Mapping Moravian Meanings

Alexander Lasch (Dresden) together with Katherine Faull (Bucknell, PA) and Marlene Rummel (Dresden)

Mapping Moravian Meanings

In the context of the research project “Collaborative Online International, Interdisciplinary, Intercultural Learning” (TUD-COIIIL), the first joint conference of the sub-projects is currently taking place in Dresden. We had the pleasure to briefly introduce the sub-project “Mapping Moravian Meanings” and to explore its potentials in a VCL workshop (for Virtual Collaborative Learning).


Alexander Lasch

Today I have the great pleasure to introduce our virtual collaborative learning module Mapping Moravian Meanings in the context of Digital Herrnhut. Before I start, I would like to show you in a short video clip how Katie Faull, whom I warmly welcome from Pennsylvania, in the very morning at Eastern Cost time, suggests the name for the collaborative project. I’ll post the link in the chat, the short video lasts about a minute.

Why am I showing you this cut, which I am sure some of you will not have understood? When we talk about Digital Herrnhut, it becomes, at first, necessary to be able to communicate in at least two languages – German and English are part of it. If, secondly, one deals with Herrnhut, one has to acquire a lot of knowledge about a community that has been operating worldwide for almost three centuries. After my short presentation you will understand both aspects, for sure.

The Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine or Moravian Church is a pietistic, religious community founded by Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf in Eastern Saxony, not far from Dresden. Zinzendorf is one of the most colourful figures in the Pietist scene, if one may say so. The basic idea that all people are equal if they believe in one God or devinity, not the one God, whom Zinzendorf saw in Christ, becomes fruitful as the so-called trope idea and leads to a rapid growth of the economically very successful community. Its founding is celebrated with the constitution and a so called Abend- or Liebesmahl in August 1727 – in a few years the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine, or Moravian Church, will be 300 years old.
The beliefs, which deviated from Lutheran orthodoxy, quickly brought Herrnhut, and Zinzendorf in particular, into conflict with the government of Saxony, culminating in Zinzendorf’s expulsion and the provisional banning of the community in Saxony after 1731. But Zinzendorf would not have been Zinzendorf if he had not interpreted this conflict. He understands it as a finger pointing from Christ, as a mandate and the community as a pilgrim community.

And so Zinzendorf, staged by Johann Valentin Haidt, sees himself as a teacher of people, inspired by Christ. Without experience, without funding, without a network, the Herrnhuters go on mission. In 1732 they started in the West Indies, in 1733 in Greenland, in 1734 in Lapland and on today’s east coast of the USA, in 1735 Suriname in South America, in 1737 in South Africa, in 1739 on Ceylon, to name but a few stations. The conflicts in Saxony, however, continued to accompany the Herrnhuters until Zinzendorf’s death – but the community found an adequate response to them. On the one hand, it professed the Confessio Augustana, and on the other, August Gottlieb Spangenberg ‘reviewed’ all historical, theological and liturgical writings and reworked them; the originals were, according to the official version, destroyed. If you ever want to deal with a community that writes its own history, then take a close look at the mid-18th century on the Moravians.

But nothing changes in the basic orientation: Christ is at the centre, everything comes from and goes to him. Whoever turns to him has his place in the community. No matter what his or her origin, ethnicity, social status or gender. This is wonderfully expressed in this painting by Johan Valentin Haidt.
The title – “First Fruits” or “Erstlingsbild” shows well-known community members who have been baptised into the pilgrim community worldwide. The women of the community can be recognised, this is one of my favourite details, by the blue ribbons – the children by orange ribbons. In order to identify their faith, the Moravians practice telling their inner and outer life experiences, they report, justify. They learn to read and write in their own educational institutions, are in contact with each other worldwide in a community of faith, culture and economy.

And they write a lot. First in German, then also in English – and they have a lot to report. They are themselves entangled in colonial rule in the colonial territories, but they take a disturbingly clear look at the conditions on the edges of the world and influence the image of the world and Europe in the world in many ways. Their reports can help us today to correct the eurocentric view, to let other voices have their say.

On this timeline you see one of the most important liberation movements in the 19th century, abolitionism, that is, the abolition of slavery beginning in the British colonial territories with Jamaica. We witness social upheavals, attempts at liberation and heinous violence through the Moravian accounts. Land grabs. We see births, yes plural, of racism. We read of extermination in North America, of expulsion in South Africa, of exploitation in the Caribbean. Of poverty, hunger, death in Greenland – and since Mbembe was talked about in the chat earlier: This is precisely where we need his basic attempts at perspectivisation following Foucault and his reflections on “Menschenführungsregime”.

Since we are working with Katie in Pennsylvania, we will focus on the North American reference in our project. Christian Schussele portrays David Zeisberger, one of the central figures in the early years of the Herrnhut mission, preaching among the Native Americans – beginning with his diaries, we look at the chaos into which the colonies on the East Coast fall in the 18th century, and the conflicts with the Native Americans, who organise themselves politically into five nations. What we in the West celebrate today as the independence of the USA and the breakthrough of democratic freedoms and rights is bought with one of the most brutal, racially motivated extermination campaigns against the Native Americans. The same can be said with regard to South Africa, even if the protagonists here are different.

In recent years, a cognitive turn has been emerging in the humanities.
which, starting from constructivist-oriented premises, have developed a vital interest in understanding (social) reality as a section of the object of perception constituted by cultural artefacts. I am therefore interested first of all in

  1. how to approach theoretically, methodologically and practically an object that has been transcribed, and
  2. who has helped construct our (European) knowledge of and perspective on the world, what ideological premises have played a role in this and what patterns of thought and interpretation we have practised without reflecting on them.

Now you should not be surprised by the key competencies in our project. We have to be ready to take on the perspective of others (decentering) and to be addressed by others. We should know German and English and be able to read historical manuscripts and prints. A basic understanding of digital edition is also helpful. What are our biggest challenges? We have to agree on digital standards, we want to design a virtual excursion, we have to deal with different semester times and the time differences are not to be sneezed at either. Our biggest problem is that we have to learn to deal with different levels of knowledge among the students. But that might only be a problem if we don’t get involved in defining goals together that are according to our possibilities.


Marlene Rummel with Katherine Faull and Alexander Lasch

Padlet: Herrnut collection

Worksheet: VCL meets Herrnhut

Veröffentlicht von

Alexander Lasch

Alexander Lasch lehrt an der TU Dresden germanistische Linguistik und Sprachgeschichte.

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