Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America

Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America

Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America

Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America

Synopsis

Winner of the 2010 Dale W. Brown Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies

The Moravians, a Protestant sect founded in 1727 by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf and based in Germany, were key players in the rise of international evangelicalism. In 1741, after planting communities on the frontiers of empires throughout the Atlantic world, they settled the communitarian enclave of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in order to spread the Gospel to thousands of nearby colonists and Native Americans. In time, the Moravians became some of early America's most successful missionaries.

Such vast projects demanded vast sums. Bethlehem's Moravians supported their work through financial savvy and an efficient brand of communalism. Moravian commercial networks, stretching from the Pennsylvania backcountry to Europe's financial capitals, also facilitated their efforts. Missionary outreach and commerce went hand in hand for this group, making it impossible to understand the Moravians' religious work without appreciating their sophisticated economic practices as well. Of course, making money in a manner that be fitted a Christian organization required considerable effort, but it was a balancing act that Moravian leaders embraced with vigor.

Religion and Profit traces the Moravians' evolving mission projects, their strategies for supporting those missions, and their gradual integration into the society of eighteenth-century North America. Katherine Carté Engel demonstrates the complex influence Moravian religious life had on the group's economic practices, and argues that the imperial conflict between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, and not the growth of capitalism or a process of secularization, ultimately reconfigured the circumstances of missionary work for the Moravians, altering their religious lives and economic practices.

Katherine Carté Engel teaches history at Texas A&M University.

Excerpt

On the evening of September 29, 1751, one of the Moravian missionaries stationed among the Delaware and Mahican Indians in the Lehigh Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania jotted down the events of the day. He wrote in German, the language of the international Moravian community, and he knew his diary would be circulated to members of the church throughout the world. The Moravians, a Protestant sect founded in 1727 by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf and based in Germany, were key players in the rise of international evangelicalism. They established missions throughout the Atlantic world, and were especially attracted to Pennsylvania because of the profession of religious tolerance by the colony’s Quaker founder, William Penn. When thinking over what to record, the missionary focused on the daily business of Gnadenhütten, the community whose spiritual care was in his charge. Several residents had departed that morning for a Moravian synod at Quittapahilla, in central Pennsylvania, while some of the “white Brethren” who stayed behind worked, despite the rainy weather, to make floats out of boards from the sawmill so that lumber could be sent downriver to the central Moravian town at Bethlehem. In the evening, he recorded, men from Bethlehem had arrived to transport the wood. They told their coreligionists that the Moravians’ community ship, the Irene, had arrived in New York from London. The good news that her passengers were safely in Bethlehem after their long trip from Germany prompted members of the mission town to spill “some joyful little tears, and one heard some Honnewe, Honnewe” which was, according to the diarist, the Indian way of saying “dear Savior, dear Savior.” Their friends secure, the Moravians rested comfortably in the knowledge that their missionary work among Pennsylvania’s Indians, and their larger community, was progressing smoothly.

At the same time as the missionaries rejoiced, the comings and goings of the Irene were communicated in a very different form to a very different audience. As . . .

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