In many religious settings, the spiritual side and economic side of “being the church” can sometimes be a difficult mix. But for Moravians in Bethlehem during the early days of the settlement in Pennsylvania, their economic efforts were key to making their spiritual work possible.
At the November 2014 Adamson Forum in Chaska, Minn., attendees discussed the balance of money and the church through a series of lectures by Dr. Katherine Carté Engel, associate professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Engel specializes in early American religious history and authored Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
“Moravian economic life was an essential part of Moravian religious life,” says Engel. “In the 18th century, the Moravians were some of the most successful missionaries there were, sending missionaries all over the Atlantic world. But paying for that missionary work was very expensive and a very big job, so Moravians had to be entrepreneurs, too.”
In her second of two lectures, Engel highlighted the “Oeconomy,” the communal system that sustained Bethlehem between 1741 and 1762. “Moravians, who share an intense feeling of community, found collective economic action to be the best and most efficient way to finance their religious projects,” said Engel. “And even if the Oeconomy itself grew out of a desire for economic efficiency, its success was absolutely linked to the shared sense of community and religious devotion that bound Moravians together.”
An artisanal economy
The economic activity in Bethlehem during the mid-18th century was based on the work of craftspeople rather than farmers. In Bethlehem, the Moravians started dozens of different artisan shops, ranging from weavers and tailors to stonecutters, blacksmiths and carpenters. One account by a visitor to the town in 1754 listed nearly 50 different artisans in the community.
According to Engel, the artisanal nature of the work in Bethlehem was well-suited to the needs of their missionary endeavors in Pennsylvania and beyond. The artisans were not only workers in the economy, they were religious workers as well. Since they weren’t tied to the seasonal requirements of agricultural business, it was easier to move individuals in and out of the mission fields, both in eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
Having these talented craftspeople as part of the communal household was also the most cost-efficient way to build a settlement. Instead of hiring outsiders to build and run the settlement, the Moravians did it themselves, saving them resources that could be used to spread the gospel.
“The cash that artisans earned from outside work was the most important reason behind developing this sector of the economy,” said Engel. “Money was more useful to the Moravians than agricultural self-sufficiency would have been, because it could be used flexibly to support religious efforts at home and abroad.”
“Moravians saw their economic work as a form of missionary work and a way of spreading the Gospel,” said Engel. “They were bringing funds into Moravian coffers so they could pay for the expansive (and expensive) missionary work, but also through their connections and their innovative and creative economic projects, they could build a reputation for the Moravians and show what true Godly trade could look like.”
Making the most of resources
Moravian communalism in Bethlehem can be seen as a microcosm of the group’s approach to economic matters. “The system was designed to maximize profit, to extract the greatest possible value out of the resources—including human resources—at hand,” Engel told attendees. “To accomplish this, the Moravians embraced Pennsylvania’s emerging market economy, seeking rather than avoiding economic connections with neighbors of all faiths and races.
“Yet the purpose of the Oeconomy, like all things Moravian, was fundamentally religious, as a statement of principles for the community, drawn up in 1754, stated in no uncertain terms: ‘It should at no point be forgotten that Bethlehem [was] established for no other purpose than to be able to give a hand to the work of the Savior not only in Pennsylvania, but everywhere in America, etc.’”
During Dr. Engel’s lectures, she shared a broad range of information about the early Moravians in America and how their economic endeavors impacted their religious ones. She highlighted prominent figures in the religious and economic life of the church; spoke on the significant trans-Atlantic trade that Moravians in North America participated in; discussed some of the causes for the demise of the communal system in Bethlehem and what happened afterward; and engaged in discussion, answering questions from those in attendance.
The lectures provided a historical basis for the Adamson Forum’s focus on discussing money and religion. Dr. Engel’s talks offered a springboard into group discussions and insight into how we discuss and balance the needs of the church today.
Videos of Dr. Engel’s lectures at the 2014 Adamson Forum will be posted to the Moravian Ministries Foundation of America (MMFA) website in coming weeks. ■