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The Moravians

Moravians baptizing Native Americans

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1754

David Zeisberger

Zeisberger preaching to the Indians

Bishop Spangenberg

Zeisberger's gravestone

John Heckewelder

Christian Frederick Post was born in Prussia in 1710. Little is known of him until 1742 when he came to Pennsylvania with the Moravian migration that established Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He initially worked to form a church federation among Christians of German heritage in that area, but his ability to learn native languages made him more suited to organizing native groups. Between 1743 and 1749 he ministered to the Moravian Indians living in the Hudson Valley in New York State and in western Connecticut, earning the respect and trust of his Indian neighbors by learning their language and customs and by twice marrying native converts: Rachel, a Wampanoag, whom he married in 1743 and who died around 1745; and Agnes, a Delaware woman he was married to from 1747 until she died in 1751. Post had four children with his wives, but all died as infants. Suspicion and threats by local colonists against Post and his converts led to his being jailed in New York, then expelled from both New York and Connecticut. He returned to Europe in 1751. From there he was sent to Labrador for a time but eventually returned to Pennsylvania and his ministry among the Indians.


Post emerged as a significant figure in 1758 during the French and Indian War, when Governor William Denny enlisted him as his emissary to the Delaware Indians living along the western frontier. Along with Pisquetomen, a Delaware headman of considerable influence, Post played a central role in peace negotiations between the English and the tribes allied with the French. The two men journeyed across Pennsylvania in spite of great danger from both colonial and native enemies to carry news of the 1758 Easton Treaty with the eastern tribes to the Indians living along the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. At his urging, the western tribes accepted Governor Denny’s offer to restore peace if they agreed to remain neutral while British General John Forbes attacked Fort DuQuesne.

Late in 1761 Post traveled to the native settlements in Ohio’s Muskingum River Valley and built a cabin there before returning to Bethlehem for the winter. The next spring he returned to continue his ministry, accompanied by a young Moravian assistant, John Heckewelder. Again the governor of Pennsylvania enlisted him as a messenger, this time to summon Tamaque and other Indian leaders to a treaty at Lancaster. After the August treaty, during which he served as one of the interpreters, Post went back to the Muskingum to resume his missionary work. But that fall the Indians’ hostility against the Whites rose to the point that Heckewelder hurriedly left. Post was finally forced to flee for his life at the end of the year as events rapidly moved toward another war, this time under the leadership of an Ottawa chief named Pontiac and a Mingo chief named Guyasuta.


Post was motivated by faith, not politics, and these experiences convinced him that God’s work and politics do not mix. He finally asked the governor not to employ him as an emissary if the promises given to the Indians weren’t going to be fulfilled. He came to the conclusion “that a man whose Caracter it is to bring Words of Goddely and immutable Truth to the Nations, ought to be somewhat more cautious than others in carrying to the same People worldly messages, as these latter are often subject to unforeseen Disappointments” and that “the Lyes of our Messengers will always expose us [missionaries] to Danger from the Indians.” (Quotes from “C. F. Post and the Winning of the West” by Walter T. Champion, Jr.


Post married Mary Margaret Stadelman Bolinger in January 1763, and seeing that his efforts to maintain peace and convert the Indians had failed, set off for the Carolinas later in the year to preach among the Cherokee. In 1764 he sailed to South America to establish a mission among the Indians of the Mosquito Coast. But when he returned to Pennsylvania in 1767 seeking additional funding from the Moravians, he was told that his services were no longer needed. He promptly enlisted as a missionary with the Anglican Church and returned to Nicaragua, where h labored in the jungles into his seventies. Post finally returned to Pennsylvania in 1784. He settled in Germantown near Philadelphia, where he died the following year, survived by his wife. Charles Thomason, a Quaker who was a contemporary of Post’s remembered him as “a plain, honest, religiously disposed man.” One of his fellow missionaries aptly described him as a “man of undaunted courage and enterprising spirit.”

David Zeisberger is arguably the most widely known Moravian missionary to the Native Americans. He was certainly a remarkable man and a faithful messenger of the gospel. He was born on April 11, 1721, in Zauchtenthal, Moravia, a region now in the Czech Republic. His family moved to the Moravian community of Herrnhut not long after it was founded on Count von Zinzendorf’s Saxony estate in 1727. Zeisberger remained behind to complete his education when his family emigrated to America, and joined them in 1738 at the Moravian mission to the Creek nation in Savannah, Georgia. The following year Zeisberger helped to found the community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was dedicated on Christmas Eve 1741. Four years later he went to live among the Mohawk. He became a member of an Indian family, received an Indian name, and was admitted into the Six Nations. He did not adapt to all the ways of the Indians, however, almost always wearing his black coat. Fluent in the Onondaga language, he assisted the noted Conrad Weiser in negotiating an alliance between the English and the Iroquois at Onondaga, near present-day Syracuse, New York.


Zeisberger was ordained a Moravian minister in 1749 and became the senior Moravian missionary to the Lenape, or Delaware, tribe in Pennsylvania. He stood only slightly over five feet tall, but he seemed made of steel as he tirelessly traveled through primeval forests, over mountain ranges, and across rivers, visiting tribe after tribe. He was a staunch advocate for native rights, and his efforts to establish both white and native Moravian communities brought him into conflict with first British, and then American authorities. Although the Six Nations and the Delaware passed laws that he was not to be molested in his work, he often faced threats against his life from both Indians and Whites.


The painting on the left portrays Zeisberger preaching to the Indians at Goschgoschünk on the Alleghany River. The service was actually held in the council house, with the Indians gathered around the fire to hear him speak, men on one side, women on the other. Among the men were some who twelve years earlier had participated in the massacre of several Moravian missionaries on the Mahony River. As soon as Zeisberger rose to speak, every eye was fixed on him, and he knew that a tomahawk could cut him down at any moment. He later wrote, “Never yet did I see so clearly painted on the faces of the Indians both the darkness of hell and the world-subduing power of the Gospel.”


The outbreak of the American Revolution placed Zeisberger and his converts between “two exceeding mighty and wrathful gods who stood opposed with extended jaws,” as one native orator put it. Both sides pressured the Indians to take up arms for their side. Zeisberger opposed this, urging the tribes remain neutral in the war. The English sent the war hatchet to the Delaware twice, and both times Zeisberger and his native congregation, who were nonresistant, sent it back. Zeisberger even received a letter asking him to take command of the Christian Indians and bring the scalps of all the rebels they could slaughter to the British. Needless to say, he threw the paper into the fire! His native Christian communities welcomed, fed, and housed people from both sides of the war. Inevitably this aroused the suspicions of both the British and Americans concerning Zeisberger’s loyalties. The British accused him of giving aid to the Americans, and the Americans accused him of working on behalf of the English. Even so, there were many who acknowledged the work of grace the Holy Spirit was doing through him. Some American and the British military officials not only encouraged, but also at times offered him material aid in his work.


In 1781, during the Revolution, the British arrested Zeisberger at Fort Detroit along with his assistant, John Heckewelder on charges of treason. They were eventually acquitted, but in 1782, while they were still imprisoned, a company of Pennsylvania militiamen commanded by Lt. Colonel David Williamson brutally slaughtered unarmed Delaware converts at Gnadenhütten, Ohio, an incident known today as the Gnadenhütten Massacre. While the Christian Indians were gathering corn for their starving brothers who had been forced from their villages on the Tuscarawas, Williamson and his troops surrounded them and accused them of supporting the British. Ignoring the converts’ protests that they were neutral and nonresistant, Williamson and his men murdered and scalped 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children. Two Indian boys, one of whom had been scalped, survived to tell of the massacre. The victims included six national assistants and a woman who spoke English and German. On a single day of horror 96 people, one third of Zeisberger’s congregation, was lost.


As a result, the already displaced Indians of the mission were again forced to flee their homes. During the twenty-year struggle over possession of the Ohio Valley, Zeisberger and his flock were driven from one settlement to another some 15 times. Conflicts with other native tribes and the expansion of white settlements into native lands finally forced many Moravian Christians to retreat to Michigan and Ontario. Zeisberger accompanied the group that moved to southern Ontario, where they founded a prosperous mission town in Fairfield. But at the age of 77, he returned to the destroyed villages in the Tuscarawas Valley of Ohio, where he founded Goshen in present-day Tuscarawas County. He spent the final decade of his life there.


Zeisberger has been called the apostle to the Indians and friend of the Indians. During his life he produced dictionaries of several native languages, a history of the northeastern Indians and the land they occupied, and religious works in the Iroquoian and Algonquian languages. He was a great linguist who mastered the Delaware and Iroquois languages, as well as developing a working knowledge of other related Indian dialects—this in addition to German, Dutch, and English. The books he published include A Delaware Indian and English Spelling-book, with an appendix containing the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, some scripture passages, and a litany; A Collection of Hymns for the use of the Christian Indians written in the Delaware language, which includes the Easter, baptismal, and burial litanies; , a volume of Sermons to Children; a translation of Moravian Bishop Spangenberg’s Bodily Care of Children; A Harmony of the Four Gospels; and a grammatical treatise on Delaware verb conjugations. He also prepared a seven-volume lexicon of the German and Onondaga languages, an Onondaga grammar, a Delaware grammar, a German-Delaware Dictionary, and other similar works.


During his ministry Zeisberger founded the settlements of Friedenshütten (Tents of Peace) on the Susquehanna, Goschgoschünk on the Alleghany, and Lavunakhannek and Friedenstadt (Town of Peace), on the Beaver River below Pittsburgh. In Ohio Territory on the Muskingum and Tuscarawas rivers, he founded the settlements of Schönbrunn (Beautiful Spring) with its meeting house that could accommodate 500 people, Gnadenhütten (Tents of Grace), Lichtenau (Meadow of Light), and Salem. Colonel Daniel Morgan said, “The Indians in Zeisberger’s settlements are an example to civilized whites.” These settlements were all neat and orderly, with log houses lining the streets. The modestly dressed native townspeople tilled the land and tended the abundant nut and fruit trees, their children attended the village schools, and all worshiped God with prayers and hymns in their own language. White Eyes, a notable Delaware captain, was quoted as saying, “I want my people, now that peace is established in the country, to turn their attention to peace in their hearts. I want them to embrace that religion which is taught by the white teachers. We shall never be happy until we are Christians.”


When he briefly returned to Bethlehem in 1781, Zeisberger, then 60 years old, gave in to his friends’ persuasion and married 37-year-old Susanna Lecron. They left to return to the mission field less than a week after their wedding. They labored together for the remaining 27 years of his ministry among the Indians, and only after his death did Susanna return to live among the widows at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


Except for a few short intervals, Zeisberger ministered among the Indians for 62 years. By the time he died at Goshen on November 17, 1808, at the age of 87, he could count several thousand converts from almost every tribe in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Ontario, northern Virginia and Kentucky, and eastern Indiana and Michigan as a result of his ministry. He was deeply loved by his native congregations. While he lay dying, the chapel bell tolled as the people quietly entered the room to sing him home with the hymns he had translated into the Delaware language. He is buried in Goshen among his beloved Delaware brethren.

John Heckewelder was born in England in 1743. His parents were German Moravians, and in 1754 they moved their family to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the headquarters of the Moravian Church in North America. Young Heckewelder grew up among fellow believers who ministered to the Delaware living along the Susquehanna and Allegheny rivers. Heckewelder’s parents apprenticed him to a cooper as a boy, but in 1762 he accompanied Post on his journey into the Ohio Territory as his assistant. Under Post’s guidance and later that of David Zeisberger, Heckewelder lived among the Delaware Indians throughout the 1760s and 1770s, becoming fluent in their language and intimately acquainted with their culture.


After the French and Indian War, the colonists in Pennsylvania were hostile toward all Indians because of the devastating raids they had suffered. English settlers and soldiers also continued to move into the lands west of the Allegheny Mountains claimed by the Indians, pushing the original inhabitants ever farther west. In the early 1760s a Delaware prophet named Neolin came to prominence. He told of a vision in which the Master of Life had commanded him to call the Indians to abandon the ways of the Whites and cast them out of the Ohio lands, which he had given to them. Only then would they gain the blessing of the Master of Life, and he would restore their power and prosperity. In 1763, under the influence of this teaching, many of the tribes renewed their attacks against the English, led by the Ottawa leader Pontiac and the Seneca leader Guyasuta in a war that came to be known as Pontiac’s War. The Moravian missionaries and their Indian converts, who like the Quakers and Amish were nonresistant, found themselves under suspicion—and often attack—by both the English and the Indians.


The American Revolution made their situation even worse. Although the Moravians remained neutral, the Americans suspected them of aiding the British because they would not fight on their side. At the same time the British accused Heckewelder and Zeisberger of treason, claiming they passed intelligence from the Indians to the American rebels. The two missionaries were arrested and hauled in front of British officers at Detroit and held there for months. Meanwhile, a number of soldiers in Pennsylvania’s militia brutally murdered 96 unarmed Indian converts, including women and children, at the village of Gnadenhutten.


Heckewelder assisted in reestablishing the Moravian Indian refugees from Pennsylvania in Ohio after the war. He also was instrumental as a negotiator between the Indian communities and the new United States government. After his retirement, he returned to Bethlehem, but continued to occasionally work as an interpreter and agent for the Indians for some years. He devoted his greatest energies to writing, however. He published 3 books between 1818 and his death in 1823, which were based on his intimate knowledge of the Delaware. Leading scholars sought him out for details of the Indians’ languages, customs, and legends. He essentially served as a bridge between his generation, who grew up while the Indians still inhabited Pennsylvania and other eastern states, and new generations whose only knowledge of the aboriginal peoples came from history books.

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