Race, Gender and Feelings: Moravian Religious Sentiments in 18th century North American Memoirs

Paper given in November 2021 to mark Professor Wolfgang Breul’s Birthday. A small portion of the results discussed here are published in the Fall 2022 issue of the Journal of Moravian History.

Thank you for invitation to present a paper on the subject of “Fromme Gefühle” to celebrate Professor Wolfgang Breul’s significant birthday (albeit a year late!) As we share a birth year, I am well aware of the passing of this milestone myself, but am fortunate enough to be about six months older and therefore marked its passing in the company of friends with good food and wine before Covid forced us all into lockdown!

We are here to show our indebtedness to Professor Wolfgang Breul for his lifelong research into aspects of Pietism that were not the norm when he began his academic career. Like him, I am intrigued by the questions of how Pietism, as a religion of the heart both challenged Enlightenment concepts of what it means to be human, whether in terms of reason, writing, and scientific enquiry, and also extended the possibilities of human fulfilment to those denied by the philosophers of reason. Those considered not to be fully human because of their sex and race by thinkers such as Kant and Hume, and who were excluded from arenas of political, educational, cultural and economic agency through the hue of skin, hair type, breadth of forehead, or the possession of a uterus, enjoyed perhaps the liberatory potential of Pietism’s promise of universal salvation through a personal relationship with Christ.

I have devoted much of my professional life to the study of autobiography, gender and race and in particular the genre of the Moravian memoir (Lebenslauf) with its promise to deliver an authentic record of an individual’s life. The custom, introduced by Zinzendorf in the 1750s as a means to bid farewell to the Gemeine, was widely practised throughout the Moravian world and also in the North  American congregations of the 18th century. 

What I would like to briefly discuss today is whether an examination of specific corpora of memoirs undermines or confirms the notion of “emotional communities” in the ethnic and cultural groups that made up Colonial and early American congregations. Drawing on a North American corpus, written in German and English by Moravians of European, African, and Native American descent can we detect common emotional responses to recorded life experiences?  In what ways do these North American documents reveal fundamental differences in the execution of the promise of the Moravian memoir when we include historically disenfranchised and minoritised populations? In this preliminary examination, I will be using both analogue and computational methods of reading and analysis of archival documents from the digitized and manuscript collections of the Moravian Archives in both Europe and North America (moravian.bucknell.edu).

Although an enormous corpus (over 65,000) of memoirs exists and is housed primarily in archives in Herrnhut, Germany and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the US, but also in smaller less researched collections of documents in many of the Moravian settlements across the world, less than 10% of the material composed between 1750-1850 has been published.  

Over the last 25 years, scholarly interest in the genre of the Moravian “Lebenslauf” has been fueled by first the recognition of autobiography as a genre worthy of scrutiny and second by easier physical access to the main repository of the manuscript sources in the Unity Archives in Herrnhut, Germany. Concurrent with this have been changes in conceptual models in social and religious history, and gender/race theory that see such “ego-documents” as valuable primary sources to gain a perspective from the social classes that do not usually have a voice in the writing of history, such as women and men of the artisan classes and marginalized peoples who were enslaved or driven from their lands by settler colonists. One constant focus of the critical gaze has been the question of the degree of expressive and emotional freedom allowed each individual to record authentic and unique reflections on lived experience within the memoir.  Whereas some critics have argued that the very institutional edict to write a self-narration necessarily limits that act in terms of form, formulation, and individuality, others have argued that the Pietistic environment in which these self-relations were created, encouraged, at least in the 18th century, a balance between the demands of the community and the self.  As Peter Vogt has so aptly stated, the Moravian memoir constitutes “a dynamic of reciprocity between individual witness and community identity.” Paul Eakin also discusses such reciprocity in the narration of the self and argues that without a story there is no self, and, in the age of the digital, this self is “not only reported but performed, certainly by any of us as we tell or write stories of our lives, and perhaps to a surprising degree by the rest of us as we listen to them or read them.” (Eakin 2014, 24)

So how does this dialectic between the demands of the individual and the community play itself out in the North American memoir in light of promises of liberty in both the US Declaration of Independence and formalized in the motto adopted by the US Moravian Church, ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love’? The origin of the motto is thought to have come from the 16th-century thinker, Peter Meiderlin, who apparently adopted it from an earlier Catholic bishop, Marc Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624) himself embroiled in the vibrant disputes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It is thus a motto that is not exclusive to the Moravian Church but is rather entwined in the confessional and denominational conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, and, according to Craig Atwood, it is a motto also used by other religious groups, such as the Quakers and Evangelical Presbyterians. It is clearly then not a motto that the 18th-century Moravians would have known, either in North America or in Europe. Considered an attempt to transcend sectarian differences, this dictum was first cited in a Moravian context by Augustus Schulze, a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary in 1902 and was then quickly adopted by the American Moravians, with its obvious echoes of the language and intent of foundational documents of the United States. Despite this external origin, the motto serves as a useful summary of the ethics of the Moravian Church in America: e pluribus unum.

Mottos serve as an externally and internally directed signifier. To outsiders of a group, they signal important beliefs held by the insiders, To the insiders, they act as a reminder of the way in which they live, acting as a kind of shorthand to identity, a glue. Scholars of Moravian history, when analyzing the identity and modes of cohesion of the Moravian Church, draw heavily on Benedict Anderson’s crucial work, “Imagined Communities” (1983). For example, in her foundational study of the “Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine” as a global community, Gisela Mettele (2009) employs Anderson’s concept of the necessity of “simultaneity” and “communication” (highly appropriate for today’s Zoom environment) coupled with the importance of language (German) to construct an intellectually satisfying picture of the Moravian Church as an entity that could thrive in the realization of its motto “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, liberty and in all things love”. Similarly, Peter Vogt, in his essay, “Everywhere at home” (2006) outlines the pillars on which the transatlantic Moravian Church founded its work.  For Vogt, these consist in 1) strong leadership, 2) an effective network of communication, and 3) a uniform system of belief and worship. Vogt’s essay outlines clearly those aspects that he considers most important for such unity in belief and worship.

If we think of a unifying force within the Moravian Church, let us take as an example, the terminology of Moravian identity. How many of us Moravian scholars have had to include a glossary of terms in any monograph on or edition of Moravian materials? What to Moravians and non-Moravians who have immersed themselves in this history may not need explanation is quite baffling to outsiders. What is a Lovefeast? A Choir? A Singstunde? A Pedilavium? A Sickwaiter? This specialized terminology which exists in German, English, and many of the other languages of the people of the Church, provides, as Vogt argues, “the connectedness between the members of the community in terms of fraternal kinship ties” (Vogt 2006, 18): a kinship based not on blood ties but on a shared vocabulary of faith. Vogt argues that the very concept of the “Gemeine” “implies the awareness and the concrete experience of being connected to fellow believers” (19).

The organization of the Moravian Church was first held together (argues Vogt) by the charismatic personality of its founder, Count Zinzendorf and after his death the Unity Elders Conference saw the organization of the Gemeine as providing a strong and universally recognizable structure within which members could continue to feel connected globally. This “homogeneity”, Vogt continues, was also present in the unity of worship and faith. The Singstunde in Salem is the same as the Singstunde in Herrnhut, or Neu Herrnhut in Greenland or Australia, or the Singing Hour in Fulneck, Yorkshire. Coupled with this uniformity of ritual structure is the fact of its communication to all other places in the Moravian world through the Gemeinnachrichten or its successor publications. Extracts from mission reports, memoirs deemed of universal interest, diaries, letters were sent out to the Moravian congregations around the globe. These same reports were read out loud to the congregations, if not completely simultaneously to the hour, but on the same Sunday at the monthly Gemeintag (Vogt 24: Mettele, 145-7). In this way, Onondago and Lenape peoples in Central Pennsylvania could hear about the mission to the Inuit in Greenland; a young Friedrich Schleiermacher in Barby could learn about Heckewelder’s travels through Ohio and up to Detroit; and Anna Anders in Bethlehem could hear about the life of the child, Peter West, born in London in 1751 and who was buried in Fulneck in 1760, in the Gottesacker where Anna herself would be buried in 1803. This unifying ritualistic action of writing, reading, and listening to the lives and actions of others provides, according to Vogt and Mettele, the stability and unifying strength of the expanding Moravian Church across the globe.

But what about that other tenet of the North American Moravian motto, “in non-essentials, liberty”? What are such non-essentials, and how did liberty manifest itself in the lives of the Moravians? To return to the 18th century: in the light of the origins of this motto, it is clear that the notions of “essentials” as outlined by Peter Vogt and Gisela Mettele can be agreed upon. But, in an era prior to the political revolutions of the late 18th century, we must remember that “liberty” or “libertas”/Freiheit occurred in more of a confessional realm than political. So how might this motto apply to the memoirs from this early period? Critics, such as Gisela Mettele, Stepahnie Böß, Christine Lost (and myself) have argued for the importance of the Moravian memoir as a social and theological practice within the church. Mettle’s examination of the memoirs that were circulated in the Gemeinnachrichten and later published in the Nachrichten aus der Brüdergemeine argues for the importance of the uniformity of the published lives to show “simultus iustus et peccator”, the publicly communicated salvific history of the individual as sinner and redeemed. Thus, the individual differences in terms of details of where s/he was born, into which social class s/he was born, which language s/he spoke could all be considered insignificant in comparison with the essential consciousness of one’s need for salvation. This last point is especially bewildering to those of us in the 21st century when we read autobiographical documents by enslaved peoples or those whose lands were occupied by settler colonists. The commonality with white Moravians consists in the “slavery to sin” and not in the question of being enslaved or dispossessed and colonized. Within the language and symbology of the Moravian church, there might be a place where some form of liberty has been exercised. I would agree with Peter Vogt about the role of ritual in cementing the far-flung communities together. However, as we have seen from recent work by Rachel Wheeler and Sarah Eylerly, Moravian hymns still are expressions of faith whether they are sung in Mohican, Delaware, German or English.  But when it comes to the composition of a memoir, there is inherent within that very act the tension between the individual life and the universal pattern of salvation.

The worldwide reach of the Moravian church means that Moravian archives preserve some of the earliest ‘ego documents’ produced by eighteenth-century Africans and Native Americans. And archiving these documents has fulfilled a twofold purpose; that is storing and ordering them in the institutional archival memory of the Church and also, for those who access this archival memory, as a locus of presence and interactivity in the lived memory of the Church. (Haskin 2007, 401) As noted above, the relation of the lives of exemplary believers, as Peter Vogt argues, helped to create “a tangible impression of the invisible church community.” (Vogt 2017, 39) In an examination of several centuries’ worth of Lebensläufe from the Herrnhut archives, Christine Lost describes the communicative structure of Moravian experience. (Lost 2007; Mettele 2009) as both inwardly and outwardly directed; that is, it serves as a means of self-examination for the writing “I”, as well as participating in the construction of a communal identity. This dialectic of individual/community (that so influenced Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of religious consciousness and ethical action) reflects very much Zinzendorf’s own understanding of the function of the Lebenslauf. The relation of one’s life within this community serves as an act of witness and testimony to the invisible host of those who had gone before and who were still to come.  Additionally, the intersection of religion, cultural and personal memory, (Jan Assmann 2008) introduces a narrative tension into the writing one’s memoir, as the author balances demands of a personal desire to belong to a social group with the lived realities of one life. 

And maybe we also need to ask, to what extent can there be liberty, what might it look like, and what role does this balancing act play in creating the “universal history’ of the church, as Zinzendorf envisioned it. What happens when the authors of those self-relations belong to otherwise disenfranchised groups within the 18th century; groups such as the enslaved peoples of Africa, the freed and formerly enslaved, the Christianized indigenous peoples from the Moravian mission movement, and women? In what way can the Moravian memoir act as an “authentic relation of the self” and not instead represent the acquisition of a new argot that signals membership in a new group?

The development of tools in the field of digital humanities affords researchers a way of not only approaching these questions but also of thinking in new ways about how to conceptualize notions of self, narrative, and language. Corpora of memoirs have already been constructed by researchers interested in demographics, religious community, missions, and memoirs in Moravian history (see, for example, Smaby 1988, Mettele 2009, Böß 2016, Lost 2007, van Gent 2012, and Faull 1997 and 2017). The development of digital tools in text analysis, such as Voyant and Antconc, permits the investigation of large corpora in search of topic models, keywords, lexical “keyness” in comparison to non-Moravian corpora.  Looking for meaningful patterns in the exercise of distant reading transforms digital tools into integral parts of the process of understanding the study of Christianity.  Furthermore, extracting tagged entities from marked-up texts leads to the possibility of both network visualization and geospatial analysis, allowing such work to expand and ask new questions and find new answers. In many ways, re-enacting the archival drive of the Moravians in the 18th century, the methods of DH permit analyses of both the metadata and the text of large amounts of information that allows the other function of memoir to be fulfilled, the function of lived memory in which the archived materials of the past may become present and interact with others. (Haskin 401) 

The Moravian Lives project is aimed at realizing the potential of DH approaches to opening up the memoir corpus, namely through the construction of a searchable database of the memoir metadata of all the holdings in the main archives of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA and Herrnhut, Germany, and also linking the metadata visualizations with the facsimile and transcribed memoirs and their extracted named entities. 

The Moravian Lives platform provides a means of accessing and analysing corpora with specific parameters of time period, geographical location, gender. As digitized memoirs in the Bethlehem archives have been linked to the search interface, we can access the memoirs of Native American and African American members of the Congregation, members such as Peter and Mary Titus. 

For example, if we search for Mary Titus in the map interface we find the record exists and is linked to the digitized original. The transcription has also been completed, and thus we have access to a digital text

Slide 15

Similarly, if we search for her husband, Peter Titus, we find his memoir on the transcription desk, and it has already been transcribed and also Andrew’s memoir which I have published and discussed previously. 

Much work is to be done on the topic of what I have termed “Black Bethlehem” but we have been able to digitize the memoirs I have been able to locate so far in a collection on the Moravian Lives transcription desk. Being able to make collections of memoirs allows us to create “corpora” or bodies of text on which we can perform computational or algorithmic readings in an attempt to describe and analyse possible patterns of normative expressions. 

 As Jacqueline van Gent has argued in the context of Moravian ego-documents, the expression of emotion in textual sources (letters, memoirs etc) does not necessarily allow us to know what emotion a subject was feeling at the time of composition.  Rather, salient emotions reported in these sources adhere to the language rules and expectations of a linguistic (and emotional) community.  In the context of the memoirs of enslaved peoples (Andrew and Magdalene), converted non-European peoples can adopt the emotional vocabulary of the Moravians in order to display their membership in the group.  The question as to the authenticity of those emotions is a much harder one to answer. However,  as mentioned above, as one part of the unity of the Moravian motto, the “norms” of Moravian language adhere to expectations for norms that are set through specific practices (praxes within the Moravian congregations).

Results for key terms from Bethlehem’s English language memoirs
Results from African-descended men’s memoirs in Bethlehem

Furthermore, if there are limits to the authenticity of expression, especially within marginalized groups, then can linguistic expression reveal something about our subconscious states? Given the limitations expressed above as to the use of conscious selection of vocabulary, psychologist James Pennebaker’s methodology provides a multidimensional lens to analyse language that relies not on the “content words” of what we say but on the “function words” or stop words, often stripped out of a text when using distant reading techniques, such as Voyant or Antconc.  These function words–the articles, prepositions, pronouns, negations, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, quantifiers, common adverbs–are those parts of speech that we use unconsciously; they are used at very high rates, they are short and hard to detect, they are processed in a different part of the brain than content words, and they are very social. So can this method overcome the problems I outlined above with other computational (and non-computational) methods in the analysis of Moravian memoirs?  Can we access subconscious psychological states through the application of Pennebaker’s methods? Running the corpus through the LIWC software we find: (results here)

Looking at this corpus, Women in Bethlehem Archive (German): there is a significant difference between memoirs by White American women and Native American in terms of positive emotions (including terms such as love, sweet, nice). However, the NegEmo measure (anxiety, sadness, hostility) shows not much variance. Maybe the absence of positive emotion does not necessarily mean that there is a presence of negative emotion. Of the women’s memoirs from Bethlehem that are in English, we find much more variation in the Authenticity measure — Burger, Baker, Powell, Quitt all show distinctly higher values.  Of the men from the Bethlehem Archive who are writing in German, the lowest PosEmo scores in the corpus include Andrew’s memoir.  However, one of the highest PosEmo scores belongs to Peter Titus.  Andrew’s memoir scores among the highest for NegEmo. Of the men in Bethlehem who write in English there is hardly any variation in PosEmo or NegEmo scores. 

 Moving now to a small corpus of 12 memoirs by Native Americans, how do these subconscious “scores” look? As we know, such texts are very hard to find in the archives. Often the biographical information is hidden behind Europeanized names or racialized monikers, and of this corpus 20 are written in the third person and two in the first person. However, even within the third-person memoirs, we find direct quotations from the speaking or interviewed subject. Running the texts through LIWC we find among the Native American authors that the highest score for “anger” and “negative emotion” is found in “Michael’s memoir (it can be found on the BDHP website). 

Michael (we do not have a record of his Native name) came from the Minnisink people and was baptized in Shekomeko by Brother Büttner. Described as a “great warrior” in his memoir, his bravery was depicted on his face in a series of tattoos: a snake, scalps on a pole, two crossed spears and a boar. The Choir Helper of the Single Brethren who records the memoir says “all of it was done very neatly.” Michael, according to the text, refuses to consider the proposed relocation of Christianized Native Americans to the Wyoming Valley. During the French and Indian war, he bolsters up the spirits of the Single Brethren (who were posted on the fences around the Bethlehem settlement) and urges them not to be afraid but rather says, “If you are in good stead with the Savior, you would not be so nervous.  Your bad hearts are responsible for your anxiety.” Michael is considered the “crown of all our baptized in this part of the world, because his holiness progressed after his baptism without many changes and transformations.” So we need to ask ourselves where does the negative emotion and anger come from that reveals itself in the use of function words in Michael’s memoir? His resistance to being moved out of Bethlehem? His bravery? His choice to become Christianized? 

Or we might look at why the memoir of “Isaac,” a young Mahican/Wampanoag man who died at the age of 18 having been baptized at the age of 11 scores so low for “authenticity?”. His mother and father had both been baptized by the Moravians. By 14 he had lost both his mother and father to smallpox and fever and was taken in by friends who moved with him first to the Wyoming Valley and then to the Moravian mission of Gnadenhütten. He escaped to Bethlehem after the attack on the mission in November 1755 and was taken into the Single Brethren’s house where he died the following year of consumption. On his deathbed, the choir helper notes, “At his request a number of little hymn verses in Indian were sung to him by the Indians present.  Shortly before his departure Br. Schmick asked him if he felt Jesus’ Blood in his heart and would gladly go home. To which he responded; “Quame,” that is, “Yes.”  After that he stretched himself out, laid his hands on his breast and went to sleep for a while.”  What I find so interesting in this description is the language in which the verses are sung and that his last words are recorded in Wampanoag.


If we return to the nature of the practice of unity and liberty within the Moravian Church of the 18th century, can we perhaps test those claims by examining the recorded lives of those who belong to non-European groups, especially women? I have tried to show in this brief talk first, the main ways in which scholars have tried to understand the creation of unity within the Moravian Church of the 18th century, through neologisms, specific linguistic tropes, ritual, and simultaneous communication. Then, I examined one of the main means to create unity, that is the writing of a memoir, that definitely follows a specific narrative and emotional pattern which is composed to be read to others. Beyond reading individual memoirs out of primarily genealogical interest or for the subject’s perceived exemplary significance to the movement, studying the large corpus of Moravian memoirs is only possible if they are published. The Moravian Lives digital project aims to make available through the publishing of the original archival document and its transcription thousands of memoirs. By creating a digital text we make these sources available to scholars to test the claims of universality, of liberty, of unity and love. We make available the lives of those whose very chances at liberty or life at the birth of the United States was not guaranteed and who are indeed still fighting to “become American”.


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