Sleeping Among the Natives The Moravian Missions to Shekomeko and Pachgatoch

John R. Burch, Jr., PhD

From 1734 to 1782, few missionary groups had as much success in attracting Native Americans to Christianity as the Reformed Unitas Fratrum, popularly known as the Moravians. Their success was achieved by their effective efforts to relate to the suffering of native peoples and living among them, which was viewed with disdain by other Christians. Their missionaries first arrived in Pennsylvania in 1734. They selected that colony to establish their North American mission base because William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” was widely known as the most religiously diverse and tolerant of Great Britain’s colonies in the New World. Religious tolerance had become a necessity for the Moravians because, despite repeated efforts to work with other Protestant groups during the Great Awakening, they were ostracized by their fellow Christians. Their blood and wounds theology drove other Protestants to label them as Catholics, which was an extremely damning accusation as it carried the implication that they were agents of the French or the Spanish. To a significant extent, prejudice towards the Moravians was also driven by their success in converting Native Americans to Christianity. Since Moravians were successful in their mission work where other Protestants were not, their peers determined that the Moravians’ numerous conversions were the result of a misinterpretation of the Bible’s teachings. Although few in number, Moravian missionaries and their converts came to be viewed as a threat to the security of the respective colonies. Through the experiences of the Moravians at Shekomeko in New York and Pachgatoch in Connecticut, the extent of the threat they supposedly presented can be gauged by how they were attacked by religious and political authorities in the colonies of Connecticut and New York.[1]

When the Moravians were first establishing themselves in Pennsylvania, they had no success in organizing missions among the Delaware, or Lenni Lenape, who resided near the colony because of their continued anger over the 1734 Walking Purchase which had resulted in the Delaware losing a substantial amount of land due to being duped by Pennsylvanians. Since they were shunned by the local Delawares, the Moravians decided to establish a mission in New York’s Hudson Valley in the town of Shekomeko.[2]

Shekomeko was inhabited by Mahicans. They were familiar with Christian missionaries because they had been ministered to by representatives of a number of different Christian denominations over the course of decades. When the Moravian missionary Christian Rauch arrived in Shekomeko in 1740, the Mahicans were most familiar with the teachings of the Congregationalists who resided in the nearby community of Stockbridge, Connecticut. The local natives were initially wary of Rauch but grew to tolerate his presence among them. Once he had been accepted into the native community, he was joined by other Moravian missionaries. The Moravians were able to make inroads into the Mahican community that had eluded other Protestants because of their theology and the manner in which they interacted with Native American peoples.[3]

Moravian blood and wounds theology was developed by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. It emphasized Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross by focusing on the wounds that he sustained during the crucifixion. They believed that the blood emanating from each of the injuries was the price of salvation for his believers. The prominence they showered on Jesus Christ was interpreted by other Christians as evidence of heresy through a lack of deference to the other members of the Holy Trinity. Not surprisingly, most Protestants of the day tended to shun the Moravians or otherwise mistreat them. The obvious abuse proved extremely helpful to the Moravians as the native peoples saw similarities between the plight of the missionaries and the way that Euroamerican colonists treated the natives they encountered. The shared feelings of abuse and constant suffering made Moravian blood and wounds theology relatable to the Mahican people. Inspired by the teachings of the Moravians, the Mahicans began exhorting other native peoples to come to Shekomeko to study religion under the Moravians.[4]

The Mahicans and other natives were drawn to the Moravians due to the manner in which they were treated. The Moravians viewed the Native Americans as equals, even respecting the property rights of their hosts. This was unique since missionaries from other denominations usually demanded to be given real estate in exchange for their services. Also unusual, the Moravians respected native cultures by learning to speak the local language and living within the communities in the same manner as any other resident. Other missionaries would not lower themselves to live like barbarous heathens, which is how most viewed the natives. The Moravians would not only sleep in native-style homes, but in some cases, intermarried as well.[5]

The town of Shekomeko was visited by Mawehu, a Pequot Sachem (chief), in 1742. Impressed with the Moravians, Mawehu invited Joseph Shaw and Jeannette Mack to minister his followers at Pachgatoch. This was a community of approximately 500 people located along the Housatonic River in western Connecticut. The appearance of the Moravians in 1743 caused great consternation in the colony. Shaw and Mack were soon accused of inciting the region’s native populations to reject the British colonists in favor of the French and Spanish, which was truly a baseless charge. They were also accused of being Catholics, tying them to the majority view concerning their theology. The charges proved so serious that they were arrested on June 7, 1743 and charged with two offences: they violated the Anti-Itinerancy Act of 1742, passed to combat the effects of the ongoing Great Awakening, and they violated a law that was designed to arrest foreigners deemed “suspicious.” Over the course of the resulting trial, it became evident that their true crime was successfully ministering to the very native peoples who had rejected missionaries provided by the colony’s influential Congregationalist and Anglican ministers. Since other missionaries had failed to be accepted by the natives, the success of the Moravians was attributed to misinterpreting the gospel, which in practical terms defined them as Quakers or Catholics. Being identified with either group was not something to be desired when negotiating through Connecticut’s legal system. The two missionaries were subsequently interrogated by numerous ministers, mostly Old Light adherents, who determined that their theological views were “non-Christian.” Despite the opinions expressed by the interrogators, the officials presiding over the trial in Milford, Connecticut determined that Moravian teachings were in fact in line with the established orthodoxy. The verdict was not really a victory, as both Shaw and Mack were quickly expelled from Connecticut.[6]

Similar problems had emerged at Shekomeko. The Moravians there had been accused of practicing Catholicism by local Presbyterian clergymen. In response, the Assembly of New York drafted and passed the Assembly Act of September 21, 1744. The legislation specifically targeted the Moravians by forbidding missionaries from sleeping among Native Americans. Language was also included that ordered the closure of Shekomeko. When asked to justify the law, Governor George Clinton outlined a number of specific charges. The following were among the accusations: the Moravians were acting as Spanish agents, they refused to distinguish themselves from Catholics, their growing population was a threat to New York’s stability, Moravians were intermarrying with native peoples, the native peoples were loyal to the Moravians rather than New York’s leadership, and the Moravians refused to let their followers fight on New York’s behalf on the frontier. Despite the law’s passage, the Moravians continued living in Shekomeko until 1746. That year, rumors abounded that local militia groups were being raised in order to launch a preemptive assault on the community to prevent a supposedly inevitable assault by native warriors on the local populace. In all probability, the actions of the colonists were not driven by the need for safety, but rather by an insatiable lust for the land occupied by the Mahicans. Since the Moravians were pacifists, they and their followers evacuated Shekomeko and moved to the town of Gnadenhutten in Pennsylvania.[7]

Although the Moravians, as pacifists, were actually a stabilizing influence among the native peoples to whom they ministered, other Christians believed that the Moravians and their native followers were a military threat. They thus refused to allow them to live amongst the colonists. Connecticut and New York used the mechanisms of government to force their expulsion from their borders. Unfortunately for the Moravians and the native peoples that they Christianized, Pennsylvania, the beacon of religious tolerance among England’s colonies in North America, also rejected the Moravians. They were forced to move their native followers to the frontiers of present-day Ohio. One of the communities that was relocated was Gnadenhutten. Its new location on the Muskingum River was believed to be a place of safety. That belief was proved wrong on March 8, 1782, when American militiamen executed ninety-six Native American Moravians, including women and children, at Gnadenhutten for returning to lands that had been confiscated from them and awarded to Euroamerican colonists.[8]

[1] On the history of the Moravians, see J. Taylor Hamilton and Kenneth G. Hamilton, History of the Moravian Church: The Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 1722-1957 (Bethlehem, PA: Moravian Church in America, 1967). For a description of the blood and wounds theology, see Craig D. Atwood, Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1; Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Jesus is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 87-89, 140-141, 147, 155, 207-209, 270.

[2] On the Walking Purchase of 1734 and its impact on the relationship between Pennsylvanians and the Delaware, see Steven Craig Harper, Promised Land: Penn’s Holy Experiment, the Walking Purchase, and the Dispossession of Delawares, 1600-1763 (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2006).

[3] David J. Silverman, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010): 73; Rachel M. Wheeler, To Live Upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-Century Northeast (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008): 67-72.

[4] Atwood, Community of the Cross, 95-112; Fogelman, Jesus is Female, 87-89, 140-141, 147, 155, 207-209, 270. For an overview of Zinzendorf’s theology, see Arthur J. Freeman, An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart: The Theology of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (Bethlehem, PA: Moravian Church in America, 1998). An example of how Mahicans interpreted the theology can be found in Rachel M. Wheeler, “‘Der Schönste Schmuck’: Mahican Appropriations of Moravian blood and wounds theology,” Covenant Quarterly 63, no. 5 (November 2005): 20-34.

[5] Wheeler, To Live Upon Hope, 67-104.

[6] Linford D. Fisher, “‘I Believe They are Papists!’: Natives, Moravians, and the Politics of Conversion in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut,” The New England Quarterly 81, no. 3 (September 2008): 410-437; Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 81-82, 100.

[7] Wheeler, To Live Upon Hope, 234-235; Karl-Wilhelm Westmeier, “Becoming All Things to All People: Early Moravian Missions to Native Americans,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22, no. 4 (1997): 172-176. See also Karl-Wilhelm Westmeier, The Evacuation of Shekomeko and the Early Moravian Missions to Native North Americans (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1994).

[8] On the Gnadenhutten Massacre, see Gregory T. Knouff, “Whiteness and Warfare on a Revolutionary Frontier,” in William A. Pencak and Daniel K. Richter, eds. Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004): 251-253; Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008): 265-281; Leonard Sadosky, “Rethinking the Gnadenhutten Massacre: The Contest for Power in the Public World of the Revolutionary Pennsylvania Frontier,” in David Curtis Staggs and Larry L. Nelson, eds. The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814 (Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2001): 187-206.

John R. Burch, Jr. is Dean of Library Services and Professor and has been a member of the faculty of Campbellsville University since 2000. The author of many articles, reviews, and several books, he holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Kentucky. His expertise is in Native American tribes from the colonial through the Early Republic periods.

Chat with us x