Moravian document provides glimpse into local colonial life

By on September 21, 2011

By: LAURIE KNOWLES CALLAHAN Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

Moravians never throw anything away, admits Tom Wentzel of the Moravian Archive committee.

It’s a good thing too. For inside the Moravian Archives at the Moravian Church of Lititz, several seemingly insignificant papers have proven to be quite important for those researching the history of the Moravian Church during the Revolutionary War.

Those papers include a 1775 broadside, a type of Colonial era newsletter, and several letters written by George Washington’s secretary, Moravian leaders and the founding fathers of the United States.

"These papers are like a window into history," said Lehigh University English professor Scott Gordon, who discovered the broadside while he was researching a notable member of the Moravian Church William Henry.

As Gordon explained, "The 1775 broadside can now rejoin conversations about the earliest days of the Revolutionary War and its debates, still vital today, about liberty of conscience, and remind people that these battles were fought in places such as Lititz, Pennsylvania."

Gordon discovered the broadside and other papers quite by chance. And when he did, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm.

"With all of my research, the broadside never appeared among important papers. No one knew it existed, and yet here it was, right here at the Moravian Archives in Lititz," said Gordon.

The discovery of the only surviving Revolutionary broadside began when Gordon was researching William Henry Sr., one of Lancaster’s most active advocates for freedom during the Revolution. As Gordon explained, he had become intrigued with Henry, a "true Renaissance man" who was a gunsmith, whitesmith, surveyor, political figure and promoter of the arts. Henry was instrumental in encouraging the famed artist Benjamin West to pursue a career as a portrait and historical artist.

"Everyone is surprised that an English professor is so interested in history. I find the Revolutionary time period fascinating and am especially interested in William Henry," explained Gordon.

In 1776, Henry was appointed to survey the Susquehanna for a canal. He became a justice of the peace, was president of the county court, a member of the Pennsylvania council of safety, assistant burgess and commissary of the regiment of troops during the Revolution, a member of the Continental Congress and a member of the Moravian Church.

The significance of the broadside, that recounted a meeting at which Henry was present, relates to the complex issue of the role of the Moravian Church during the Revolution.

What happens when soldiers are fighting for Freedom of Religion and a pacifist church such as the Moravian Church does not believe in taking up arms to battle? With the essential belief in peace at the core of their existence, how do Moravians square with those fighting to win that peace?

"It was not an easy time," said Gordon.

The broadside in the Moravian archives tells that story well. Written on July 11, 1775, the historic document would have been circulated like a news flyer or newsletter. It was printed on one side — not quite a newspaper — and recounted the meeting of the Committee of Correspondence and Observation for the County of Lancaster, which was held at the House of Matthias Slough, Esq. Attending that meeting were William Henry, Esq; Everhard Guber, Esq; Edward Hand; John Hopson; George Musser; Samuel Boyd; John Witmer; and James Jacks. It was signed by committee secretary William Barton.

The broadside was printed and distributed in different townships in Lancaster County, and said, in part:

"The Assembly, taking into Consideration the situation of many conscientious People of this Province, with Respect to Arms, have, on the thirtieth Day of same last, by their Recommendation of that Date, given to them, as well as others, Advice which we hope all Persons will most cheerfully follow.

"The Congress, and your Assembly greatly to their Honor, have taken Means for the Protection of America and this Colony; and we advise you, Gentlemen, to carry into Execution the Plans recommended by them, that this Colony may united act upon one and the same Principle.

"Those who contribute will put their Money into the Hands of a Person, they shall choose, to be paid over to such Treasurer, as the Committee shall appoint, for the uses recommended by the Assembly."

The end result was that the conscientious objectors to fighting in a war would do their part in another way, by providing funds, provisions, materials, clothing and even shoes for the soldiers who were fighting for their freedom.

"The issue of how to convince men to serve, and what to do about those who couldn’t, troubled Pennsylvanians throughout the war, and it divided the Lititz Moravian community, in particular, in 1777," said Gordon. "This broadside shows a very early effort by Lancaster authorities to devise a plan to deal with conscientious objectors."

This 1775 plea did not solve the difficult problem of dealing with individuals who would not bear arms, added Gordon.

"This issue continued to trouble Pennsylvania and led to the 1777 Test and Militia Acts, which punished severely those who refused to swear loyalty to the state of Pennsylvania or to associate with a militia company. Many Lititz brethren refused both demands and, in October 1777, nine single brothers and four married brothers "were carried off" by six militia men, fully armed," reported Gordon.

Gordon observed that none of the standard indexes of items published before 1800 lists this broadside, which means that no copy of it is known to have survived. He did locate a fragment of the broadside in the German language (these Lancaster broadsides were printed in English and German) that is held by the Library of Congress.

Also at the Moravian Archives, there is a list of the provisions that the Moravians would provide in lieu of going against their faith and taking up arms. Signed by some of Lititz’s most notable Moravian fathers, including David Tannenberg, Christian Leimbach, John Rauch and Greenburg Peddycoart, the list contains details about six pairs of shoes that one church member will provide, three pairs of shoes by another, bolts of fabric by still another to be used for uniforms and even guns that would be made by gunsmiths.

Once Gordon began exploring the archives, he found many other documents that had been tucked away, or sometimes out in full view in display cases, that told the story of how Moravians fared during the Revolutionary War. Some of these documents are copies of correspondence "signed" by American founding fathers such as John Adams, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

"It’s clear that these are not the real signatures of these leaders," explained Wentzel, noting that the letters were likely handwritten by a secretary who then "signed" their names.

In one case, the Moravian Bishop Ettwein was asking that 300 Moravian settlers not be displaced by the troops that might take over their homes. Ettwein’s letter detailed the tanners, gunsmiths, organ builders, whitesmiths and others who had built homes and businesses and would be "distressed" to lose all for which they had worked so hard. In a letter "signed" by George Washington’s secretary, the troops relented and did not take over the settlement.

Altogether, the broadside, letters and other documents provide a glimpse into life in a Moravian community when the rest of the American colonies were actively fighting for freedom against the British.

As Wentzel noted, the Moravian Church was used as a hospital for wounded and sick soldiers from the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Valley Forge and other Pennsylvania battlefields. The Moravians cared for the soldiers, many of whom died more from fever and other illnesses than from battle injuries.

Lehigh University Professor Scott Gordon will be making a presentation on his discovery of the broadside and report on other related materials he found in the Lititz Moravian Museum on Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. The public is invited to join the presentation on the role of the Moravian Church during the Revolutionary War. More REVOLUTIONARY, page A15