Atlantic History Moravians
by
Aaron Spencer Fogleman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0029

Introduction

The Moravians were a mostly German Pietist religious group that spread throughout the Atlantic world and beyond in the 18th century. Though considered “Protestant,” their origins predate the Reformation. In the late 14th century, a grassroots religious renewal movement began in Bohemia and Moravia that gained momentum after the martyrdom of its two most important leaders, Jan Hus (b. c. 1369–d.1415) and Jerome of Prague (b.1379–d.1416). Thereafter, a mass movement developed that armed itself and successfully fought off numerous crusades by forces of the Holy Roman Empire bent on its destruction. After a settlement that secured its existence, a branch of this “Hussite” movement became pacifist and called itself the Unitas Fratrum, a name the Moravians carry to this day. Victorious imperial Catholic forces destroyed them and other “Protestants” in Bohemia and Moravia during the Thirty Years’ War, forcing them to go underground. In 1722 a remnant of the old Unitas Fratrum from Moravia settled on the estates of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) in Upper Lusatia (Saxony). They began building a new community called Herrnhut, with Zinzendorf as their leader, and in 1728 the Unitas Fratrum formally celebrated its rebirth. Under Zinzendorf’s direction, the movement expanded rapidly in the mid-18th century and developed a rigorous mission program that continues to this day. The Moravians promoted ecumenism in a confessional age, which led to their involvement with Lutheran, Calvinist, and other churches in often controversial ways. They are important to Atlantic history because they engaged with Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans in significant ways throughout the Atlantic world, and they kept detailed records of their activities. Many of their early missionary efforts failed, but they became noted for their successes, especially among slaves on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and elsewhere in the Caribbean; the Mahicans, Delawares, and Shawnees in British North America; Maroons and later slaves in Suriname; and Inuits in Greenland. They also had significant short-term successes among the Arawaks in Berbice and Cherokees in northern Georgia. Suriname became a long-term success story in the 19th century, and in the late 19th and 20th centuries, Moravians had tremendous success in Africa. Today, the largest numbers of Moravians are in Africa and North America, not Europe. It is their mission successes in so many places, combined with their disassociation from European imperial projects, their record keeping, and their cosmopolitan Weltanschauung, that make them such an important people to the study of Atlantic history, especially for historians who wish to cross imperial boundaries and study encounters among all peoples in the region.

General Overviews, Collections, and Bibliographies

Most historical writings about the Moravians are either in German or English, although a number of important works are in Dutch and other languages. Moravians began storing records in archives and libraries and writing histories of their movement in the 18th century and have never stopped. The focus of most of these works is to enlighten readers on the history of the church and its contributions. Hamilton and Hamilton 1957 does this in English, and although it is somewhat weighted toward the American experience, it is the most comprehensive work on the Renewed Unitas Fratrum (post-1722), as it is called. Meyer 1995 introduces readers to the subject in German, focusing on Zinzendorf and his work in the German territories. The published works of Moravian writers from the 18th century to this day recognize problems and failures throughout their history, but they dwell on success, progress, and the importance of their church and its history. German and US historians have written the most important general overviews of the movement. Peucker 2015 addresses the most controversial period in the movement’s history, the so-called “Sifting Time” of the mid-18th century. Meyer 1987 provides an excellent bibliography of all these works through the mid-1980s, as well as published primary sources from the 18th century. Recently, a number of essay collections have appeared (Atwood and Vogt 2003, Brecht and Peucker 2005, Gillespie and Beachy 2007, and Lempa and Peucker 2009) that address important topics in Moravian history and give readers a good overview of recent trends in research. The Center for Moravian Studies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, maintains a website that provides valuable information on the movement and its history.

  • Atwood, Craig D., and Peter Vogt, eds. The Distinctiveness of Moravian Culture: Essays and Documents in Moravian History in Honor of Vernon H. Nelson on His Seventieth Birthday. Nazareth, PA: Moravian Historical Society, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    This Festschrift surveys Moravian aesthetics, liturgy, theology, and settlements in North America, primarily in the 18th century.

  • Brecht, Martin, and Paul Peucker, eds. Neue Aspekte der Zinzendorf-Forschung. Göttingen, Germany: VandenHoeck & Ruprecht, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of essays, primarily in German, focuses heavily on recent research on Count Zinzendorf, including his views toward missionary work.

  • Center for Moravian Studies. “Bibliographies.”

    E-mail Citation »

    This web page provides numerous subject bibliographies on nearly all aspects of the Moravian experience. There is a heavy emphasis on history and missions that is especially relevant to Atlantic history.

  • Gillespie, Michele, and Robert Beachy, eds. Pious Pursuits: German Moravians in the Atlantic World. New York: Berghahn, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of essays surveys numerous subjects important to Moravian history, especially in central Europe and North America.

  • Hamilton, J. Taylor, and Kenneth G. Hamilton. History of the Moravian Church: The Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 1722–1957. Bethlehem, PA: Moravian Church in America, 1957.

    E-mail Citation »

    This sweeping overview of the movement to the mid-20th century is the best starting point. It is somewhat weighted toward the American experience, but is important for the entire worldwide movement.

  • Lempa, Heikki, and Paul Peucker, eds. Self, Community, World: Moravian Education in a Transatlantic World. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of essays provides a survey of numerous education issues involving Moravians in Europe and the Americas.

  • Meyer, Dietrich, ed. Bibliographisches Handbuch zur Zinzendorf-Forschung. Düsseldorf, Germany: C. Blech, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a well-organized, comprehensive bibliography of the Moravian movement that includes both secondary and primary sources. Now somewhat out-of-date, it is nevertheless indispensable to researchers on the Moravians.

  • Meyer, Dietrich. “Zinzendorf und Herrnhut.” In Geschichte des Pietismus. Vol. 2. Edited by Klaus Deppermann and Ulrich Gäbler, 5–106. Göttingen, Germany: VandenHoeck & Ruprecht, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a good introduction to the 18th-century movement, written in German.

  • Peucker, Paul. A Time of Sifting: Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety in the Eighteenth Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    This monograph addresses the most controversial period of Moravian history, which occurred in the mid-18th century and was important for Moravian communities throughout the Atlantic world.

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