It is one thing to evangelise the lost in other cultures, but this is quickly followed by another question. After becoming Christians, how do the converts live and interact with their society? This is an issue missionaries have long wrestled with. Undoubtedly, every society presents cultural elements and norms that are religious in nature and present a problem for the Christian, especially the new proselyte.
For the missionary working with a group of converts and hoping to reach a wider audience, a great deal of wisdom must be both granted and employed. In the past, the common model was what might be described as imperialist. The conquering culture brings its religion and all but legislates Christianity. It imposes its culture on the 'converted' people. We see this during Late Antiquity with the 'conversion' and 'Christianisation' of various European tribes, and we see it later and often in more harsh terms when applied by the Spanish and various Protestants peoples in the New World. Of course in these instances 'conversion' is something other than what is presented in Scripture. Christianisation itself is an extra-Biblical concept finding no support in Scripture.
There are exceptions to this missionary tendency but they are few. One noteworthy example is that of the Moravians and especially as exemplified in the work of David Zeisberger and some of his comrades who fanned out from their base in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and worked to evangelise the native peoples of North America. Zeisberger would at first move to toward the North-Central portion of the state, spend a few years in Western Pennsylvania before eventually moving into Ohio where he would spend the bulk of his remaining years.
Zeisberger knew that Native Americans or Indians had to break with their culture. They couldn't follow Christ and simply continue in the normative sacralist-superstitious lifestyle of the tribes.
But at the same time, did they need to become Europeans? Was European culture the only way in which the Kingdom of God could be lived out? Zeisberger thought not and his testimony continues to fascinate because he was able to locate a point of compromise... not the compromise of the Gospel but rather in how the Gospel is applied in terms of culture. They needed to absolutely embrace Christ with every aspect of their lives but at the same time they did not need to embrace the cultural norms of Europe.
Zeisberger being a Moravian was the rare Protestant not of a Dominionist heritage. The Moravians sought to Evangelise, not conquer. They were not wed to a nation. Unlike the Puritans they were not seeking to build a political Zion, but a spiritual one. Their model for Christian converts was not based on a gospel wed to coercion, top down legislation or a programme of Christianisation. Rather they focused on individual conversions, and then these new believers were understood to be joining a new community. This is quite different than the notion of transforming the social order.
Does the Church represent a parallel society (in the world but not of it) or is it the task of the Church to transform society, conquering it and forcing (at the very least) some kind of mass outward obedience?
In other words the Moravians sought to build a Christian community but in doing so they were not seeking lordship over the unconverted. This was tremendous in terms of their testimony. This is why of all the European peoples who came to the new world the Moravians and Quakers stand virtually alone. They were the only groups respected by the Indians and interestingly in many cases Indian chiefs were willing to invite these men to come and preach to their people. They knew that these men were not double-dealers with forked tongues. They were not men seeking to steal land and other resources. Selfless, they were there to serve and bear witness. The Dominionist model cannot but fall into a trap of fiscal concerns. Wielding power requires money, control of resources and ultimately leads to exploitation. It's a completely different way of approaching the world and is ultimately quite hostile to the people on the receiving end.
It's no accident that Fenimore Cooper's 'Hawkeye' in The Last of the Mohicans was raised by the Indians and yet schooled by the Moravians. Like Cooper's fictional character, Zeisberger was one of the only white men the Indians respected and would allow to pass their frontiers and walk their secret and forbidden trails.
How then does the convert operate under the Moravian model? Must they entirely forsake their culture?
The Puritans, Spanish and others would say yes. And indeed, let's be clear, as Christians we're called to forsake all.
But does Christian mean becoming White European in terms of culture? Must all converts adopt the folkways and norms concerning time, economy, food, clothing etc. as exemplified in European cultures?
Of course it was clear to many genuine European Christians (let alone converts outside the continent) that the Christendom of Europe (including its values and assumptions) was sub-Christian and in many cases (when compared to Scripture) anti-Christian. It was certainly racist as was made all too clear during the era of exploration and conquest. Additionally this was plainly the case in the context of 17th and 18th century missionary endeavour... almost all of which took place against the backdrop of imperialism.
The Moravians represented a different way. This is true both in approach to the question of conversion and its outworking and application in the life of the convert.
First, it is perhaps ironic that when speaking of conversion and salvation, the Moravian way was perhaps more Calvinistic than the Puritan. I mean this in terms of ideology as opposed to the actual or functional way in which the Puritans sought to change people's lives. While Calvinists on paper, the Puritans drank deep from the Constantinian well which has always been and continues to be Semi-Pelagian in its approach to sin and culture. This model of cultural transformation rests on an implied premise of man's ability and consequently has a low view of sin and indeed redemption itself. Sin is transformed from being a matter of the heart to one of outward conformity to cultural norms and the rule of law. They seek to change society and then work long-term on changing hearts... something this sub-Biblical model has always failed to do.
The Moravians did not seek to bring about change through the state, legislation or in imposing Spirit-wrought values through common extra-Scriptural (extra-New Testament) means such as law and punishment. For those who professed Christ they were expected to live up to that calling and its ethical norms. The Constantinian-Cultural approach seeks to cast a wide net and bring about transformation through the reform of culture. But if as Romans says, unbelievers cannot obey God's commands and submit themselves to His Holy Spiritual laws... then what is the result? Either hypocrisy or the necessary toleration and watering down of sinful conduct. This is exactly what we've had for centuries and the West has been transformed not into Zion, but instead it has become a vast Burned Over district all but inoculated to the Gospel.
Calvinism allowed Constantinianism to triumph over a theology and a specific soteriology that does not function very well when applied to a culture. But Calvinism wed as it was to the Magisterial Reformation has (ironically) always worked to undermine its own theology and as a result, the areas at one time so 'transformed' (supposedly) by its doctrines are today the lands of the hardened heart and the stiff neck. They are the cesspools of sin and the very gateways to hell. Geneva, New England and of course the Netherlands are prime examples of this. The other Magisterial Reformation haunts of Britain and Germany are no less disappointing and this was true long before the ecclesiastical decline of the 20th century. The rotten seeds were sown generations earlier.
The Moravians ironically employed something reminiscent of the 'sensible sinner' approach that appeared in the Hyper-Calvinism of John Gill and later Strict Baptists.
They lived among Indians, earned their trust and respect and looked for possible converts. They didn't seek to browbeat the tribe or focus on converting the chief in hopes of a mass conversion mandate. They knew that such methods reduced the Gospel and Christianity to mere ordered compliance. The Moravians had in many ways departed their older Hussite roots and yet this was a lesson they seemed to retain. They knew all about conformist cultural Christianity and had little interest in it.
Second, in terms of the life of the believer the Indians had to give up much that was pagan. But was the hunter-gatherer small-scale agrarian life of Native Americans illegitimate? Was it intrinsically an immoral cultural form? Did they have to become good members of the burgher class? Did they need to find industry, join a guild etc...? Was this type of lifestyle necessary in order to be a Christian?
Zeisberger and The Moravians realised that life among the Indians wasn't really possible for converts. They couldn't go on just living in and among the tribe.
But life among whites wasn't really possible either. They would be subject to abuse and in many cases, given the context... blame and retribution. Also, to live among the whites would mean abandoning the native life and culture. They could no longer be a people of the forest.
By living with the whites they would also fall under the wrath and condemnation of other Indians who would view them as traitors and collaborators with their treacherous conquerors.
As a consequence of these various factors, the Moravians created Indian-convert villages. They could still be Indian but their lifestyles were different in the new villages. They could still interact with their fellow Indians in villages that were within a reasonable distance... a day's travel perhaps.
And yet they could also interact with some of the Whites on the frontier. They lived as Indians but at the same time they were now strangers and pilgrims within the Indian sphere. They formed what was effectively a new tribe.
Less than ideal, it demonstrated wisdom on all fronts. Such quasi-separatism affords opportunity to wrestle with issues in a slightly removed context.
The Converts were not lackeys or tools of the white colonial masters. This demonstrably generated respect in the eyes of the Indian chiefs. The Quakers and Moravians were the only missionaries who really earned the admiration of many pagan chiefs and they were often content to allow the Moravians to work among them. They were changing the Indian way by teaching the ways of peace and the abandonment of the tomahawk but this was certainly more hopeful than war, manipulation and conquest. Some of the chiefs apparently grasped that a new era had come to their people. There was a way in which the Indian and the white man could get along... and it was displayed in the methodology of Moravian and Quaker missions.
The danger was there were factions in both the colonial and Indian camps that didn't want to see this peace happen and all but laboured to destroy the modus vivendi men like Zeisberger hoped to create.
In the end it was the wars more than anything that destroyed their work. The French and Indian War was bad enough. The American Revolution was catastrophic. While most Americans remember well the events leading up to Yorktown in 1781 and perhaps even the ratification of the Constitution at the end of decade, many have forgotten that in the Old Northwest, the fallout of the Revolution bred a new chapter of turmoil and war culminating in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and finally the defeat of Tecumseh during the War of 1812. By then Zeisberger was gone, having departed this earth in 1808.
Sadly this peaceful middle-way approach still didn't work with some of the Whites on the frontier. Many still viewed the Converts as nothing more than treacherous Indians. And many Christian Indians suffered at the hands of White frontiersman... many of whom thought that Christianity permitted them to exploit and murder those of other races... and steal their land which was in European terms being wasted.
The Moravians settlements largely failed. As mentioned the American Revolution was particularly devastating but they did leave a small but powerful legacy among the Indians who stayed true to the faith. The Moravian Missions are one episode that no Christian needs be ashamed of. There will always be detractors who criticise any form of proselytism but generally speaking most people cannot but respect the work of the Moravians and the true care and compassion they demonstrated toward the native peoples of North America.
In addition to the anti-missionary critique of modern secularism many an American 'patriot' will take issue with the Moravians. They effected a policy of neutrality. It was a tough row to hoe and they were often placed into difficulties as a result. Zeisberger at times earned the enmity of both the British and the Americans and often struggled to stay within the good graces of some of the more bellicose and retributive Indian chiefs.
They did not support the American Revolution but at the same time as a practical measure Zeisberger realised that right or wrong it was the colonials that they had to live with. Whether the British defeated them or the Americans won independence, it was the American frontiersmen who were their neighbours. And he did what he could to avoid antagonising them. They were supportive of the various Indian grievances and yet when many a tribe flipped to the British the Moravians made sure to keep their distance.
Sometimes the situation became all but impossible. They also had to fear Indians attacking their convert villages on the basis of treason. They would at times pick up and move their missions. In one case Zeisberger warned Ft Henry (Wheeling WV) of an impending Wyandot attack. The Wyandots had recently visited the converts and been friendly and yet what would that have looked like if after their visit with the 'Christian Indians' they immediately attacked white settlements? Zeisberger was stuck in an almost impossible situation. He knew the Wyandots were planning to attack and he sent a warning. For the most part he wisely tried to stay out of the struggles and insulate his villages from political affiliation. He wasn't always successful, it didn't always work, and he didn't always make the right decision, but in general he had the right idea for the given and very difficult context. He knew one thing. Far from war advancing civilisation and bringing 'glory' and power it was inevitably a disaster leading to destruction, catastrophe and moral collapse.
Meanwhile the Puritan legacy lived on and in time entered the mainstream warp and woof of Christian thought and their relations vis-à-vis the American Indian. Even though many aspects of the theology changed, the social heart and mindset that guided it lived on and its legacy is both dark and brutal. Despite the often distorted gospel, converts nevertheless arose out of the approach and there are indeed some stalwart missionary testimonies even in North America. On a worldwide level no one can deny the inspiration to be found in the stories of men like Adoniram Judson.
The Moravians are not as well remembered but they were some of the earliest missionaries and they laboured long and successfully in many locations. Their story needs to be revisited, reconsidered and certainly remembered.
What is particularly egregious is to witness the hijacking of their legacy. Recently I was dismayed to see the cover of Kevin Swanson's latest work. A Theonomist, Swanson has become a leading voice for Dominionism and Transformationalist theology. For him the Great Commission is a call to conquer culture and Christianise the Earth. He represents the Puritan mindset as opposed to the Separatism of the Mayflower Pilgrims and certainly the missionary approach represented by the Moravians.
I was outraged as once more his dubious theology as well as his revisionist and even shifty historical tendencies were put on display. The cover of his book replicates a somewhat famous painting of David Zeisberger preaching to the Indians at Goschgoschink*, a village located on the Allegheny River in Forest County Pennsylvania. The nearby state highway (PA-666) is named after him.
Zeisberger was invited there by a chief who visited the Moravian mission in north-central Pennsylvania near today's Wyalusing. The painting is a romanticised depiction of his evangelising of the so-called 'Refugee Tribes', groups of Mingo, Shawnee, Lenape, Seneca and other tribes that had been pushed from their lands in the wake of the French and Indian War. At the time, the Allegheny was the frontier and before long Zeisberger would lead these converts into Ohio. During the waning days of the American Revolution some of these Christian Indians were massacred at Gnadenhutten Ohio, at the hands of what can only be called a largely Scots-Irish Presbyterian militia out of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
It is therefore a travesty and offense that Swanson, one who repudiates Zeisberger and all he stood for and instead celebrates the blood-legacy of Scots-Irish frontier Presbyterianism, puts the famous Zeisberger painting on the cover of his book. It typifies all too well the deceptive and anti-Christian nature of Swanson and the Postmillennial Theonomic school he promotes. Seeing Zeisberger, a man of peace appropriated and used by that heretical faction is to me no small source of consternation.
*Sometimes Goschgoschunk. Not to be confused with Goschachgunk which was a village located in Ohio.