Book Review,  Colonial Era,  North Carolina History,  Revolutionary Era

Book Review: Moravian Brethren

In Serving Two Masters: Moravian Brethren in Germany and North Carolina, 1727-1801, Elisabeth Sommer details the rise of the Unity of the Brethren under the leadership of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Germany. Throughout her early narrative, Sommer provides incredible insight into the development of the Ortsgemeine, or religious community, established by the Brethren which would serve as a model for future Moravian settlements. She specifically highlights the structuring of the governmental systems which controlled both the church and the community.

Sommer then turns her attention to a single community: Salem. She argues that the detailed portrait of this one community could shed a light on all others with a similar background. While this may be true, it is difficult to ignore the fact that two other Moravian communities preceded Salem in North Carolina: Bethabara and Bethania. Why these settlements were dismissed in favor of Salem is never discussed. Sommer, however, does present copious amounts of well-researched facts on the evolution of Salem.

Later chapters included in Sommer’s exploration into Moravian life in eighteenth-century Germany and North Carolina cover a wide spectrum of religious issues from community discipline in the form of exclusion or expulsion to the concern over the unraveling of an idea labeled as “holiness.” One entire chapter is devoted to the controversy surrounding the use of the lot which the Brethren believed accurately determined the will of Christ. Although Sommer thoroughly explores the topic and presents some intriguing historical information, the subject appears to be inserted without consideration to its overall relevance to the Moravian history being discussed. Rather than adding to the narrative, it seems to disrupt the flow.

The roles of women within the community and the practice of slavery among the Salem Brethren are noticeably absent from Sommer’s research. Women are granted only minor consideration early in the narrative when Sommer references the Brethren’s tendency to allow female members of the community to hold some positions of authority within the church. She, however, neglects to explore these positions any further. Likewise, only two paragraphs are dedicated to the Brethren’s practice of slavery.

Sommer’s central theme that the Moravian Brethren in Germany and in North Carolina lived relatively parallel lives is well documented. Her comparative examination of the influence of the American Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic is of particular interest. Sommer argues that the war provided the Brethren with an outlet for their growing desire for greater freedom from the constraints of religious dominance in their personal lives. However, she also stated that the German-based Brethren refused to legitimate independence in America. Thus, she set forth one of the leading controversies addressed by her research: the Brethren’s eighteenth-century struggle to define American freedom.

The comparative nature of Sommer’s work often makes it difficult to follow. This is one of the greatest weaknesses present throughout the book. She often swings wildly from the North Carolina Piedmont to modern Germany and back again. In the case of discipline, Sommer cites numerous statistics to show how each community – Herrnhut, Germany, and Salem, North Carolina – responded to growing issues of declension. Included in these paragraphs are dates, numbers of expulsions and exclusions, and percentages of populations. It is a disorganized mass of numbers and, as such, weakens her argument that a parallel pattern of discipline existed within the two communities.

Sommer’s research is based significantly on a variety of manuscripts, such as diaries, letters, minutes, and memoirs, found in the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and in the Unity Archive in Herrnhut, Germany. She also relies heavily on numerous published works of primary documents, including the sermons of Zinzendorf and the edited collection of the Records of the Moravians in North Carolina. Her bibliography of consulted secondary sources includes over 100 titles ranging from books and articles to dissertations. Missing from this vast collection, however, is the book With Courage for the Future: The Story of the Moravian Church, Southern Province by C. Daniel Crews and Richard Starbuck which the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem describes as “the most – in fact, the only – comprehensive history of the Moravian Church in the South.” Ironically, both of these authors are included in Sommer’s acknowledgements but not in her bibliography.

  • Crews, C. Daniel. “Moravians.” NCpedia. Last modified January 1, 2006.
  • Crews, C. Daniel, and Richard Starbuck. With Courage for the Future: The Story of the Moravian Church, Southern Province. Winston-Salem, NC: Moravian Church in America, Southern Province, 2002.
  • Fries, Adelaide L., ed. Records of Moravians in North Carolina. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1925-1947.
  • Moravian Archives. “Selected Moravian Bibliography.” Accessed March 14, 2021.
  • Sommer, Elisabeth W. Serving Two Masters: Moravian Brethren in Germany and North Carolina, 1727-1801. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

* Featured image courtesy of Warren LeMay via Flickr