North Carolina History,  Revolutionary Era

North Carolina’s Moravian Women

The first Moravian settlers traveled from their original settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to the Piedmont of North Carolina, near present-day Winston-Salem, to establish the tract of 100,000 acres known as Wachovia in late 1753. Over the next twelve years, five individual communities arose from Lord Granville’s former property – Bethabara, Bethania, Salem, Friedberg, and Friedland. For the settlement’s successful realization, it was essential that every member of the community play a significant part. Men were the authority figures, while children focused on education. Most traditional accounts of Moravian history have largely disregarded women’s roles. Despite the existing detailed records of both church activity and community life, historians have seldom utilized them to explore the lives of women during these initial years of settlement in North Carolina.

To gain a fuller understanding of how Moravian society operated and ultimately succeeded in establishing a settlement in North Carolina, it is necessary that historians consider all participants, including the often over-looked women of the community. Leland Ferguson, the author of God’s Fields: Landscape, Religion, and Race in Moravian Wachovia, referenced two women whose gravestones archeologists uncovered during an excavation in Salem. However, his interest appeared to end there. There is no further mention of these women or the roles they played in Salem. Given the community’s emphasis on transcribing meticulous records throughout their history, it is difficult to believe these details were not available. These are just two examples of researchers’ negligence to include women in their accounts of the early years of the Moravian settlement in North Carolina. It is crucial that scholars confront this gender gap in order to develop a more complete picture of both the Moravian community and North Carolina history.

What were the general and specific roles of Moravian women in eighteenth-century North Carolina? How did these roles differ from the men in the community? Did these roles reflect the common practices in early America at the time, or were they more innovative? How did the women feel about their place in society? These are vital questions which historians must seek to answer if they are to understand the whole of Moravian life, culture, and history.

It is likely that women aided predominantly within the domestic sphere. However, it is known that some women held public jobs. Such is the case of Mary Penry, a single Pennsylvania Moravian, who referenced her position as a clerk in a 1788 letter to her friend Elizabeth Drinker. Men tended to hold most of the authoritative roles within the community, but unlike much of America during the eighteenth century, it appeared that Moravian society valued women beyond the commonly accepted social constructs. For this reason, it can be presumed that women were mostly content with their place.

It is tempting, based on preliminary research, to assume that married women and single women had very different roles and were satisfied within them. However, it is entirely possible that these duties and expectations may have overlapped to some extent.

Although it appears that women were satisfied carrying out such roles, there is at least one instance indicating that they were not altogether fulfilled by such duties. Some desired an identity comparable to their male counterparts. Such a recognition would grant women greater authority over their own lives and within the community.

These sources represent two ways in which tentative conclusions have already been challenged; it is doubtless there are more. Integrity is at the core of the historical profession. Moravian history is wide-ranging and replete with numerous records, letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs. Dedication to examining these various layers and reporting on their content with open-mindedness and honesty is not just important but necessary.

Research Methods

Much of the previous research into Moravian history relied on meticulous records or published sermons. Although historians’ resulting accounts are thorough and informative, many lack the analysis of personal documents and even fewer focus specifically on North Carolina. Leland Ferguson, utilizing a far different method, approached research from a strictly archaeological perspective. Throughout his book, Ferguson relied on various non-traditional sources, such as preservationist maps, to illuminate the oversight of Moravian historians’ coverage of racial division in Salem. Though his evidence is compelling and his use of atypical sources inspiring, Ferguson’s principal neglect of written primary material to support his research weakens his method overall.

General history resources, such as Serving Two Masters: Moravian Brethren in Germany and North Carolina, 1727-1801, by Elisabeth Sommer, and The Moravians in North Carolina: An Authentic History, by Reverend Levin Reichel, provide necessary overviews of Moravian culture. In order to understand how women functioned within the society, it is crucial to first gain knowledge of the basic history of the Moravian settlement in North Carolina. The bibliographies of these and similar books offer further sources for evaluation. After compiling a personal bibliography of relevant secondary sources, exploring existing primary sources is key to the research process. Documents such as letters, diaries, and Moravian records give insight into not only the role of women, as do those of Mary Penry, but also to their feelings about their place within the society. Some of these sources are included in published collections, but many resources from the eighteenth century are only accessible through archives. Gaining admission to these locations is an important step in the process of illuminating women’s roles in Moravian North Carolina.

However, limited accessibility to such repositories could prove to be a logistical issue. A willingness to expand the locations of research may assist in solving this problem. Elisabeth Sommer’s exploration included the Unity Archive in Herrnhut, Germany, and other historians have relied on the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in addition to the collections housed in North Carolina, to obtain a broadened wealth of information.

Source Analysis

John Henry Clewell’s History of Wachovia in North Carolina is little more than a collection of notable facts and figures from the early days of the Moravian Church in the American South. Clewell eschews narrative and analysis in favor of a more direct chronology of events. Although his account is useful, informative, and largely drawn from archival documents, it lacks the depth and research of other comprehensive histories.

Clewell’s book delivers a concise, straight-to-the-point compilation of major and minor events in the life of the early Church in North Carolina. However, given the time period in which he was writing, Clewell fails to address more contemporary topics, such as gender and race. This still remains a valuable source for general history and provides an interesting opportunity for examination into how women are acknowledged and viewed throughout the recording of Moravian history.

Katherine Faull’s article, “Girl Talk: The Role of the ‘Speakings’ in the Pastoral Care of the Older Girls’ Choir,” details the Moravian choir system and its use in shaping the spiritual and physical life of young females in the community. Although incredibly compelling, Faull’s interpretation suffers from a lack of thorough research. She relies heavily on her own understanding of primary documents rather than supporting her beliefs with the wealth of knowledge available through extensively researched Moravian histories. Faull presents powerful questions into the Moravian’s view of women, but her article is weakened by a lack of evidence. With further research, these inquiries could well illuminate women’s roles within the community and beyond the boundaries of Pennsylvania.

In God’s Acres: Landscape, Religion, and Race in Moravian Wachovia, Leland Ferguson explores the history surrounding the archeological discovery of a number of hidden African American gravestones in Old Salem, North Carolina. While his bibliography of secondary sources is extensive and comprehensive of those works pertaining to the Church in the South, Ferguson’s use of primary sources is not well documented and only referenced en masse. However, Ferguson’s work offers an interesting perspective into the role of race in Moravian North Carolina and presents an opportunity for further examination into the influence of African American women on the community.

In his article, “Women on the Trail in Colonial America: A Travel Journal of German Moravians Migrating from Pennsylvania to North Carolina in 1766,” Aaron Fogleman explores the writings of Salome Meurer, a sixteen-year-old Moravian woman traveling from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century. His account includes a vast array of biographical and historical data taken from official Moravian records as well as Meurer’s diary of the thirty-day migration. Further research in women’s experiences would provide much greater support for the questions Fogleman attempted to answer.

Through his work, The Moravians in North Carolina: An Authentic History, Reverend Levin Reichel offers a short, albeit concise, history of the Moravian Church in North Carolina, beginning with its founding in 1752. In much the same vein as Clewell, Reichel presents his account in a purely chronological format, leaving any attempt at narrative and analysis to the reader. The book is mostly devoid of any direct mention of sources and only occasionally references a relevant document. It does, however, include an excellent collection of tables, statistics, and important dates, as well as comprehensive lists of residents and church members. Despite having been published in 1857, Reichel’s book remains an often-used source among Moravian historians.

An appendix listing “First Settlers and Heads of Families” is especially interesting. Listed here are the names of Moravian North Carolina’s first residents. This list, however, lacks any mention of women, either as a single individual or as a wife. Given the age of Reichel’s work, this is not unexpected, but it does leave a significant gap in the history and genealogy of the North Carolina Moravians which requires further exploration.

In her article, “Female Piety Among Eighteenth Century Moravians,” Beverly Smaby explores the religious role of women in Moravian society. Smaby relies heavily on primary documents from the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Herrnhut, Germany, to provide compelling evidence of the role of female piety from its establishment among Moravian women in the 1730s through its eventual dissolvement in favor of a more uniform orthodoxy.

Through Serving Two Masters: Moravian Brethren in Germany and North Carolina, 1727-1801, Elisabeth Sommer details the rise of the Moravian Church and the development of its model religious community. The parallel comparison of the two branches of the Church’s operation in North Carolina and in Germany is at the center of her narrative. She presents a diverse bibliography filled with manuscripts found in the Moravian Archives in North Carolina and the Unity Archive in Germany to support her discussion of events. However, her account suffers from her focus on a single community, Salem, in North Carolina.

Peter Vogt, in his essay, published in Women Preachers and Prophets Through Two Millennia of Christianity, highlights the role of Moravian women as speakers, preachers, and teachers throughout the eighteenth century. “A Voice for Themselves: Women as Participants in Congressional Discourse in the Eighteenth-Century Moravian Movement” presents one of the most comprehensive analyses on the religious roles of Moravian women during the period. Unlike Smaby’s article addressing a similar topic, Vogt devotes much more time to documenting evidence of women’s participation rather than focusing on its opposition. Although it is certainly intriguing, the chapter just barely scratches the surface of understanding women’s unique roles in Moravian society.

Three particular published collections of primary sources have provided limited knowledge into the role of women and have supplied a basic understanding of Moravian history in eighteenth-century North Carolina. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina includes extensive documentation of the activity and history of the Southern Province of the Moravian Church, from its founding in 1752 to 1876. The Letters of Mary Penry: A Single Moravian Woman in Early America provides incredible insight into an unmarried woman’s place in Moravian society and into her own personal observations and perceptions within the community. Moravian Women’s Memoirs: Their Related Lives, 1750-1820, gives the detailed remembrances, in an autobiographical format, of Moravian women from every position – married, single, and widowed – in society.

With the exception of these last two collections, information pertaining directly to women in Moravian history is not yet widely available. Moravian women in North Carolina appear to be largely non-existent within most narratives. This will require exploring the archives and repositories related to Moravian history in order to fill the gap.

It is clear from the existing documentation that Moravian historians have largely overlooked the roles of women, especially those in North Carolina. Mary Penry’s letters offer a glimpse into life as a Moravian woman, but no such collection of published letters is known to exist for any woman in Moravian North Carolina. Likewise, Katherine Faull took her published collection of Moravian women’s memoirs solely from Pennsylvania with no mention of the settlement in North Carolina. The significant gap in the existing literature is a disservice to both Moravian women and North Carolina history.

[Excerpt from “Moravian Women in Eighteenth-Century North Carolina: A Proposal for Research”]

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* Featured image courtesy of GPA Photo Archive via Flickr