The Hidden Work of Moravian Wives

The Hidden Work of Moravian Wives:

A Conversation with Anna Nitschmann, Eva Spangenberg, Martha Spangenberg, and Erdmuth von Zinzendorf

Moravian Archives, Bethlehem

February 13, 2018


Katherine Faull, Bucknell University



Thank you for the invitation to talk this evening on the subject of Moravian women’s work and how it has been “hidden” in the records and from the eye of those who study labor history. I am going to talk tonight about the concept of “labor” in the colonial period of the Moravian Church, with a special focus on where women’s work was deemed to occur, how it was described and valued, and how in the historiography of the church this work has been described. I am going to look at the role that female leaders of the church played in defining what constitutes work in the church and how that contribution was later obscured.

The notion of concealed labor or hidden work is nothing new to scholars of gender and race where in the historiography of knowledge making and invention, the work of women and minorities has been regularly elided. One only needs to look at the history of discoveries in the field of science to repeatedly come across the trope/meme of the white male scientist working with a lab team that is remarkably male and white in a Nobel Prize winning discovery. See, for example, the discovery of the structure of DNA at the Cavendish laboratories at Cambridge University in 1953, credited to James Watson and Frances Crick which in their own relations of the discovery, hid the contributions of Rosalind Franklin’s earlier research into the crystallography . Or the case of the discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus that can lead to lymphoma also leaps to mind, where the hours of work done by both microbiologist Yvonne Barr and Trinidadian electron microscopist Burt Achong in the laboratory also go without recognition.

Within Moravian historiography the contributions of Zinzendorf’s first wife, Erdmuthe Dorothea, have certainly been recognized, probably a product of her class position coming from the nobility. Her contribution to the history of Pietism is investigated in the thoroughly researched, if dated, work of Wilhelm Jannasch. This 1915 biography of the Countess tells the story of her life, marriage with Zinzendorf, her mostly hands off approach to the establishment of the early Gemeine, her willingness for numbers of the Moravian exiles to be employed in her household, her gradual assumption of a working role in the leadership of the congregation, her growing role in the financial management of the church, her assumption of fiscal leadership during the time of Zinzendorf’s exile from Saxony, her assumption of leadership during his time in America, with the travels to London, Denmark, and the Baltic states and then her withdrawal, as Jannasch terms it, upon his return and the ascension of Anna Nitschmann to the role of “Mutter” in the church. etc. Although Jannasch’s work has been more recently supplemented by the appearance of Erika Geiger’s short volume (translated by Julie Tomberlin Weber) it is heavily derivative of the earlier work.

Of far more significance to the revised appraisal of the Countess’s work is the scholarly focus on the correspondence networks and the importance of the Reuss family that is being carried out in the University of Jena by Martin Prell; and also the research being carried out on the Countess’ and Benigna von Watteville’s correspondence, performed by Marita Gruner at the University of Greifswald.

Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf’s willingness to open her household to the members of the fledgling community directly benefited the three other leading women of the early Church I am discussing today. Best known is her support of Anna Nitschmann, who was employed in the Zinzendorf household as a servant and errand girl and then as companion to Benigna von Zinzendorf with whom she later travelled to America. At the same time as Anna Nitschmann is in the Berthelsdorf household, both of Spangenberg’s future wives are also in the fledgling Herrnhut community. Eva Immig, as she was then, was already widowed, was employed as nursemaid to Christian Renatus, and was counted among the first “Laboresses” of the community among the widows. Like Anna, Martha Spangenberg (or Miksch as she was then) came into the service of the Zinzendorf family in 1727. It is interesting to imagine all four of these leading women in the Moravian church living and /or working under one roof in the late 1720s.

As I have outlined in several of my other lectures in Bethlehem last year, evidence of Anna Nitschmann’s work was, after 1760, deliberately hidden by destroying records that pertained to her central role in the leadership and development of the church. Anna’s work consisted of both labor in a material and spiritual sense.

In a series of miniatures, presented to Anna to celebrate her 30 years as Eldress to the Gemeine, Anna is depicted as spinning while also receiving the visitation of several leading male theologians of the time. As I discussed in my Zug lecture, this trope is significant as a representation of the intersection of both material and spiritual realms of work. The image of Anna receiving the two prominent churchmen at the spinning wheel and in front of the floor loom encapsulates the idea, promoted by Zinzendorf, that the choir houses were the workshops of the divine. In the 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 as traditional tropes of women’s wisdom, also were imbued with spiritual worth.

Is this idea put into practice within the congregation? Let us turn to Spangenberg’s first wife, Eva Maria. Maria, as she known within the Gemeine, had been born in Dresden and married her first husband Dr. Christoph Immig, a lawyer, before coming to Herrnhut in 1727. They had two children, one of whom “went astray” and the other died. Eva Maria was one of the first 12 Laborers in the new community and then became the nursemaid to Zinzendorf’s son, Christian Renatus. When her first husband died at the age of 77, Eva Maria became the Pflegerin of the Widows Choir for 12 years. During Zinzendorf’s exile Saxony she became the Vorsteherin of the whole Gemeine, assisting Martin Dober for two years. In 1739, she left Herrnhut and went to Wetteravia, where she married Spangenberg in 1740.

Alongside Spangenberg, she was central to the foundation of the Moravian congregations in London and Yorkshire, and worked extensively in England and then in America where she was General-Ältestin from 1744-1749. According to her memoir, which was written by Spangenberg, she was much loved among the mission populations in America, and in the mission diaries and travel journals, Spangenberg is repeatedly asked by members of the Iroquois and Delaware nations alike, where his wife is and how she is doing. When Eva Maria and Spangenberg left Bethlehem in October 1749, the Brothers and Sisters bathed the streets in tears (to quote from her Ll). Eva Maria died in 1751 in Herrnhuth. Before she died, her lost child, the daughter, came back to her and tended to her in her final illness. She was in her 55th year.

So what would have made Eva Maria so beloved to the Bethlehem congregation (although there are signs that this was perhaps not such a universal emotion)?

The Spangenbergs arrived in America in October 1744 and came straight to Bethlehem. Anna Nitschmann had left at the turn of year 1742-3, so the memory of her work at the Forks of the Delaware was still strong, and had been regularly kept alive by the reading of her letters from London and Yorkshire. According to the Bethlehem Diary for 1744, Eva Maria immediately travels to Shekomecko (following in the footsteps of Anna) and celebrates a Love feast with the mission workers (the Büttners and Macks) with rolls and chocolate (which we presume she had brought with her from Bethlehem/New York). Upon her return to Bethlehem on December 2, Eva Maria conducts her first Married Sisters ¼ hour service, and then a blessing for pregnant sisters and nursing sisters, and finally a ¼ hour service for the German and English sisters in Bethlehem. Eva Maria’s work also includes conducting the Speakings for the sisters (of all marital status’), leading Lovefeasts for the children, married sisters, and widows.

All of this is quite expected for a woman leader in the Moravian church at that time. However, Maria also conducts Lovefeasts for specific groups of women workers. Sisters who work in the laundry, or who spin, or weave, or knit, or sew also have a lovefeast dedicated to them respectively, and this appears to have been Maria’s own idea. In Oerter’s translation of the 1745 diary he states, “Mary made some orders and regulations for the Sisters spinning wool, cotton, flax and tow.” (Jan. 4 1745) At these lovefeasts for the different forms of women’s work, Maria apparently speaks so powerfully that the Sisters’ production is significantly increased (for example, on January 29 1745 50 sisters at a spinners lovefeast produced record amounts of yarn and also volunteered to strip feathers for the beds of the newborn).

Putting to one side the resonant echoes of Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber’s appraisal of the Moravians economic activity, (Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) for one moment, I would like to think about the spiritualization of women’s work not in terms of how to produce more for the community but as a foregrounding of the work that the SIsters did. This work, noted in the Diary, is seen as a form of “Gottesdienst”, a service to God and is valued as essential to the mission of the whole community as spiritual work as well as encouraging the ethic of production.

Does this concept of women’s work operate outside the choirhouses? What effect does it have on the missions, for example? I would now like to draw on the manuscript material that informs my work on the Shamokin mission diary. Shamokin, on the forks of the Susquehanna River, was a strategically important point for Native Americans, colonial agents and traders, and Moravians alike. Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, Benigna, and Spangenberg had all visited this place, not least to foster a relationship with Shikellamy, the vice-regent of the Six Nations.

In a conference held at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River in August 1747, the Moravian married couples, Nathaniel and Anna Hagen and Anton and Catharine Schmidt sat down to discuss how the blacksmith’s shop that was to be established there was to be run. The first article on the agenda that had been drawn up by Spangenberg was the stipulation that “When the Indians bring something for our Sisters to sew, they will accept it with thanks, and willingness and require nothing as payment.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Five months later, when they were joined by the married couple Joseph and Martha Powell, this same topic appeared as the first item of business in their conference. The Sisters were to accept sewing from the Indians and require nothing in return.

While this might seem like a small incidental detail in the larger artisan economy of the Pennsylvania Backcountry, I would argue that the work and skills of the Moravian Married Sisters who came with their husbands to the “frontier” country of Pennsylvania in the first half of the eighteenth century were central to the Moravian and Native American understanding of how an exchange of services and goods, whether it be sewing, blacksmithing, shoe or mocassin making, grinding corn and baking could take place. The Married Sisters’ participation in an artisan economy both extends the previous notion of “women’s work” that I have outlined and also challenges the long held notion that women’s role in this early settlement period was primarily as part of the “household economy,” in which women were employed in the raising of crops, production of food and clothing, within an autarkic economy of the settlers’ log home.

Because of the Moravian notion of the “marriage militant,” many of these Brothers took their Sisters (wives) with them into the mission field to work with the female indigenous populations .  However, the Moravian mission in Shamokin, Pennsylvania (1747-55) was not set up as a mission village but rather as a blacksmith’s shop to serve the Iroquois and their protected tribes, the Delaware, Tutelo, Conoy, and Shawnee. The Moravian smithy at Shamokin was established because of its usefulness to the Six Nations, and, as such, its existence at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River, the intersection of eleven Indian paths, offers an interesting and anomalous microstudy of the artisan in the backcountry.

Shikellamy was quite explicit in his expectations of how the smithy would be run. In a slightly earlier conference with Brother Martin Mack in April of 1747 held at Shamokin, the Oneida chief and emissary of the Five Nations, stipulated that the work done at the smith for the Five Nations should be done for free when the Iroquois are travelling down river to war with the Catawba. He stated explicitly, “I desire, T’girketonti (Spangenberg’s Iroquois name) my brother, that when something is done to their flints that it is done for free, because they have nothing with which to pay. However, when they return, and they have something done, then they would have to pay for it.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote

In August 1747, at the conference held at Shamokin to set down the conditions of the establishment of the smithy there Spangenberg prescribed that the Moravians were to maintain themselves there “auf Indianisch Art.”  That meant that only the Three Sisters (beans, corn, squash) could be planted, no wheat, rye, or oats, and nothing that would make the place seem like a European plantation. All accounts were to be held by Brother Hagen or Joseph Powell; the blacksmith Anton Schmidt had to meet with him at the end of every day and go through the transactions of the day. The price of services had to be set so that one Indian does not get charged more than another, and the accounts were then sent on to the Sozietät für die Heyden (the Society for the Heathen), that paid for the blacksmith’s supplies.

At the Confluence, there was also the presence and agency of the Moravian sisters. In the literature on Moravian artisans and missionaries there is plenty of discussion of the role the men played in the development of settlements, a rural economy that goes beyond that of exchange, but almost no mention of what their wives were doing, what kind of work did they have and did it contribute to this rural economy? While the literature on Moravian missions is large, the multiple challenges and opportunities for cross-cultural trade and knowledge transfer that the Moravian sisters enjoyed, has only recently become the focus of study for historians such as Jane Merritt, Amy Schutt, Gunlög Fur, Rachel Wheeler, and Alison Duncan Hirsch.FOOTNOTE: Footnote In the Shamokin Diary we find evidence of Native, métis and Euro American women’s involvement in trade, care, and mission on an intimate level. Despite the dearth of official records of women’s activities, speech, and agency, from mission diaries we are able to delineate women’s experience as moving beyond the traditional notion of them as refugees for financial, religious, or ethnic reasons or as silent companions of fathers, husbands, masters, or maybe brothers. In Merritt’s discussions of Anna Mack, Anna Smith, and Rowena McClinton’s studies of Moravian women’s mission to the Cherokee women, and Alison Duncan Hirsch’s study of some of the women around the Susquehanna Confluence, the discussion focuses on women and cross-cultural communication, the inter-relation of religious concepts, notions of gender, and medical and pastoral concepts of the body.

Based on evidence from the Moravian mission diary from Shamokin I argue that there existed an artisan economy of sorts in which the skills of both the brothers and the sisters were sought after and exchanged with the Native American and Euro-American population. From the archival records, it is clear that the Married Sisters participated in an exchange economy, where sewing skills, for example, were vital in order to receive gifts of food and medicine from the local Native population. Married Sisters were central to the mission both because of their knowledge of Native American languages, their ability to communicate with the Native women around the blacksmith’s shop, and also because of their own artisanal skills, such as sewing and baking. These skills brought them into an economy of trade and also knowledge.

So how might this relate to the lovefeasts for the knitters, spinners, weavers, and launderers? In her 1995 book on artisans on the North Carolina backcountry, Johanna Miller Lewis argues (somewhat controversially) that women who practiced traditionally female skills such as spinning, sewing, weaving, or knitting for profit commonly have not been classified as artisans by historians.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Miller Lewis ascribes this to the fact that women did not receive the same training as male artisans, and if they did, it was within the home, invisible to the historical record of craftsmen’s books, journeymen’s passes, and guild records. Furthermore, many historians considered women’s artisanal skills as “merely” part of the housewife’s duties and therefore not an income-generating skill. However, recent studies of rural populations in, for example, Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, have shown that women’s skills were central to the survival of rural populations in times of crisis and famine (Irish famine and women lace makers, for example).  Challenging the dominant notion of the “household economy” that has held sway over early modern economic history and its autarkic self-sufficiency, Miller Lewis argues for a more nuanced understanding of women’s participation in a backcountry economy where their skills in textile production and repair was also key to the survival of the family and also the community.FOOTNOTE: Footnote I would like to argue that what is presented as a paradigm for women’s work in the image of Anna Nitschmann spinning as she receives the eminent theologians, and in Maria’s institution of lovefeasts celebrating the work of women, provided many of the Married Sisters at Shamokin (and elsewhere) with precisely the model of work as Gottesdienst that women outside the Moravian church might have received within the household economy. The difference in the Moravian training was that women’s artisanal skills were taught not for the benefit of a more nuclear “household,” but rather for the larger “oikos” of the mission settlement; and, as such, these skills were both a form of women’s spiritual knowledge and income generating.

So, how crucial were the women’s contributions to this artisan economy? Did the sewing, the baking, the interpreting and negotiating help the mission in Shamokin?

Towards the end of the existence of the mission at Shamokin, the picture of the place has changed. The Moravians now have livestock, cows and calves, and are thinking about getting a bull. A new mission house has been built further from the river and closer to a spring. Letters between Shamokin and Bethlehem talk of the need for sugar and tea (for the Moravian Lovefeasts), of wine and bread for communion; new trousers and shirts; the skins received in payment (racoon and deer) are being transported back to Bethlehem through intermediaries, such as Michael Schäffer, a shoemaker who lives 5 miles down the Tulpehocken Path.

The Married Sisters have gone. The mission has become a plantation, it services the flints of the traders and white settlers and its original purpose has been lost. Spangenberg wonders if they shouldn’t just shut up shop, sell the house and its contents that are no longer needed to Conrad Weiser, slaughter the livestock and sell the meat.

The end of the Shamokin mission almost coincides with the arrival of Martha Spangenberg in America. In the little literature that exists on her, scholars such as Beverly Smaby and Hartmut Lehmann concur that she understood “women’s work” in a very different manner than her husband’s first wife. Where Eva Maria was seen as a leader, much after the model of Anna Nitschmann and Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf, Martha is described as quiet and staying in Spangenberg’s shadow.

Martha Elisabeth Spangenberg was born in 1708 in Berthelsdorf and came into the service of Benigna von Zinzendorf 1727. In 1730 she married Mattheus Miksch and they had two children. In 1733 Mattheus was sent to St. Croix as one of the first missionaries there but Martha was very reluctant to go and preferred to stay behind with their two children in the congregation in Herrnhut. When Mattheus died in St. Croix in 1734 Martha moves into the Widow’s House as their Laboress for sixteen years until in 1750 she is called to London in 1750 to work with the widows there. Then in 1752 it is suggested that she marry Spangenberg. Martha is initially reluctant because she is very happy living and working with the widows. However, she finally agrees and in 1754 proceeds to work with him in North America. As Craig Atwood has outlined in his article on Spangenberg in colonial America, Martha and Joseph worked here to stabilize and consolidate the community’s affairs through the difficulties of the French and Indian War and after the deaths of Zinzendorf and Anna, the dismantling of the General Economy. They return to Europe via Philadelphia in 1762.

As I have argued in the introduction to my recent translation of the Instructions to the Choir Helpers, it is clear that Martha worked with her husband in the composition of the Instructions for the Single, Married, and Widowed Sisters. In 1764, she is one of the Sisters who is given the task of discussing women’s issues in the synod when they come up. However, Martha’s work with her husband appears to have not always been so welcome to the sisters. For example, in 1771 after the Spangenbergs have returned to Herrnhut, the Single Sisters write a letter to the Unity Elders Conference complaining that Brother Spangenberg and Martha are conducting the monthly Speakings with them rather than their Choir Helpers. Although I need to examine the archival record still to unearth more of Martha’s work, it is already clear from the Instructions and then this letter, that it consisted in implementing the Choir Principles and Instructions that she and her husband were formulating. At the close of her wonderful article on Female Piety in Bethlehem, Beverly Smaby makes the point that the dismantling of women’s power and valued work as spiritual leaders was the work of Spangenberg, and that if it was a man, Zinzendorf, who gave women this power, it was also a man, Spangenberg, who took it away. I would refine this claim somewhat and argue that the positive and vital value ascribed to women’s spiritual and material work was modeled and encouraged by Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf and followed by a multitude of extraordinarily talented women and also integrated into the economic and spiritual economy of the congregations and missions. And it is also a woman who helps to redefine what women’s work should consist of after Anna Nitschmann’s and Erdmuthe’s deaths, and that seems to be Martha Spangenberg.


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