Motherhood of Holy Spirit in 18th century

The Motherhood of the Holy Spirit in Moravian Bethlehem
Presented to the Moravian College Faculty, April 7, 2011
Craig D. Atwood

Mother Spirit lecture 2011

Introduction [Slide] You may recognize this stone from Main Hall but you may not have considered the meaning of the text. When the residents of Bethlehem built their large building for the Single Brothers in 1748, this stone was carved to proclaim to all visitors to Bethlehem what the Moravians believed about God and their new town: “Father and Mother and dear Husband give honor to the plans of the young men.” Even people who understand the German words inscribed on Main Hall may not recognize that this was a prayer to the Holy Trinity. The Moravians in 1748 were so committed to the idea that the Trinity includes God the Mother that they literally wrote it in stone and placed it on the front of one of their largest buildings at the intersection of Church St. and Main St. However, later generations of Moravians became so embarrassed by the theology of their ancestors that the message and this stone were hidden. They were restored only recently.

Research When I was a student at Moravian Seminary in the 1980s we were told that the 1740s was a period of religious and social experimentation in the Moravian Church that historians have generally dismissed as “a time of sifting.” We were taught that one of the crazy ideas proposed during that time was that people should call the Holy Spirit “Mother.” What we were not told, and what did not appear in any of the scholarship on the Moravians prior to 1995 was that the devotion to the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit was not a passing fancy. Gary Kinkel in 1990 published Our Dear Mother the Spirit: An Investigation of Count Zinzendorf’s Theology and Praxis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), which examined Zinzendorf’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the 1740s. Though appreciative of the Count’s pneumatology, Kinkel also believed that this was a product of the Sifting Time and quickly ended after 1749. In fact, devotion to the Holy Spirit as mother was a central part of the church’s worship, doctrine, and private devotion for nearly 20 years. Here is an excerpt from one of the official litanies of the church in the mid-1700s.

[Show Slide]  This is a prayer to the Trinity that was composed in 1744, around the time of the founding of Bethlehem. It was included in the Moravian book of worship the following year. In Bethlehem worship was every day, and this prayer was sung about once a week for over fifteen years. Trisagion, by the way, refers to the “holy, holy, holy” sung by the angels before the throne of God in the Book of Revelation. The thrice-repeated “holy” is one of the most venerable parts of Christian liturgy, and is used in many different churches. The fact that the Moravians re-interpreted the Trisagion by using the language of Father, Mother, and Bridegroom is just one indication of how important this language was for the Moravians and their leader Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf.

[Slide] When I did my doctoral dissertation on how Zinzendorf’s theology shaped the communal life of Bethlehem I discovered that the doctrine of the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit was deeply ingrained in the life of the Moravians during their most creative and expansive period. In one of his first sermons to Lutherans in Pennsylvania in 1742, Zinzendorf addressed this topic. [Slide] Nearly one third of the hymns written by the Moravians in the 1740s and 50s refer to the Spirit as Mother. In 1746 in London Zinzendorf announced that the Motherhood of the Holy Spirit was “an extremely important and essential point … and all our community and praxis hangs on this point.”[1]

Origin Although Zinzendorf took some theology classes at the University of Wittenberg and managed to get ordained as a Lutheran minister, he was not an academically trained theologian. In fact, he was often frustrated by the excessive subtlety and hair-splitting of traditional theology, which seemed to him more likely to cause people to become atheists rather than disciples of Christ. He once admitted that he had never understood what the Trinity meant because the usual language the church uses to describe the Spirit is too abstract. Words like Spirit, Power, Effect, or Omnipresence meant little to him. He said that the doctrine of the Trinity was irrelevant for him until he was in his 30s when he had a spiritual and intellectual breakthrough; he discovered a new way of talking about the Spirit. “For before [theologians] regarded her as a finger, a dove, a mirror, and they publish, preach, and sing a hundred other foolish fancies about her in which there was no sense and understanding.  So now they may rather attain a childlike, simple heart concept of her, since one is better than the others: for the hearty, childlike concept can still bring them to a true, living knowledge and to a feeling of the office of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.”[2] That new and simple concept is that the Spirit functions like a Mother.

Zinzendorf insisted that Christians should not have to study Greek philosophy in order to worship God or experience the Holy Spirit. It is simple and natural to conceive of God as Father and even God as Son. Why not also visualize God as Mother? “If now such a child thinks about the holy Trinity, it does not need to speculate in the abyss of the Godhead and strain its head and reason so that it might snap and tear.  But as easy as it is for one to think about Father or Mother, so easy it is for the disposition to occupy itself with the heavenly Father and the heavenly Mother.  That is simple, childlike, easy, and tender.”[3] Any child could understand this language of motherhood. This was a type of speech that was easy to translate for Native Americans, enslaved Africans, Inuit, and other peoples. It is probably not accidental that Zinzendorf began promoting the doctrine of the Mother Office of the Spirit at the same time that Moravians began evangelizing tribal peoples from Greenland to the Cape of Good Hope.

Zinzendorf assumed that since everyone had a mother, preachers would not need to teach people what a mother is and what mothers do. All they would have to would be to convince people that God is like a mother. Fundamentally, mothers, like God, are the givers of life and they provide nourishment for their children. The word Mother expresses clearly the meaning of the Nicene Creed’s statement that the Holy Spirit “is the giver of life.” But the role of mother involves more than childbirth and nursing for Zinzendorf. He was familiar with powerful and purposeful women. His grandmother ran a vast estate and corresponded frequently with Leibnitz about philosophy. His wife, Erdmuth Dorothea, [Slide] became the manager of Zinzendorf’s estates and held supervisory offices in the Moravian Church. This is a picture of her before she adopted the more familiar Moravian dress. Erdmuth was widely recognized by the Moravians as the matriarch of the church, and people often addressed her as “Mama.”

Bible: Although he claimed that there was a long tradition of viewing the Holy Spirit in maternal images in the history of Christianity, Zinzendorf knew that his conception of the Spirit was provocative. He repeatedly tried to convince Lutheran and Calvinist that the Bible teaches the maternal office of the Holy Spirit. He linked a passage from the NT with one from the OT to argue his point.

[Slide] “Now no theologian is irritated if the word comfort is taken out of the passage and applied to the Holy Spirit, for they call her the Comforter.  But if we take out the word Mother and signify it to the Holy Spirit, then people are opposed to it.  I can find no cause for such bickering and arbitrariness.”[4] More creatively he drew on a passage [Slide] that is very popular with those evangelicals who insist that people must be “born again.” Zinzendorf was one of the few theologians to recognize the maternal imagery that is central to this conversation with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. Zinzendorf has Jesus say to Nicodemus: “There is another Mother, not the one who physically gave you birth, that one doesn’t matter: you must have another Mother who will give you birth.”[5] Ultimately, according to Zinzendorf, the Holy Spirit is the true spiritual Mother of Christians in the sense that she is the active agent in conversion.  Many theologians and preachers strongly objected to this type of biblical interpretation, but thousands of people responded positively to Zinzendorf’s sermons and hymns. Some of them were willing to cross an ocean and build a community in the wilderness of Pennsylvania.

Te Matrem [Slide]           Here is an excerpt from the most important liturgical piece about the Mother Spirit. In 1744 Zinzendorf took the ancient Christian litany called the Te Deum and wrote separate litanies to the Father, the Mother, and Christ. This was prayed every week in Bethlehem and was especially popular among the women. [Slide]  This was one way Zinzendorf tried to teach the community about the Holy Spirit and to lead them into closer union with the Spirit. The first duty of the Spirit is to bring people to Christ and lead to into spiritual rebirth. But her motherly work does not end there. She protects, guides, admonishes, and comforts the children of God throughout the changing years of their earthly life, just like a human mother teaches a child to become an adult.  The Moravians believed that Spirit does this for all Christians, but she could do her work better if Christians participate in the process by acknowledging her motherly presence in their lives.

The Moravians often referred to the Church as the school of the Holy Spirit. Christ established the Church so that people could learn about God and their own souls, and grow into the people they were intended to be. But the school of the Holy Spirit is not like a human educational institution; it is more like “a family school, that is a school on the lap, in the arms of the eternal Mother” who tenderly loves her children. The language of motherhood expressed the intimate connection the Moravians felt with God through the Spirit. Each believer “sits on the Mother’s lap, is received into the school, and is led through all classes; then it is under the special dispensation, under the motherly regimen of the Holy Spirit, who comforts, punishes, and kisses the heart, as a mother comforts, punishes, and kisses her own child.”[6] This is really a lovely rethinking of worship. Contrast the image of believers sitting on the lap of the Holy Spirit and being taught by her to the image of worship we have from Puritanism or Catholicism at the time.

Mutter Nitschmann [Slide] In a famous scene from the Book of Acts, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples so they could preach in other languages. Zinzendorf claimed that on that day the Spirit anointed one hundred and twenty people to the apostolic office, and he pointed out a fact often missed by male theologians. Women were present among the disciples at Pentecost, and the NT indicates that many women were leaders in the early church. Zinzendorf was one of the few preachers to assert that the at Pentecost the Holy Spirit created “an equality in the teaching office between the sisters and brothers.”[7]

[Slide] The Moravians in the mid-1700s gave women leadership roles denied them in other churches. Over two hundred women were ordained deacons and fourteen Priesterinnen (female priests) before the death of Zinzendorf.[8] It is not clear whether any of these women consecrated the sacraments, but they were considered clergy who had responsibility for the spiritual care of women. Some of them were preachers, and more provocatively, women elders and deacons served on almost every decision-making body in Bethlehem and other Moravian communities.[9]

[Slide] The most important of these women was Anna Nitschmann who was often referred to a Mutter, and it is suggestive that Zinzendorf pointed to her as a way to describe the work of the Holy Spirit.[10] Nitschmann had been elected an eldress in Herrnhut Germany in 1730 when she was only fifteen, and a few years later she founded the Single Sisters Choir. She remained the leader of the single women of the worldwide Moravian Church until her death in 1760. Incidentally she and Zinzendorf died within weeks of each other, leaving the church without a clear leader. Erdmuth had died four years earlier and Zinzendorf’s only son died in 1753. Leadership of the church passed into the hands of a committee, and unfortunately for historians, one of the first things the elders decided to do was burn Nitschmann’s diaries and letters. We will never know what the elders found so disturbing in her papers they had to be destroyed, but this obviously hampers research into the life and thought of Nitschmann.

Bethlehem One of the most important communities established by the Moravians during the time of Zinzendorf was Bethlehem, and there has been a lot of scholarly research on this town. It was one of the most successful communes in American history and is significant in other ways as well. There have been several very good books about colonial Bethlehem, but one of the things that had been completely overlooked by historians and religion scholars until the mid-1990s was the importance of the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit to the life of the residents even though it was written in stone.

[Slide] The leader of Bethlehem for most of the 1740s and 50s was August Gottlieb Spangenberg, who is second only to Zinzendorf in importance for the Moravians. For over 200 years historians made the false assumption that Spangenberg was more conservative than Zinzendorf and resisted his more creative ideas, such as the adoration of the Spirit as Mother. Numerous studies contrast the supposedly orthodox and practical Spangenberg to the creative and mercurial count. But there is conclusive evidence that Spangenberg actively promoted the worship of the Mother in Bethlehem in the 1750s, after the so-called Sifting Time. During that decade the church in Germany published special devotional guides about the Holy Spirit and wrote several new hymns about her motherly office.

[Slide] Early in the 1750s the church proclaimed that the Holy Spirit was to be officially enthroned as the Mother of the Moravian Church, just as Jesus had been proclaimed the Chief Elder ten years earlier. The first time the Mutterfest was held in Bethlehem was December 19, 1756. There is nothing in the records to indicate that there was any opposition among the Moravians to this new festival. On the contrary, it appears to have been enthusiastically embraced. Incidentally Moravian worship in the 1700s was a lot more sensual and expressive than today. Here is a slide [Slide] depicting Moravian women ritually washing each other’s feet in imitation of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. The second observation of the Mutterfest appears to have been even more emotional than the first year’s service, as this slide indicates. [Slide] All of the reports indicate that the women, both married and single, found the service particularly meaningful.

Women Leadership According to the doctrine of most churches, the Holy Spirit plays a special role in the sacraments, making them holy. Zinzendorf, like most theologians, asserted that the Holy Spirit is the one who truly consecrates the bread and wine in communion, making it the body and blood of Christ. [Slide] What distinguished Moravian teaching was that they taught that the Spirit who makes the waters of baptism holy and who consecrates Holy Communion is the Mother of the church. In other words, it is a Mother, not a Father, who brings people to new life through baptism and feeds the church the sacred body and blood.

Moravians were the only church prior to the mid-19th century that regularly allowed female deacons to serve Holy Communion. [Slide] (Quakers had female preachers and pastors, but they do not have sacraments.) Even though this was extremely controversial at the time, Moravians published pictures like this one in their apologetic works in the 1750s. What they did not tell the public was that the women who served communion were not simply assisting. They were ordained by Anna Nitschmann or another female elder, usually with the help of a male bishop. In other words, Nitschmann acted in the role of a bishop even if she did not have the title.

Demise of the Mother Office [Slide]           It took a great deal of research in the archives in Bethlehem and Herrnhut for me to prove conclusively that the adoration of the Holy Spirit as Mother was central to the life of the Moravians during the Zinzendorfian period. This was in part because the church did such a good job of repressing this type of devotion after the death of Zinzendorf. The church was in a very precarious financial and political situation after the death of Zinzendorf, and there was a long period of retrenchment and conservatism that lasted well into the 19th century. The church tried to minimize whatever had generated controversy and opposition against the Moravians during Zinzendorf’s life. This included the Mother Office of the Spirit. Not only did Zinzendorf’s successors destroy some of the records, they intentionally allowed Zinzendorf’s writings to go out of print. They also rewrote their worship materials to remove references to the Mother.

In 1764 the church brought together most of the leaders of the church, male and female, in a synod to deal with the crisis caused by the death of Zinzendorf. Some of the elders suggested that the language of motherhood had caused too much opposition and misunderstanding and should be dropped. Many of the members of the synod disagreed, asserting that this doctrine had been a great blessing to the church. [Slide] But the leading male authorities doubted the wisdom of using language that was so at odds with other churches. They instructed the members of the church to avoid using this language in public settings. They also decided to let most of Zinzendorf’s writings go out of print so the public would have less access to what he said. Before long it was forgotten that he preached entire sermons on the Mother office of the Spirit.

At the next synod, women had less voice in the affairs in the church, and the synod appointed a pastor to revise all of the litanies of the church. [Slide] The new litanies replaced the word “Mother” with “Comforter” in most instances. The last time the Mutterfest was celebrated was in 1774. There are occasional references to “the dear Mother” in the archival record as late as 1800, especially in items written by older Moravian women who had joined the church in the 1740s and 50s, but “Mother” was not used in published hymns, prayers, or public sermons. By 1800 the Moravians no longer worshiped God using maternal language and soon denied that this had even been part of their history.

Conclusion People often ask me “so what” when I talk about the past. Does it matter that the people who built Bethlehem and founded Moravian College once used maternal images for God and even held elaborate festivals to God the Mother? Does it matter that the Moravians were the first church to ordain women as priests who served communion and heard confessions of other women? Perhaps not. The past is past, after all, and the church moved away from this radically inclusive approach to gender. Maybe the real story is the repression of maternal imagery and what that tells us about institutions. Personally, I think that when Moravian College and Theological Seminary remembers and celebrates people like Benigna von Zinzendorf, [Slide] whom we claim as a founder we should recall that her understanding of the Trinity included God the Mother as well as God the Father. It may well be that one reason a school for women was founded in eastern Pennsylvania in 1742 was because of the Moravians devotion to the Mother Spirit. This history may give hope to women and men today who long for a more inclusive and holistic spirituality. By recovering the history, Moravian institutions may gain new insight into their own mission and identity.

[1] Zinzendorf, Eine Rede, vom Mutter-Amte des heiligen Geistes.  Gehalten  in London den 19. Oct. 1746, in Der öffentlichen Gemeinreden im Jahr 1747 (hereafter Gemeinreden), Anhang, p. 2, reproduced in Hauptschriften in sechs Bänden (hereafter abbreviated as ZH) edited by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), vol. 4.

[2] Gemeinreden, Anhang, 3.

[3] Gemein Reden 46:254-255.

[4] Eine Rede, vom Mutter-Amte des heiligen Geistes, Gemeinreden Anhang, 2.

[5] Gemeinreden 46:254.

[6] Gemeine Reden 27:375; Gemeinreden 3:71.

[7] Gemeinreden 32, 69.

[8] Peter Vogt, “A Voice for Themselves: Women as Participants in Congregational Discourse in the Eighteenth-Century Moravian Movement,” in Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), 227-247.

[9] Hans Joachim Wollstadt, Geordnetes Dienen in der Christlichen Gemeinde: dargestellt an den Lebensformen der Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine in ihren Anfängen (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1966), 346-348; cf. Otto Uttendörfer, Zinzendorf und die Frauen: Kirchliche Frauenrechte vor 200 Jahren (Herrnhut: Missionsbuchhandlung, 1919).

[10] Dieter Meyer, Der Christozentrismus des späten Zinzendorf (Bern: Herbert Lang, 1973), 61.

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  • Gary L Harke  On April 8, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Gary Kinkel’s “Our Dear Mother the Spirit: An Investigation of Count Zinzendorf’s Theology and Praxis” was published in 1990, suggesting that this doctrinal “innovation” might not be quite as unknown as claimed.

    • theflamingheretic  On April 8, 2011 at 1:58 pm

      Gary’s book does investigate it as an aspect of Zinzendorf’s theology, indicating that it was part of the Sifting Time and quickly dismissed. Which is what I say in the lecture. The new part in my research was that this was integral to the community and part of the liturgy of Bethlehem. I originally had a section on Gary’s research but there was not enough time in the course of lecture to go into it.

  • Tammie Rinker  On April 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    This is wonderfully exciting and thought provoking! Thank you Craig! Now what?!


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