|Love Finds You in Nazareth, Pennsylvania cover|
Friday, January 20, 2012
Guest Post by Melanie Dobson - Moravian Colonial Marriages
About twenty years ago, we discovered relatives in North Carolina. Our ancestors, we found out, had been a part of the Moravian Church after my great-grandparents (to the fifth) joined the Moravian Church more than two centuries ago. I knew very little of my heritage or this tradition, but I was intrigued. Who were the Moravians and why had my great-grandparents joined their church?
Years later I traveled to Bethlehem in Pennsylvania and then on to Nazareth, researching the story for this novel while I looked for information about my family. As I interviewed the curator at the historical society, she explained one of the unique marriage customs the Moravians honored in the 18th-century—the custom of marrying by Lot. The Moravian elders would select a couple they thought should marry and then would present the potential wife’s name to the single man. If the man agreed with their choice, the elders put the decision before the lot—three pieces of paper (Ja. Nein. And a blank piece for wait) stuffed into a glass cylinder. They prayed and then drew an answer from the cylinder.
If the answer was no, the elders would select the name of another woman for the single man to marry, and they would continue the selection process until the papers concurred with their choice. Then the leaders would speak to the single woman about the marriage. Moravian women had the option to turn down the marriage, but they rarely did. In their minds, the lot determined God’s will for their life.
My mind spun as I listened to the curator, the plot for my novel developing. What would happen if the man in my novel wanted to marry a certain woman and the lot refused him? What if he had to marry a woman he didn’t love? And what if the woman he married loved him with her whole heart?
As I sat in the historical society in Bethlehem, researching this custom that seemed so strange to me, I stumbled upon an entry with the names of my great-grandparents, Johann Beroth and Catharina Neumann. The entry said they married by lot in Bethlehem on July 29, 1758.
My great-grandparents married by lot?
I had no idea.
My mind began racing. Did my great-grandparents know each other before they married? Did they love each other? Were they excited to marry or did they dread their wedding day?
In her short memoir, my great-grandmother writes of counting the cost before joining the Moravians. She said she knew there would be hardships and yet she felt the draw of the Savior to join the Moravian people in Bethlehem. Even as her family sent a cart and men to carry her back home, she remained stalwart, “serene and satisfied” in her decision to join the congregation. But she never mentioned what it was like to be chosen to marry Johann by lot.
The Moravians continued to marry this way until 1818 when a devout Moravian man insisted on marrying a woman the lot denied him. He left the church to marry but later he and his wife rejoined. After that, marriages began to be arranged by families instead of by lot.
Many Moravian women wrote of their reluctance to marry when they received the call to wed by lot, and yet many of these same women later described the terrible grief over losing their husbands. It seems the love for a spouse blossomed within marriage instead of before.
Maria Reitzenbach initially wrote, “I must admit that I found it indescribably hard to take this step (of marriage)….Only the thought that it was my duty to do everything for the love of my dear Saviour who had forgiven me my sins and had taken me into a state of grace made me give myself up to this.”
But then she wrote, “I was made a widow by the calling home of my dear husband, after we had lived in marriage for twenty-two years happy and content and had shared joy and pain and had been a comfort and a cheer to each other. For this reason I felt his loss very painfully and no one could comfort me but the Friend to whom I had often told all my troubles and with whom I alone took refuge” (from the Moravian Women’s Memoirs, translated by Katharine Faull).
I’m still not certain exactly why my great-grandparents joined the Moravians. Perhaps it was because of the Moravian’s compassion toward the needy or their focus on mission work. Perhaps it was because they were escaping their families or maybe they wanted to be a part of group who was devout in their faith and service to God.
I also don’t know what my great-grandparents thought about the custom of marrying by lot, but I do know that they were married for almost six decades. I—along with my family—am grateful the lot brought Johann and Catharina together and that God helped them sustain this marriage for fifty-eight years.
I loved writing this novel based in part on what my great-grandparents might have felt in the first years of their marriage. Love Finds You in Nazareth, Pennsylvania is not a romance about an unmarried couple. It is a romance about a husband falling in love with his wife.
Melanie Dobson's website
Melanie Dobson is the award-winning author of nine contemporary and historical novels including her most recent release, Love Finds You in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. She is currently working on a historical romance set on Mackinac Island, Michigan. When she’s not writing, Melanie loves exploring her home state of Oregon with her husband and two daughters.