David Zeisberger, missionary to Native Americans

November is National American Indian Heritage Month.
This blogger's interest lies in the intersection of the church and the world. Hence, some posts this month are about Europeans who brought the gospel and lived the gospel among American Indians. The Moravian, David Zeisberger, was one such person. He came to Pennsylvania from Moravia and helped found Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1739. He was invited to live among the Mohawk tribe in 1745 and he became fluent in their language Iroquoian as well as Algonquian. He wrote grammars and dictionaries as well as Christian literature and hymns in those languages. Wikipedia reports
He worked among the Lenape (Delaware) of Pennsylvania, coming into conflict with British authorities over his advocacy of Natives' rights and his ongoing efforts to establish white and native Moravian communities in southern Ohio. His relations with British authorities worsened during the American Revolutionary War and in 1781 he was arrested and held at Fort Detroit. While he was imprisoned, about 100 of his Native converts in Ohio were murdered by Pennsylvania militiamen, an event known as the Gnadenhutten Massacre.
I noted that massacre here. It seems that Zeisberger had identified with the Indians and saw them as possessing natural rights, unlike the English and colonists who mostly considered Indians pests to be exterminated like the wolves. Zeisberger led a group like Moses through the wilderness, avoiding the greedy Americans and suspicious English.
The pressure exerted by white settlers in the Susquehanna valley began to make life difficult for the Moravian Indians there, and an invitation from Netawatwees (King Newcomer), chief of the Unami Delawares, led to the removal of the Indians from Friedenshütten and a nearby colony to the Muskingum (Tuscarawas) valley. There, at Schœnbrunn (near Gnadenhutten, Ohio) in 1772, Zeisberger founded a new settlement, and several other communities subsequently were established. During the American revolution he attempted to have the Moravian Indians and their Delaware neighbours maintain a passive stance, but he and his converts came under the suspicion of all the belligerents and many lost their lives [see Glikhikan*]. In 1781 the Schœnbrunn colony was forcibly removed by a large war party accompanied by British Indian agent Matthew Elliott, and over the next year or so the converts were dispersed along the shores of Lake Erie. Zeisberger was taken to Detroit, questioned by British commandant Arent Schuyler DePeyster*, and released. He gathered a number of his scattered converts and, with the commandant’s assistance, set up a temporary settlement north of Detroit at New Gnadenhütten (Mount Clemens, Mich.). In 1786, prompted by news that the Americans had set aside land in the Muskingum valley for the Moravian Indians, he led the community back in that direction. Local Delawares, however, warned against settling on the reserved lands, and Zeisberger took the colonists closer to Lake Erie, where they founded New Salem (near Milan, Ohio).
See also,
During the Pontiac war he took charge of the Moravian Indians, and after the peace accompanied them to Wyalusing, Bradford County, Pennsylvania In 1767 he established a mission among the Monsey-Delawares on Alleghany river, and three years later he began Friedenstadt, on the Beaver. His first visit to Ohio was made in 1771, and a year later he organized the mission on the Muskingum, where he was joined by the converts from Pennsylvania. Early in the Revolution the Delawares were accused of favoring" the American side, and the converts were forced to leave their towns and come within the British lines. After being moved from place to place they were finally settled on Thames river in Canada.
For a while things were good and the Christian Indians were contributing to society.
In 1788 the community contained 164 people, about one-third of the number who had lived in the Muskingum villages before the revolution, and war was still a threat. A confederacy of Indian tribes in the region south of the Great Lakes had been formed to block the advance of American settlement [see Michikinakoua], and the resulting clashes between Indians and whites led in 1791 to the evacuation of New Salem by its residents. Seeking refuge in British territory, they crossed the Detroit River and formed a temporary village near present-day Amherstburg, Ont. For Zeisberger it was essential that his converts live apart from the threats and temptations of white society, and early in 1792 he secured permission to found a settlement along the La Tranche (Thames) River. There, not far from modern Thamesville, they ceased their wanderings. Under his guidance the new colony of Schœnfeldt, or Fairfield as it was known in English, began to flourish. Thirty-eight lots were laid out for a village, and a meeting-house, schools, and barns were built. Corn, wheat, and vegetables were grown, cattle raised, bees kept, maple sugar produced, and salt and oil obtained from springs nearby. Lieutenant Governor Simcoe and his suite were entertained at Fairfield in February 1793, and although Simcoe reproved the missionaries for having too close ties with Moravian headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa, in July more than 50,000 acres were granted to the colony. By 1798, some 2,000 bushels of com were being sold annually to the North West Company and 5,000 pounds of maple sugar were being produced.
Unfortunately, whites expanded into their area, which they had improved, and desired it, a desire that was not resistible. The world not only encroached on their land but also in their hearts. Zeisberger shared a concern for their souls that all pastors do.
Zeisberger’s life at Fairfield was not without difficulties, however. Whites who came to settle in the vicinity coveted the land and, he wrote, “if they could drive us away from here . . . would do so gladly.” Passing war parties urged converts to join in the fight to save Indian lands south of Lake Erie. Traders and neighbours, white, Indian, and black, tempted them with liquor. They found it hard, moreover, to give up ancestral beliefs and customs and were frequently perplexed by their adopted religion. Often individuals had to be sent away from the community, the ultimate disciplinary measure. In many cases they returned and made further attempts to adapt to the required standards, but unconverted family and friends continued urging them to come back to the old ways. Zeisberger’s diary contains frequent references to “backslidings and transgressions” among “the brethren” and to the “dark heathenism” of their Ojibwa neighbours, who came begging for food but resisted conversion. By the end of 1793 there were 159 Indians in the community; four years later the number had risen only to 172.

The amazing part is the group survived after Zeisberger, despite a razing of the village by American Army.
A new colony, Goshen, was begun not far from the former settlements on the Muskingum, and there Zeisberger spent the final decade of his life, haunted by a sense of failure. In fact, although he had not made vast numbers of converts he left a valuable legacy. Over the years he had produced extensive writings on the Delaware and Onondaga languages, which remain basic to their study, and his personal and official journals are an important source for the history of the tribes among whom he spent more than 60 years of his life. Fairfield was razed by the Americans during the War of 1812 but was rebuilt across the Thames as New Fairfield, and the Moravian mission continued there until 1903. Descendants of Zeisberger’s converts still live on the remainder of the lands, now known as the Moravian Indian Reserve.
New Fairfield was also called Moraviantown.
A splinter group of several hundred Lenape in the Colonies had accepted the teachings of German missionaries called Moravians. A pacifist order intent on establishing self-sufficient Christian communities among the native peoples, the Moravians were frequently unable to protect their converts. In 1782, a mob of settlers massacred 90 Lenape Christians, 34 of them children, in Gnadenhutten, Ohio.

The fearful survivors moved north. These Lenape converts eventually settled along the Thames River, in the thumb of Southwest Ontario that juts between Lakes Huron and Erie. They named their settlement Moraviantown.

Today the two-square-mile reservation is a sleepy place of gravel roads, cornfields and modest one-story homes, population 400. A collection of simple tribal buildings is clustered around a crossroads, including a day care center with a colorful mural featuring Delaware words of inspiration.

On one end of town, a hulking church with peeling white paint stands as a remembrance of the town's Christian history.

The Moravian missionaries were strict in their worship and lifestyle, but they had some progressive ideas. They encouraged the translation of sermons and hymns into Delaware and wrote the first dictionary for what had been until then only a spoken language.

The Moravians eventually died off, but the Anglicans who replaced them were similarly interested in the language. This encouragement helped maintain the Delaware language in Moraviantown even as many other native traditions slipped away.

There were families who retained the language, and others who passed the knowledge of herbal healing on to their children. There were families who still danced and prayed to the Creator, usually in their homes. Many children recall parents or grandparents huddled around the kitchen table at night, speaking of the traditions in Delaware...Huff remembers singing Christian hymns at Lenape wakes into the wee hours and struggling to learn English when government teachers came to the reservation.

See more on native Americans and missionaries.


Anonymous said…
I tried to leave a post the other day on the piece on the Brotherton group but it didn't appear, so I hope this one will be a go.
I grew up in Mass. and have been interested in Indian history all my life. I now live in Wi. not far from the Stockbridge reservation. I know the pastor that works at the Reservation church, Lutheran church of the wilderness.

I know they are a very devout and generous church. And like the Oneida they have benefitted from casinos. But I look at that as a case of what goes around comes around. For 300 years they have been taken advanatage of and now their economy is strong for the 1st time in centuries.
The Brothertons: as your piece indicated, were from southern N.E.Mohegan, Narragansett, some Wampanoag as well, went to NY to live with the Christian Oneida. The Brotherton lost tribal rights in the 19th Century; the ones who wanted to maintain tribal status merged with the Stockbridge, Oneida, or went west. Now they are trying to regain that tribal status but I doubt that will work.

I do know that the Stockbridge still retain some aspects of their traditional spirituality in their Christian services; alot of referces to Creator, etc. and so forth. I met an Oneida Christian woman [whose reservation is in Green Bay Wi] I asked her about the Oneida spiritual practises and she said that many Oneida Christians mix their Christianity with the teachings of Handsome Lake [a Seneca Indian from the 18th and early 19th C. who was an alcoholic and had an incredible deliverance from his addiction.] He mixed Christianity with a very strong pacifist element,and with traditional Iroquois spiritual practices. That is still a powerful influence on the Oneida.

Just some thoughts... Not too many people have an interest in these things.
Peace, Dan
jpu said…
Wow Dan! Thanks for all that information. I'm sorry your comment didn't appear earlier. I don't moderate the comments so Blogger must have hiccuped. I'm encouraged to hear that the faith hasn't been diluted or neglected or rejected in the Brotherton community.
God is good

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