Anna Nitschmann: the Mother of the Church?

Anna Nitschmann: the Mother of the Church?

Talk, Moravian Seminary, February 2017


Katherine Faull of Bucknell University, Visiting Scholar for the Center for Moravian Studies at MTS, is spending this semester unearthing materials in various Moravian archives on the Chief Eldress Anna Nitschmann and her role in the Moravian Church in the 18th century. Faull is focusing on Nitschmann’s time in Pennsylvania, which was a watershed period for her in moving from being an eldress to being seen as the “Mutter” or Mother of the Moravian Church. Nitschmann was one of the founders of Bethlehem, was a pioneer missionary among Native Americans, and became one of Zinzendorf’s closest collaborators.

Dr. Faull is Professor of Humanities at Bucknell University and one of the leading figures in Moravian studies. Her latest book Instructions for Body and Soul has just been published by Penn State University Press.


In Alexander Volck’s 1750 anti-Moravian tract, one of the deeds that proves for him the “Bosheiten” or wickednesses of the sect known as Herrnhuter, is that women have performed the sacrament of baptism. Volck writes that when Anna Nitschmann was 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 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. Anna Nitschmann 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 of female piety. As a paradigm of Moravian gender egalitarianism, she was also made into an anti-hero by Moravianism’s opponents.

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 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.

In the early years of the Moravian Church, Anna Nitschmann’s name occurs 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 Anna Margarethe Jungmann, née Bechtel, whom she met in Philadelphia and with whom she and Benigna von Zinzendorf founded the Girls school that would later become Moravian College; or in conjunction with Anna Rosel Anders, another leader 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. Named as Eldress of the Church at the age of 15, at the age of 30 she was elevated to the rank of Mutter/ Mother of the church. What did this mean and how did this happen?

What I want to suggest today is that 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. 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. However, at the 1744 Synod at Marienborn it was decided that from then on, the General Eldress of the women should receive the title “Mutter” as she was working as the Vice-Regent of the Holy Spirit.

My research this semester has been focussed on unearthing archival evidence for my hypotheses about Anna Nitschmann. 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!

Here are some of the terms used to describe Anna Nitschmann in extant scholarship:

Hero (A. Fries) “Handmaiden of the Lamb”

(Atnip) “Pietist and Leader of the Diakonie”

“One of 37 women who changed their world”

“A pioneer of the Moravian Church, Activist, A Moravian Foremother, A women of courage and valor, Preacher, Priest and maybe even Bishop” (Vernon Nelson)

Respected scholars, such as Beverly Smaby, Peter Vogt, Martin Jung, Peter Zimmerling and Lucinda Martin have all 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.

In his slim 1919 volume on Zinzendorf and women, occasioned by contemporary debates on women’s voting rights within the Moravian church, archivist 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, mother of the Divine, 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.

In these SS choir houses, the spinning and weaving of cloth were two of the most prevalent economic and artisanal activities. 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. 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, and having witnessed her at work in America, in 1740 she also became the Mother of the Church,

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 from London to the Gemeine, in anticipation that she would never return.

“Denkt auch an dieses Volk [Londoner Gemeinde] teuere Geschwister! Insonderheit auch an mich, eure arme Schwester! Ich habe nichts. Ich verlasse mich nun allein auf mein Lamm! Und auf euer Gebeth” (R.14.A.No. 26)

In fact, Anna Nitschmann’s years in North America (late 1740-January 1743) solidified her reputation as one of Pietism’s most important women leaders.  Anna Nitschmann left for America from London 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, located in Falckner’s Swamp, south west of Bethlehem.

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 and 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 no single sisters choir should be founded in Bethlehem, Anna has other ideas. Not only has she gathered 20 young women together already, she writes, 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.”

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

While Zinzendorf is having a mixed reception among the German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, Anna’s enthusiasm about the prospect of working among the Native peoples helps to convince Zinzendorf that she (now 27 years old) and his daughter (17!!) should accompany him on his difficult and dangerous travels into Indian country.

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 tells 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 Anna Margaretha 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.

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 return to the point with which I began this talk: namely, Anna Nitschmann’s activities in America make this period a watershed moment in both her life and also in the history of the church; years that make her in 1746 officially into the “Mother of the Church”.

  • What importance does the office of Mother of the Church have for Moravians today?
  • How does this inflect the way in which we think of the role of women in the Church?
  • Was Zinzendorf’s notion of female piety emancipatory?



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