Becoming All Things to All People: Early Moravian Missions to Native North Americans

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1744 Governor George Clinton of New York forwarded to the Board of Trade in London-without any explanatory comment-the New York Assembly Act ot September 21,1744.(1) The act officially closed the Moravian Mission to the Mahicans at Shekomeko, a settlement close to the northwestern Connecticut border in the British colony of New York, and compelled the Moravian missionaries to leave. If Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, in his capacity as sponsor of the Moravian church, had not requested an explanation, most likely the act would have gone unnoticed.

But Zinzendorf protested, charging that Presbyterian clergy and their adherents were engaged in the persecution of the Moravian missionaries. He argued that religious persecution in the Americas was a particularly grave matter since many of the people who emigrated to the Americas were in search of religious freedom. No one-and especially not the Native Americans, Zinzendorf contended-should be hindered from joining whatever Protestant denomination he or she might choose.2

Earlier in 1744, when the act was discussed in the New York Assembly, several of its members had been in open disagreement. Assemblyman George Thomas, for example, felt it was unjust and silly. Judge Thomas Jones expressed his displeasure by sarcastically labeling it "the Persecution Act." And assemblyman Richard Stillwell shouted, with unrestrained venom, "Hang them as your fathers hanged the Quakers. "3 On December 23, 1744, James Hutten wrote to Count Zinzendorf from England, "May it please your Lordship . . . it is with sorrow, and vexation, and shame for my countrymen, that I have seen the Governor and Assembly of New York have passed an Act of Assembly [against the Moravians].... This incivility and inhuman usage must not be attributed to the whole English nation.... I am sure an English Parliament would never have done so, except. . . in such time of anarchy and confusion as unhappily beset England in the last century, when bigoted and hot headed Calvinistic preachers. . ."4 Following the same line as Hutten, Zinzendorf exploited an old tension between religious dissenters and the London government and made the Calvinist-Presbyterian clergy responsible for the New York troubles.

In response, the London authorities asked the governor to present reasons for the action In 1746 Clinton replied that the act had been adopted because (1) itinerant preachers had caused ecclesial as well as family divisions. (2) The act constituted a measure against Spanish agents who infiltrated and subverted the colonies. (3) The Moravians had been too closely related to Whitefield, who while in America, Clinton alleged, had collected incredible sums of money to fill his own pockets. (4) Referring to Zinzendorf's conciliatory stance on religious matters, the governor objected that the Moravians did not clearly distinguish between Protestants and Catholics. (5) Clinton was afraid that the continuous influx of Moravian settlers would soon outbalance the English subjects. (6) Their teachers were simple illiterate artisans. (7) Particularly irritating was their relationship to the Native Americans; the Moravians not only resided with the native people, they even intermarried with them. (8) This gave rise to the suspicion that they would seduce the Native Americans from their fidelity to the government. (9) The Moravian missionaries had even threatened the government with their hold on the Native Americans, intimating that the native people would follow them wherever they went. (10) The Moravians prevented Clinton's enlisting the Native North Americans in his army, which was especially detrimental in times of war (i.e., during King George's War, 1744-48).6

Becoming All Things to Native Americans

The issues Governor Clinton addressed in his reply give insight into both the colonial religion and the dynamics of the early Moravian missions. Taking Paul's injunction from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 literally, the Moravians, it appears, opted to become all things to the native people. …