Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Portrait of 18C American Moravian Woman
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.