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A History of the Moravian Church

by 'Joseph Edmund Hutton'

Book 3 — The Rule of the Germans. 1760-1857

Chapter 6 — The Struggle in America, 1762-1857

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FOR nearly a century the Moravians in America had felt as uncomfortable as David in Saul's armour; and the armour in this particular instance was made of certain iron rules forged at the General Synods held in Germany. As soon as Spangenberg had left his American friends, the work was placed, for the time being, under the able management of Bishop Seidal, Bishop Hehl, and Frederick William von Marschall; and then, in due course, the American Brethren were informed that a General Synod had been held at Marienborn (1764), that certain Church principles had there been laid down, and that henceforward their duty, as loyal Moravians, was to obey the laws enacted at the General Synods, and also to submit, without asking questions, to the ruling of the German Directing Board. The Americans meekly obeyed. The system of Government adopted was peculiar. At all costs, said the Brethren in Germany, the unity of the Moravian Church must be maintained; and, therefore, in order to maintain that unity the Directing Board, from time to time, sent high officials across the Atlantic on visitations to America. In 1765 they sent old David Nitschmann; in 1770 they sent Christian Gregor, John Lorentz, and Alexander von Schweinitz; in 1779 they sent Bishop John Frederick Reichel; in 1783 they sent Bishop John de Watteville; in 1806 they sent John Verbeck and John Charles Forester; and thus they respectfully reminded the American Brethren that although they lived some thousands of miles away, they were still under the fatherly eye of the German Directing Board. For this policy the German Brethren had a noble reason. As the resolutions passed at the General Synods were nearly always confirmed by the Lot, they could not help feeling that those resolutions had some Divine authority; and, therefore, what God called good in Germany must be equally good in America. For this reason they enforced the settlement system in America just as strictly as in Germany. Instead of aiming at church extension they centralized the work round the four settlements of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Salem and Lititz. There, in the settlements, they enforced the Brotherly Agreement; there they insisted on the use of the Lot; there they fostered diaconies, choirs, Brethren's Houses and Sisters' Houses, and all the features of settlement life; and there alone they endeavoured to cultivate the Moravian Quietist type of gentle piety. Thus the Brethren in America were soon in a queer position. As there was no State Church in America, and as, therefore, no one could accuse them of being schismatics, they had just as much right to push their cause as any other denomination; and yet they were just as much restricted as if they had been dangerous heretics. Around them lay an open country, with a fair field and no favour; within their bosoms glowed a fine missionary zeal; and behind them, far away at Herrnhut, sat the Directing Board, with their hands upon the curbing rein.

If this system of government favoured unity, it also prevented growth. It was opposed to American principles, and out of place on American soil. What those American principles were we all know. At that famous period in American history, when the War of Independence broke out, and the Declaration of Independence was framed, nearly all the people were resolute champions of democratic government. They had revolted against the rule of King George III.; they stood for the principle, "no taxation without representation"; they erected democratic institutions in every State and County; they believed in the rights of free speech and free assembly; and, therefore, being democratic in politics, they naturally wished to be democratic in religion. But the Moravians were on the horns of a dilemma. As they were not supposed to meddle with politics, they did not at first take definite sides in the war. They objected to bearing arms; they objected to taking oaths; and, therefore, of course, they objected also to swearing allegiance to the Test Act (1777). But this attitude could not last for ever. As the war continued, the American Moravians became genuine patriotic American citizens. For some months the General Hospital of the American Army was stationed at Bethlehem; at another time it was stationed at Lititz; and some of the young Brethren joined the American Army, and fought under General Washington's banner for the cause of Independence. For this natural conduct they were, of course, rebuked; and in some cases they were even expelled from the Church.

At this point, when national excitement was at its height, Bishop Reichel arrived upon the scene from Germany, and soon instructed the American Brethren how to manage their affairs {1779.}. He acted in opposition to American ideals. Instead of summoning a Conference of ministers and deputies, he summoned a Conference consisting of ministers only; the American laymen had no chance of expressing their opinions; and, therefore, acting under Reichel's influence, the Conference passed the astounding resolution that "in no sense shall the societies of awakened, affiliated as the fruit of the former extensive itinerations, be regarded as preparatory to the organisation of congregations, and that membership in these societies does not at all carry with it communicant membership or preparation for it." There lay the cause of the Brethren's failure in America. In spite of its rather stilted language, we can easily see in that sentence the form of an old familiar friend. It is really our German friend the Diaspora, and our English friend the system of United Flocks. For the next sixty-four years that one sentence in italics was as great a barrier to progress in America as the system of United Flocks in England. As long as that resolution remained in force, the American Moravians had no fair chance of extending; and all the congregations except the four settlements were treated, not as hopeful centres of work, but as mere societies and preaching-places. Thus again, precisely as in Great Britain, did the Brethren clip their own wings; thus again

did they sternly refuse admission to hundreds of applicants for Church membership. A few figures will make this clear. At Graceham the Brethren had 90 adherents, but only 60 members {1790.}; at Lancaster 258 adherents, but only 72 members; at Philadelphia 138 adherents, but only 38 members; at Oldmanscreek 131 adherents, but only 37 members; at Staten Island 100 adherents, but only 20 members; at Gnadenhütten 41 adherents, but only 31 members; at Emmaus 93 adherents, but only 51 members; at Schoeneck 78 adherents, but only 66 members; at Hebron 72 adherents, but only 24 members; at York 117 adherents, but only 38 members; and at Bethel 87 adherents, but only 23 members. If these figures are dry, they are at least instructive; and the grand point they prove is that the American Moravians, still dazzled by Zinzendorf's "Church within the Church" idea, compelled hundreds who longed to join their ranks as members to remain outside the Church. In Germany this policy succeeded; in England, where a State Church existed, it may have been excusable; but in America, where a State Church was unknown, it was senseless and suicidal.

And yet the American Moravians did not live entirely in vain. Amid the fury of American politics, they cultivated the three Moravian fruits of piety, education and missionary zeal. At Bethlehem they opened a Girls' School; and so popular did that school become that one of the directors, Jacob Van Vleck, had to issue a circular, stating that during the next eighteen months no more applications from parents could be received. It was one of the finest institutions in North America; and among the thousands of scholars we find relatives of such famous American leaders as Washington, Addison, Sumpter, Bayard, Livingstone and Roosevelt. At Nazareth the Brethren had a school for boys, known as "Nazareth Hall." If this school never served any other purpose, it certainly taught some rising Americans the value of order and discipline. At meals the boys had to sit in perfect silence; and when they wished to indicate their wants, they did so, not by using their tongues, but by holding up the hand or so many fingers. The school was divided into "rooms"; each "room" contained only fifteen or eighteen pupils; these pupils were under the constant supervision of a master; and this master, who was generally a theological scholar, was the companion and spiritual adviser of his charges. He joined in all their games, heard them sing their hymns, and was with them when they swam in the "Deep Hole" in the Bushkill River on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, when they gathered nuts in the forests, and when they sledged in winter in the surrounding country.

For foreign missions these American Brethren were equally enthusiastic. They established a missionary society known as the "Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Brethren" (1787); they had that society enrolled as a corporate body; they were granted by Congress a tract of 4,000 acres in the Tuscawaras Valley; and they conducted a splendid mission to the Indians in Georgia, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Canada, Kansas and Arkansas.

But work of this kind was not enough to satisfy the American Brethren. As the population increased around them they could not help feeling that they ought to do more in their native land; and the yoke of German authority galled them more and more. In their case there was some excuse for rebellious feelings. If there is anything a genuine American detests, it is being compelled to obey laws which he himself has not helped to make; and that was the very position of the American Brethren. In theory they were able to attend the General Synods; in fact, very few could undertake so long a journey. At one Synod (1782) not a single American Brother was present; and yet the decisions of the Synod were of full force in America.

At length the Americans took the first step in the direction of Home Rule. For forty-eight years their Provincial Synods had been attended by ministers only; but now by special permission of the U.E.C., they summoned a Provincial Synod at Lititz consisting of ministers and deputies {1817.}. At this Synod they framed a number of petitions to be laid before the next General Synod in Germany. They requested that the monthly "speaking" should be abolished; that Brethren should be allowed to serve in the army; that the American Provincial Helpers' Conference should be allowed to make appointments without consulting the German U.E.C.; that the congregations should be allowed to elect their own committees without using the Lot; that all adult communicant members should be entitled to a vote; that the use of the Lot should be abolished in marriages, in applications for membership, and in the election of deputies to the General Synod; and, finally, that at least one member of the U.E.C. should know something about American affairs. Thus did the Americans clear the way for Church reform. In Germany they were regarded as dangerous radicals. They were accused of an unwholesome desire for change. They designed, it was said, to pull down everything old and set up something new. At the General Synod (1818) most of their requests were refused; and the only point they gained was that the Lot need not be used in marriages in town and country congregations. At the very time when the Americans were growing more radical, the Germans, as we have seen already, were growing more conservative.154

But the American Brethren were not disheartened. In addition to being leaders in the cause of reform, they now became the leaders in the Home Mission movement; and here they were twenty years before their British Brethren. In 1835, in North Carolina, they founded a "Home Missionary Society"; in 1844 they abolished the settlement system; in 1849 they founded a general "Home Missionary Society"; in 1850 they founded a monthly magazine, the Moravian Church Miscellany; in

1855 they founded their weekly paper the Moravian, and placed all their Home Mission work under a general Home Mission Board. Meanwhile, they had established new congregations at Colored Church, in North Carolina (1822; Hope, in Indiana (1830); Hopedale, in Pennsylvania (1837); Canal Dover, in Ohio (1840); West Salem, in Illinois 1844; Enon, in Indiana (1846); West Salem for Germans, in Edwards County (1848); Green Bay, in Wisconsin (1850); Mount Bethell, in Caroll County (1851); New York (1851); Ebenezer, in Wisconsin (1853); Brooklyn (1854); Utica, in Oneida County (1854); Watertown, in Wisconsin (1854); and Lake Mills, in Wisconsin (1856). At the very time when the British Moravians were forming their first Home Mission Society, the Americans had founded fourteen new congregations; and thus they had become the pioneers in every Moravian onward movement.

But their greatest contribution to progress is still to be mentioned. Of all the Provincial Synods held in America, the most important was that which met at Bethlehem on May 2nd, 1855. As their Home Mission work had extended so rapidly they now felt more keenly than ever how absurd it was the American work should still be managed by a Directing Board in Germany; and, therefore, they now laid down the proposal that American affairs should be managed by an American Board, elected by an American Provincial Synod {1855.}. In other words, the Americans demanded independence in all American affairs. They wished, in future, to manage their own concerns; they wished to make their own regulations at their own Provincial Synods; they established an independent "Sustentation Fund," and desired to have their own property; and therefore they requested the U.E.C. to summon a General Synod at the first convenient opportunity to consider their resolutions. Thus, step by step, the American Moravians prepared the way for great changes. If these changes are to be regarded as reforms, the American Moravians must have the chief praise and glory. They were the pioneers in the Home Mission movement; they were the staunchest advocates of democratic government; they had long been the stoutest opponents of the Lot; and now they led the way in the movement which ended in the separation of the Provinces. In England their demand for Home Rule awakened a partial response; in Germany it excited anger and alarm; and now Moravians all over the world were waiting with some anxiety to see what verdict would be passed by the next General Synod.155

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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