The Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World Through the Eyes of Moravian Missionaries

Michele Gillespie and Robert Beachy, eds. Pious Pursuits: German Moravians in the Atlantic World. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007. ISBN 9781845453398.

The essays published in this collection, originally presented at a conference in 2002, provide a useful survey of historical case studies documenting the Moravian missionary diaspora in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world stretching from Central and Western Europe and western Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. The Moravian Church, also known as Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brethren, originated in fifteenth-century Bohemia and quickly became the dominant confession of the region, but they were drastically reduced and forced underground by the early seventeenth century. A small group of survivors in Moravia were sponsored by Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf on his estate in Saxony and the Church’s revival began in 1727. The Moravians almost immediately sent missionaries into the world and quickly became the main Protestant sect converting people from Antigua, Barbados, Greenland, Silesia, Surinam, South Africa, and the Americas. The community grew from one thousand in 1750 to 700,000 today.

Traditionally, research on the Atlantic world has focused on the Anglo experiences in the North Atlantic and the Catholic church’s role in the Iberian-Atlantic worlds. Yet, Moravians and other German Pietists played a more significant role than did Anglicans, Quakers, and other British clerics. “What historians have yet to appreciate,” the editors write in their introduction, “is the degree to which the German Moravians, more than any other Protestant sect, proved most adept not only at stretching themselves across the entirety of the Atlantic World, but in securing new adherents in the unlikeliest of communities and in the unlikeliest of places” (3).

The editors argue that the eighteenth-century missionary work was crucial in the development of the Moravian church: Moravian missionaries with their cosmopolitan outlook, global network of missions, and multiple migration experiences illuminate previously hidden or poorly understood transnational and intercultural connections in this Atlantic world. Going even further, the editors argue that the Moravians were harbingers of modernity, using education, credit, medicine, travel and “information networks” (4) in their work while confronting and even opposing other challenges of modernity such as democracy, secularism, and freedom. Despite their constant engagement in the wider world, Moravians were nevertheless able to maintain closed communities that were based on a tightly circumscribed belief system and social structure and secretive forms of communication.

The fourteen essays focus on the development of Moravian society, culture, commerce, and theology in eighteenth century America. Together, they weave a complex and often contradictory image of Moravian values and social relations. Social and economic relations of the community were derived from traditional German guild and community organization, but changed under the pressures and promises of capitalism. There was greater class equality than in outside society, but German nobility had a disproportionate involvement in church leadership. Similarly, women had greater power in the Moravian church than women generally did, but under financial constraint, male church leaders restricted this power after Zinzendorf’s death in 1760. Moravians were slaveholders, but also crossed racial lines more frequently and easily than others. Moravians were pacifists but were used in the service of colonial and imperialist projects. As Jon Sensbach argues in his essay on Moravians’ views of race and use of slaves, the “transcultural, multiracial Moravian fellowship derived from, and expressed, many of the contradictions of the eighteenth century” (235).

Even though the editors and authors aspired to write a history of Moravians in North America and the Atlantic world, the majority of essays focus on colonial America, while Moravian missions in Labrador are not mentioned. Further, despite the Moravians’ transnational values and ways of life, only some essays teach us about the non-Moravian world. Most of the studies are circumscribed by a focus on internal dialogue among scholars of Moravian history, and thus, as in much ethnic and religious group history, outside perspectives are underrepresented. Thus, the editors’ statement that this collection is “as relevant for understanding our world today as it is for understanding our past” (17) is an important objective, but it is not always met. Nevertheless, the collection will be a valuable resource for scholars of the Atlantic world, the eighteenth century, and the history of religion.

Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg