American Culture

WordsDay: Articles of faith…

I returned to the history genre for the next book in the 2013 reading list – or so I thought.

Seal of the Moravian Church (Courtesy Wikimedia)

The Road to Salem is a “constructed” memoir – historian and archivist Adelaide Fries (a descendant of the original Moravian settlers she writes about) tells, though the use of the autobiography of Anna Catharina Antes- Kalberlahn/Reuter/Heinzmann/Ernst (yep, she was married four times, outliving all four husbands – each time having her husband chosen by the casting of lots, a practice the Moravians observed for at least two centuries and which seems to have worked as well or better than any system we currently use for choosing life partners) with additions from various diaries (many of the sect were inveterate diarists) the story of the Moravians in the American South – specifically Piedmont North Carolina.

Antes-Ernst’s life (1726-1816) parallels both the large scale settlement of North Carolina – especially of the large tract in the middle of NC called Wachovia (a name now, sadly, more closely associated with the once proud regional bank ruined/lost through greed and mergers) and its numerous settlements: Salem, Bethabara, Bethania, Friedland, Hope, and Friedburg as well as significant historical events such as the NC/SC War of Regulation and the Revolutionary War. The main character lived in all but one of these Moravian settlements and was married to first a doctor (a lot choice that was also a love match), the Wachovia surveyor and Salem’s first town manager, and successively, ministers at Friedland and Bethabara.

This interesting character also lived for a time among the “Single Sisters” and the “Widows,” and participated in teaching students in the academy established at Salem in 1772 – the ancestor of the current Salem College. There are stories of the dangers of frontier life, troubles with the Cherokees and other tribes, strange weather phenomena, and the accidents/epidemics/violent acts that befall humans – one of which took her “love match” husband, a tall, blond, handsome doctor – after only a year of marriage.

But the real power of The Road to Salem is not in its historical material (though that is of interest and merit). The power of this book comes from the honest depiction by Antes-Ernst and her fellow Moravians of their desire and struggle to practice their particular version of Christian faith and their further struggle to hold onto their version of faith in the face of government regulations (as a colony of Great Britain, the Anglican Church was the state church and Moravians were allowed to practice their faith only by license) and the impact of social changes such as the passing away of the use of lots to determine church policy on important decisions such as marriage. As one of Wachovia’s great leaders, Bishop Frederic William Marshall, notes near the end of his life, “When a high privilege becomes merely a church rule then it dare no longer be called imperative…but be not affrighted; God will find other means whereby to make known His will known to those who seek it.”

One must, of course, admit to their failings, for have them they did. They insisted, drawn on by well-meaning if one-sided bias, on proselytizing to the tribes – but they were considerably less strident and judgmental than many who did so. Their treatment of African-Americans shifted from loving integration to “separate but (sort of) equal” as they felt pressure from their surrounding neighbors. But this change occurred mostly after the time of this narrative and reflects the South’s tortured relationship with its “peculiar institution” and the Moravian tendency towards pacifism über alles more than the personal beliefs of the sect’s  members.

In the main Moravians were willing to to share their religion with those who showed interest. They were less proselytizers than role models of their faith for their neighbors in the colony, then state, of North Carolina as depicted in this narrative. They sought peace, tolerance, and understanding towards each other and towards their neighbors. The very name of their “capital,” Salem, means “peace.” (One does wonder what these believers would think of the commercialization of their settlement’s “capital,” Salem, which, though paling in comparison to the “historic glitz” of Colonial Williamsburg®, is still out of keeping with their ideas of charity and open handedness.)

And Fries could not have chosen a better spokesperson for them than “Mother Ernst” (as she was known at the end of her life. Her energy, dedication, honesty, and humanity make for quiet, compelling reading. When she tells us at the end of her story, “As I look back over my journey through time, I am conscious of many things in which I have been remiss, but the dear Saviour has ever shown me grace and mercy,” one realizes she is not speaking simply for herself but for all from that place known as Wachovia.

The Road to Salem is the story of how with quiet determination and deep faith a people make a home in a new land where they can practice their religion without fear of persecution and live in harmony with their neighbors. It is a historical proof of one of the most significant ideas of what America was envisioned to be, a land of tolerance and understanding – a place we must do our best to make our country be if for no other reason than to honor the memory of honorable people.

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2 replies »

  1. I need to have a look at this one. I’m descended from the Moravians through my paternal great-grandfather (Friedland settlement, if I recall correctly), I taught at Salem College and odds are pretty good that Bishop Marshall was a distant relative. If more Christians practiced their religion the way the Moravians did America would be a lot better for it….

    • As you know, I taught at Salem, too. I harbored some disappointment about my time there, so when encouraged to read this to get a sense of historical perspective about the Moravian experience, I balked at first and only agreed after some convincing. Very glad I did – a rich and admirable legacy is theirs. I encourage you, Sam, to look into that aspect of your personal history. I believe you’ll be pleased and proud of your connection to them.