John Valentine Haidt (1700-1780) was the official painter for the Moravian Church, an eighteenth-century religious community that unlike many other Protestant groups did not reject the use of art in their church life. Over the years of his involvement with the Moravians in Germany, England and Pennsylvania, Haidt painted many biblical, historical and allegorical paintings, as well as hundreds of portraits; many of his works survive in collections around the world.
This fall, the Northern Province Moravian Church Archives published the first comprehensive biography of Haidt, based on extensive archival research in Germany and America. The book includes a translation of Haidt’s original autobiography as well as of his Treatise on Art.
While the author of this book, longtime Northern Province Archivist Vernon Nelson, died in 2010, his work was brought to life by today’s Archives staff with the help of volunteers. Thanks to their efforts, Vernon’s research is now available in a beautiful bound edition.
A life of research
This work has been long in the making. Vernon began researching Haidt in 1966, the same year Colonial Williamsburg had an exhibition of Haidt paintings at the museum of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection. Throughout the years, Vernon published articles and contributed to exhibition catalogs and soon decided to turn his research into a monograph.
Much information on Haidt’s American years could be found in the Moravian Archives at Bethlehem, but for Haidt’s earlier years Vernon depended upon material found in European archives. Although he had visited the central archives of the Moravian Church in Herrnhut, Germany, in 1969 and 1989, he became a regular visitor after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many years, especially during his retirement, Vernon researched at the Herrnhut archives almost annually. He also did research at the Moravian Archives in London, and he visited some of the places where Haidt had lived. During a visit to England in 2002, he even located a long lost Haidt painting at Westminster College in Cambridge.
A few years ago Vernon shared with me his wish that the Archives finish his book on Haidt if he were unable to complete it himself. Did he perhaps foresee that he was running out of time to complete the book?
When Vernon died unexpectedly on January 26, 2010, the book was still unfinished. According to his will he had determined that the manuscript was to go to the Moravian Archives to be published had he not finished the book himself.
On his laptop computer a great number of files containing chapters, introductions, and appendices in various stages was found. The Nelson family gave these files, together with his research notes, to the Moravian Archives in 2011. Based on an earlier draft it was possible to reconstruct the book as he had envisioned it.
An ad-hoc committee was formed consisting of Susan Dreydoppel, Katherine Faull, Scott Gordon, Heikki Lempa, and Valerie Livingston to review the manuscript and to make recommendations on how to proceed. It was obvious that the book was still a work in progress; Vernon had wished to add more details to the manuscript if he had been given the chance. He had another research trip planned for the same year he passed away.
It was decided to put Vernon’s work into a form that could be printed and made accessible to the public. A year ago, we published a call in the Archives’ for volunteers to edit and design the book.
To my great joy (and relief!), excellent volunteers immediately stepped forward. Dr. June Schlueter, emerita professor of English at Lafayette College, was willing to edit the text. June had taken Vernon’s German Script Course in the past so she knew him personally. June cleaned up the text and made it clear, concise, and consistent by improving the flow and organization. Another volunteer was Darlene Schneck, a book designer in Staunton, Virginia, who had served on the board of the Moravian Museum in Bethlehem. She turned the text and the images into a beautiful, attractive volume.
The goal was to finish the book before Christmas of 2012. Thanks to the hard work of June Schlueter and Darlene Schneck the Archives reached that goal. June delivered her draft of the edited version to me on Valentine’s Day of 2012: an appropriate date for a book on a man with the same name. Valerie Livingston, art historian and friend of Vernon’s, wrote an introduction to the book.
During the spring and summer we collected the images that were to go into the book. I traveled to Herrnhut where Olaf Nippe helped me collect images from the collection there. In August Darlene Schneck started her design work. In September she was able to send me the first proofs. June Schlueter compiled the index and we set a date for the book presentation.
The book is now finished. It is somewhat unusual to see someone’s life’s work finished when the author is no longer around to enjoy the results of his lifelong endeavor. It was Vernon’s desire that his work be edited and made available after his death. I trust we have answered his wish. May this book be a lasting memorial to his life and merits.
The 200-page Haidt biography features 100 color illustrations and is available in a limited run from the Moravian Archives for $84.95. For more information about the Haidt book, visit www.moravianchurcharchives.org
Dr. Paul Peucker is archivist for the Northern Province. In top photo, new book about John Valentine Haidt represents the culmination of a life’s work.