Henrietta Benigna Justine Zinzendorf von Watteville (1725-1789) Moravian educator, a key figure in the beginnings of Moravian Seminary & College for Women, Bethlehem, Pa., was born in Berthelsdorf, Saxony. She was the 1st daughter & 2nd of 12 children, of whom only 4 reached maturity, of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf by his wife, Countess Erdmuthe Dorothea von Reuss. Her father, founder of the Renewed Moravian Church, was of an old family of the Austrian nobility that had migrated to Germany. Her mother was of the nobility of Thuringia. Reared in the 18th-century Moravian Church, Benigna lived & achieved as a devout Pietist.
Her father’s banishment from Saxony, when she was 11, marked the beginning for her of a much-traveled life. With him she came to America for the first time in December 1741, for a stay of 14 months, chiefly in the newly established Moravian communities of Pennsylvania.
On May 4, 1742, at her father’s suggestion, the 16-year-old countess, with 2 assistants, opened a girls’ school in the Ashmead house in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Here 25 pupils were instructed in reading, writing, religion, & the household arts in what was probably the first boarding school for girls in the 13 British American colonies. Seven weeks later the school moved to Bethlehem; & in 1745, to nearby Nazareth, returning permanently in 1749, to Bethlehem, the center of the Moravian Church in America.
On July 27, 1742, Count von Zinzendorf and his fellowship crossed the Blue Mountain into Cherry Valley, and on July 28 they finally emerged from the endless forests at Meniolágoméka -- "The Fat Land Among the Barren" -- present-day Kunkletown. Von Zinzendorf's 16-year-old daughter, Benigna, upon meeting the Indian children at the settlement, decided that the girls should have the opportunity to go to school just like white boys.
The same year she founded Moravian Seminary in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter it was moved to Bell House in Bethlehem, and Lady Benigna invited all the Indian girls to come. Moravian Seminary was the first boarding school for girls in the New World, and over time it gained a superb reputation -- so much so that 50 years later, while he was President, George Washington personally petitioned for admission of his great-nieces. Eventually the school's charter was expanded, and it became Moravian College and Moravian Academy, both of which remain to this day.
In the summer of 1742, Benigna Zinzendorf interrupted her teaching to accompany her father on 2 of his 3 trips among the Indians of Pennsylvania & New York, preparatory to establishing missions among them. The Zinzendorfs returned to Europe the following winter.
In 1746 Benigna was married to Baron Johann von Waterville (de Watteville), a Moravian clergyman & her father’s secretary, in a ceremony performed by Zinzendorf at the new Moravian settlement in Zeist, Holland. Consecrated a bishop the following year, Watteville, aided by his capable wife, became out outstanding leader of his church.
The couple came to America on church business in September 1748 & remained a year. On this visit Benigna de Watteville had a hand in the return of the girls’ school to Bethlehem, its consideration with schools in the outlying Moravian congregations, & the enlargement of its curriculum.
Thirty-five years later, en route to America a 3rd time, she was shipwrecked with her husband on the rocks off the Leeward Islands in February 1784. Reaching Bethlehem in June, they remained for 3 years. Again Countess Benigna was on hand to help direct a reorganization of the girls’ seminary, which in 1785, now opened to pupils from outside the Moravian Church, became a largely new institution, known for many years as the Bethlehem Female Seminary.
The Moravian philosophy of education was the rearing of children in a controlled Christian environment under consecrated teachers. Because of the worldwide mission commitments of the Church, many parents were abroad, with their children left behind in the care of the home community. Moravian teachers, therefore, tried as nearly as possible to serve as substitute parents. Both as a parent & as a devout church member, Benigna de Watteville kept this ideal in mind.
She had four children of her own: Johann Ludwig (born 1752), Anna Dorothea Elizabeth (1754), Maria Justine (1762), & Johann Christian Frederick (1766). The older son died while a missionary in Tranquebar, India, in 1780, & the younger son died at nineteen as a student at Herrnhut, the church headquarters on his grandfather’s Berthelsdorf estate. The younger daughter, who never married, served as a worker in the church. The older daughter married Hans Christian Alexander von Schweinitz (later changed to de Schweinitz) in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1779. One of their children was the distinguished American botanist Louis David de Schweinitz, & de Schweinitz descendants have for four generations been prominent in American educational & professional life.
Benigna de Watteville died in the place of her birth at the age of sixty-three, a year after her husband. The Bethlehem seminary, incorporated in 1863 as the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies, became in 1913, Moravian Seminary & College for Women & in 1953, a part of the coeducational Moravian College at Bethlehem.
Moravian women, whose chief duty was to their community & God, not to their family, husband, or self, worked jobs benefiting the larger community. They were freed from traditional familial duties.
The Moravians 1st came to British America during the colonial period. In 1735 they were part of General Oglethorpe’s philanthropic venture in Georgia. Their attempt to establish a community in Savannah did not succeed, but they did have a profound impact on the young John Wesley who had gone to Georgia during a personal spiritual crisis. Wesley was impressed that the Moravians remained calm during a storm that was panicking experienced sailors. He was amazed at people who did not fear death, & back in London he worshiped with Moravians writing that his “heart was strangely warmed.”
After the failure of the Georgia mission, the Moravians established a permanent presence in Pennsylvania in 1741, settling on the estate of evangalist George Whitefield. Moravian settlers purchased 500 acres to establish the settlement of Bethlehem in 1741. Soon they bought the 5,000 acres of the Barony of Nazareth from Whitefield’s manager, & the 2 communities of Bethlehem & Nazareth became closely linked in their agricultural & industrial economy. Other settlement congregations were established in Pennsylvania, New Jersey & Maryland. They built the Pennsylvania communities of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Lititz, & Hope. They also established congregations in Philadelphia & on Staten Island in New York. All were considered frontier centers for the spread of the gospel, particularly in mission to the Native Americans. Bethlehem was the center of Moravian activity in colonial America.
Bishop Augustus Spangenberg led a party to survey a 100,000 acre tract of land in North Carolina, which came to be known as Wachau after an Austrian estate of Count Zinzendorf. The name, later anglicized to Wachovia, became the center of growth for the church in that region. Bethabara, Bethania & Salem (now Winston-Salem) were the 1st Moravian settlements in North Carolina. In 1857 the 2 American provinces, North & South, became largely independent & set about expansion. Bethlehem in Pennsylvania & Winston-Salem in North Carolina became the headquarters of the two provinces (North & South).
The facet of Moravian life that bound the community together like no other was their dedication to missionary work; the Moravians were the most active Protestant missionaries of the 18C, sending community members to the West Indies, South America, & as far as South Africa. By 1760, the Moravians had sent out 226 missionaries & baptized more than 3,000 converts, including American Natives. In North America the key undertaking for Moravian missionaries was to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The Moravians viewed the natives as heathens in need of spiritual enlightenment & guidance.
One feature of Moravian community life was the Choir System. People
were separated into “choirs,” or groups, based on their age, gender, & marital status. It was believed that individuals of like age & gender were best prepared & able to encourage each other’s religious growth. Members of the same choir ate, worked, worshiped, slept in dormitories, & attended school together. This communal living arrangement was intended to strengthen the unity of the society as members had to rely on choir-mates for support rather than their siblings or parents. The names of the choirs reflected the sex, age & marital status of those in the choir, such as the “Older Boys’ Choir,” ages 12-19 or the “Single Sister’s Choir,” age 19 until marriage.
All work performed by the Moravians during the pre-Revolutionary War years operated under a system known as the “General Economy,” in which all goods or money produced was considered the property of the community, not the individual. Under this system there was no private wealth or housing, nor any privately owned businesses. Every member’s contribution was collectively pooled & in exchange, necessities such as food, shelter & clothing were provided.
Marie Minier, a Single Sister in the Bethlehem community, praised the General
Economy in 1750 stating that, “For 12 years now I have enjoyed the care [of the General Economy] & eaten from one bread & been clothed, all of which to this hour has been great and of importance to me. I . . . accept things the way the Brethren do things, for it is a wonder to me daily that He has maintained so large a community, & we cannot say that we have ever gone without.” For single women like Marie Minier, the General Economy system afforded them relative security & independence; single women who chose not to marry did not need to rely on a father or brother for financial support, nor worry about becoming a financial burden. In other parts of 18C British America women who did not marry usually would have been socially & economically excluded, dependent on their fathers or male family members.
Yet by the 1760s, the system of communal property began to wear on the younger generations of ambitious Moravians who saw that in other communities hard work was rewarded with personal financial gain. In 1762, the General Economy was abolished in favor of self-owned & operated small businesses & private family homes.
To learn about the lives of 18C Moravian women see:
Faull, Katharine. Moravian Women's Memoirs: Their Related Lives, 1750-1820. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
Smaby, Beverly Prior. "Female Piety Among 18th-Century Moravians." Pennsylvania History 64 (1997): 151-167.
Wachovia Historical Society, Winston-Salem, North Carolina & Old Salem, Inc., Winston-Salem, North Carolina 1750 Johann Valentine Haidt (1700-1780). Women portrayed as separate but sharing power at the Moravian Synod at Herrnhut.& "Forming the Single Sisters' Choir in Bethlehem." The Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 28 (1994): 1-14
Sommer, Elisabeth W. Serving Two Masters: Moravian Brethren in Germany & North Carolina, 1727-1801. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Vogt, Peter. "A Voice for Themselves: Women as Participants in Congregational Discourse in the 18th-Century Moravian Movement." In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker, 227-247. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
This posting based, in part, on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971