Anna Nitschmann in the World

Anna Nitschmann in the World: Leader, Preacher, Sister

Zug lecture

Bethlehem, October 2017

At the news of the deaths in May 1760 in Herrnhut of both her closest companion and colleague, Anna Nitschmann and the leader of the Renewed Church, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Anna Piesch Seidel writes in her memoir,

“Now I was completely orphaned, and the grief and worry in my poor soul was great, not only because of these two people, but also primarily because the settlements and choirs had now lost their lead sheep and [because of] how things would go in the future. My anxious thoughts and premonitions did unfortunately come true in considerable measure, and to my inexpressible pain, I had to witness that these dear people were almost completely forgotten, especially the dear Mama [Anna Nitschmann].” (MAB)

I begin my lecture today with this poignant quotation not to retrace the steps taken by scholars before me, such as Beverly Smaby (in whose article this quotation appeared) and Paul Peucker, to show both how and why the Moravian church leadership after 1760 took deliberate steps to not only dismantle female leadership in the church but also to purge the archival record of an traces of that leadership (that passage is actually heavily scored out in the original memoir of Anna Piesch). Rather I would like to begin to rebuild the picture of Anna Nitschmann as a religious leader, who in other times might not have had her legacy scrubbed away and her influence denied.

In my previous lectures on Anna Nitschmann, held here in Bethlehem last spring during my tenure as Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Moravian Studies, I began this exploration. I outlined first how Anna Nitschmann had been depicted in the scant scholarship that exists on her to date. I spoke about how Anna Nitschmann’s time in America changed both Zinzendorf’s estimation of her abilities as leader and led to her subsequent elevation to Mother of the Church. I also investigated in more detail Anna Nitschmann’s activities in America, that led to her change in role in the church. I have delineated the way in which Anna Nitschmann was sent out to America with her father before Zinzendorf and was tasked with speaking to the disparate groups of Lutheran and Reformed emigrants here whom Zinzendorf wished to unite in a vision of his “philadelphian church”. Here, Anna Nitschmann learned English in the space of a year, held conferences with Lutheran and Separatist leaders of religious communities such as Ephrata Cloister, the Dunkers, the New Mooners, the Schwenkfelders (with whom she actually lived in Falckner’s Swamp). Her presence attracted unmarried young women to listen to her speak of Christ. She met the Delaware Indians who lived around what was to become Nazareth, and, once Zinzendorf and his party arrived in Philadelphia, she worked with all these groups to attempt to secure acceptance of Zinzendorf’s bold plan.

Although my research is still at its early stages, the documents that I have found here in Bethlehem and also in Herrnhut, serve to contradict the traditional image of this extraordinary woman in Moravian history. Most often depicted as a “shepherdess of souls” or as the companion of Zinzendorf, almost never is she described as a female religious leader in her own right. The iconography of Anna Nitschmann is one laden with ribbons, and flowers, and little birds, hearkening back to the symbology of the Sifting Period. Scholarly comment on her recently discovered sermons to the Single Sisters remark on the importance of finding a woman’s homilies to other women but also tend to dismiss them as derivative” “typically Moravian and “nothing new.”

Those of us who have been involved in feminist scholarship for most of our careers will recognize these terms as ones that a male-dominated critical discourse has traditionally used to dismiss women’s contributions to art, literature, science, music, engineering and religion. One only has to read Virginia Woolf’s classic “A Room of One’s Own” to see that her incisive criticisms of patriarchal historiography are still unfortunately valid. Whereas the leaders of the post-Zinzendorfian church may have used as an excuse the need to improve the image of the Moravian Church to its contemporaries (see Smaby, 164 Female Piety) what excuse can today’s church posit? Why, when the Moravian Church has ordained women bishops for twenty years, is there no mention of the woman who preceded them all?

Slide 2 Sammelbild

Clearly, Anna Nitschmann’s contemporaries thought of her very differently than those that came after her. Let us take this picture as a paradigm of their esteem. Here we see a picture presented to Anna Nitschmann in 1745 by the Single Sisters on the occasion of her 30th birthday. 18 scenes from Anna’s life up to the age of 30 are included that are clearly considered to be iconic for the single woman who now, in 1745, was considered the “Mother of the Church”.

Starting from top left we see Anna as a 7 year old being forced to attend the catholic church in Moravia; next right, as the shepherdess of her father’s sheep while still in Fulnek; then her exile walking three weeks through the forests and mountains to Herrnhut in 1725; being received by Countess Henriette Katharina von Gersdorf.

On the second row we see Anna living in the castle in Berthelsdorf with her parents and working as an errand girl: here she is warming a little soup for Benigna von Zinzendorf (who is in Anna’s care); next, Anna attends a meeting of the womenfolk of Herrnhut led by Erdmuthe in 1727 and is deeply moved; next, Zinzendorf comforts Anna after the news of her brother Melchior’s death in 1729; next we see Anna being elected to the position of Eldress of all the Sisters in 1730 by Erdmuthe v. Z.

The next row shows Anna being introduced to the Single Sisters by Zinzendorf; then, in 1735 Anna at the spinning wheel (with a floorloom in the background) receiving distinguished visitors, such as here Zinzendorf, Layritz, Steinhofer and Oetinger (I will return to this picture); Anna attending her first Communion service in the church in Berthelsdorf in 1727; Anna with Zinzendorf, Benigna and Christian Renatus at the foot of the Ronneburg in 1736.

On the fourth row we see Anna travelling with Erdmuthe v.Z. through Holland to London in 1737. This is supposed to be the coast of CAlais, from whence they are departing for Dover; then we see Anna visiting Zinzendorf’s mother in Berlin with her second husband, Prussian field marshal Dubislav Gunomar von Natzmer. In miniature #15 we see Anna saying goodbye to the Single Sisters Choir in Marienborn in 1740 (note the handkerchiefs) prior to her departure to America, then her leaving on a ship with her father for America in late 1740. The miniature is quite famous as it shows Anna “preaching” to a group of Quakers in Philadelphia after her arrival, and then the final picture is of a meeting between Zinzendorf and Anna in a Pennsylvanian forest in 1741, that even the artist admits never took place. At the center bottom of the series we see an angel holding a portrait of Anna Nitschmann, which is being admired by a group of non-Europeans. We will also come back to Anna’s meaning for the non-European world.

This exquisite artwork reveals not only the esteem in which Anna Nitschmann was held by her Choir-the Single Sisters- but also the events of her life to date that caused them to hold her in that esteem. Her simple beginnings, her flight to Herrnhut at the age of 10, her election at the tender age of 14 to the office of Eldress, her closeness to the aristocratic Zinzendorf family, the fact that she is visited repeatedly by leading church figures, her preaching to both men and women, and her bravery in the mission field.

What I would like to talk about today are two moments in Anna Nitschmann’s life between 1735 and 1742, (so while she is still in her 20s) when she displays those characteristics of a leader of the church, as a leader of women, and as a religious leader in the model of other women religious leaders in the western church; figures like Hildegard von Bingen, Mechthild von Magdeburg, and the 17th century Madame de Guyon. There is evidence that Anna Nitschmann studied these medieval mystics and later Pietistic thinkers before she left Herrnhut with the Zinzendorf family. Not only was she visited by leading figures of pietism to discuss these ideas, she also corresponded with them. So, rather then look at the depiction of Anna at the spinning wheel in the presence of Oetinger and Steinhofer as a kind of visual translation of the trope of the visitation of the Magi to Christ, maybe we could re-interpret that moment as a pivotal one in Anna’s life.

After that meeting, Anna Nitschmann considered taking the path of contemplation and seclusion but was persuaded by Zinzendorf to take the path of Christian action in the world as we can see from her memoir, which has served as the basis for much of the scholarship on her to date. Unfortunately, this precious document 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. However, of this visit at the spinning wheel in 1735, when she is just 20 years old, Anna writes (in the translation published in the Messenger):

“On the 24th of November, 1735, my twentieth birthday, the Savior revealed himself in a most powerful manner to my soul. A short time before, some brethren had advised me to read the life of St. Theresa, by Madame Guyon, a French mystic writer. I was delighted with the book and wished to follow in St. Theresa’s footsteps. There were precious truths set forth in the volume: but the all-essential point was wanting-that point in which all the other doctrines of God’s Word centre-the ransom price paid for our sins, the atonement made by our Savior for a guilty world. Conventual life, I gradually perceived, would not have suited me, though I was not insensible to its attractions. I saw that to spend my days immured in a cell would ill become one whose calling it is to work and do battle for Christ. OUR SAVIOR LED ME TO SEE THIS, THOUGH FOR A WHOLE quarter of a YEAR my mind was more or less unhinged and distracted by various thoughts and fancies which call for shame and humiliation. Thus I had my trials; but the Friend whom my soul loved helped me out of all my difficulties , and showed me that my safest course was to become as a little child.” (Messenger p. 447)

I find this passage remarkable for several reasons. First, what spurred this contact with her from two of the leading figures in Württemberg Pietism at that time? Why would they not only have written to her but also made the trip across the German states to visit her (at her spinning wheel and loom)? Second, Anna here recognizes the need for spiritual leadership in the practise of her faith and the need for a revised theology of action. Oetinger and Steinhofer were already well known to Zinzendorf and his family. Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782) had studied philosophy and Lutheran theology at Tübingen University and was a devout reader of Jakob Boehme, the German mystic. In 1730, he had already visited Count Zinzendorf in Herrnhut where he had remained for a few months, teaching Hebrew and Greek.  He is best known perhaps as the German translator of Immanuel Swedenborg’s works, an involvement that brought him censure from his church superiors. His second cousin, Friedrich Christoph Steinhofer (1706-1761) was also a Lutheran theologian who visited Herrnhut and Zinzendorf for the first time in 1731. Zinzendorf accompanied Steinhofer on his trip to Württemberg in 1731 and recognized that he was a potential ally of the Moravians and saw that he received a position in Ebersdorf as the Court Preacher of his brother in law, Heinrich XXIX von Reuss-Plauen zu Ebersdorf. From 1735 on, Steinhofer was the minister in Ebersdorf in the Vogtland. Although Steinhofer later left the Moravians, he was for a time, a bishop in the congregation for the “Lutheran” tropus.

This visit, represented on this miniature, was apparently not a singular occurrence. From newly catalogued records at the Unity Archives in Herrnhut, we find that the correspondence between these two churchmen and Anna Nitschmann stretches over a period of at least two years, between 1735 and 1737. Unfortunately, Anna’s responses are not available. I cannot wait to read these letters and try to work out what was siad during these conversations.

A clue might be given in scholar of Pietism Doug Shantz’s essay on “Women, Men, and their experience of God” in which he examines Anna Nitschmann’s early memoir in the light of the history of spiritual narratives, looking for ways in which male and female discourse about the relationship to Christ might differ. Comparing August Willhelm Francke and Anna Nitschmann’s pietistic autobiographies, and drawing on the theories of scholars of the genre such as Paul Eakin and James Olney, Shantz highlights the images and tropes typical to mystical women’s writings in Anna’s memoir. He describes Anna as “following the way” set out for her by her “Bridegroom”. As we can see from Anna’s own words cited above, she is deeply moved by the writing of St Theresa. She is, according to Shantz, also following the way set out for her by these Catholic mystics because a Protestant tradition “was not yet available to her” (p. 35) Although Shantz does not follow up on this insight in any way, Anna herself does in her memoir. She sees the need to enhance the writings of Catholic mysticism with a deeply Lutheran consciousness of the debt she owes to Christ for salvation. Interestingly it is at exactly this time that Anna Nitschmann to compose her own hymns. She was especially productive as a hymn writer between the years of 1735 and 1748, composing while in Germany, England and North America. In fact, the 1741 Herrnhuter Gesangbuch contains 56 hymns of her composition, the most famous of which is Nr. 1027 “Verlobter König”. Hymn writing, according to Zinzendorf, is humanity’s way of speaking to God. And I would argue that after this meeting in 1735 one of the choices to Chrsitian action that Anna Nitschmann makes is to provide a devotional and linguistic model for the Single Sisters to express their devotion to Christ, their commitment to service, and their sisterhood to her.

If we take a brief look at the hymns that are composed by Anna Nitschmann during this period that are still in the German Herrnhuter Gesangbuch, we find eleven are still included. Thematically, the texts speak of humility, dependence on Christ for protection and guidance, the sacrifice of Christ, the nature of a Christian life of action (described by Anna as “like a lamb in the home, and a lion, when I roam” Hymn 385), and devotion to the Congregation.

The second moment that I would like to examine is that which follows five years after Anna’s “crisis” of 1735; namely, Anna’s activities in America. According to Aaron Fogleman’svolume, Jesus is Female, Anna Nitschmann’s “being like a lion when she roamed” occasioned some of the most virulent opposition to the Moravians among the Lutheran settlers and their leaders in Pennsylvania. He takes as evidence for this claim, Alexander Volck’s 1750 anti-Moravian tract, where one of deeds that proves the “Bosheiten” or wickednesses of the sect known as Herrnhuter, is that women performed the sacrament of baptism. Volck writes that when Anna Nitschmann was here in Pennsylvania there are accounts, some eye-witness, of her administering the sacrament of baptism to women: Anna Maria Seybold in particular. As there is plenty of evidence, Volck continues, for Moravian women participating in the “distributio” of the sacraments at communion, so why would anyone doubt that Anna Nitschmann also would perform baptisms? Of course, to take the words of one the most virulent opponents of the Moravians as reliable would be risky; were it not for the ample evidence of Anna Nitschmann’s remarkable ministry prior to this point in 1742.

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 here. 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.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

As I have argued before, Anna Nitschmann’s years in America were pivotal. They were a turning point in her own realization of her calling, in Zinzendorf’s estimation of her abilities, and also in the practice of her female leadership of the church. Although in 1740, before coming to America, Anna Nitschmann resigned from her office as General Eldress of the women because she was uncertain what would greet her in the New World, her time in North America solidified her reputation as one of Pietism’s most important women leaders. 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 travelled immediately to the Moravians’ newly purchased lands in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Their arrival was known to many of the other German sects settled in the province, such as the Brethren at Ephrata Cloister, and they subsequently came to visit with them. Anna’s “plan”, set out for her by Ziznendorf, 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 travelled 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 described her activities among the peoples of Pennsylvania, a place that is a huge confusion “ein gar grosses Gewirre” of different sects and varying religious opinions. Despite this “Atlantic Babel,” Anna recognized that the German-speaking people here were waiting for salvation. In the three months since her arrival, she had already gathered 20 young women who sought the Savior; and eagerly anticipated the school that she and Benigna were to found. ( Although she was living with and working for one of the Brethren of Skippack, she visited the Nazareth tract regularly, and noticed the many Native Americans who visited her. As she was working to clear the land, she was helped by the Native girls and young women to carry wood and water. O Benigna, she wrote, if only you were here to work with them!

Anna’s magnetic presence attracted many other young women. So, despite the plan that a single sisters choir should not be founded in Bethlehem, Anna had other ideas. Not only did she gather 20 young women together, she was quite militant in her defense of their unmarried state (remember, she herself had refused marriage several times at this point). For example, in another letter back to Herrnhut in April 1741, Anna congratulated Sister Brosel that she has refused the offer of marriage. 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.

In the year of working with Zinzendorf in America, Anna Nitschmann accompanied him on his three journeys to the backcountry to meet with the Native American nations and also with the women who were either already working as interpreters for the Colonial government or who could work as missionaries because of their linguistic skills in Native languages (such as Anna Rau, later Mack, who spoke fluent Mohican. 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 sand bank 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.

As outlined in my previous lectures, the leadership that Anna showed in North America came to the fore in her work in England directly after that North American trip. After a brief stay in London with Brother Hutton, Anna travelled with Zinzendorf and his daughter north by stage coach to Yorkshire, where Anna began her work among the single sisters. Anna writes of this time that the people (sometimes in crowds of over 1000) were e like “hungry bees” , eager to hear her speaking about her experiences in Pennsylvania, and especially her stories of the American Indians. Once back in London, Anna met with and preached (in English) to a group of 30 young women in the Fetter Lane Chapel, where she once again captivated them with her words. If they were not already members of the Fetter Lane Society, they now quickly joined. Anna writes: “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.” And, she tells these English women, perhaps as a form of challenge,, “Don’t you know, my Dr. Br. that the Bethlehem Brethren and Sisters are remarkable above all others?”

All this success had its results. At the 1744 Synod at Marienborn it was decided that from then on, that Anna Nitschmann, as General Eldress of the women should receive the title “Mutter” of the whole Congregation. Anna was considered to be working as the Vice-Regent of the Holy Spirit. By so doing she finally ousted Zinzendorf’s wife, Erdmuthe, from this position.


In his precious, slim 1919 volume on Zinzendorf and women, that contemporary debates on women’s voting rights within the Moravian church occasioned, archivist of the church Otto Uttendörfer researched the tradition of women’s agency within the Unity of the Brethren. Uttendörfer cites at great length Zinzendorf’s speeches and sermons to the married and single men and women on the topic of gender. In this volume, Uttendörfer is not interested in discussing the “marital mystery” of Zinzendorf’s theology or Sifting period language. Rather he focuses on the theory and practice of women in the church. The earliest extant text on this topic, Uttendörfer claims, is Zinzendorf’s speech to the women in Philadelphia in 1742 where he expounds on the moral and religious ideal of women. Women in Christianity, he argues, are blessed by the fact that they can hold inside them, contained and gestated, God, the Divine. Resonant of the Orthodox name for Mary, the Theotokos, Zinzendorf calls on women to conceive of themselves as carriers of the Divine. His sermons on women should also be heard by men, as men need to learn from women the way of the divine. The single sisters choir houses are to be seen as “Propheten-Schulen”, places where women lead not cloistered lives, but are educated to be leaders of faith.

I return to the image of Anna receiving the two prominent churchmen at the spinning wheel and in front of the floor loom. In these SS choir houses the spinning and weaving of cloth were two of the most prevalent economic and artisanal activities. I would also argue that in addition to producing vital goods (and income) for the Gemeine and the Choir, spinning and weaving are also traditional tropes of women’s wisdom. As we know from classical and medieval literature, the image of women at the loom has for 1000s of years signified an alternative realm of knowledge generation. Whether Penelope in the Odyssey, Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, or Christine de Pizan in the City of Women, the creation of cloth is also a creation of knowledge and narrative.FOOTNOTE: Footnote Anna Nitschmann’s weaving, depicted in the celebration of her 30 years as an Eldress of the church, is an image of her other realm of knowledge acquisition and transmission. Listening to the words of the visiting Pietist scholars, Anna continues to work. If the choir houses are to be considered as the workshops of the divine, then it is no surprise that Zinzendorf also considers them to contain prophets and priests. By his definition, prophets are those who further the work of the choir; they have the authority to lead the choir in the right direction; and priests are those who work with the spiritual well-being of the choir. Thus for Zinzendorf, priestesses are eldresses, and prophets are female disciples (Jüngerinnen). Uttendörfer himself points to Zinzendorf’s extraordinary reliance upon women; a Quäckerish trait not approved of by all the leaders of the church, and that later led to the restrictions of women’s roles. But for Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann was both a priestess and a prophetess,

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. And Anna’s efficacy in the mission field was enormous. Although severely under-researched, archival evidence reveals that her interactions with American Indians in Pennsylvania were effective and long lasting, and her work establishing the Girls School in Philadelphia with Anna Margaretha Bechtel (m.n. Büttner, Jungmann) was foundational.

By 1755, just five years before her untimely death, the minutes of the Synod of Single Sisters Choirs, at which both Anna Nitschmann and Zinzendorf spoke, show that the membership around the world of the choir that Anna had founded totalled approximately 3000, with SS choirs in Greenland, England, North America, the German states, Ireland, the Baltic states (almost 800 just there). The registers for the following year show a growth to 4200. At this synod, Zinzendorf remarks that he himself wishes he were a single sister!

The depiction of the non-Europeans staring at Anna’s picture with reverence is actually accurate. There is archival evidence from the diaries of the Single Sisters choirs established in the mission world that portraits of Anna were distributed as far afield as Greenland. We might well ask why when she never visited those places? And the archival records show that Anna Nitschmann corresponded with the Single Sisters throughout the mission world: North America, naturally, as she was well remembered for her leadership here; the Danish West Indies, Greenland, South Africa, West Africa, Persia and Egypt, and even in the diaspora, such as Poland,

Why is a reconsideration of Anna Nitschmann important? For women today she can act as a role model, as a paradigmatic female 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. Anna Nitschmann as a reader and thinker is perhaps a new icon that needs to be added to her gallery of tropes.


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