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Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest Post by Melanie Dobson - Moravian Colonial Marriages


Love Finds You in Nazareth, Pennsylvania cover
The journey back into the 1700s to write Love Finds You in Nazareth, Pennsylvania was a very personal one for me. For the first two decades of my life, you see, the history of my father’s side of the family (the Beroths) was a mystery to us. My father was a commercial pilot, and as he flew across the country, he scoured phone books for years during his layovers, looking for anyone with the last name of Beroth. It was a long time before he found a link to our heritage.
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 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. 
Melanie Dobson's website





10 comments:

  1. Good Morning Carrie, I like the idea of a husband falling in love with his wife, will be looking for this book. Thanks for sharing.
    Paula O

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    1. We will have a review here soon, Paula!

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  2. What a cool story about your ancestors! I studied the Moravians (mostly in North Carolina) years ago because I decided I wanted to write a story about a woman raised in a restrictive environment. But although some of their social customs might seem a little styfling, I found their practice of religion very appealing and wish there was a congregation near me. Their customs helped keep their society running at maximum efficiency (children were cared for in groups so more mothers could work, widows were "encouraged" to remarry so as not to be a burden on the community, etc.) Dr. Fries's book The Road to Salem tells the story of one woman who outlived four husbands (and had no children). At the time she stopped keeping her journal, young people were starting to reject the lot and make their own marriage choices.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this info with us, Kate!

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  3. Melanie, I had no idea of such a practice, but what an intriguing premise for a novel. This was a fascinating post, which leads me to think your book is even more so. And how cool to find that your own ancestors married by lot. That must have been a surreal moment.

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  4. Fascinating! What a great concept to form a story around.

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  5. Wonderful story premise and history. Love the cover, too! Thanks so much for sharing this here.

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  6. I also had never heard of this custom, but love the premise! The story sounds so intriguing and inspiring, and I'm going to look for it. Absolutely fascinating post! Thank for sharing this info!

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  7. Fascinating history! I've never heard of this custom or the Moravian people. Thank you for sharing!

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  8. MELANIE DOBSON told me that the website wasn't allowing her to post comments back. Here is what she said to tell everyone, via an email.

    Thanks so much for your notes! I've never started a romance novel before on a couple's wedding day, but I loved the challenge of this story. The Moravians had some unusual customs in the 1700s in regard to marriage and family, and it was fascinating for me to learn about my heritage. The Moravians were (and still are) completely devoted to their faith and spreading the Gospel.

    ~Melanie

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