13 September 2015

Zeisberger and the Testimony of the Moravians


This is a sad article regarding the peace witness of the Moravian Church, the Protestant body originally descended from the Hussites.

As of late I've been revisiting the history of the Moravians and a good deal of Colonial and early American history in the Great Lakes region. I can certainly recommend a couple of books that are a good place to start:

Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn's Holy Experiment by Kevin Kenny


The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America by CG Galloway

as well as the following link:

John Yoder also deals extensively with the nature of Quaker Pennsylvania's collapse in Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution.

There has been much discussion in Northwestern Pennsylvania as of late regarding Brodhead's 1779 Expedition during the American Revolution. Brodhead headed one of several prongs dispatched by Washington to eliminate the Iroquois and punish them for remaining loyal to the British Crown.

Brodhead made his way up the Allegheny River and eliminated what was left of the Indian villages along its shores. There was a small skirmish at or near a place called Thompson's Island in Warren County Pennsylvania, believed to be the only 'battle' of the Revolutionary War in northwestern Pennsylvania. The area had already seen action during the French and Indian War (Seven Years War) and the subsequent Pontiac's Rebellion. Washington traversed the area and there were certainly some dramatic scenes, particularly at places like Fort Venango, today's Franklin, Pennsylvania. The fort and its commander were burned in 1763.

Brodhead continued up the Allegheny into New York, driving the Seneca to join up with other Iroquois refugees at Fort Niagara. A few years after the war ended they made peace with Washington and some were resettled on the NY-PA border where some still live today. Later these lands were flooded by the construction of the Kinzua Dam, made famous by the Johnny Cash song 'As Long as the Grass Shall Grow'.

South of the Kinzua Dam and the site of the Thompson's Island battle were the remnants of 'Refugee Towns', settlements of Lenape, Shawnee, Mingo and other Indians that had been forced out of lands to the east. They had settled in the 1750's near Tionesta Pennsylvania in Forest County. It was here they encountered the Moravians in the person of David Zeisberger who arrived the following decade.

Zeisberger is memorialized by PA Route 666 being named after him. Sadly the locals have no idea who Zeisberger is and the term Moravian is all but unknown. However the beautiful and somewhat wild and mysterious forest road is an object of fascination due to its numeric identification. The highway signs are frequently stolen and no doubt adorn many a teenager's wall. There is a great deal of superstition regarding the road despite its being named after a Protestant missionary.

Zeisberger preached to the Indians in the area and there's a well known painting of him preaching at a place called Goschgoschink believed to be a village today known as West Hickory, Pennsylvania. It was here he had a confrontation with a medicine man who was later converted.

From there Zeisberger led some of these converted Indians into Ohio and settled at a place called Gnadenhutten. They departed Pennsylvania in the years just before the American Revolution broke out. By the time Brodhead marched up the Allegheny in 1779 the Moravian mission and refugee towns were abandoned.

There was a previous locale by the name of Gnadenhutten in Eastern Pennsylvania, the site of a massacre during the French and Indian War. In that instance Christian Indians and Moravian missionaries were killed by other French allied Indians. It's sad to see how the European Imperial powers manipulated the Indians to massacre each other. While it's true they certainly warred prior to European colonialisation it cannot be doubted the extension of European politics into North America exacerbated the bloodshed.

Sadly, the newer Gnadenhutten in Ohio would be the site of a second massacre, this one occurring in 1782. This was at the hands of a Pennsylvania militia largely comprised of Ulster-Scot Presbyterians and was related to a second punitive Brodhead expedition, this time into Ohio. The Moravians were known to peaceable and apart from the Quakers were the only Christian group respected by the Indians, a tremendous testimony to be sure. Brodhead urged the settlers to leave the Moravians and their Indian converts alone, but the settlers were out for blood and many saints died at their hands.

Consequently many Lenape Indians (who were not converted) waged a campaign of retaliation, famously executing Colonel William Crawford who had led another expedition into Ohio to punish the Indians.

It's a sad story and all but forgotten. Even today I find many historians struggling to understand and contextualize the Moravians vis-à-vis the other Christian groups along the frontier.

The Moravians declined and today they have degenerated into theological liberalism. If I'm in Eastern Pennsylvania I am sure to swing through Bethlehem and Ephrata but sometimes I am more likely to 'feel' the Moravian presence standing on the banks of the Allegheny. I'm reminded of their tremendous missionary legacy. Hiking through the woods of the region it's hard not to think of men like David Zeisberger going about God's work, transcending the angst and troubles of the day.

They've largely lost their witness though at one time they certainly impacted the world in their way. Far more orthodox than the Quakers I cannot help but feel a certain affinity for them. Zeisberger straddled an interesting world and it drives me to wonder about some of my own ancestors who were Germans of Bohemia and Silesia that fled to the Rhineland in the late 17th century. I'm guessing they abandoned the wastelands of the Thirty Years War. Some of these same folk became Palatinate Germans who sailed to America in 1708-09 and settled in New York. Many were of Pietist background and would have felt a certain affinity with the Moravians. They were cut from the same cloth and from the same part of Central Europe.

It is a world all but forgotten, memorialized only by books that few read and historical markers along roads that are all but ignored.