The Moravian Church is a small Christian denomination in the United States, but it had a major influence on the spiritual life of Colonial America. On August 13th, 1727, a revival broke out with a small sect of Christians in Germany called the Moravians. On that day, they started a 100 year round-the-clock prayer meeting that launched the missionary movement that is still going strong today.
A group of persecuted Moravians first landed in Pennsylvania and another group in Savannah, Georgia in 1735. The ship to Georgia also carried John and Charles Wesley, brothers who planned to preach in America. During the voyage a fierce storm caused havoc, but John Wesley noticed the Moravians, even the women and children, weren’t afraid. When he asked a Moravian pastor about it, the pastor said that his people were not afraid because they knew Jesus. Wesley admitted that, although he knew about God, he didn’t have a witness within him that he was saved. Wesley credited this conversation with his eventual salvation. The Moravian colony in Savannah didn’t last long. Within a few years, the Moravians fled Georgia because of pressure to serve in militia to defend Florida against Spanish raids.
Christian Henry Rauch started the first mission to convert native peoples in New York City. Mahican chiefs Tschoop and Shabash invited Rauch to visit their village and teach them. Two of the chiefs became Christians, and within two years, the first native Christ congregation was established.
Several missionaries and their families joined Rauch, including Gottlob Buettner and his daughter Anna, and more missions were established. Rumors were started that the Moravians were really Catholic Jesuits allied with the French, and in 1744, Governor Clinton expelled the missionaries from New York.
In Pennsylvania, Revivalist George Whitefield invited the Moravians to Pennsylvania to preach. There they established a colony in Nazareth, but when they had a falling out with Whitefield, they moved on to other colonies. Pennsylvania had religious freedom in its charter, so the Moravians did better there. They founded also established colonies in the towns of Bethlehem, Nazereth, Emmaus, and Lititz there. The Moravians also established colonists in Maryland and North Carolina.
Many of the Pennsylvania Moravians learned the language of the Lenape (Delaware) Indians and translated a Bible into a written language for them. When the Lenape were forced into Ohio, some of the Moravians moved with them and founded the first Ohio settlement (Schoenbrunn) and school in 1772. A year later, they founded another nearby settlement of Gnadenhutten. Converted Lenape populated much of the villages and sat on the councils for the towns.
During the Revolutionary War, the leader of the Moravian villages in Ohio, David Zeisberger, was accused by the British of passing along information to the colonial army. Although the Moravians were pacifist and wanted to remain neutral, the accusations were probably true. The Moravian villages were forced to relocate in 1781. The following year, a band of Moravian Lenape went back to Gnadenhutten to harvest their crops and collect food and supplies they left there.
160 Pennsylvania militia led by Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson surprised the Christian Lenape, rounded them up, and accused them of raiding towns in Pennsylvania. Although the Lenape denied the charges, Williamson held a council that voted to kill them. Some of the militiamen left the area, outraged by the decision.
|Gnadenhutten Massacre Memorial|
The Lenape were informed and requested time to prepare themselves. They spent the night praying and singing hymns. The next morning, the militia brought the Lenape to two buildings called killing houses, the men in one and the women and children in another. The militia murdered and scalped 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children before piling their bodies in the mission buildings. Then they burned both Moravian villages to the ground. Two boys, on of who had been scalped, survived and lived to tell about it.
Reactions from the massacre were mixed. Some were appalled at the way Christian men, women, and children were treated. Others figured the Lenape were deserved no better because they were Indians. The Lenape of the area decided to fight with the British against the Americans causing further deterioration of Indian relations.
Although Moravians continued to minister in America and established missions in Alaska and Canada, many missionaries from the Moravian Church decided to focus their efforts on Africa, but they influenced our nation's early days. They brought awareness of the treatment of Native Americans. They made a profound impact on preachers of the Great Awakening like the Wesleys and George Whitefield. The missionary movement they started moved through the United States which became the nation with the largest amount of missionaries throughout the world. The Moravian denomination continues today in 18 states with headquarters in Bethlehem and Winston-Salem.
In A Christmas Promise, you can read a fictional novella about the Moravian missionaries in Schoenbrunn.