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This page last updated 4 April 2014
Anglicans Online last updated 10 December 2017

A review for Anglicans Online
by R. Mammana

By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat
A review of Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem
Craig Atwood. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2004.

Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, I had perhaps more exposure than most Americans do to the people called Moravians. In elementary school there were field trips to colonial sites in Bethlehem and Nazareth; as a boy I read children’s fiction by Ruth Nulton Moore about young Moravians on the American frontier; Moravian tombstones, flush with the ground rather than perpendicular to it, dot the churchyards in the countryside around my hometown; at Christmas there were striking Moravian stars on porches and Christmas trees throughout my neighborhood; nativity putzes (crèches) were a prominent part of December, too. Strange to say, though, I had no sense that Moravians believed anything distinctly different from other Christians. All my perceptions of Moravian life on the ground in one of the areas where it was planted and flourished were cultural, seasonal, musical, or broadly ethnic. Indeed, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, according to Craig Atwood, Moravians have been perceived largely as “a small American evangelical denomination” with a unique culture and shared history—in his words, “a conventional church.”

Thomas Doubting, 1758, by John Valentine Haidt (Moravian Historical Society, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, USA)Atwood’s research in Community of the Cross goes behind the image of conventionalized Moravian Christianity to find a radical, intense and elaborate system of belief and practice in colonial Bethlehem rooted in the writings of the Moravians’ patron, Nikolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). The chief motifs examined in this study are graphic devotion to the blood and wounds of the crucified Christ (Blut- und Wundentheologie), eroticized Christocentric prayer, frequent references to the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity with maternal characteristics, and a strong conception of the gathered community of believers as living both literally and mystically within the side-wound of Christ. Traditional Moravian historiographers have contended that these unconventional aspects of Zinzendorfian piety disappeared from Moravian life after a period of internal crisis known as the Sichtungszeit or “Sifting Time” from c. 1738-1753. Atwood demonstrates, however, that “persistent and comprehensive Zinzendorfian piety” continued well after the Sifting Time. For example, the last recorded instance of a Mutter Fest or “Mother Feast” praising the Holy Spirit took place as late as 1774, and Moravians continued to refer to themselves as “bees around the corpse of Christ” worshipping his wounds “so moist, so gory” until the 1780s and 1790s.

Atwood begins with a helpful overview of the history of the Brüdergemeine, in practical terms the same body known today as the Moravian Church. Many fascinating things emerge: liturgical celebrations in early Bethlehem of both Yom Kippur and the martyrdom of Jan Huss; correspondence by Zinzendorf with the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria; strong relations with the Church of England, which culminated in Parliament’s recognition of Moravians as an “ancient episcopal church;” missionary outposts of the 30-year-old Moravian Church in the American colonies, St. Thomas, Surinam, South Africa, Greenland, Algeria, Russia, modern Ghana, Sri Lanka and Iran, Egypt, Labrador, and Jamaica. He clarifies some features of the early ecclesiology of the Brüdergemeine, which was at its inception an international, interdenominational and interracial fellowship incorporating Lutherans and Reformed Christians as well as German-speaking peasants from Czech Moravia who claimed descent from the Unitas Fratrum of the Hussite reformation. Within the Brüdergemeine , the Moravians established Ortsgemeinen, regulated Christian communities not unlike modern Hutterite colonies. Bethlehem was one such Ortsgemeine whose characteristics included racial equality, community of goods, marriage by lot, and internal organization by gender, age, and marital status. In one of the most remarkable sections of the book, Atwood details the life of the “Embryo Choir,” composed of unborn Moravian children grouped into a separate stratum of Bethlehem’s community along with their expectant mothers. According to this sensitive understanding of human life, toddlers, the elderly, married couples and single people have liturgical and spiritual needs depending on their states in life; so, too, do pregnant women and their children in utero.

Of all Zinzendorf’s distinct theological concepts, his blood-and-wounds theology receives the most extended treatment in Community of the Cross. Few if any areas of early Moravian colonial life were left untouched by mention of or devotion to Christ’s wounds. “Children were raised singing praises to the side wound, and the dead were laid to rest in the open side.” The community diarist—a figure in other Ortsgemeinen, active in Bethlehem from 1742—uses wound imagery frequently to make note of a good day:

Everything was very bloody and heart warming. (November 7, 1744)

Our Morning Blessing was especially bloody and juicy. The Married People sang from its place in the pleura [wound …] and the youthful flock trembled behind in the side hole, whose new manifestation they observed today with a blessed sensation of shaking from love’s fever. (April 29, 1748)

As it turns out, the children of the Nazareth school building I visited as a third grader complained in 1761 “that their hearts were still not burning enough toward [their Savior’s] wounds.” The community diarist notes that Maundy Thursday was celebrated with hymns full of “many juicy blood stanzas.” Zinzendorf himself wrote that “the holy side of Jesus is a central point from which one can derive everything spiritual.” If Moravians felt any squeamishness about the graphic nature of this recurring thread of their community’s discourse, that does not come through in the sources examined and presented by Atwood. He admits, though, in his opening sentence that “[s]ome of the material in this book is disturbing to modern sensibilities, and I need to assure readers that this is not a description of Moravians today.” He notes, too, the lack of awareness among modern Protestants that the popular hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” uses the same imagery of the believer hiding in the side wound of Christ.

Atwood presents a strong case for the wundentheologie as an expression of the mimetic violence popularized in a religious-philosophical context by René Girard. According to this reading, the simulated violence of mystical representations of the wounds of Christ satisfies the community’s primal need for violent action while simultaneously providing a refuge—the community itself, and the very side wound of Christ—from the violence of American life on the colonial frontier, or life in persecuted communities of the Brüdergemeine. Atwood does not dismiss the possibility of pathological fixation on wounds, and he spends some time exploring Freudian perspectives put forward by other scholars of Zinzendorf’s life. But Atwood finds more fruitful, plausible, and, in the end, interesting explanations for the utility and persistence of this component of eighteenth-century Moravian life. It was in thankful, rapturous recollection of and reflection on Christ’s dismemberment that early residents of Bethlehem experienced a formative, transforming intersection of three bodies: “human bodies in Bethlehem, the social body of Bethlehem, and the symbolic body of Christ.” Atwood contends that “Bethlehem needed the paradoxical imagery of the wounded Savior-God in order to deal with the contradictions of living in heaven on earth”:

with all of its graphic descriptions of the torture and abuse of Jesus and its eroticizing of his wounds, [it] served to help the residents of Bethlehem sublimate community-destroying impulses. Christ became their scapegoat, not just theologically but sociologically and psychologically as well. Through evocative and provocative imagery, Zinzendorf painted the Savior before their eyes as they worshipped, worked, and slept. He offered the Moravians a God who shared their struggles and bore on his own body the strains and contradictions of their communal life, so that they could live in harmony.

In the end, “the brothers and sisters of Bethlehem did indeed sleep in the arms of their Creator and were drawn into his side wound. There they found both ecstasy and security” enabling them to “give themselves entirely” to the community so that it could “survive and thrive.”

Atwood breaks exciting ground in his contention that the decline of colonial and early republican Bethlehem as a Moravian settlement is related directly “to a rejection of Zinzendorf’s theology in favor of a moderate form of American evangelicalism during this same period.” Because Bethlehem’s communal life and the missionary Moravian enterprise had a symbiotic relationship with Zinzendorfian piety, “as the Brethren began to sing like other people, they began to live like them.” As hymns about “blood, wounds, sex, and death were slowly replaced by hymns about providence, conversion, and consecration”—which happened in the English-language hymnals produced for Bethlehem from 1780—Moravians “became virtually indistinguishable from their neighbors in how they worshipped and worked, prayed and loved, lived and died.” Although the city was closed to residence by all but full members of the Brüdergemeine until 1844, the period following Zinzendorf’s death and the abandonment of his theology coincided with a marked decline in population and theological vitality.

Some of the most interesting sections of the book are its appendices, in which Atwood translates Zinzendorf’s liturgical creations, most of them modeled on the ancient Christian hymn Te Deum. There is the Te Matrem, composed in address to the Holy Spirit; Te Agnum, addressed to the Lamb of God; Te Pleura, in which worshippers praise God “for the opening of your side!”; and the Wundenlitanei, translated as Litany of the Wounds of the Husband.

It is curious that Atwood does not explore in more depth the dimensions of Catholic wound-devotion which flourished in medieval Europe. The fourteenth-century Latin prayer Anima Christi, for example, contains the lines “Blood of Christ, inebriate me; water from the side of Christ, wash me;” and “within Thy wounds hide me” but it is not mentioned in Community of the Cross. While medieval Roman Catholic piety and Counter-reformation devotion to the Sacred Heart are outside the scope of Atwood’s thesis, their mention would have established links with cognate devotional tendencies in other Christian traditions. There are also a few slips of the theological pen: tridium for triduum, Patripassism for Patripassianism, and pedelavium for pedilavium stand out.

As a masterful, highly readable reconstruction of an early Pennsylvanian sacred world, its theology and inhabitants, Community of the Cross is in good company with Jeff Bach’s recent Voices of the Turtledoves on the community at Ephrata Cloister (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003). Both books are surprising, enlightening, and occasionally exciting portraits of their respective vanished religious communities, based soundly on primary sources, and making fine use of scholarly analytical tools.

R. Mammana is an editor of Anglicans Online. His articles and reviews have appeared in Sobornost, Anglican Theological Review, The Living Church and The Episcopal New Yorker.