In 1771, a native West African found himself in the small Moravian community of Bethabara, now located in North Carolina. He hailed from a prominent family. His name was Sambo. He had been captured by warriors in battle and sold to European slave traders, ending up in the American south—an unkind fate. Members of the Moravian village paid sixty-four pounds for him. Eventually, Sambo would be christened “Abraham,” becoming a “Brother” of the Moravian Church. How did Sambo exist as both a slave and a spiritual equal? The answer is not straightforward. Sambo’s story, along with the stories of other black Moravians, deserves to be heard and reconciled with. Upon inspection of the Fraktur, the Moravian’s relationship with race becomes apparent, however it is rather complicated.
A Fraktur, defined as a, “folk art form practiced by Pennsylvania Germans...from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries,'' is a great way to describe the piece of art now located in Winston-Salem’s Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. This object was initially stored in a trunk, a common practice at the time. However, eventually it was removed from the trunk in order to preserve it. It is a watercolor and ink on paper, showing a strong tree, branches, grapes, christ, various colored leaves, and calligraphic words representing the spread of the Moravian Church and Community. The Moravian Church is a sector of the Protestant religion that arose in Europe, first in the 15th century, and then again in the 18th century. The Moravians spread by creating a strong network of missionary work and through establishing various settlements in America, including Salem and other various communities in North Carolina.
This piece holds so much value, not only because of its beautiful surface with watercolor and ink, but the tree is also rich in symbolism and history. On the Fraktur, the tree has various leaves, ones with heart shaped centers for congregations, the dark leaves representing congregations where most are of African descent, oval centers for renewal “societies” of the Moravian Diaspora, rectangular centers for events, and yellow leaves for abandoned towns or difficult events. The healthy tree is symbolic of the strength and spread of the Moravian church and how they are all unified under their beliefs, sharing a strong foundation and roots. The North Carolina sector of the Church is represented on the Fraktur by a branch in the lower left, with a title “Ihr Deid Reben Ich Bin Der Weinstock” which translates to “You are the branches; I am the vine.” Perhaps, this can be interpreted as meaning that the Wachovia congregations would spur the growth of other branches, the symbol for new congregations. The town of Salem specifically thrived spiritually, professionally, and creatively, playing a key role in the development of the Moravian Church. Moreover, in the center of the tree is Christ. Obviously, this is an important figure in the Moravian Church, which is why He is located in the center, where He nourishes the leaves with his blood, a symbol of life. Christ as the unifying force, highlights the importance of their shared beliefs and interconnectedness, despite the apparent distance between the congregations. Christ’s importance is also seen with a colorful leaf that stands out, representing the 16th of September, 1741, where the “Saviour Himself” is claimed as the “Chief Elder.” The event is still celebrated to this day by the Moravian Church, showing the lasting impact of traditions. Collectively, these details must be recognized, as the Fraktur is similar to a present day ancestry tree. There is a common root that connects everybody, even though everyone is scattered in different places.
Owners of the Fraktur
Besides the symbolic importance of the Fraktur, the key figures relating to it are also significant in the object’s story. The Fraktur was commissioned by Friedrich Von Watteville, as indicated on the bottom left corner of the Fraktur. It was painted by Phillip Jacob Ferber, as shown on the bottom left. Frederick Von Watteville, the commissioner of the Fraktur, was described as, “propitious to his character, moral and religious.” These characteristics are those that make a good leader in the church. Von Watteville gifted the piece to Frederick William Marshall in 1775, which is also indicated on the bottom right of the Fraktur. Certainly, receiving a gift from someone like Von Watteville would be an honor. Marshall became the Chief administrator of Wachovia in 1763, and he was even called the “Father of Salem,” as his influence on the Moravian church was huge. We can see his influence through some of the documents, records, and diaries of residents in the Salem community and Moravian church.
From the record belonging to Frederick Marshall, it is indicated that Salem was “greeted by the second colony coming direct from Europe '' where they were “rejoiced.” Furthermore, the townspeople saw Marshall among them, where he was their “beloved Oeconomus'' who took “important duties in Wachovia,” as they wished, “the joy of the lord,” for his, “helpment in all things.” It is clear that the town admired Marshall, and that he had many responsibilities that he executed being the Chief administrator. For example, he was involved in planning the town and “Place for Salem Square'' that was surrounded with “a Church, workshops, and schools.” When the Moravians were threatened with the Confiscation Act of 1777, which allowed “seizure of property,” “Marshall had successfully safeguarded the Property in Wachovia for the Moravians.” Marshall’s various accomplishments reveal his power and influence. Therefore, it is clear why he would be rewarded with the Fraktur, as he was an influential, admired figure.
Additionally, Marshall’s connection to Europe is important in understanding the significance of the Fraktur. Marshall was appointed agent for the Unity of North Carolina and Oeconomus of Wachovia by a conference in Europe in July of 1763. According to the Salem records, Marshall “sent all the money for books, community news, postage fees” to Europe. It is also mentioned that the Moravians in Wachovia cared that, “the credit they have with their Brothers in Europe is kept up.” This shows the significance of the relationship between the American and European churches, and how Marshall facilitated this relationship. The Fraktur was given to Marshall partly as a representation of the bonds he continued between the Moravian Church in numerous locations across the world. It is also important to note the use of the word “Brother.” This term used by the Moravians demonstrates how the Moravians viewed the other churches and members as family, representing how the Fraktur is similar to a family tree. Furthermore, the Fraktur being painted by Ferber, a trained artist, is also telling, since he was European. The Fraktur physically moving from Europe to America is representative of the Church itself as it spread from Europe.
After Marshall owned the Fraktur, it is assumed that it was passed on to Christian Ludwig Benzien, Marshall’s successor in Wachovia. This is assumed because letters were addressed to Benzien on the Fraktur. Similar to Marshall, his successor Christian Ludwig Benzien was also deserving of the Fraktur due to his contributions to the Church. Similar to Marshall’s success, according to the records, Benzien was ordained, “a Deacon in the Unity of Bethren.” His success and positive interactions with others is further exemplified when it is said that Benzien, “was well received everywhere.” On the first of June in 1790, the town, “had the pleasure of welcoming Br. Christain Ludwig Benzien and his wife Anna Dorthea,” from Europe. Again, there is the importance of their connection with Europe, demonstrated by the Fraktur as the branches spread to represent different locations.
Benzien was not only involved with the church, but with Marshall as well. On the Fifth of February, 1783, the records explain that they, “had a lovefeast with [Marshall]... in a hymn Br. Benzien had composed.” Before the death of Marshall, Benzien and him would work together. It is also important to realize the tradition of the lovefeast, since it is a tradition the church and community still engages in today. The Fraktur is representative of both a congregation and community spreading, but also the spreading of traditions that will be continued to be celebrated throughout time. This is similar to how traditions in a family are passed down. Benzien, Marshall’s, “dear and much esteemed friend,” received a lot from Marshall when he passed, including “land, tenemats, and hereditaments,” “goods, chattles, effects and personal estate,” and much more including, “two town lots,” along with a nomination and appointment. Benzien clearly received many assets from Marshall. Among these assets is likely to be the trunk with the Fraktur. The Fraktur thus serves as a symbol of the strength of Marshall’s and Benzien’s relationship. Unfortunately, it was recorded on November 13th, 1811, that Benzien died of a “nervous fever,” unable to continue helping the growth of the church. The records reveal the Moravian’s grief over his death, as it was recorded, “the Morvian Church in particular, have sustained by his death a great loss.”
Moravian Missionary Work
Besides the significance of the Fraktur’s owners, other notable features of the Fraktur are the symbolism of the tree and the branches that sprout from it. While the Moravian church started in Europe, it spread throughout the world. The Fraktur’s many branches and leaves, representing congregations worldwide, not only illustrate the spread of the church, but also the many Moravian missions that brought the religion to communities of enslaved people. The 18th century revival of the church succeeded the “ancient church,” which initially stemmed from the preachings of John Hus, an outspoken critic of the Catholic church. Unfortunately, as Catholicism dominated Europe, rendering all other religions unacceptable, the Moravian church was “virtually exterminated” by Catholic opposition. Members who did survive were persecuted in their home states of Bohemia and Moravia—and so began a contentious, often hostile relationship between the Moravians and the rest of Europe. In the 1720s, refugees fled to the Electorate of Saxony, where Count Zinzendorf established the community of Herrnhut. Zinzendorf officially resurrected the church in 1727. This initial Moravian community can be thought of as the seed from which the religion grew, as shown on the Fraktur.
Despite the rejuvenation of the Moravian Church, they continued to experience troubles in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. For example, Zinzendorf, then the leader of the Unity, was banished by an Elector from his native Saxony. Furthermore, by the end of the 1740s, hundreds of Moravians were being evicted from their settlements in the Principality of Wetteravia. They were further motivated to establish their own colonies as, “it was essential to the debt-plagued Unity that this venture show a profit through land sales and production of staples for export.” The unwelcoming European atmosphere, coupled with financial motivation, thus caused the Moravians to extend their branches towards America. This outward growth is symbolized by the many branches and leaves on the Fraktur.
The first step towards American expansion came in 1753, when the Church agreed with Lorde Granville, then the English proprietor of the land, to purchase 100,000 acres in North Carolina. This piece of land was known as “Wachovia.” The original plan for NC was to establish a gemein Ort— a “spiritual, economic, and governmental center of a Moravian community.” Zinzendorf initially envisioned a central town to be built, that would be called “Unitas.” An elaborate vision to create a, “vitruvian radical-concentric town,” faded when the land in Wachovia proved to be too hilly for the design to materialize. The dream of Unitas died along with Zinzendorf, sadly. Nonetheless, the Moravians established 3 congregations and centers of activity in Wachovia: Bethabara, Bethania and Salem. The first eleven settlers arrived in Wachovia on November 17, 1753. While the establishments of these American settlements speak to the Moravian determination to expand, their missionary work was also vital to their vision and the worldwide growth of the church.
Along with establishing settlements in America, another aspect of their expansion plan was mission work. In the early 1730s, the renewed Unity launched an, “ambitious global mission to non-Christians in the Americas, Africa and Asia.” Mission work was a key aspect of their Moravian identity. Their missionary work in the Caribbean is significant, as shown on the Fraktur. Many of the leaves, particularly the black ones, represent the predominantly black congregations started in the Caribbean. In this way, the Fraktur further serves as a symbol of Moravian growth into that particular region.
Their missionary work began in the Caribbean when Anthony, a black native from St. Thomas, told Zinzendorf of the enslaved Africans in the Danish West Indies that lived without Christ. While the Moravians accepted the insitution of slavery, viewing it as an act of God, race was not a factor in conversions because, “in their world, there was only the saved and the unsaved, a condition upon which skin color had no bearing.” Therefore, the Moravians were extremely dedicated to their cause. In fact, some of the first missionaries sent to the West Indies, Dober and Nitchsmann, were actually willing to sell themselves into slavery, as Anthony had told them, “no one could possibly preach to the enslaved persons unless he first became a slave himself.” The law, of course, prohibited white men from becoming enslaved persons. Nonetheless, Dober and Nitchsmann’s ambitions speaks to the dedication of the Moravians to spread the word of God.
In most cases, planters invited the missionaries to preach to their enslaved persons, or the Moravians purchased a small estate with enslaved persons. For example, in the British islands, the planters invited them to preach and the missionaries formed an “adjunct to the plantation establishment.” These Moravian missionaries were concurrently, “deeply entrenched in the plantation system,” with their efforts, “entirely centered on the enslaved persons.” Once again, the Moravians were utterly devoted to their cause; they were not there to profit off of slave labor, they were truly faithful to saving the unsaved. Consequently, their efforts turned into success, as they won many converts, contributing to the growth of their religion.
The story of Jamaica serves as another window through which we can witness the development of the Moravian missionaries. Given a small estate in 1754, known as “Old Carmel,” the missionaries actually owned enslaved persons themselves, turning profit off of cattle and timber. Despite being slave owners, these missionaries were quite gentle, making them the lesser of great evils. At Old Carmel they abstained from punishing their enslaved persons with physical violence. Also, “the economy of the estate suffered because the slaves were worked less hard than elsewhere.” This furthermore reveals that the even though the Moravians condoned slavery, they were not violent and abusive, truly motivated by the cause of conversion.
St. Thomas provides another glimpse into Moravian Church missionary work. Similar to the situation in Jamaica, Frederick Martin bought an estate with enslaved persons on it, “in order to provide himself with land on which to build a church, labour to provide an income so as to free himself for mission work, and indeed, enslaved persons at hand whom he could convert.” It was a massive operation, as it included 69 acres and 250 enslaved persons. Ultimately, the Moravian missionaries proved to be successful. In Antigua, for instance, one missionary, Peter Braun, converted 7,000 enslaved persons in 22 years using a personal approach and, “in 1815 the Antigua mission had 5,160 members, all enslaved persons except for 100 free Negroes or mulattoes.” In total, between 1732 and 1782, there were almost 11,000 converts in the Danish Islands, Jamaica, Antigua, Guyana and Surinam. This information is vital, as all of these places are represented on the Fraktur. Black Moravian congregations spread especially through the Danish West Indies. Relying on a unique system of “national helpers,” which was, “a core of assistant preachers or lay elders who were baptized enslaved persons charged with supervising the spiritual progress of small groups organized roughly according to African ethnicity.” Ultimately, this reveals that the spread of the Church cannot be completely attributed to the work of white, european missionaries; the enslaved persons themselves were vital to expansion efforts. This detail is important to recognize in the context of the Fraktur, as the Moravian tree does not completely present the entire scope of the Church’s contradictory relationship with slavery. Collectively, the Fraktur represents the spread of the religion into the Caribbean. The tree and its many leaves illustrate both the physical and spiritual growth of the Moravian church.
Relationship with Slavery
While the Fraktur does distinguish predominantly black congregations from white, it does not provide any insight into the Church’s relationship with slavery. The Fraktur tells many stories, but not the story of Moravian racial relations. As represented by the black leaves, it is clear those of African descent held a significant role in the story of the Moravian church. How exactly do they fit into the story? This question does not have a simple answer. Accepting equality in the spiritual realm, while agreeing that slavery was acceptable, meant that the relationship was often messy. Zinzendorf accepted slavery as “God’s punishment” for “long-ago sins of Noah’s son, Ham”; in 1739, he even went so far as to preach to the enslaved persons in St. Thomas that God had made them enslaved persons. Despite their slave-holding, the Moravian missionaries had an, “amicable relationship with the slave population,” and most likely would have, “hardly recognized the fact that they were slave owners.” Initially, at least, this evidence suggests Moravians were not concerned with the business of slaveholding.
Within the Salem community, the Moravian relationship with slavery becomes even more complicated. This relationship began in Wachovia in the 1760s, when they began to rent slaves from outside of the area. The first enslaved person, Johann Samuel (known as Sam), was purchased in 1769 in Bethabara. In Salem, the first enslaved person was purchased in 1771. Besides utilizing slave labor, they also hoped that the enslaved persons would convert and join the church. Becoming a core part of the workforce in Wachovia, as “butchers, millers, farmers, tanners, domestics, masons, and potters,” by 1800 the church and its prominent members owned around 70 enslaved persons. Clearly, the Moravians were not simply concerned with spiritual enlightenment, as they directly profited from slave labor. The relationship, however, was initially harmonious. Many of the enslaved persons were “baptized and incorporated” into the congregations, and were addressed as equals, being called “Brothers” and “Sisters.”Furthermore, they even lived in the Single Brother’s and Sister’s houses among whites and were buried among their spiritual counterparts in the graveyard God’s Acre. It is known that 2-3 black Moravians lived in the Single Brothers house and 1 in the Single Sisters house. The enslaved children even attended Moravian schools. Contrasted with the history of the South, this treatment of enslaved persons is an anomaly. Certainly, these black Moravians were treated better than the majority of their slave counterparts in other areas of the American South.
In many ways, the black Brothers and Sisters attained aspects of equality within Moravian society, especially spiritually. This relationship took a turn, unfortunately, when slaveholding increased in Wachovia after the Revolutionary war. In the 1780s, the white Moravians began to move towards a more gradual segregation. With this decision, the North Carolinian Moravians proclaimed that race now mattered spiritually. This opinion had shifted immensely from their initial racial sentiments. Altogether, the Fraktur does acknowledge a difference between black and white congregations. Only with investigation, however, is the nature of these racial differences revealed; the Fraktur suggests racial differences within the church, but does not explain the complicated relationship.
Present Day Racial Relationship
As seen, segregation within Moravian congregations was extremely prevalent in the mid 19th century and remained that way for decades. Although movements in the 20th century deterred racial segregation, the separation of black and white Moravian churches remained intact. The roots of slavery continue to impact the African American experience in America. The Moravian church is not blind to this, however, and has been working tirelessly to reconcile their past involvements with slavery. In a booklet sent out to the Moravian Churches of America, there is a statement discussing racism and the church. They recognize the implicit bias ingrained into the inner workings of the church, as there is a “tendency of congregations and Provincial Elders’ Conferences to extend calls only to pastors of the same race as the congregation.” The church was not always racially divided, though, as in the late 1700s, “enslaved persons who joined the Moravian Church were accepted as integral parts of the community.” Soon, however, the Moravians began to mirror the actions of their neighbors. Beginning in the early 1800s, “separate worship services for enslaved persons began to be conducted.” The pattern of segregated congregations has continued into the present, and an attempt at reintegration is being made.
The present day Moravian Church has taken a firm stance on racism, stating that, “the church must declare that racism is sin…because it contradicts the teaching of Jesus and violates the known will of God.” They also state that, “racism separates and perpetuates divisions, thus denying the unity of the church proclaimed in Holy Scripture.” These statements are a continuation of the Synod of 1998 and 2006, which is where the journey really began. In 2006, “a Moravian Team for Racial Reconciliation was formed,” as, “the work of naming and dismantling racism in our society continues to be an urgent need.” The purpose of these statements made by the Moravian Church is not merely to save face, but to spark discussions within church communities about how they can better understand and repair the past decisions of the Moravian Church regarding the African American population.
The Moravian’s involvement in slavery has been a point of contention within the church for decades, as it took almost 150 years for the church to begin its journey of reconciliation. The Moravian Church began in America during a time of racial inequity, as slave labor was seen as a formality in the antebellum south. St. Philips Church in North Carolina is an African American Moravian congregation, serving as a reminder of the ultimate segregation in the Moravian community. The racial tensions seen between the former enslaved persons and the white population remained intact for years following the end of slavery, which laid the foundation for segregated congregations seen today. The Moravian’s goal at the end of this journey of reconciliation is to identify and reverse, “the segregation apparent in our church’s worship life and congregational life in general.” The Fraktur is a clear piece of evidence that shows the segregation of the Church’s congregations, but it also serves as a symbol of the Church’s growth. The Moravian Church has arrived at a point of recognition in their participation in the institution of slavery and is working to create an open discussion of their past.
Object biography by Maren Beverly, Madeline Rawls, and Jamie Wilson, Fall 2020
“How did Sambo exist as both a slave and a spiritual equal? The answer is not straightforward. Sambo’s story, along with the stories of other black Moravians, deserves to be heard and reconciled with.”
“The Fraktur physically moving from Europe to America is representative of the Church itself as it spread from Europe.”
What is a Moravian Lovefeast?
Warmth, compassion, hospitality, sharing, nourishment, inspiration, and most of all, love. These are the words that describe Lovefeast, a traditional celebration of common values practiced by the Moravians in Winston-Salem, North Carolina since 1753.
Lovefeast celebrations can occur at any point throughout the year as a way to strengthen the bonds and the spirit of harmony, goodwill, and congeniality, and even to forgive past disputes (by openly choosing to love one another). But in Winston-Salem, annual Christmas Lovefeasts are by far the most memorable.
Typically, the Lovefeast service involves listening to music from an organ or choir, singing hymns together that reinforce love and harmony, and occasionally lighting a candle to spread the light of God. The feast portion involves sharing the traditional sweet breads, often called Lovefeast Buns, with coffee or even beer.
You can read about local Lovefeasts here.
“[Moravians] were further motivated to establish their own colonies as 'it was essential to the debt-plagued Unity that this venture show a profit through land sales and production of staples for export.' The unwelcoming European atmosphere, coupled with financial motivation, thus caused the Moravians to extend their branches towards America.”
“Many of the leaves, particularly the black ones, represent the predominantly black congregations started in the Caribbean.”
“While the Fraktur does distinguish predominantly black congregations from white, it does not provide any insight into the Church’s relationship with slavery. The Fraktur tells many stories, but not the story of Moravian racial relations. As represented by the black leaves, it is clear those of African descent held a significant role in the story of the Moravian church. How exactly do they fit into the story? This question does not have a simple answer.”
A Brief Timeline of Slavery in Salem
1760s: Moravians rented slaves from outside the area
1769: The first enslaved person was purchased by
the church. Individual ownership was banned.
1840: There were 50 enslaved people in Salem
1847: Regulations prohibiting private or individual
ownership were lifted.
1850: There were 100 enslaved people in Salem.
1861: There were 160 enslaved people in Salem.
To learn more please see Stinson's
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--------“RACE AND THE EARLY MORAVIAN CHURCH: A COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE.” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society, vol. 31, 2000, pp. 1-10. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41179480.
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