Anna Nitschmann in America

Anna Nitschmann in America

Katherine Faull, Bucknell University

Visiting Scholar, Centre for Moravian Studies, Spring 2017

Thank you for the invitation to talk about one of the best and least known figures in Moravian history, Anna Nitschmann. She and her father were among the founders of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 275 years ago. However, although her position as a leader among women in the Moravian Church of the 18th century is often cited, little has actually been written about her that is based on archival sources in her own hand. Scholar after scholar who has attempted to write her biography has come up against two major problems when working on Anna Nitschmann.

One is what we might call, the “Anna Nitschmann legend” according to which, even during her lifetime, she became the paradigmatic Single Sister, elevated through poetry, song, verse, and art to an icon. The other problem is the almost complete lack of a scholarly biography of her, due not least to the deliberate purging of her personal correspondence, diaries, and papers after her death in 1760.

Thus, when scholars have undertaken to write about her, they have relied heavily on Anna’s own memoir, written in 1737 when she was 22 and which ends therefore before her emigration out of Saxony with the Zinzendorf entourage and, importantly for this talk, before her departure for America. Furthermore, this precious memoir (Lebenslauf) did not appear in print in German until 84 years after her death (and then in extracts) and the only translation into English is 139 years old, appearing in the Messenger in 1878, again in abstracts.

Why is a new look at Anna Nitschmann important? In my work on Moravian Women’s Lives for the last 20 years or more, the figure and name of Anna Nitschmann have come up again and again. As a role model, as a leader, as a pioneering female missionary to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania and New York, as the composer of hymns, as a woman who not only valued the agency of women but who worked with single women throughout most of her life to ensure that they saw their own strength and salvific value to the redemption of the world. In my volume of Moravian women’s memoirs, Anna Nitschmann’s name comes up repeatedly in the memoirs of other women: whether Anna Johanna Piesch Seidel with whom she worked closely on the formation and guidance of the Single Sisters Choirs; or Margarethe Jungmann, née Bechtel, whom she met in Philadelphia and with whom she and Benigna Zinzendorf founded the Girls school that would later become Moravian College; or in conjunction with Anna Rosel Anders, another one the leaders of the Single Sisters Choir. She worked in close conjunction with brothers and sisters and, I would argue, moved easily in and out of mixed groups in terms of gender and race. She was an intrepid explorer, a gifted poet, an inspirational leader. But so little is written about her!

This semester, as Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Moravian Studies, I have been working in archives and libraries to research Anna Nitschmann and to bring in the lives of other Moravian women of the 18th century (such as Benigna v. Zinzendorf, Eva Spangenberg, Anna Johanna Piesch) to try to build up a full picture of this remarkable woman. Indeed, my research so far has taken me to the archives in Herrnhut, London, and here in Bethlehem, where I have begun to piece together textual evidence of Anna Nitschmann’s life. I have found letters embedded within other letters, accounts of her travels attached to others’ accounts; I have found that even her autobiography has been neglected as an important source document that tells not only what happened in her life to the age of 22 but also looks at how she chose to describe that life in the context of the larger generic conventions of the Moravian memoir. I have gone through uncatalogued packages of papers in the London archives that revealed, quite by surprise, that someone else wanted to write a biography of her in the 19th century to celebrate the Single Sisters Festival. And that ministers in small British Moravian congregations are remarkably helpful when they discover what I am trying to do.

So, despite the ravages of post-Zinzendorfian archival culling and the 1940s London Blitz there is hope!


Respected scholars have seen in Anna Nitschmann a figure that deconstructs the traditional notion of women’s agency in the 18th century. Not a passive heroine, who allows things to happen to her, Anna is a doer, truly a mover and shaker, which is probably why her papers were all destroyed. At a time when to be a single woman in society meant either destitution, servitude, or cloistering, Anna Nitschmann refused marriage multiple times so that she could follow what she felt called to do; namely, provide spiritual guidance to women, especially young women. And her efficacy in this calling can be measured by, as Beverly Smaby has pointed out, the success of the Single Sisters Choir in the mission congregations, especially here in Bethlehem. Originally there was not supposed to be a large Single Sisters Choir here, as the Sisters who came from Europe were to be married in order to work in the mission field. However, Anna’s success in attracting single women from the colonies meant that there had to be Single SIsters Choir here.

What was Anna’s relationship to the much-lauded founding woman of Moravian College?

In 1734, Anna Nitschmann became the companion to Benigna von Zinzendorf, 10 years her junior (1725-1789) and thereby became even closer to the Zinzendorf family. In her memoir she writes that this was a difficult move for her, as she had to leave the solitude of her little room “Stübchen” and join the company of the nobility. The following year, marriage was proposed for her with Leonhard Dober, but because of a mutual reluctance, these plans were abandoned.

In a desire to educate herself further within the concepts and history of Pietism and mysticism, Anna befriended Steinhofer and Oetinger, Württemberg pietists who were visiting Herrnhut at that time, and began her study of Mme de Guyon and St. Theresa of Avila (JUNG 1998). By her own account, these readings tempted her to follow the contemplative life, but Zinzendorf called her instead to a life of action.

Early on, the leaders of the Moravian church recognized Anna’s abilities as a potential leader in the nascent mission field of North America. In 1740, both Zinzendorf and August Spangenberg decided that Anna (at age 25) should accompany her father to the American colonies to work among the German-speaking people there. Both men considered Anna’s gender to be a decisive factor in their choice, in that it would allow her to better speak with the “haughty and independent” colonists (FRIES 1924). So, in July 1740, Anna wrote her farewell letter to the Gemeine, in anticipation that she would never return.

In fact, Anna Nitschmann’s time in North America solidified her reputation as one of Pietism’s most important women leaders. (Here she is speaking to a group of Quakers before her departure from London to Philadelphia) Anna Nitschmann left for America with David Nitschmann Episc., her father, David Nitschmann Sr, Christian Fröhlich, and Johanna Molther in late summer 1740. After an arduous journey, they arrived in Philadelphia on December 15, 1740, and traveled immediately to the Moravians’ newly purchased lands in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

Many of the other German sects settled in the province, such as the Brethren at Ephrata Cloister, had heard of their arrival and subsequently came to visit with them. Anna’s “plan” was to work with these disparate groups, in the hope that her words, rather than those of a man, would bring them together in a truly ‘philadelphian’ ideal. To this end, Anna and her father traveled around Pennsylvania in the summer of 1741, visiting inter alia Conrad Beissel at Ephrata Cloister and the Associated Brethren of Skippack.

During her time here in Pennsylvania, Anna regularly wrote letters back to Herrnhut, to Benigna von Zinzendorf, to the Single Sisters Choir, and to those she had left in charge of that choir. In a letter dated April 1741, she describes her activities among the peoples of Pennsylvania, a place she says that is a huge confusion “ein gar grosses Gewirre” of different sects and varying religious opinions. Despite her judgment of this “Atlantic Babel” she sees that the people here are waiting for salvation. She reports that in the three months since her arrival, she has already gathered 20 young women who are seeking the Savior; and they are just waiting for the school that she and Benigna are to found to open. ( Although she lives with one of the Brethren of Skippack, she visits the Nazareth tract regularly, she notices the many Native Americans who visit her. As she is working to clear the land, she is helped by the Native girls and young women to carry wood and water. O Benigna, she writes, if only you were here to work with them!

Anna’s magnetic presence attracts other young women. So, despite the plan that a single sisters choir should not be founded in Bethlehem, Anna has other ideas. Not only has she gathered 20 young women together already, she is quite militant in her defense of their unmarried state. In another letter back to Herrnhut in April 1741, Anna congratulates Sister Brosel that she has refused the offer of marriage. Anna writes, ”I congratulate you, secondly, because you have refused your marriage with a conviction of your heart and want to remain a virgin as long as it pleases Him. I know well that we are not here for ourselves, but rather maidens of the Lamb. If He orders it otherwise, we cannot resist Him. But I have to confess, that this gave me not a little pleasure.”

“Zweytens, dass du hast …. Mit über Zeugung deines Herzens und mit … deine Heirath abgeschlagen, und Jungfer bleiben, solange es Ihm gefallen wordt. Ich weiss wohl dass wir nicht unsre sindt, sondern Mägde des Lammes. Wenn Ers uns anders befiehlt, so können wir Ihm nicht wiederstehen: Aber Ich muss bekennen, dass es mich nicht wenig gefreut hatt.”

In November 1741, Anna returned to Germantown to set up the Girls School with Anna Margarethe Bechtel and to await Zinzendorf’s arrival.

On December 9, 1741, almost exactly a year after Anna’s arrival in America, Zinzendorf and his daughter, Benigna, arrived in Germantown. Due to his lack of both financial and linguistic preparation, the Count deferred to Anna, who used the unspent money she had been given in Herrnhut to help the Count. Zinzendorf also relied heavily on Anna’s knowledge of English to communicate with the other German settlers in the province. As Zinzendorf embarked on his plan to proselytize to the Native Americans and to try to unite the German sects in the colonies, Anna became a crucial factor in his success.

During Bethlehem’s earliest months, despite there being explicit plans to the contrary, Anna worked to establish the Single Sisters Choir (SMABY 1999). While Zinzendorf is having a mixed reception among the German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, maybe it was Anna’s enthusiasm about the prospect of working among the Native peoples that convinces Zinzendorf that she (now 27 years old) and his daughter (17!!) should accompany him on his difficult and dangerous travels into Indian country. In 1742, much of the territory that Zinzendorf wanted to cover was known only to the Native peoples who hunted and lived there. Colonial agents, such as Conrad Weiser, were highly dubious about Zinzendorf’s plans to meet with one of the most influential Iroquois chiefs (Shikellamy) who had just been sent by the Haudenosaunee to oversee the politically crucial confluence of the Susquehanna river. And here is this Count, with his teenage daughter and another young woman wanting to travel through Indian country to talk to the Shawnee who were very unfriendly towards anyone (even the Iroquois). Conrad Weiser agreed to help but I can only imagine him shaking his head at such foolishness.

In August 1742, she set off with Zinzendorf’s party into the Pennsylvanian backcountry to meet the chiefs of the prominent American Indian nations, primarily the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), the Mohican, and the Shawnee.

First, Anna traveled to the Mohican mission in Shekomeko, New York. Here she met with Jeannette Rau, who once married to Br. Martin Mack, quickly became a valuable missionary with her knowledge of the Mohican culture and language. The following month, Anna accompanied Zinzendorf to Shamokin, Pennsylvania, to meet with Shikellamy, the Oneida chief to discuss the possibility of Moravian missionaries working in the Haudenosaunee lands of Iroquoia that stretched across New York state and down into Pennsylvania.

Just up the West Branch, at Ostonwakin, Anna displayed her typical spirit of outreach in speaking at length with the celebrated interpreter between the Iroquois and the Colonial government, Madame Montour. In accounts of these travels into Indian country, Anna was always described as intrepid, taking the lead through difficult terrain, to the point where Zinzendorf had to hang on to her coattails to climb Shamokin mountain. She wrote thus: “The last journey was into the heart of their country, where we sojourned forty-nine days, encamping under the open heavens in a savage wilderness, amid wild beasts and venomous snakes.” (REICHEL 1870, 85n.) Her last foray into the wilds was a hazardous journey from Bethlehem to Ostonwakin on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and then on to the Wyoming Valley to meet with the Shawnee.

This definitely constituted the least successful and most dangerous of the meetings with the Native peoples, yet Anna returned safely with Zinzendorf to Bethlehem.

In January 1743, just over two years after she arrived in America, Anna embarked on the return trip to Europe. Her work in Pennsylvania was foundational: “If others reaped the harvest it was she that sowed the seed, and her name should be written in capitals in the church history of Pennsylvania, instead of being only casually mentioned !” (FRIES 1924, 134) On board the ship from New York to Dover, Anna writes back to Bethlehem: “As I never shall forget Pensilvania in generall so I think I shall remember thee also… an ever Dear Church of Sinners….. It is very weighty to me, that even from out of the English Nation, which hath Erred for so many years, trying many and various ways the Lord should gather a little Flock and bring it to rest on his Holy Wounds.” Life on board was rough, but in a separate letter to Brother Anton Seiffert dated March 1743 Anna describes her journey back to Europe. They Set sail on January 20 from New York and within 6 days had formed a Sea Cong. (they chose Elders). Everyone was seasick except Br Andrew the Negro and his wife. After experiencing two great storms that washed them onto a sandbank where wicked sailors tried to take advantage of them, they arrived Feb. 17 1743 in Dover and then continued on to London on Feb. 19.

In London, Anna stayed with Br. Hutton. However not for long. As Br Spangenberg was not in London but in Yorkshire, Zinzendorf, Benigna and Anna N. travel on to Yorkshire by coach. Anna continued her work among the single sisters in Yorkshire, and Zinzendorf preaches to the assembled crowds on a Gemein Tag. They are like “hungry bees” she says (sometimes over 1000 people). She speaks about her experiences in Pennsylvania, and especially telling stories of the American Indians.

Once back in London, Anna meets with and preaches (in English) to 30 young women in the Fetter Lane chapel, London. Those women in the audience were captivated by her words and, if not already members of the Fetter Lane Society, quickly joined.

Anna writes of this time: “On Sunday I held a Qr of an Hour with 30 young women together with 3 Bands. I with 10 Laborers and the 2 others with each 10 Sisters. I can make use of my little English here very well.” But, she assures her listeners, “Don’t you know, my Dr. Br. that the Bethlehem Brethren and Sisters are remarkable above all others?”

All this success had its results. After returning from America, Zinzendorf made Anna into the “Gemein-Mutter” of all women in the Moravian church and by so doing finally ousted his wife, Erdmuthe, from this position.

Anna Nitschmann’s legacy to the history of Pietism lies in her significant contribution to several branches of the Moravian Church; primarily mission work, hymnody, and religious leadership. Anna’s efficacy in the mission field was enormous. Although severely under-researched, archival evidence reveals that Anna Nitschmann was a superb missionary and leader. Her interactions with American Indians in Pennsylvania were effective and long-lasting, and her work establishing the Girls School in Philadelphia with Benigna von Zinzendorf and Anna Margareta Bechtel (m.n. Büttner, Jungmann) was foundational. Furthermore, Anna Nitschmann was also an accomplished hymn writer, especially productive between the years of 1735 and 1748, composing while in Germany, England, and North America. For example, the 1741 Herrnhuter Gesangbuch contains 56 hymns of her composition, the most famous of which is Nr. 1027 “Verlobter König”. Despite later efforts to de-emphasize her importance, during her lifetime Anna Nitschmann was an object of widespread reverence. Archival records reveal lavish celebrations of her birthday throughout the Moravian world, from North America to Germany. Her death was as much of a shock to the Moravian church as was Zinzendorf’s.

However, it is important to consider what is missing from Anna Nitschmann’s archival records (SMABY 1997). Falling prey to the masking of female piety in post-1760 Bethlehem, the vast majority of her personal papers, diaries and letters were deliberately destroyed after her death (PEUCKER 2000); SMABY 1997 points to the additional, subtle ways in which Anna Nitschmann’s foundational activities were de-emphasized after 1761.

The recent discovery of a set of Anna Nitschmann’s addresses to the Single Sisters Choirs can give today’s reader some insight into her efficacy as a preacher (ZIMMERLING 2014, 253 and VOGT 1999). As mentioned above, both textual and visual evidence shows that Anna Nitschmann preached in America to men and women, both Quakers, Moravians, and other sects (VOGT 1999). Although VOGT 1999 argues that Anna preached only to other women in the Single Sisters choir and did not preach to men, FRIES 1924 argues the opposite. To date, biographers (JUNG 1999; ZIMMERLING 2005, 2014) have relied heavily on Anna Nitschmann’s own 1737 Lebenslauf. As PEUCKER 2000, SMABY 1997, and VOGT 1999 indicate, the deliberate destruction of Anna Nitschmann’s personal papers, letters, diaries, after her death in 1760 has relegated her to relative obscurity within the history of Pietism; however, her efficacy as a leader of Pietist women, a preacher, a hymn writer, and a missionary here in North America deserve more serious scholarly examination.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: