Jesus Is Female: The Moravian Challenge
in the German Communities of British North America
For the “Pietism and Gender” Session of the Conference on
German Moravians in the Atlantic World
Department of History
Wake Forest University
April 4-6, 2002
Please do not cite or duplicate without permission of the author.
Aaron Spencer Fogleman
Department of History
University of South Alabama
Mobile, Alabama 36688
Jesus Is Female: The Moravian Challenge
in the German Communities of British North America
Tief nein! Tief nein! ins Seitlein! Deep inside! Deep inside! in the little side!
Ich lieg im Seitenhölchen grad und schlief In the little side hole I lie just right and sleep
ein paar Millionen Claffter tief a couple of million fathoms deep
Im Moment da der Stich geschah, The moment the stab occurred,
fuhr ich heraus Halleluja I leapt out, hallelujah
Gebohren aus seiner Seit. Born from the side.
1- Anonymous Moravian rhymes from the “Sifting Period,” ca. 1738-1753
1 These are four from hundreds of examples of small, colorful cards in the Moravian Archives in Herrnhut, Germany which celebrate a personal, erotic relationship with Jesus, in which the side wound of the Savior on the Cross is attributed with female characteristics. Many of the little cards also have detailed water colors depicting the side wound in the form of female genitalia. The cards are located in M135 and M136, Unity Archives, Herrnhut, Germany. Note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations in this work are my own.
In the mid-1740s a renegade mystic seeker living in Pennsylvania named Jean François Reynier wrote his autobiography, which included some extremely inflammatory material about the marital and sexual practices of the Moravians. Reynier had been a member of this religious group and lived in their communities in Georgia, Germany, London, Suriname, the West Indies, and Pennsylvania before leaving them in 1743. His autobiography fell into the hands of Johann Philip Fresenius in Frankfurt am Main, who published it in his widely-circulated polemic against the Moravians. Reynier provided Fresenius and his readers with graphic descriptions of Moravian marriage and sexual practices, in which he claimed to have participated, hoping that this would help destroy their movement. Reynier himself was married in 1740 to Maria Barbara Knoll in the new community of Herrnhaag in Wetteravia, just north of Frankfurt, which had become the center of the Moravian movement and was rapidly gaining an infamous reputation as a place where extreme sexual and spiritual perversions, especially those involving women, were taking place. Fresenius, who held the most important Lutheran post in Frankfurt, was too shy to print some of the most graphic scenes portrayed by Reynier, but others were not, especially Alexander Volck, who carefully printed and commented on everything Fresenius had censored. For example, Reynier wrote that before the Moravian marriage ceremony Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the leader of the group, watched the brides get dressed and fondled their breasts. After the ceremony communion was celebrated, and then the new couple had their first sexual experience – sitting, on
a bench, wearing colorful robes. Reynier claimed that in his case, he and his wife began talking instead, in order to get to know one another first. August Gottlieb Spangenberg and his wife, next to the Zinzendorfs the most important Moravian leaders, peaked through the cracked door, saw this, and sprang into the room, insisting that Reynier and Knoll get on with the task at hand. After they had finished and were getting dressed, the Spangenbergs slipped away, and the Reyniers retired to
separate chambers, having believed that if the wife conceived while on her husband‟s lap then their
child would have been conceived in a spiritual way. The next day Frau Spangenberg began talking openly about this (which was common among the inner circle of militant married Moravians, called Streiter), encouraging them to “come together” once a week – not just to have children, but to
receive this spiritual blessing. The Reyniers learned from the Spangenbergs and others how the marriage blessing flowed from the male organ of the Savior, that is how the blood from Christ‟s
circumcision was the semen, or mixes with the semen of men to form that from which children come.
Reynier, Fresenius, and especially Volck very likely stretched the truth significantly when they described the procedure Moravian couples went through in order to receive this blessing: According to them they stood in line, two-by-two, to go into their portable “blue chamber” (das blaue Cabinet).
The first couple entered the contraption, had sex, and then departed. Then the next couple entered, etc. According to Volck the blue chamber had windows so others could observe, and he called it
Thanks in part to former members like Reynier, who claimed to have seen it all, major religious leaders like Fresenius, who were willing to embellish on, print, and distribute such materials, and figures with lesser reputations like Volck, who were happy to print anything the others left out, people throughout Europe and North America began to hear about the Moravians.
This kind of news was not helpful to the small group‟s efforts to live piously and preach to the
2 See Jean François Reynier (or Johann Franz Regnier), “Das Geheimnis der
Zinzendorfischen Secte” in Johann Philip Fresenius, Bewährte Nachrichten von Herrnhutischen
Sachen, vol. I (Frankfurt am Main, 1746), 321-479. For the sections Fresenius refused to print see Alexander Volck, Das Entdeckte Geheimnis der Bosheit der Herrnhutischen Secte... (Frankfurt and
Leipzig, 1748, reprinted in Philadelphia, 1749), 28-56 and 65-66. These Moravian practices are also discussed and attacked in the polemic printed by Christopher Saur in Germantown in 1749. The polemic is inscribed “Marienborn, 12 July 1749,” and the writer thanks Saur for printing it (i.e. for sending it from Germany).
peoples of the world. Nearly everywhere they went the Moravians expected and usually encountered trouble from religious opponents. Nowhere did their troubles become more severe than in British North America.
On Sunday, July 18, 1742 in Philadelphia, Pastor Johann Christoph Pyrlaeus was scheduled to preach in a rented meeting house on Mulberry Street shared by German Lutheran and Reformed inhabitants of the city. Pyrlaeus was a Lutheran from Vogtland-Sachsen, who had recently joined the Moravians and received spiritual and practical training in Herrnhaag. In late 1741 he was one of the first Moravians sent to their new settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the following year he began preaching to the Lutherans in Philadelphia. Like more than a hundred other Moravian men and women in the colonial era he preached to whomever would listen. As Pyrlaeus and his followers approached the building that Sunday in July, they discovered it locked. Someone broke the lock, and they filed in to have their service. Soon after they had begun singing a crowd of German Calvinists began to gather outside. One of them asked Pyrlaeus to leave the building, but he refused. The crowd then surrounded the church, and four of them broke in, cried “Strike the dog
dead!” (“Schlagt den Hund todt!”), and rushed toward Pyrlaeus in the pulpit. The worshipers
stood shocked, motionless, as Pyrlaeus was dragged from the pulpit, into the street, and then beaten by the crowd.
Why did the Moravians attract so much public criticism, open hostility, and even religious violence in the mid-eighteenth century? Religious disputes were common throughout the colonies during the Great Awakening, and the German communities were no exception, especially when Moravians were involved. Indeed, throughout the century Virginia Baptists, Methodists, Shakers, and others were violently attacked by opponents who acted without official license by political or religious authorities. In the case of the Moravians, numerous violent factional disputes took place
from New England to Virginia in communities where they worked. Moreover, disputes and confrontations involving the Moravians occurred in most of the some 200 German religious communities in British North America, as well as in many of the Swedish Lutheran and other religious communities. Here few ordained ministers operated under European direction and authority, and many who did were either expensive or appeared incompetent to their parishioners.
The Moravians, however, were readily available. They preached for free and were good at it. They offered an organized religious life with a recognizable Lutheran or Reformed liturgy to thousands of immigrants who otherwise had virtually none. This appealed to many, but many others rejected the Moravian message.
To a significant degree, the hostility toward Moravians in North America was related to the group‟s beliefs and practices regarding gender, sexuality, and authority. The Moravians threatened
in symbolic and tangible ways gender norms and boundaries of acceptable behavior that had become crucial components of mainstream Protestant belief systems in the early modern era. Their radical theology reformulated gendered notions of power and authority in the religious community, and when Moravian men and women preached their alternative spirituality in the Lutheran and German Reformed communities in the colonies, they challenged the fledgling establishments of those churches. Thus the Moravian challenge in North America and the hostile response of their enemies reveal important aspects of how gender and power relationships functioned in the religious communities.
The Symbolic Threat – Metaphor and Gender
In the mid-eighteenth century the Moravians threatened in symbolic and metaphoric ways gender norms and traditions that were crucial components of mainstream Protestant belief systems,
and much of this was linked to their altering the fundamental male nature of the Trinity. The Trinity – God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) – was central to Christian belief, and
the nature (including the gender) of the all-powerful deity provided a symbol or model for dichotomized relations between the sexes and proper power relationships in the community as a whole. That is, people‟s understandings of what gender and power relationships in their communities should be were in part determined by what they understood them to be in the Trinity.
For the vast majority of Protestants in this era, God the almighty Father was the creator and central figure, and his son, Jesus the Savior, was quite male in all respects. The gender of the Holy Spirit seemed less clear, but certainly was not female. To their enemies, the Moravians had distorted the gendered nature of this religious symbol of power. They believed that many of their threatening practices in the communities, especially those involving marriage, sex, and the role of women, were the consequences of their dangerous, distorted view of the Trinity.
The Moravians altered the gender and structures of power within the Trinity first by disempowering “God the Father.” To most, this male figure was the omnipotent creator and ruler of the universe and all things in it. The Moravians did not alter the gender of this portion of the Trinity, but took away much of its power by assigning the function of the creator to Jesus. In his “Seven Last Sermons” before departing for Pennsylvania in the summer of 1741, Zinzendorf refers to Christ as the Creator and Spangenberg defended the view ten years later in print. Also, passages in the 12th appendix of the Moravian hymnal (one of the most important surviving documents of this
3period) like “since my creator Jesus Christ will free me, body and soul” suggest this.
3 Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Sieben Letzten Reden, So Er In der Gemeine, Vor seiner
am 7. Aug. erfolgen abermahligen Abreise nach Amerika, gehalten, 8-9 (11 June 1741) (Büdingen,
1742), reprinted in Erich Beyreuther and Gudrun Meyer (eds.), Hauptschriften, vol. 2, and August
Gottlieb Spangenberg, Apologetische Schluß-Schrifft (Leipzig and Görlitz, 1752), e.g. 124-125 and
185-188. See also Arthur J. Freeman‟s analysis of this concept in An Ecumenical Theology of the
Heart: The Theology of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (Bethlehem and Winston-Salem,
1998), 83-84 and 168-169, and Otto Uttendörfer, Zinzendorf und die Mystik (Berlin, 1952),
338-344. For the original (“...da mich mein Schöpfer Jesus Christ nach leib und seel wird freyen”) of the hymn, see hymn 2188, verse 15 in the Moravian hymnal, Christliches Gesang-Buch, der
Evangelischen Brüder Gemeinen vom 1735, 3rd ed., with 12 appendices, and also supplements
(Ebersdorf: Moravian Church, 1741-1748). Other examples include hymns 2085 (verse 4) and hymn 1897 (“Te Jehovah”).
In their next step to reorder the Trinity the Moravians feminized the Holy Spirit, which became a “mother.” Zinzendorf developed the idea in some of his sermons, and it is present in many Moravian hymns as well. During his Pennsylvania tour in December 1741 he articulated this view during a sermon at Germantown. In 1746 he preached a sermon in London called “On the Maternal Office of the Holy Spirit” (“Vom Mutteramte des heiligen Geistes”) and in the following year
another entitled “On the True Evidence of the Maternal Office of the Holy Spirit” (“Von dem
eigentlichen Grund-Beweiß des Mutter-Amts des heiligen Geistes”). Zinzendorf explained that
calling the Spirit a mother, or labeling its role a “maternal office” was Scriptural and applied to all
Christians. He also argued that since a title for the Holy Spirit was unclear within Christendom anyway, they should use the family analogy (father, mother, and son) and the Spirit was nearer to a mother. Further, before the birth of Christ pagans had had vague, confusing notions of a foster mother or nurse of humanity, i.e. goddesses who nurtured heroes and became mothers of all humans.
With the birth of Christ it became clear what all of this meant: The Holy Spirit exercised a motherly,
4 nurturing function over him, and whatever belonged to Christ must belong to all Christians too.
Metaphor and gender mattered when Moravians began assigning female characteristics to
4 See Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Pennsylvanische Nachrichten vom dem Reiche
Christi (1742), I, 33-55, especially 38, reprinted in Beyreuther and Meyer, Hauptschriften, vol. 2,
“Der öffentlichen Gemeinreden im Jahr 1747, erster Theil, Anhang,” (1748), reprinted in Beyreuther and Meyer (eds.), Hauptschriften (of Zinzendorf), vol. 4 (Hildesheim, 1963), 1-14 and
368-373. A number of recent historians have analyzed the eighteenth-century Moravian view of the Holy Spirit as mother, the most important of whom are Gary Steven Kinkel, Our Dear Mother the
Spirit: An Investigation of Count Zinzendorf’s Theology and Praxis (Lanham, Maryland et al.,
1990), 83-197, especially 98-104, and Peter Zimmerling, Gott in Gemeinschaft: Zinzendorfs
Trinitätslehre (Gießen-Basel, 1991). See also Freeman, An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart,
88-90 and 105-123; Craig Atwood, “The Mother of God‟s People: The Adoration of the Holy Spirit in the Eighteenth-Century Brüdergemeine,” Church History 68 (1999), 886-909; Jörn Reichel,
Dichtungstheorie und Sprache bei Zinzendorf: 12. Anhang zum Herrnhuter Gesangbuch (Bad
Homburg et al., 1969), 29-64, especially 61-63; F. Ernst Stoeffler, Mysticism in the German
Devotional Literature of Colonial Pennsylvania (Allentown, Pa, 1950), vol. 14 in the series of the
Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 67-90.