Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Moravian Community in Colonial North Carolina”

MoraviansThe Moravian Community in Colonial North Carolina: Pluralism on the Southern Frontier. By Daniel B. Thorp. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

I’m not at all certain that historians should use the term “pluralism” when characterizing the Moravians of colonial North Carolina. This religious, theocratic group arrived in the upstate region in 1753 when they founded the town of Salem—now a part of Winston-Salem—and a number of smaller surrounding towns. They were culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous, stayed to themselves except when doing business and engaging in activities that required government involvement, such as land transactions and the like. Because of a history of violence against them—religious persecution or not—they sought to maintain good relations with those not of their faith community even as they looked down on them as lesser people. If that represents pluralism, I don’t see what it is other than there was a general “live and let live” mentality on the North Carolina frontier engendered by the Moravians and others in the colonial era regardless of whichever group we may be talking about.

Daniel B. Thorp’s solid monograph tells mostly what there is to know about this unique religious group. In seven chapters Thorp explores the arrival of the Moravians who came down the Great Valley in the Appalachians from central Pennsylvania to found the community at Salem beginning in 1753. They explicitly viewed themselves as a “people apart” from the remainder of American settlers, as a “chosen people” called from among all others to live a life of Christian simplicity and ideals arising from the ideas of John Hus and factored through the leadership of Count Zinzendorf. They sought to create an “all-purpose” and self-reliant society that interweaved religion, economics, politics, and culture. Thorp has chapters on each of these elements. He finds that the Moravians were ever conscious of their place in American society and jealous of their faith community’s prerogatives, defensive of their religion and effective in their economic interactions and political needs with outsiders.

I have a special interest in this history because of my ancestry. Johann Jacob Lanius—later to be spelled by some branches of the family, including my own, as Launius—was a Moravian in Meckenheim on Hard, Germany, who came to America with his wife, Juliana Kraemer. They settled in a Moravian community in York County, Pennsylvania. His son, John (sometimes called Johannes), migrated to North Carolina as a teenager and lived his life there. The family name appears in many of the Moravian records at Salem and this teenager appears in Thorp’s book as an example of “how boys will be boys,” getting into trouble with the community elders. John Lanius settled in the Friedland community, near Salem, and after marrying became a model Moravian.

One area that I wish the author had explored more fully was the relationship of the Moravians to the nascent revolutionary movement in the 1770s. If the Moravians related to this in the same way that they did the 1760s “Regulator” movement as a pacifistic church they sought neutrality. That generally worked concerning the Regulators, but that earlier uprising is often viewed as a precursor to the American Revolution. Does that mean the Moravians were also neutral during the Revolution, and if so does that really mean that they were Tories acknowledging the authority of British colonial officials? How did that play out in the latter 1770s and early 1780s?

Overall, this is a fine book. I shall seek to learn more about the Moravian experience in the American Revolution elsewhere.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Moravian Community in Colonial North Carolina”

  1. Dr. Launius, I am also a descendant of Jacob and Juliana; my Great-Great Grandfather, Elisha Launius (son of Jonathan<George<Johannes), came to Southeast Missouri in the 1850s. When I first aspired to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (1990), I found Johannes' name in the "Patriot Index", but could not ascertain, exactly, what he did (I finally went in on another line and have left poor Johannes "hanging" all these years…) I came across (and obtained copies) of receipts for "services rendered" (by Johannes, to the army) after the fact, but the details escape me at the moment. I do have, in an early letter, reference to the "boys will be boys" stunt that you mentioned!
    In the mid 80s, we passed through the Winston-Salem area on a family vacation, and visited the Moravian Archives and cemetery where so many of our ancestors are interred; unfortunately, they were getting ready to close the office, but I was able to connect with them when we returned home, and they sent me wonderful information…(ah, the days of phone calls and *snail mail*) ~ I have wanted to go back ever since, though, and two of my children and I plan to do that this coming fall.

    Interesting book ~ going to Amazon to order!

    Anne Launius Berbling
    Sikeston, Missouri

    Liked by 1 person

    • launiusr says:

      Thanks so much for your comments. The story of Johannes Lanius is a fascinating one. I’d like to learn more about it over time.


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