Moravian Seminar in Heidelberg

Wayoming WaterfallThe main reason I came to Heidelberg on sabbatical was to teach a Hauptseminar (advance seminar) on the Moravians in the American Studies program. My co-teacher was a PhD candidate named Jennifer Adams-Maßmann who is writing a dissertation on the European and Native American women in the Moravian mission in North America. We finished the seminar on Saturday and several of us went out for hot chocolate and then four of us followed up with drinks and dinner. It was a wonderful group of students. Half were undergraduates in the American Studies program and half were theology students in the masters program. One woman about my age audited the class. There was only one man. He had to miss the last day because he was judging the fencing competitions. I was so thrilled to learn that they still have the dueling clubs in Heidelberg, and apparently members of the clubs still receive the ritual scar from a sword. I so wanted to do that when I was 15! But, except for that disruption in attendance, the students were remarkably well-prepared and engaged in the course.

You may be wondering why Professor Jan Stievemann, the head of the American Studies Program and a leading authority on religion in colonial America, would want a seminar just on the Moravians. Or why students in a German university would take three weekends to attend classes and also read well over 300 pages of material on the Moravians. It is because the Moravians were one of the most interesting and controversial religious groups in the early modern period. We began with a discussion of the Bohemian Brethren and Jan Amos Comenius’s pansophic social reform proposals. Some of the students were fascinated by the excerpts of Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart that we read. Then we focused on Zinzendorf’s theology, especially his Blood and Wounds theology, his understanding of the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit, the concept of the Mystical Marriage with Christ, and his religion of the heart. The students were amazed at the 18th century Moravian women who were ordained as deacons and presbyters. We talked about the violence against the Moravians and why so many anti-Moravian publications were written in the time of Zinzendorf. And then we focused in on the Native American mission, especially the role of women in the mission. Unfortunately, I ended the seminar with a 30 minute lecture on what happened to the Moravians after the death of Zinzendorf, especially how they developed in the 19th century. We talked honestly about the way that slave-holding corrupted their original inclusive vision and the fact that the Moravian avoidance of politics meant that they did not participate in any of the great social crusades of the Second Great Awakening – except for Temperance. I’m afraid that some of the students were visibly and vocally depressed by what happened to this radical, expansive, and innovative religious group.

In small ways I try to encourage modern Moravians around the world to embrace their ancestry and learn from the theologies of Comenius and Zinzendorf, but I know that institutionalization takes its toll on every charismatic movement. I don’t think my teaching and writing will significantly alter the future of the Moravian Church, but I do hope that non-Moravians will be inspired by this history and will learn that there was a moment in history when Europeans from different countries put aside their differences to worship the Savior, and that when they did so they also recognized that all people in the world share a common humanity.

I am proud of the fact that my ancestors in faith were among the first white people to challenge the modern institutions of oppression and exploitation by welcoming men, women, and children of different races and tongues as brothers and sisters. Comenius, Zinzendorf, and those hundreds of courageous missionaries were far from perfect, and at times may have been a touch insane, but their insanity was fueled by a burning passion to make this world more closely resemble the heavenly kingdom. There was briefly a time in American history when a group of white people were so eager to break bread with Native Americans and enslaved Africans that they risked their lives to bring them good news about the Savior of humankind. And in some of the old God’s Acres the bodies of German aristocrats, Moravian peasants, Mohican, and Mandingo rest side by side awaiting the return of our Lord.

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