They stoked rebellion in enslaved Africans in Suriname, they possessed an unhealthy obsession with blood, gore, and the genitals of Jesus Christ, they allowed their women to preach (against the Pauline prescriptions) and they indulged in all kinds of wicked behavior. Worst of all, to their many enemies, people liked them. They demanded no pay. They worked hard. They built schools and churches with their own hands. They improved literacy among the colonists (they achieved full literacy themselves) and preached in dozens of languages. Their profusive, emotive style was engaging and attractive to most of the ordinary people who encountered them. Who were these religious radicals? They were the Moravians.

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Wound Worship, “Enthusiasts and Sodomites”: A History of Radical Moravians

Marissa: In 1750, Lutheran pastor Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg of Philadelphia took up his pen in disgust. A bold group of missionaries had made incursions on his congregation, representing themselves as ordinary Lutherans and Calvinists. Contrary to their claims, they were preaching radical theology and persuading colonists to join their communal way of life in nearby Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Muhlenberg could barely believe his eyes after studying their hymnology: “I ask you to examine the Twelfth Part of their hymns where you will discover that these obscene birds– with your permission– have compared women’s genitalia, vagina of the uterus, with the side of the Saviour of the World which on the cross has been pierced by a spear.” Indeed these religious radicals, whom British Whig Robert Nugent called “enthusiasts and sodomites,” were making waves all over the world. So convinced were they of their mission that hundreds of them, all artisan-missionaries, men and women, volunteered to relocate in communities all over the world: with the Inuit in Greenland and Labrador, the Mohicans in the Hudson River Valley, with the Hottentots in South Africa, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Georgia, the Carolinas, among enslaved populations in the Caribbean, and in Scandinavia to name just a few.

Heinrich Muhlenberg | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: They stoked rebellion in enslaved Africans in Suriname, they possessed an unhealthy obsession with blood, gore, and the genitals of Jesus Christ, they allowed their women to preach (against the Pauline prescriptions) and they indulged in all kinds of wicked behavior. Worst of all, to Muhlenberg, people liked them. They demanded no pay. They worked hard. They built schools and churches with their own hands. They improved literacy among the colonists (they achieved full literacy themselves) and preached in dozens of languages. Their profusive, emotive style was engaging and attractive to most of the ordinary people who encountered them. Who were these religious radicals? They were the Moravians.

Marissa: The Moravian Church still exists today but bears only a faint resemblance to the Moravians we will encounter in this episode. In the 1770s a new generation of Church leaders were humiliated by the radicalism of their forebears and chastened by the condemnation of their Protestant and Catholic rivals. This new conservative generation of Moravian clergy did what they could to purge their pasts of the legacies of their spiritual experimentations. They reinvented themselves as noncontroversial, deradicalized pious protestants, disowning their radical past. Today we cover the first 300 years of the 700-year history of the Moravian Church.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Averill.

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.


Averill: We want to give a big thank you to all of our Patreon supporters, particularly our Auger and Excavator level patrons: a very special thanks to Danielle, Lauren, Christopher, Colin, Maggie and Peggy! Your generosity will go down in history (see what I did there?). Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be – just go to to learn more.

Marissa: Moravian history reaches back nearly 700 years. We will do our best to condense their long and interesting but convoluted history so that we have time to discuss the peculiarities that made them so incredibly radical from what historians call their period of innovation from 1727 to 1760. But first, to understand the Moravian identity, we must go back to England in the 1300s. The Plantagenet, Edward the Black Prince, was on the throne and the Hundred Years War with the French Valois had already begun.

A Northerner from the Yorkshire village of Hipswell had begun to earn notoriety as a staunch critic of the Papacy. In fact, the first major reformer of the Roman Catholic Church was this very Englishman, named John Wycliffe. He established a following (later called Lollards) in the 1370s. He was Master of Balliol College and a rector at Oxford among other prestigious medieval universities. He criticized the Pope and railed against the increasingly lascivious and materialistic lifestyles of Catholic clergy. He also believed the Scripture was the ultimate Christian authority and that it should be translated into the vernacular for ordinary people to read.

Averill: Wycliffe was examined by authorities and attacked in writing by the Catholic establishment but was never arrested or charged with heresy during his lifetime. He died in 1384 but it was not until several years later that the English Crown cracked down on Wycliffe’s followers, passing the Anti-Wycliffite Statute of 1401. The Statute branded Wycliffe a heretic and made it illegal to possess and circulate his ideas. From this point forward, Lollards were charged with heresy and burned at the stake. This violent crack-down had long term consequences. It made all executed Lollards martyrs for Wycliffe’s cause.

Marissa: Wycliffe’s works were circulated secretly in continental Europe for decades where they stoked the fires of reform. “Wycliffism” or “Lollardy” as it was now called found fertile ground in the Slavic Kingdom of Bohemia (present day Czech Republic). Prague was awarded its own archbishopric in 1344, giving it ecclesciasitcal independence from Mainz (Rhineland-Palatinate). Making things even more complicated, the Papacy suffered a schism in 1378 that pit Pope Gregory XII in Rome against Pope Benedict XIII in Avignon. The schism split loyalties across the Bohemian kingdom. Still, at the turn of the 15th century, Prague flourished as the foremost cultural and intellectual center in the region.

Jan Hus | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Jan Hus, a Bohemian theologian and dean of Charles University in Prague, was deeply influenced by Wycliffe’s ideas. Hus came to prominence in the 14-oughts when he began criticizing the Papacy for instigating violence in the Levant. He also criticized the Church for selling indulgences to finance these Crusades. A large majority of the Bohemian faculty working on theology in Prague’s universities supported Hus. By 1410, most Bohemians had been converted to loyal Hussites as well. Sensing danger, sympathetic clergy tried to convince the faculty to recant their heretical views. King Wenceslaus IV convened a Synod in 1412 as an attempt to reconcile the faculty to the Church. Hus earned Wenceslaus’s loyalty because he argued that Bohemia should have all the rights that other states enjoyed. Typically, the Church could only condemn adherents with permission from their King (as part of its medieval balance of ecclesiastical and secular power). Due to massive support for Hus and rioting in the streets, Wenceslaus did not give the Church permission to condemn him but his throne was somewhat insecure so the Church took a gamble and resisted any challenges to their authority, risking Wenceslaus’s displeasure. In the end, Wenceslaus was forced to exile Hus from Prague.

Marissa: While in exile, Hus realized that rural Bohemians were excluded from the developments in Prague and he sought to remedy their exclusion. He wrote the remainder of his theological texts in Czech. Meanwhile, King Wenceslaus’s brother Sigismund of Hungary was impatient to put an end to the religious chaos in the kingdom. He convened the Council of Constance (1414-1418) and promised Hus safe passage, implying that this was another chance to negotiate with Church authorities. On his way to Constance, Hus was imprisoned and Sigismund was convinced by Catholic prelates that promises to heretics didn’t count. Hus was tried and executed for heresy on July 6, 1415. This martyrdom was powerful to the Czechs. They revolted against the Papacy, raising troops against the Pope and provoking the Church into declaring a Crusade against them.

Averill: Because their movement was equal parts religious and political, the Hussites were just as much soldiers as they were religious fellows. They were persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for their theological departures. “The Hussites were so constantly under arms and involved in marches and countermarches that one is puzzled to determine where soldier leaves off and refugee begins.”[1] Hussites spent the next 18 years repulsing Papal forces over the course of 5 consecutive Crusades. Additional sects splintered along cultural and provincial lines: The Utraquists were centered in Prague and were ascetic and puritanical while the Taborites were radically and violently martial. They shared the common goal, however, of an independent Bohemia and the establishment of a Hussite Church. Hus, and his followers, thus became early Protestant reformers as well as the earliest agitators for Czech independence.

Marissa: What in the world does this have to do with Moravians you ask? As always, it comes back around. The Moravians were born from an alliance between three of these Hussite sects that had played both the part of both soldier and refugee. The Moravians emerged from three separate communities of Hussites: one seeking refuge in Kunwald (NE Bohemia), another group that had found asylum in Klatovy (W Bohemia), and a third group staying in Vitanovice (E Bohemia/W. Moravia). In 1458, Gregory the Patriarch brought together these three Hussite communities and established the Unity of the Czech Brethren.

Averill: They elected their own priests and adhered strictly to the Sermon on the Mount (no oaths, no wealth accumulation). In this, and in many other things, the Brethren were very much unlike the Hussites who had come before them. They were militantly pacifist and insisted on widespread education of all, irrespective of class. In 1508, Vladislas II issued the St. James mandate which outlawed the Brethren. Once again, they became hunted refugees. They continued their diaspora to Moravia where they stayed from 1509-1516. This is where they got their name.

Marissa: In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation kicked off, and the Counter-Reformation clamped down. The Brethren faced alternating periods of persecution and toleration, living mostly on the estates of sympathetic Bohemian and Moravian nobles. This was, until the beginning of the Bohemian Revolt in 1618 (which started the Thirty Years War) when they were forced to go underground. Brethren, now often called Moravians, lived in tiny dispersed communities in Poland and Moravia for nearly a century. These illegal remnants of the Brethren came to be called the “Hidden Seed.”

The Hidden Seed remained just that, hidden, until 1722. This year, a small band of Moravian refugees were offered refuge by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, an Austrian noble with an estate in Upper Lusatia. Lusatia is a region that now spans Germany and Poland. In 1722, this region was part of the Kingdom of Saxony. It had previously been under the authority of the Habsburgs, The Lusatian League (a confederation of 5 Royal Cities), and the Kingdom of Bohemia. During the 1400s, the area’s rulers were quite conservative and they actively fought against the Hussites in the Hussite Wars. By the mid-16-th-century, however, Protestantism was widely espoused in the area.

Averill: After the untimely death of his father when he was a newborn, little Ludwig (as he was called when young) enjoyed a very intimate relationship with his mother until she remarried and went off to live with her new husband, leaving Ludwig with his maternal grandmother. She was a devoted Pietist Lutheran. Pietists were Protestants (most numerous in Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Baltic lands) who became known for their evangelical fervor, personal piety, and intense, emotive conversion experiences. Initially Pietists were Lutherans but as the movement grew, they absorbed influence from other religious sects and became much less Lutheran.

Marissa: His biographers recount a pitifully sad scene of Ludwig being heartbroken when he had to part from his mother. He tried courageously to keep his composure but tears rolled down his cheeks. By all accounts he was a very sweet child. Little Ludwig’s close relationship with his grandmother influenced his piety from a young age. As a child, Zinzendorf wrote moving letters to Jesus and completed his devotional practice by scattering his letters into the wind from the top of the castle tower. In 1706, Swedish soldiers occupied his family’s castle as part of the Great Northern War. They barged into his room where he was writing his letters to Jesus and the soldiers purportedly became emotional when they encountered this sweet scene. They refused to ransack the castle as they normally did for fear that God watched over it.

Averill: Ludwig went on to be educated at Francke Foundations (in Halle), a Pietist secondary school. As a teen he studied law at the University of Wittenberg, then traveled around the Netherlands and France. While in a Dusseldorf art gallery, he viewed the painting Ecce Homo (Behold the Man in English) by Domenico Fetti. At that moment, he experienced the Holy Spirit and told himself, “I have loved Him for a long time, but I have never actually done anything for Him. From now on I will do whatever He leads me to do.”

Marissa: His family had always urged him to become a diplomat. The Francke Foundations wanted him to join their faculty. Instead, ever the homebody and grandma’s boy, he married in 1722 and bought his grandmother’s estate, Bethelsdorf, from her. He settled down there with his bride Erdmuthe Dorothea of Reuss-Ebersdorf. That same year, he extended asylum to persecuted “wanderers” from the parts of Moravia and Bohemia with high concentrations of Brethren. (Remember them?) Yes, these wanderers were, as it turns out, the Hidden Seed.

Averill: Zinzendorf allowed them to build a village on the corner of his estate. They called it Herrnhut. Meanwhile, Zinzendorf accepted a court commission to Dresden. Over the next five years, Herrnhut was constructed and it quickly attracted a growing reputation for religious tolerance. It attracted a smorgasbord of persecuted religious groups. They quickly began to disagree and waves of apocalyptic fanaticism plagued the village. Zinzendorf resigned from Dresden and returned to mediate the conflict.

His solution was for the entire village to devote themselves to intense study of Scripture. As a community, Herrnhut drafted a document called the Brotherly Agreement to which Zinendorf appended a number of “Manorial Injunctions” meant to keep peace on the estate. Everyone in the community signed the document and continued their intense study of Scripture in small prayer groups. This intensive period of mediation has become known as the Moravian Pentecost and for contemporary Moravians, it marks the birth of the modern Moravian Church.

Marissa: Entirely by happenstance, the Brotherly Agreement was theologically aligned with the Unity of the Czech Brethren. Zinzendorf only discovered the similarities when he began studying the Brethren in 1727, after Herrnhut had already been established and the Brotherly Agreement signed. Zinzendorf urged the villagers to read the writings of the Brethren (now 250 years old). Not only did the Brethren’s theology align with their own, but this was, for many of them, the first time they learned about the trials and tribulations of their ancestors and the roots of the diasporic lives they had always known. The villagers began to conceive of themselves as a renewed community of Czech Brethren.

Averill: From this point forward, the sect used Moravians, Unitas Fratrum, Unity of the Czech Brethren, Unity of the Bohemian Brethren, and a few other names, interchangeably. But for clarity’s sake we’ll start referring to them as Moravians from here on out. Most radical Moravian theology and practice was developed immediately following this “rebirth” in 1727. For the next 15 years, the Moravians expanded rapidly, attracted thousands of followers, and experimented with alternative ways of living, new modes of piety, and novel conceptions of Protestant theology.

Marissa: Now, we’re already 25 minutes into the episode and only now has the Moravian Church been established so it’s not possible to cover the rest of Moravian history in any detail in just one episode BUT there are several elements of the Moravian Church that deserve some exploration by us. At the heart of Moravian theology, lay the idea that religion was a matter for the heart and that over-rationalizing religious thought was a mistake. Zinzendorf strove to achieve the childlike faith that has shaped his boyhood and encouraged Moravians to do the same. The basis for Moravian piety (similar to the Pietism of Zinzendorf’s grandmother), was initially an intimate, emotional relationship with Jesus Christ. Over time, this relationship became increasngly erotic and somatic (or embodied) in nature and became what some call a “mystical marriage.”

Jan Huss preaching at the Council of Constance | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

According to historian Aaron Spencer Fogleman, the intensity of their intimacy with Christ posed a significant problem for early Moravians. If Christ was a man, were Moravian men supposed to have a homosexual relationship with Christ? Well, there is some evidence that Moravians practiced ritual homosexual sex. On the birthday of Zinzendorf’s son Christian, his uncles wrote (and presumably performed) a hymn that exhorted Christ to kiss Christian “so very extraordinarily” and to “take him to the Cabinet (a special chamber where married couples had mystical sex) where they could talk, caress, and kiss each other, inspired by the flame of love.”[2]

Averill: Young men in Herrnhaag, one of the most radical Moravian communities to be established, were known to perform ritual homosexuality. Fogleman says they “penetrated the side-wound-anus of Christ in spiritual ceremonies.”[3] Zinzendorf himself wrote of his relationship with Christ as if they were romantic partners: “Therefore by faith we must so enter the Saviour, that we can no longer see or hear anything else above or beyond him, that we and he remain inseparably together … he knows my danger and my security; in short, I can be nowhere better than in his arms.” For these reasons, other Protestants often called Moravians sodomites.

Conscious of the damage this did to their evangelical mission, the Moravians sought to modify their theology so that homosexuality was not a problem. They did so by arguing that all souls were female and this mystical marriage to Christ was spiritual only, not physical. Likewise, they regendered the Holy Spirit as feminine, ascribing to it a motherly function. If God was the Father, the Holy Spirit was the mother.

Marissa: They thought Christ was born male, remained male for his earthly life and became female at the time of his Crucifixion. This is one reason why they placed special importance on Christ’s side wound. For those of you whose Christian narratives are rusty, remember Christ was crucified by the Romans and in order to ensure he was dead, a Roman soldier was ordered to pierce him between the ribs with a spear. It was through this final wound, the piercing, that Christ performed atonement on behalf of humanity and, according to the Moravians, became female and “gave birth” to human salvation. Moravians (as did Pietists) sought to cultivate boundless empathy for Christ’s suffering so they spent the majority of their devotional time contemplating Christ’s wounds. His “side-hole” as they called it, was not only Christ’s final wound but also a figurative womb from which he birthed a path to salvation.

This wound-birth analogy was incredibly important to Moravian piety. In his writings, Zinzendorf used the analogy often. For example:

“If one says, I believe it, now I will see whether you are a divine child. That I will see in your longing for your mother’s womb, in whether you have entered into the new world through the right door, through which the pleroma of the new Spirit exited, namely through the side of Jesus.”

Averill: To be sure, the analogy works well. But the Moravians’ feminization of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ angered other Protestants and caused their enemies to label them heretics and filthy blasphemers. Some historians have uncovered instances of gender transformation during Moravian devotional practice. In 1748, a small cult of devotees formed around Zinzendorf’s son, Christian. One of these devotees, Johann Christopher Becker, wrote the following in his diary about his experience with the other boys in his choir:

“ A few days earlier the brothers in Herrnhaag with astonishing feeling were all accepted and declared as single sisters, and we experienced this astonishing thing ourselves this evening and were blessed by the dear Hertzel, with Christian, Rubusch, and Caillet signing and layin on hands. There was also Communion and foot washing.”

Marissa: The Moravians remained, however, increasingly committed to wound piety. In 1744, they composed the Litany of Wounds. They worshipped the Five Wounds of Jesus: (1) his circumcision, (2) his nailed feet, (3) his nailed hands, (4) the wound made by his Crown of Thorns, and most importantly, (5) the gash made in his side by Roman soldiers to ensure his death on the cross. They called this last wound, Jesus’s side-hole.

Living in the side hole.

Averill: During the 1740s, Moravians wrote side-hole hymns, created side-hole devotional cards, crafted side-hole art, and centered their spiritual practice entirely on this particular wound. One devotee, a Swiss German woman named Mariane von Watteville, painted a side wound collage which she stitched into a three-dimensional piece of folk art. It shows her kneeling inside Christ’s side hole and being sprayed by the blood of Christ. The inscription reads: “O, I rejoice, I rejoice so much that I have found the sea from the wound, where I am a blessed little sinner. I have everything.”

Marissa: The Moravian archive has preserved a couple hundred side hole devotional cards that depict Moravians seeking refuge inside Christ’s side hole. There is some debate about these cards. Fogleman claims they are purposely drawn to look like a vulva and yes, they do look like it. And that does make sense since they describe the hole as a womb and use the analogy of birth to describe atonement. But other historians, such as Craig D. Atwood, point out that if the side hole was supposed to evoke a vulva, it would be vertically-oriented but it’s not, it’s horizontal. Atwood says it’s much more likely supposed to represent a mouth or eye, or even just a Mandorla, which is used as an almond-shaped nimbus around Christ’s head in traditional Christian iconography. (We will put some images up on the blog).

Averill: Fogleman argues that the cards were used as devotional materials but also as instructional tools for married couples seeking mystical sexual encounters. One of them does depict male ejaculation as a figurative blessing of the womb and instructs the ejaculating male to read aloud a hymn at the moment of climax. Craig Atwood, on the other hand, claims that side hole cards were distributed to children on holidays and that, in some cases, teen boys used them to help subvert lustful impulses. Atwood also describes a devotional practice in the Moravian community of Herrnhaag that a youth leader wrote about in his diary. They boys drew a sacred character that they would have to play act. One drew a “wounds worm,” another drew a dove, and another a sheep. They they drew a card from a collection of cards depicting Christ’s wounds. Christel Zinzendorf (Count Zinzendorf’s son) drew the circumcision wound. The other boys drew the side wound, hands, and feet. They then composed hymns based on this devotional lottery.

Marissa: In defense of Fogleman’s sensational claims, the side hole cards do look incredibly vulvar and they bear what looks to be semi-erotic inscriptions. Here are a few examples of side hole card inscriptions:

  1. “In the little side hole I lie just right and sleep a couple of million fathoms deep.”
  2. “The moment the stab occurred, I leapt out, hallelujah!”
  3. “Deep inside! Deep inside! Deep inside the little side!”
  4. “Trembling in the side wound.”

Averill: One card shows two little side holes at the altar and the inscription reads, “Little Side Hole’s Marrying.” Another shows a man with a side hole as a head standing inside of a side hole. Some of the cards include other images common to Moravian imagery such as the one with the inscription “In the crevice of the side puncture, I sit like a little dove.” Moravians often described themselves as “little worms” who “swam and bathed in the blood of Jesus.”[4] Funny enough, some of the cards depict Moravians living their every-day lives: One reads “In the little hole I go for a walk.” Even today, at the historic Brothers House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, there is a sundial that reads “Gloria Pleurae” (in English: Honor to the Side).

Marissa: Side hole cards leave room for interpretation but Moravian hymns about the sidehole are unmistakeably erotic:

“Little side hole! Little side hole!/ Little side hole, thou art mine:/ Most dear little side hole

I wish myself entirely inside./ Ah, my little side hole!/ Thou art my little soul/ Yes the dearest little place;/ Side shrine!/ Body and soul passes into thee.” (Hymn 2281)

Averill: In writing, Moravians referred affectionately to the wound as “Heart pierc’d deep,” or a “precious cavity,” or my favorite, “Dearest… Sweetest… Most beloved Side Hole.” Many of the hymns have graphic names: “Are you Washed in Blood?” and “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded.” Critics mercilessly mocked Moravian wound devotion. The Prussian Heinrich Rimius wrote of Moravians’ obsession with the side hole, “There is his Country, his House, his Hall, his little Bed, his little Table. There he eats, there he drinks, there he lives, there he praises the dear little Lamb.”

Marissa: Some hymns contain uncomfortable combinations of erotic overtones and morbid anatomical analogies. Believers swooned over images of Christ’s “pale lips”, “dead eyes,” and “sweat soaked hair.” One hymn describes erotic feelings for Christ’s corpse:

“Man, Husband of your church of blood,/ have knowledge of your people and of every soul in such a human way,/ so specially, alone, O Husband with a hole! O what an incomparable ray!/ Kiss us, you cold little mouth! O corpse! Spread further in this church hall./ We are lying here like the child. . . . Kiss us, you cold little mouth!”

Averill: During their religious festivals, Moravians decorated rooms with images of their brothers and sisters kissing Christ’s corpse. They often conceptualized themselves as “little cross air birds” or “little wound bees” who circumvented and entered Christ’s side hole. Just as important as Christ’s wounds and body was his blood. One image depicts two Moravian sisters touching Christ’s wounds and bathing in his blood. Moravians were known to swim in animal blood and to hang bloody sheets from the doors of their Church so that Christ’s suffering would never be far from their minds. One hymn reads:

“We, and the Lamb’s blood-community,/ we intend to witness for eternity,/ that only in the

sacrifice of Jesus can be found/ grace and freedom from all sins,/ for the entire world./ Jesus’ community rests blessedly/ in its friends, it reclines,/ that is its thing, in the sea of grace,/ swimming and bathing in the blood of Jesus/ its element.”

Marissa: Blood and wound piety was a mode of worship that brought Moravians closer to the bodily suffering of Christ. The faithful composed, read, and meditated on graphic crucifixion narratives that brought them closer to understanding the realities of Christ’s suffering. For example:

“You will have seen our good Jesus, out of natural fear, tear out the hair of his head. You will have seen his arms flailing, his thighs shaking, all of those milky members chilled to ice and trembling.. . . A hot river of blood courses headlong from all the torn victim’s body to his feet. From the flayed Lord a pure, warm lake of blood appears. And blood again from the plummeting lashes, spattering the walls all around, hanging on the rough walls in gross, thick lumps”

Averill: Radical pietists sometimes joined Moravian communities, lived there for a while, only to leave and report their experiences to the Moravians’ enemies. Most Moravian communities were closed, intentional communities. The most notably radical Moravian community was called Herrnhaag. These communities were hierarchical, with nobility and clergy at the top. Labor was organized by the “General Economy,” a system of collective ownership. Members did not work for wages but the Church supplied their food, housing, and clothing. Even without wages, Moravians were quite productive. The Pennsylvania and North Carolina Moravians managed to turn their villages into industrial centers.

Marissa: What critics found most shocking was their devaluation of the nuclear family, the primary unit of organization for most Protestants. Moravians were organized into “choirs” depending on their sex and their life stage. There was usually a baby choir, little boy choir, little girl choir, single woman choir, single man choir, married woman choir, etc. Each choir had its own leadership and kept its own diary. Moravians worked, prayed, ate, and slept alongside their choirs rather than with their nuclear families. Upon death, they were buried in their choirs, chronologically by date of death in a cemetery called God’s Acre. They were not buried with their families. They believed that upon death, they entered the side wound, a process that consummated their mystical marriage with Christ. Critics seized on this theological principle, called “bridal mysticism”and accused the Moravians of gnosticism. (An early Christian mystic cult that flourished during the 2nd century CE).

Mary Greenwood, buried in the traditional Moravian way | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Earthly marriages were selected “by lot,” which was essentially a drawing like the one we mentioned earlier with the Herrnhaag boys. Moravians believed that this process of lottery was a way of confirming God’s desires for them and for their communities. Marriages required consent from both parties but the initial pairings were made by lot. Sometimes, entire rooms of single men and women would be paired up by lot and, barring any objections, their marriages were solemnized en masse in a communal ceremony. Mission assignments, special assignments, and travel plans were also selected by lot.

Marissa: Moravian mothers worked and traveled without their children in tow. Wives and husbands often lived separately in their respective choirs. Their theology valued marital sexuality, however, so Moravian communities required a “Bedmaster” who coordinated married couples’ use of a special marital chamber and bed by the hour. Zinzendorf recommended married couples have sex once per week, and that they continued to do so after childbearing years were over. Marital sex was regarded as a majestic experience. (This is quite different from Catholics who viewed all sex as a necessary evil and Protestants who acknowledged the importance of sexual pleasure within marriage but for the purpose of conception). Though they condemned sex outside of marriage, the Moravians were peculiarly sex positive in all other ways. Take this hymn for instance… REMEMBER, this is a HYMN for singing in church:

“O bring us, our marriage friend/ Thy blood speckled member, / Which is needed for the union/ With our innocence once again”

Averill: Or this one….

“When I can eat him,/ So it is best for me./ And when my dear husband/ Lets his oil sizzle in me,/ Since this grace is a sacrament/ That one cannot always have/ My body is turned toward him.”

A hymn…. IN CHURCH.

Marissa: Historians have identified a period from 1743-1750 that they call “The Sifting Time” when the Church’s radicalism appeared to spiral out of control. Some historians understand this time as a high-point regarding theological and communal innovation. Many people at the time, and some historians now, interpret this time as a crisis. Either way, this is when the Litany of Blood and Wounds was written and published and when Moravians were most devoted to blood and wounds theology. Some communities took wound piety so far in the 1740s that they have been interpreted as wound cults.

Averill: Interestingly, this zenith of wound piety occurred precisely at the time when Moravians were growing most rapidly and engaging in intensive mission trips all over the world. Some historians believe this is no accident. Wound theology was often compelling to indigenous and African societies that placed ritual importance on blood. Some societies they preached to, on the other hand, had blood taboos that worked against Moravian missionaries’ efforts. There is some evidence that Moravians disguised their confessional affiliations during missions and that they toned down the gory blood and wounds piety while they were ministering to foreigners. The Moravians retained a bit of their historical identity as refugees because in the 1730s, Zinzendorf and his inner circle were exiled from Saxony. They turned this instance of persecution into an opportunity to conduct their own Moravian pilgrimage/mission. Zinzendorf was often called “The Pilgrim Count.”

Some mission trips involved long-term settlement by Moravian volunteers. Others took the shape of lecture circuits, and Moravian missionaries played the role of itinerant preachers. Married couples often went out evangelizing as partners, called “wheels.” Many ordinary Protestants who encountered missionary “wheels” were pleased by the charming scene of husband and wife working together in their religious mission. Most Protestant clergy, however, were appalled that they permitted women to preach. This was a hot debate in the American colonies during the First Great Awakening, a transAtlantic religious revival during the eighteenth century. Though most Protestants still objected to female preaching, a host of prophetesses, women mystics, and female preachers managed to participate in the revival, especially in the colonies where ecclesiastical authority struggled to control the peripheries.

Marissa: A century earlier, women who dared to claim religious authority such as Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, were imprisoned, tried, and exiled. In Hutchinson’s case, her exile to New Netherland ended when her family was massacred by the Siwanoy Indians. Moravians, a century later, faced similar dangers when they settled semi-permanently among indigenous communities. Indigenous Americans were rarely violent but keep in mind that they don’t know these people. The Moravians did not, at first, speak their language. And the Moravians were attempting to convert them to a religion that practiced blood and wound piety. It would have been easy for indigenous groups to feel threatened. Historian Jacqueline van Gent has argued that Moravian missions, though they were not typically sanctioned by their home country, were part of a “wider colonial socialisation process.”

Averill: What Gent means is that even though Moravian missionaries sought to save and spread the news of Christ’s wounds, they were also using coercion and taking advantage of a power imbalance during an era of extreme imperial violence. In 1752, the Moravians established their mission in Labrador (coastal Newfoundland). After some time there, several of the missionaries were murdered, presumably by the Inuit they had been working with. They abandoned the mission shortly after in 1764. But they didn’t stay away for long. The very next year, another Moravian missionary received permission from the Moravian synod (who made a decision made by lot) to return with three other missionaries to Labrador.

Once they returned the Labrador, the Moravians faced what they considered to be “obstinate” Inuit who “refused to grow new ears.” The Moravians assumed that, since wound piety, emotional Pietism, and Christocentric theology was so compelling to them, that it would also be compelling to the Inuit. Some Inuit agreed to worship with them and repeated the words, actions, etc. that they were told to repeat but they failed to exhibit the emotional behavior that Moravians believed indicated a “recreated heart” or salvation. They tried, for years, to coerce the Inuit into changing their emotional style and their behaviors to suit Moravian styles of worship. The Inuit weren’t interested and the Moravians on the mission were sorely disappointed that Inuit culture held such sway over their hearts.

Marissa: We mentioned earlier that Moravian radicalism was quashed in the 1770s and erased from the Moravian record by embarrassed clergy. This is true but we should quickly recount how this sea-change happened. It began much earlier, in 1749, at the end of the “Sifting Period.” After hearing graphic stories of blood and wound worship, ritualized homoeroticism, and unruly women Moravians, Count Zinzendorf decided that the Moravians were spiraling out of control and endangering their ecumenical goals. He issued a “Letter of Reprimand” to the Moravian communities around the world. He laid out a list of practices and beliefs that the Church had developed during the Sifting Time that corrupted Protestant theology and endangered their mortal souls. Interestingly, the letter was never published in full before 1996 until Craig Atwood translated and published the letter in a Moravian History Society journal.

Averill: We want to be clear. The things about Moravian piety that appear the most shocking to us now, namely the gory, bloody wound worship, were not at issue. Zinzendorf was on board with that and that had been a part of Moravian piety since the beginning. One of the things he railed against was the over-use of diminutives. As you will have noticed, the Moravians called everything “little” because it reinforced their intimacy with Christ’s body. But Zinzendorf came to believe that this trivialized the importance of atonement. He also told people they needed to stop imitating his phraseology and not using words or phrases they didn’t understand because it lacked authenticity (basically stop being posers).

Marissa: He also reprimanded the faithful for what he perceived to be worldly behaviors creeping their way into the Church. Some Moravians turned their colonial networks into money-making schemes, while others traded in spiritual eroticism for sexual promiscuity. He particularly singles out the custom of same-sex kissing as a greeting, sayind that the kissing is getting out of hand at meetings. He insisted that the sexual lives of congregants must be regulated strictly: no unscheduled, illicit sex, and no discussions of sexuality or childbirth in any choir but the married choirs. He claimed that the single choirs were increasingly engaging in erotic mysticism as a justification in their quest for erotic pleasure.

Averill: Zinzendorf abolished foot washing, a common practice, and a ceremony called the Kiss of Peace until further notice. Historians note these proscriptions are interesting because they only took place in homosocial settings. Historian Paul Peucker has written extensively on the incidents of homosexual eperimentation that was going on in Moravian communities in part because of the strict separation of the sexes into choirs. Zinzendorf also warned congregants against using language to describe the side-hole “in the manner that our enemies describe it,” that is, as a vulva. He recommends they set aside the side-wound worship for a set amount of time so the vitriol of their enemies will be rendered unjustified. Lastly, Zinzendorf attacked what he saw as dangerous and unnecessary factionalism among the various Moravian congregations.

Marissa: So even though this marks the beginning of the Moravians’ period of self-evaluation, Zinzendorf’s objections were not to the things that seem most objectionable to us like the Litany of Wounds or the strict communal living. In fact, he reinforced those things and they continued to be central aspects of Moravian life for a couple more decades. As it turns out, it was Zinzendorf’s eclectic and unconventional theology and what they did with this theology that made the Moravians so incredibly radical at this time. When Zinzendorf died in 1760, his successors in the “General Economy” swiftly transformed the church into a more conventional, conservative evangelical denomination, closely resembling the Church today.

Averill: When historians attempted to study the Sifting Time, a period of radicalization referred to in bits and pieces by others, they found that in the 1770s, church leaders had burned and discarded any record they could find describing the Sifting Time experiments. They also disempowered Moravian Sisters. Subsequent synods removed women from the board of elders and installed male superintendents to handle the finances of the female choirs (who had always managed their own labor and finances in the past). Women were forbidden from holding office and teaching. The practice of making decisions by the lot continued until it lost favor after 1818 and was abolished in 1889.

Marissa: The Litany of Wounds was also abolished in the 19th century and with it went the worship of the side hole and the erotic feelings towards Jesus’s corpse. Today the Moravian Church has 750,000 members worldwide. The contemporary Moravian Church bears little resemblance to the Church of the Sifting Time, yes, but there are still some time-honored traditions that survived the Church’s many reforms. They still practice the lovefeast, a tradition started in 1727 Herrnhut. Missionary work is still central to the faith and the Moravians boast of the oldest continually used devotional text in the world, called the Daily Watchword, first published in 1728 Herrnhut. So even though we’ve given you plenty of juicy tidbits to think about, there was likely so much more that is simply lost to us now.


Atwood, Craig D. 1996. “ZINZENDORF’S 1749 REPRIMAND TO THE BRÜDERGEMEINE.” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society. 29: 59-84.

Atwood, Craig D. 2009. “Little Side Holes: Moravian Devotional Cards of the Mid-Eighteenth Century”. Journal of Moravian History. no. 6: 61-75.

Atwood, Craig D. Blood, Sex, and Death: Life and Liturgy in Zinzendorf’s Bethlehem. Princeton Theological Seminary, 1995.

Blouet, Helen. 2018. “Moravian Cemeteries on Barbados: Sites of Historical, Social, and Political Change”. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage. 7, no. 3: 265-286.

Engel, Katherine Carte. Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Eyerly, Sarah Justina. “Singing from the Heart”: Memorization and Improvisation in an Eighteenth-Century Utopian Community. University of California, Davis, 2007.

Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. Jesus Is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

Katharine Gerbner. 2015. ““They Call Me Obea”: German Moravian Missionaries and Afro-Caribbean Religion in Jamaica, 1754-1760”. Atlantic Studies. 12, no. 2: 160-178.

Hessler, Bettina. Transatlantic Religion and Nation Formation in America. The Moravian Church, 1735-1818. Northwestern University, 2011.

Mehler, Natascha, Torbjörn Brorsson, Jette Linaa, and Richard Gartley. 2018. “Moravian Ceramics on St Croix, the Virgin Islands”. Post-Medieval Archaeology. 52, no. 3: 405-408.

Pietrenka, Benjamin M. Religion on the Margins: Transatlantic Moravian Identities and Early American Religious Radicalism. University of California, Santa Cruz, 2017.

Peucker, Paul. 2007. “The Songs of the Sifting. Understanding the Role of Bridal Mysticism in Moravian Piety During the Late 1740s”. Journal of Moravian History. no. 3: 51-87.

Peucker, P. 2006. “”Inspired by Flames of Love”: Homosexuality, Mysticism, and Moravian Brothers Around 1750″. JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SEXUALITY. 15, no. 1: 30-64.

Raphael-Hernandez, Heike. 2017. “The Right to Freedom: Eighteenth-Century Slave Resistance and Early Moravian Missions in the Danish West Indies and Dutch Suriname”. Atlantic Studies. 14, no. 4: 457-475.

Thorn, Brent Alan. The Convergence of Pietistic Theology and Enlightenment Pedagogy in Moravian Mission Methods on the Colonial American Frontier. Thesis, University of Texas at Dallas, 2015.

Van Gent, Jacqueline, Spencer Young, and Jacqueline Van Gent. 2015. “The Burden of Love: Moravian Conversions and Emotions in Eighteenth-Century Labrador The Burden of Love: Conversions and Emotions”. Journal of Religious History. 39, no. 4: 557-574.

Weber, Charles Riddick. Zinzendorfs’ Utopia: Discovering the Radical Roots of the Eighteenth Century Brüdergemeine in Wachovia. University of Virginia, 2009.

[1] Norwood, Frederick Abbott. Strangers and Exiles : a History of Religious Refugees. Vol. 1 Vol. 1. Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1969.

[2] Fogleman

[3] Fogleman

[4] Fogleman, 87


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