“It’s complicated.” That’s a phrase I utter routinely while teaching church history to seminarians. I offer that short sentence not to intimidate students or to dissuade them from the study of history, but rather to invite them to slow down and explore the past.
Because the past is complicated, it deserves thoughtful and steady attention. As students wander through centuries gone by, I ask them to consider what they find familiar and expected and what appears surprising or foreign. I encourage students to consider the past first on its own terms, and only after careful study to consider implications the past might have for the present.
Paul Peucker’s wonderful new book explores a complicated moment in the history of the Moravian Church. The “piety of the late 1740s and the subsequent embarrassment” about that period form the subject of his investigation (xii). Focusing largely on the German communities of Herrnhut and Herrnhaag, Peucker argues that the “so-called Sifting Time was a culmination of Moravian theology” over the preceding two decades not simply an isolated aberration (2). A variety of influences shaped thought about God during the early years of the renewed Moravian Church, including the writings of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Lutheran theology, bridal mysticism, passion symbolism and an ideal of the childlike nature of the true believer.
As members of early eighteenth-century Moravian communities worked to communicate and practice Zinzendorf’s theology, notions of perfectionism, antinomianism and the connection some drew between sexual intercourse and union with Christ prompted a crisis. Controversy emerged, and by the end of the 1740s, church leaders deemed the beliefs and practices of some members problematic and troublesome, if not heretical and dangerous.
To develop his account of events in eighteenth century Moravian communities, Peucker mines Moravian and non-Moravian sources from the period and attends to subsequent historical treatments. Few stones seem left unturned in Peucker’s careful examination of sources, and the voices of faithful believers and disillusioned skeptics sit side-by-side on his pages.
Interpretations of how belief should shape practice varied, and some, including Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf, Zinzendorf’s son, enacted their devotion through rituals deemed licentious by insiders and outsiders. When opposition spread, first Zinzendorf then other church leaders took action.
While mostly lauded in the present, the elder Zinzendorf proves a complex figure in Peucker’s history, at once inspirational and dictatorial, egalitarian and controlling. Through a 1749 letter of reprimand and the removal of his son from leadership, Zinzendorf curbed the radical practices that had emerged. Yet, Peucker argues that lasting change appeared only after Zinzendorf’s 1760 death when leaders in the broader Moravian Unity dismantled “important aspects of his legacy.” That transition changed church positions about “women, theology and worship, sexuality and marriage and leadership style” and shaped the Moravian Church into a more mainstream, conventional evangelical Protestant denomination (148).
Part of the strength of Peucker’s account it that it seeks to clarify how the past is remembered. In addition to accessing previously studied accounts of the Sifting Period and uncovering new ones, he explores how the history of this period has been told, including how later generations of Moravians and historians narrated the beliefs and practices of the late 1740s. In doing so, Peucker argues that a number of things often associated with the Sifting Period, including blood-and-wounds theology, adoration of the (feminine) Holy Ghost and an exaggerated emphasis on devotional practices belong not just to a specific, troublesome moment, but rather are “general characteristics of Moravian piety in the eighteenth century” (6). As part of his robust historiographical work, Peucker makes clear that past historians—particularly historians within the church—manipulated the historical narrative about the period, sometimes obscuring details deemed unseemly by burning or striking through congregational records and personal correspondence.
Peucker’s account finds grounding in careful explanation of a wide range of topics central to the period—from salvation, justification by faith and eschatology to gender roles, gender identity and sexuality. More than just an exploration of the Sifting period, the book places the events of that period in wider historical context. As a result, the volume offers a chance for amateur and professional historians alike to deepen their understanding of the eighteenth-century Moravian Church.
Modern Moravians may find details of the Sifting Period unusual, or even uncomfortable. And, yet, this is a moment in the church’s history worth visiting. Understanding the past helps make sense of the present. Though we are shaped by our history we are not controlled by it. Believers have always navigated and interpreted faith in context and always will. Christian life nearly always benefits from ongoing communal discernment about belief and practice. Complicated moments in history call for careful attention, and Peucker’s volume offers adept guidance. ■
The Rev. Dr. Heather Vacek is assistant professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor of the Moravian Church,Southern Province. A Time of Sifting is available from Penn State Press and the Moravian Archives (www.moravianchurcharchives.org).