1743); therefore his Pennsylvania sermons had little direct impact on the community of Bethlehem. It was the sermons preached in the European communities that would have been heard by the early emigrants to Bethlehem, since the majority of them had lived in one of the Moravian communities in Europe. Moreover, his printed sermons and discourses were widely distributed to all of the Moravian communities and were frequently read in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is one of the most carefully documented communities in colonial North America. In fact, the sheer wealth of manuscript materials makes historical study more, rather than less, difficult, as it is impossible for any one person to read all, or even a significant portion, of the boxes of handwritten German papers. Past studies have focused on such official documents as the economic ledgers, synod results, membership reports, and minutes of the administrative committees. In recent years, scholars such as Katherine Faull and Beverly Smaby have made good use of the funeral biographies (Lebensläufe) as windows into the community’s norms and individuals’ experience.
This book examines a neglected body of material, especially the community’s litanies and hymns. Because of a bias toward the preached word and systematic theology in Protestantism, scholars of American religion tend to study formal theological discourse even when discussing popular religion; but it was the liturgical practice that was formative for many communities in America. Zinzendorf and his followers placed heavy emphasis on hymns as theological expressions, and the hymnbooks used in Bethlehem during the communal period are valuable sources for determining the use of Zinzendorfian themes and motifs.
Even more important than the hymns are the church’s litanies, for they were explicitly intended to express the communal faith and theology. Special attention will be given to the Litany of the Wounds of the Husband as a powerful statement of the core of Zinzendorf’s theology. Rather than simply condemning the Litany of the Wounds, as many previous writers have done, I attempt to understand why such devotional materials were so important in Bethlehem. Moreover, the rituals themselves, their scheduling, and descriptions of their effect on the community will be analyzed.
One of the most important sources for this study is the Bethlehem Diary, which records the events of communal life along with personal interpretation and description. It was kept by a variety of diarists over the years, and its character changes according to the diarist. It also includes excerpts from the diaries of the various subgroups within Bethlehem, such as the Single Sisters’ Choir. The subjective aspect of the Diary, which has steered sociologists and historians away from it as an unreliable source, makes it particularly useful for our purposes. Within the Diary are notices of weddings, baptisms, and funerals, including the funeral biographies that Smaby examined. Such sources help demonstrate whether Zinzendorf’s theology went to the heart of the individuals in the community at moments of existential crisis.
The Question of the Sifting Time
Much of this study involves material and themes commonly associated with an obscure period of Moravian history known as the Sichtungszeit, or Sifting Time, and thus it is necessary to address this issue before proceeding. The term itself comes from Luke 22:31 (“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat”), which refers to being tested. In Moravian historiography, the Sifting Time was a period of fanatical excess originating in the Herrnhaag community in Germany in the 1740s. At that time, the Brüdergemeine faced the real possibility that it would become a fanatical sect or what some today might call a “cult.” In 1749 Zinzendorf was made aware of the situation in Herrnhaag and issued a long letter of reprimand. He also removed his son Christian Renatus from his office as head of the Single Men’s choir. A special synod was called to deal with the problems in Herrnhaag and the resulting negative publicity. Hymnals, litany books, and many collections of Zinzendorf’s sermons were edited and reissued.
These facts are well established, but the Sifting Time has been granted an almost mythic status in Moravian history as a time of great danger that the Moravians survived and emerged from stronger. Nearly every history of the Moravians (even those covering earlier and later periods) has used the Sifting Time as a way to make sense of Zinzendorf and his movement, but I believe that we need to reconsider the idea of the Sifting Time itself. For two centuries it has been used, consciously and unconsciously, to marginalize central features of Zinzendorf’s theology and Moravian piety in the eighteenth century rather than to make sense of them.
The traditional interpretation of the 1740s is that Zinzendorf let his theological imagination roam too far. Like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun, with catastrophic results. His provocative (and to most interpreters, erroneous) ideas led to fanaticism, but the count quickly returned to more or less traditional theology and the community repudiated his theological experiments. Through frequent repetition, this interpretation is often accepted as a fact, and the Sifting Time is seen as the watershed in Moravian history.
It is also assumed that key figures in the history of Bethlehem, such as August Gottlieb Spangenberg and Peter Böhler, who opposed the troubling activities in Herrnhaag, must have been opposed to Zinzendorf and his evocative theological style as well. The American historian Jacob John Sessler is a notable exemplar of this tendency to separate the count from his close associates; as Sessler puts it, “in these years under discussion, men like Spangenberg and Peter Böhler took exception to Zinzendorfianism.”
There are many flaws in this traditional view of the 1740s, but we need to address the question of why the standard interpretation has taken such firm hold on Moravian historiography. The simple answer is that the idea of the Sifting Time has served a convenient apologetical purpose. Whatever historians, sociologists, church leaders, or theologians have considered bizarre or unorthodox about the eighteenth-century Moravians has been identified as part of the Sifting Time and thus dismissed. We see this most clearly in English-language scholarship, but this apologetic approach has also affected German scholars, who have used the Sifting Time to separate the “real” Zinzendorf from his writings of the 1740s, which provided so much fuel for polemical attacks.
The desire to distance Zinzendorf from his own writings was strengthened when Oskar Pfister, a Freudian psychologist, argued that the period described as the Sifting Time was Zinzendorf’s “eruption period.” For Pfister, the works of the 1740s were indeed the "real" Zinzendorf, a really unbalanced Zinzendorf. It was natural that pro-Zinzendorf scholars would want to distance the count from writings that may support the charge of deep-seated sadomasochistic tendencies in Zinzendorf. Gerhard Reichel answered Pfister’s charge that Zinzendorf was psychologically unbalanced by demonstrating the close affinity between the expressions of the 1740s and seventeenth-century Lutheran hymnody.
Reichel’s approach has much to commend it, but Reichel himself was so influenced by the traditional model of the Sifting Time that he actually argued at cross-purposes. On the one hand, he rightly showed that in the 1740s Zinzendorf was drawing upon a long tradition of German piety, but on the other hand he asserted that this period was a brief aberration from which Zinzendorf quickly recovered. So, for Reichel, while the piety of the 1740s was not pathological, it was mercifully transitory. Reichel asserts that the count quickly turned away from “blood-and-wounds theology” and returned to more acceptable modes of expression.
Likewise, although Wilhelm Bettermann argued that the expressions of the 1740s are part of Zinzendorf’s wider theological understanding, he still maintained that this was a brief phase in Zinzendorf’s thought rather than a significant development. This view is changing somewhat in modern Zinzendorf scholarship. While Peter Zimmerling uses the traditional language of a Sifting Time, he is careful to point out that Zinzendorf continued to use some of his most creative and controversial motifs, such as the family idea of the Trinity, long after the end of the Sifting.
In England and America, the Sifting Time has been used to separate the Moravian Church from Zinzendorf’s theology itself. Zinzendorf is generally blamed for the Sifting Time, while the Moravian immigrants are given credit for restoring the church to its original discipline and order. The Sifting, we are told in the church’s official history, ended when the Moravians reasserted themselves, abandoned Zinzendorfian excess, and restored proper biblical theology. “The Brethren soon found their way back to sober language and scriptural forms of thought. Few churches have passed through experiences so searching without suffering permanent harm. . . . The discipline so characteristic of the refugees of 1722 to 1727 was revived. The unhappy features of the time of Sifting disappeared; the hymnals and liturgies which had been instrumental in promoting them were suppressed.”
The use of the term “Sifting Time” to demonstrate that the Moravian Church was not really the fanatical sect portrayed in mid-century polemics appears already in Moravian apologetical literature in the 1760s and 1770s. Everything controversial about the church supposedly ended around 1750. Thus August Gottlieb Spangenberg dismissed completely the provocative Twelfth Appendix (Anhang XII) of the Herrnhut songbook as unworthy of mention since it was recalled by the church after 1749. What Spangenberg does not say is that all of the litanies and most of the hymns of Anhang XII continued to be republished with only minor revisions and were used for decades after 1750.
This misunderstanding of the Sifting Time has of course been increased by the intentional destruction of documents by church officials in the eighteenth century and later. Scholars have been too quick to assume that references to the “juicy and tasty” wounds in the surviving sources represent the Sifting Time. On the contrary, it is what was removed that represented the Sifting Time, not what was left in the records. Historians, however, have used the silence in the sources to create a Sifting Time that may or may not be accurate. It is easy to be misled by Zinzendorf’s instruction that “the teaching of the little side-hole is already too old and belongs back in the sacristy until another time, so that no nonsense will be made of it” as an effective prohibition of blood-and-wounds theology. Even within his letter of reprimand, though, Zinzendorf affirmed the importance of wounds theology for the community.
Hermann Plitt in many ways set the tone for the modern understanding of Zinzendorf. His dating of the Sifting Time to 1743-50 has been the norm in Moravian scholarship. Peter Zimmerling, for instance, in his recent presentation of Zinzendorf’s Trinitarian theology, follows Plitt’s outline of Zinzendorf’s career. Recently, though, some have argued that the so-called Sifting Time really lasted from 1738 to 1753 or later, as expressions commonly associated with the Sifting Time occur both before and after 1743-50. Gary Kinkel, for instance, chose 1738 as the beginning of the Sifting Time because by that date “certain ideas and manners of expression characteristic of the Sichtungszeit had begun to appear.” As we shall see, it is more accurate to say that the expressions of 1738 and even 1744 are not uniquely characteristic of the Sifting Time but were part of a persistent and comprehensive Zinzendorfian piety.
The wide disparity in dates demonstrates that the concept of a Sifting Time is problematic. If the broader date is accurate, then the Sifting Time spanned a quarter of Zinzendorf’s life and half of his literary career. Moravians who experienced the Sifting in Herrnhaag, in contrast, describe it as a painful episode in the history of Herrnhaag during 1748-49. The idea of “a brief, terrible time” of temptation and trial loses all meaning if it extends through more than one-third of Zinzendorf’s career and almost all of his published works. Paul Peucker, while serving as archivist in Herrnhut, argued convincingly that the Sifting Time originally referred only to 1748-49 in Herrnhaag.
One problem with the broader dating of the Sifting Time is that the 1740s was the period of Zinzendorf’s greatest literary output, in terms of both sermons and liturgical materials. The majority of Zinzendorf’s important works were published during the supposed Sifting Time. Thus there has been a tendency to dismiss works such as Vier und Drei‚ig homilien über the Wunden-Litaney (Thirty-four Homilies on the Litany of the Wounds) as nothing more than Sifting Time nonsense rather than expressions of Zinzendorf’s mature theology. We must keep in mind, though, that these were the works that Zinzendorf and the community chose to publish for the public arena. The hymns, litanies, and sermons of Zinzendorf from the 1740s continued to be used throughout the Brüdergemeine until the 1780s and 1790s. If the standard interpretation of the Sifting Time is accurate, then what do we do with Zinzendorf’s major works? Are they expressions of the “real” Zinzendorf or not?
The use of the Sifting Time in Anglo-American scholarship is more problematic than it is in German scholarship. The most influential figure in interpreting eighteenth-century Moravian history is J. E. Hutton, a Victorian-era Moravian historian whose 1909 History of the Moravian Church helped define Moravian historiography. For Hutton the Sifting Time was the direct result of Zinzendorf’s antirational theology and his devotion to the wounds of Christ. “As long as Zinzendorf used his own mental powers, he was able to make his ‘Blood and Wounds Theology’ a power for good; but as soon as he bade good-bye to his intellect he made his doctrine a laughing-stock and a scandal. Instead of concentrating his attention on the moral and spiritual value of the cross, he now began to lay all the stress on the mere physical details. He composed a ‘Litany of the Wounds’; and the Brethren could now talk and sing of nothing else.” For Hutton, the Litany of the Wounds was itself evidence that Zinzendorf and his weaker followers quite literally lost their minds. It might be more accurate to say that it is evidence that Zinzendorf was not the Victorian moralist that Hutton thought all good Christians should be.
This view of the Sifting as a time of general and unrestrained childishness has asserted great influence and continues to serve political and ecclesiastical purposes. However, as we shall see in more detail, the evidence contradicts this widely accepted theory. In their efforts to invent a Moravian Church and a Bethlehem unaffected by Zinzendorf’s more creative ideas, or to invent a Zinzendorf similarly unaffected by his own ideas, scholars have in fact distorted rather than illuminated our understanding of the entire Zinzendorfian era and the evolution of Moravian theology and piety. This situation is changing in contemporary scholarship on the Moravians. Thanks to the work of Paul Peucker, Peter Vogt, Katherine Faull, Hans-Walter Erbe, and Aaron Fogleman, a more precise understanding of the Sifting Time is emerging.
One advantage of the traditional interpretation of the Sifting Time is that it provides a neat explanation for the dissolution of Herrnhaag, the center of the Sifting. Herrnhaag was the most beautiful and the most important Moravian community in the 1740s. Most of the men and women who led the Brüdergemeine for nearly half a century spent some time living at Herrnhaag. It was the gem of the Moravian world, but in 1749 the secular authority, Count Casimir of Ysenburg-Büdingen, forced the residents to leave. There were indeed problems in Herrnhaag among the Single Brothers, as the Moravian leadership noted, but it is not clear that this was the direct cause of the dissolution of Herrnhaag.
The reason for the expulsion, in brief, was that the old count (famous for his policy of religious toleration) died in 1749. He had been a supporter of Zinzendorf, but his son and successor, Casimir, was not. Casimir himself was closely connected to the Danish court. The fiasco of the awarding and rescinding of the Danebrog in the early 1730s had embittered many in the Danish court against Zinzendorf. Moreover, the hostility of Halle toward Zinzendorf was well established by 1741. In other words, the seeds of the destruction of Herrnhaag were sown in the early 1730s, long before the Sifting Time.
When Casimir came into his own as feudal lord, he ordered the residents on his estate to swear allegiance to him alone. In addition, the residents of Herrnhaag had to verbally repudiate Count Zinzendorf or face banishment. Casimir was shocked when the Herrnhaagers elected to vacate their buildings rather than show disloyalty to Zinzendorf. More than a thousand residents of Herrnhaag were forced to leave. Some two hundred migrated to Bethlehem at a crippling financial cost. The Herrnhaag disaster was a major reason for the financial crisis of the 1750s in Bethlehem and the wider Brüdergemeine. While stories about the activities of the Single Brothers in Herrnhaag may have contributed to the expulsion decree, dynastic, political, and aristocratic rivalry played a great role.
In Moravian historiography, though, the dissolution of Herrnhaag served as a morality tale. Beware of embracing Zinzendorf’s radical ideas or you will end up like Herrnhaag. In short, Herrnhaag has been treated like a Moravian Sodom that was destroyed because of its heresy, but the Sifting in Herrnhaag had little to do with the main themes of Zinzendorf’s theology and the life of the Moravians in Bethlehem: the blood and wounds of Christ. This book will demonstrate the persistence of evocative blood-and-wounds theology long after the Sifting Time and the dissolution of Herrnhaag.
It is recorded in the Bethlehem Diary, for instance, that at a communion service the “corpse bees enjoyed the sacrament.” At another service, “After those who are sick had also received their portion of the body, Br. Nathanael [Seidel] sang the corpse-bees completely to sleep with the late Christel’s corpse liturgies for a blessed rest in His grave!” Based on the standard periodization of Moravian history, we would date these entries to the Sifting Time, but in fact they come from the late 1750s, when the Sifting Time was over and Spangenberg was fully in control in Bethlehem.
How do we explain the persistence of such language years after the so-called Sifting Time? The simplest explanation is that these references to the “corpse bees” were connected to a deeply felt Zinzendorfian piety that was shared by Spangenberg and the Bethlehem community, rather than an aberrant form of Moravian piety. It is certainly true that Spangenberg did not use such expressions in his later apologetical works, but they appear when he was the "Vicar General of the Ordinary in America" in the decade following the Sifting Time. The examples can be multiplied.
Moreover, there is little evidence that there was a general time of Sifting that affected the entire church. To the contrary, this was the period when the Moravians were examined by governmental officials in Saxony, Prussia, and England and consistently found praiseworthy, despite the diligent work of their enemies. In 1749, when the Sifting Time was supposedly raging out of Zinzendorf’s control, the English Parliament carefully studied the history and theology of the Moravians and concluded that the Moravian Church was an “antient [sic] and episcopal Protestant Church.” It is hard to reconcile these high-water marks of legitimation with a period of raging fanaticism.
The actual history of the Litany of the Wounds also challenges the traditional interpretation that this litany was part of the Sifting. Historians have allowed the theory to determine the evidence. Once it has been accepted that the Litany of the Wounds is a piece of Sifting Time nonsense, one tends not to notice its continued use long after 1750. The confusion over the Litany of the Wounds is understandable, as the name of the litany was changed to something that appears on the surface to be more traditional. In 1752 the old Litany of the Wounds was divided into The Litany of the Life, Sufferings, and Death of the Jesus and Hymns of the Wounds. In this form, most of the old Litany of the Wounds, including the infamous petitions to the wounds of Christ (“so moist, so gory”) remained in publication in German and English Moravian hymnals to the end of the eighteenthth century, half a century after the Sifting Time.
Colin Podmore, in his study of the Moravians in England, recognized that it was precisely those aspects of Moravian devotion that historians have often dismissed as pathological or nonsensical that attracted many English evangelicals, such as John Cennick and Jacob Rogers, to the Moravian fold. The church never recovered the dynamism it had possessed during the 1740s, when Zinzendorf was most creative and the church most controversial. Part of the reason for the stagnation after 1750 was the debt crisis and Halle’s persistent opposition to the Moravians, but another factor is that the Moravians became more conventional after mid-century. This was true of the church in general, but particularly of Bethlehem. As long as the Moravians in Bethlehem embraced the theology and liturgy of Zinzendorf, their community thrived.
Bethlehem needed the paradoxical imagery of the wounded Savior-God in order to deal with the contradictions of living in heaven on earth. This is where the real strength of Zinzendorf’s theology manifested itself. Blood-and-wounds theology, with all of its graphic descriptions of the torture and abuse of Jesus and its eroticizing of his wounds, served to help the residents of Bethlehem sublimate community-destroying impulses. Christ became their scapegoat, not just theologically but sociologically and psychologically as well. Through evocative and provocative imagery, Zinzendorf painted the Savior before their eyes as they worshipped, worked, and slept. He offered the Moravians a God who shared their struggles and bore on his own body the strains and contradictions of their communal life, so that they could live in harmony.
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