A Narrative of the Missions of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Thus a fine Indian Congregation was established — and other Indians arriving from Shekomeko and Pachgatgoch—all delighted with the place; which also encreased beyond expectation, and became the blessed means of engaging the attention of the Delawares . . . ”

Summary Overview

In this excerpt, John Heckewelder describes the missionary work of the Moravian Brethren among the Delawares (also known as the Lenni-Lanapes), who lived in the eastern part of the colony of Pennsylvania, as well as their work among the Mahicans (also known as the Mohicans) and other American Indians, who moved to Pennsylvania from New York and New England. Heckewelder, who was himself a Moravian Brethren missionary among the Delawares from 1771 to 1786, wrote this account of Moravian missions in 1820. In the excerpt reprinted here, he describes events of the 1740s and 1750s.

The Moravians had started missions among the Indians in New York and Connecticut, but as the pressure of land-hungry settlers in these areas threatened the Indians there, the Moravians sought to help those they were working with to move to Pennsylvania, where they believed their efforts would not be hampered by the pressure of colonial settlement. Heckewelder describes the interaction of the Moravian leaders, Indian representatives, and officials of the colonial government in making these arrangements. Some of the Indians who moved from New York and Connecticut to Pennsylvania were instrumental in opening the way for the Moravians to begin mission work among the Delawares. Heckewelder also describes the pattern of life in the Moravian settlements.

Defining Moment

The Moravian Brethren were more properly known as the Unitas Fratum (Unity of Brotherhood) Church. This religious group originated in the fifteenth century in Moravia and Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. Many scholars believe that the Moravian Brethren were perhaps the most successful of the various Christian groups in their efforts to convert Indians to Christianity; this is reflected in the number of baptisms and Indian church members Heckewelder reports in some of the missions he describes.

Moravian families lived in their own homes in close-knit settlements with other members of the church, and they had considerable success with this same pattern of living among Indian converts. Their success in converting native peoples may have been because the Brethren were somewhat countercultural themselves. They found much of European society and culture to be materialistic and based on considerations of power. The Brethren lived in their own separate communities and stressed a deep, heart-felt spirituality. They were also pacifists and refused to bear arms, which set them apart from other Europeans. It also meant that unlike many missionaries, they did not insist that the Indians adopt all aspects of the European way of life in order to become Christians. Although Heckewelder wrote this document in 1820, he is describing events in the 1740s and 1750s. While he later worked among the Indians in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, he was not involved in the period that he writes about in this excerpt.

In the period after the time Heckewelder describes in this account, the Brethren missions among the Indians were affected by the French and Indian War (1754–63), fought between the British and the French, with Indian allies fighting on both sides. In this war, and later in the American Revolution, the pacifism of the Brethren and their Indian coverts was often regarded suspiciously by military and political leaders. In both conflicts, white officials on both sides interpreted the Moravians’ refusal to fight as sympathy for the enemy. The American Revolution, which began in 1775 and continued until 1783, brought continual troubles for both the missionaries and their Indian converts, culminating in the massacre of ninety-six Delawares who were members of the Moravian Church at Gnadenhutten in eastern Ohio on March 8, 1782.

Author Biography

John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder was born in Bedford, England, in 1743. His father was a Moravian Brethren minister. Heckewelder’s family moved to the British colonies in America in 1754. Heckewelder studied as a youth in schools conducted by the Brethren, both in England and after coming to Pennsylvania. His father apprenticed him to learn the cooper’s trade (barrel making), but Heckewelder hoped to become a Moravian evangelist like his father. Eventually, he was chosen to assist two Moravian missionaries, Christopher Frederick Post and David Zeisberger, working among the Delawares in western Pennsylvania. Heckewelder began his work among the Indians in 1771 and worked as a missionary until 1786. His first missionary experience was working with Post in western Pennsylvania. In 1772, he went with David Zeisberger to eastern Ohio to establish a community for Delaware converts, called Schoenbrunn. This community quickly became prosperous. Later, other communities branched off from Schoenbrunn, including Gnadenhutten and Lichtenau.

During the American Revolution, both British and American officials were often suspicious of the pacifist Moravian missionaries and their Indian converts. In 1781, Heckewelder and Zeisberger were both arrested by British forces, who accused the missionaries of spying for the Continental army. They were taken before the British commander of the region in Detroit, but eventually convinced the British of their innocence and were released. However, while the two missionaries were away from their work in the Ohio country, tragedy had befallen many of the Christian Delawares. Trying to escape from the fighting between the British and Americans, many of the Delawares had moved farther west. In the late winter of 1782, some of them went back to Gnadenhutten to harvest crops they had left behind. While there, they were attacked by American militia who suspected them of kidnapping and killing a group of white Pennsylvanians. About ninety Christian Delaware converts, including many women and children, were killed in the Gnadenhutten Massacre on March 9, 1782.

When Heckewelder ended his missionary work among the Indians in1786, he settled in Salem, Ohio. Because of his knowledge of Indian languages and customs, the US government often used him in negotiations with Indian tribes. In 1810, he began writing and spent the rest of his life chronicling the history, customs, and beliefs of the native people of the northeastern part of the United States. He died in 1823.

Document Analysis

This excerpt begins with comments in which Heckewelder rejoices in the success and prosperity of the missionary efforts of the Moravian Brethren among the Indians in Pennsylvania and “the Western Country” beyond the borders of the Pennsylvania colony. This “Western Country” would have been in the Ohio River Valley, in the region that eventually became the state of Ohio. Heckewelder would later serve as a Moravian Brethren missionary among the Indians in these same regions.

In these excerpts, Heckewelder is not writing about his firsthand experiences among the American Indians, but he is writing about the efforts of his own church and was personally acquainted with some of the missionaries described here. He notes that the missionaries and their Indian converts worked with admirable “steadiness and perseverance,” yet there were many disasters that they would eventually encounter. These troubles were caused by settlers who were unfamiliar with the Moravian Brethren. Both the Moravian Brethren and their converts often faced other white settlers’ misunderstanding of the pacifism of the Brethren. Those misunderstandings were complicated by the struggles between the French and British for control of eastern North America and, later, by the America Revolution.

The first Brethren to come to the American colonies had been invited by the Trustees of the Georgia colony. Yet when warfare broke out between the English settlers in Georgia and the Spanish forces residing in their Florida colony, the Brethren were ostracized because of their refusal to bear arms. The Brethren decided to abandon their efforts in Georgia and moved to Pennsylvania, where they established the community of Bethlehem in the northeastern part of the colony in 1741. Their missions among the Indians in New York eventually faced the same problem, when the English settlers interpreted their staunch neutrality as possible sympathy or even alliance with the French.

When the Moravian Brethren had undertaken missionary work among the Mahican and Wampano tribes in New England and New York, those groups had lived in small, scattered settlements among the white population. Therefore, the missionaries did not have to obtain permission to settle on Indian lands and conduct missionary work among them. By contrast, in Pennsylvania and later in eastern Ohio, they believed it was necessary to seek permission from the Indians among whom they sought to minister. In New York, since the Indians had been living among settlers, it was unlikely any other tribe could drive them out of their own villages. The white settlers were another matter, however; as the population of settlers continued to expand, they wanted more and more of the Indians’ land. It was important to establish a relationship of trust between the Moravians and the Indians of the western frontier.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was a Moravian settlement and a center of their missionary and educational activities. Heckewelder notes that the Indians remaining at the Shecomeko mission in New York, after the missionaries had left there, were often visited by people coming from Bethlehem. In Pennsylvania, however, “the case was reverse,” and the Indians settled around the area often visited Bethlehem. He reports that people working among the Indians around Bethlehem had baptized sixty-two converts. Two missions in the Connecticut colony, Pachgatgoch and Wachquatnoch, were also supplied with missionaries who were sent out from Bethlehem. After the missionaries in New York and Connecticut had left these missions, the work was continued sporadically in those two colonies for several years by missionaries making temporary visits from Bethlehem and other Moravian settlements.

Heckewelder discusses the influence that the Iroquois Confederation (to whom he refers simply as “these Nations leagued together”) exercised over other tribes in the Northeast. The Iroquois at this time were a confederation of six tribes, five of which had been allies for many decades: the Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Cayugas, and Oneidas. A sixth tribe, the Tuscaroras, had moved northward from what is now North Carolina beginning in 1714 and had become a part of the Iroquois Confederation. Since the Iroquois were, in some respects, considered the governing body of many of these tribes, the Moravian leader Count Zinzendorf met with some of the Iroquois leaders when he was in America to tell them of the Moravians’ interest in preaching the Christian message to the Indians.

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) was a very important figure in the history of the Moravian Brethren. A German nobleman who had an estate in Lower Saxony (now northern Germany), Zinzendorf had given refuge to Brethren refugees who had been pushed out of eastern Europe. The first Brethren settled on Zinzendorf’s estate in 1722, in a village they named Herrnhut. The structure of the community life and worship patterns of the Moravian Brethren who came to America was greatly influenced by the experience of the Brethren at Herrnhut. Zinzendorf was a Lutheran who never completely severed his ties to the Lutheran church, but he was very influential among the Brethren. He visited the Brethren settlements in America in 1741 and stayed until 1743.

Heckewelder records part of the speech made by one of the Iroquois men in response to Zinzendorf’s message. The Iroquois representative bids them welcome and gives them a “fathom” of wampum to confirm their welcome. Wampum was a belt made of beads or shells. Europeans who settled in America often interpreted wampum as a type of Indian money. It did become a medium of exchange between Indian and European traders, but initially it had many other uses in religious, ceremonial, and diplomatic contexts. A band of wampum might symbolize the achievement of peace between warring parties. Specifically, a band of red wampum might be sent to tribes to announce an outbreak of war.

Good relationships were thus established between the Iroquois and the Moravian Brethren, which led to the Brethren beginning their work with areas controlled by the Iroquois and with nearby white settlers. Because the Iroquois exercised a kind of diplomatic and economic influence over the Delawares living in Pennsylvania, the relationship established between the Brethren and the Iroquois leaders was also instrumental in opening the way for a mission among the Delawares. When the Shecomeko mission was abandoned, the Moravian bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704–92) met with some of Iroquois leaders in a council at Onondago and sought to find a place of refuge for some of the Indians who were displaced by white settlement around Shecomeko. Some of these displaced Indians did settle among the Iroquois in New York, but most of them eventually went to Pennsylvania with the Moravian missionaries.

The Moravians hoped to help some of the Mahican people displaced from New York to settle in the Wyoming River valley of northeastern Pennsylvania, but the Indians did not want to be so far away from a settlement of other Moravian Brethren. This shows that the close fellowship and ordered life of the Moravian settlements may well have made a positive impression on these converts. The Mahicans also objected to settling in a place that was a crossroads for warriors from other tribes. Fighting was going on between France and Britain in the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), which the British colonists in America generally called King George’s War. The Moravian converts were suspected allying with the French. As noted above, whenever fighting broke out in colonial America, the warring nations often interpreted the neutrality of Moravian Brethren and their Indian converts as sympathy, or perhaps overt alliance, with the other side rather than a belief in pacifism. At Reinbeck, a settlement in Duchess County, New York, near the Shecomeko mission, the settlers had demanded permission from the authorities to go and kill the Indians living at the mission. This permission was never granted, but the incident nevertheless convinced many of the Indians living there to leave the area. Heckewelder notes that these Indians left their land and possessions to the white settlers in the area and received no recompense for their losses.

Hoping to offer refuge to these Indians in Pennsylvania, representatives of the Moravian Church took the matter to the governor of that colony, George Thomas. Thomas ordered that all Indians who took refuge in Pennsylvania should be protected “in the quiet ‘practice of their religious professions.’” Pennsylvania was founded as a Quaker colony, and while Quakers were no longer the majority in the colony by that time, their heritage and influence was still strong. Since the Quakers themselves were pacifists, the Pennsylvania settlers may not have had as much difficulty in understanding the teachings of the Moravian Brethren.

In April 1748, the first of the refugees from Shecomeko came to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, ten families numbering forty-four people in all. Heckewelder notes that regular worship services were continued among these newly arrivals, with services conducted in the Mahican language. He also notes that they received “the Holy Sacrament” (communion or the Lord’s Supper), which they had not received for some time because the missionaries had been forbidden to teach the Indians about religious matters in the last days of the Shecomeko mission. A small settlement was founded near Bethlehem, called Friedenshutten. As more refugees came, though, there was doubt that a sizeable Indian settlement could prosper so near Bethlehem. So the Moravians purchased land farther to the west and founded another settlement called Gnadenhutten.

Indians coming to Gnadenhutten from Shecomeko and from the Pachgatgoch mission in Connecticut helped open the way to mission efforts among the Delawares, and Heckewelder reports that many Delawares were converted. Later, another settlement of Moravian Indian converts, also named Gnadenhutten, would be founded in eastern Ohio. Because of the massacre of Delaware Moravians at Gnandenhutten, Ohio, during the American Revolution, that settlement is much better known than the earlier settlement by that name in Pennsylvania.

Heckewelder notes the regulations that were established at Gnadenhutten for preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments of the Christian religion. He writes that “rules and orders were also made and agreed to.” These would not have been special rules for the Indian converts; all Moravian Brethren lived in covenanted communities where all members agreed to abide by certain rules for the good of the church and community. Across the river from Gnadenhutten, the Brethren built a settlement of non-Indian Brethren, with a farm, mills (probably grain mills and perhaps a sawmill), and a blacksmith shop. He mentions several other “mechanics,” or tradesmen, were also there.

Heckewelder mentions an Iroquois named Shikalimus, who lived in the village of Shamokin in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Bethlehem. Shikalimus served as an agent to conduct business between the colonial government of Pennsylvania and the Indians. Heckewelder reports that Shikalimus held the Brethren in “high esteem” and invited some of them to come and settle at Shamokin. The leaders of the Brethren church informed the Pennsylvania government of their intent to do this, and a member of their church, who was a blacksmith, settled there in 1747. The governor of Pennsylvania granted permission for the Brethren to settle at Shamokin as long as they were loyal to the colonial government.

The Moravian Brethren’s work among the Mahicans and other Indians who had migrated to Pennsylvania after being pushed out of Connecticut and New York eventually opened the way for their mission among the Delawares. Heckewelder notes that in 1747, the Brethren were invited to visit the Delaware village of Meniolagameka (also spelled Meniologomeka), on the Aquashicola Creek, about twelve miles southeast of present-day Lancaster. Delawares from this village had often visited Gnadenhutten and heard the Christian message presented there, and were interested in having someone come to preach among them. Such invitations from tribes to missionaries were not common, but there are several examples of this happening in early America. The Brethren sent missionaries to the Delawares, including a teacher and schoolmaster. They seemed to have some success in Meniolagameka, but just four years later, the land they were living on was sold—probably to settlers moving into the region. At that point, the Delaware converts from Meniolagameka moved to Gnadenhutten.

Heckewelder notes some important visits made by leaders of the Moravian mission effort. He mentions that in July 1747, deputies from the Six Nations (the Iroquois) came to Philadelphia to negotiate an alliance with the government of the Pennsylvania colony. Representatives of the Brethren visited them in order to renew the covenant made earlier, when Count Zinzendorf had met with the Iroquois in the early 1740s. According to Heckewelder, the Brethren’s representatives were warmly received and were invited to visit in the Iroquois country.

Moravian leaders also met with Rev. David Brainerd (1718–47), a Presbyterian missionary working among the Indians in the New Jersey colony at that time. Brainerd’s work was supported by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and he was probably the most well known of the American missionaries working among the Indians in the late colonial period. Brainerd also visited the Brethren settlements at Bethlehem and Gnadenhutten and was much impressed with the work being done there. These visits would have been shortly before Brainerd’s death. On a visit to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he stayed with his good friend Jonathan Edwards, Brainerd contracted tuberculosis and died on October 9, 1747. His diary was published two years later by Edwards and was very influential in promoting interest in missions to the American Indians.

The Moravian mission at Gnadenhutten, Pennsylvania, was having considerable success. In 1749, church membership had grown so much that a new chapel was built to replace the original, smaller one. At that point, Heckewelder notes there were five hundred people in the Indian congregation there and schools for Indian children, both boys and girls.

The description that Heckewelder gives of the sufferings that Moravian missionaries endured in their work among the Indians were fairly typical for missionaries of any denomination working on the American frontier, whether working among the Indians or the pioneer settlers. Bad weather conditions, shortages of food and supplies, and health problems were a part of the general conditions of life on the frontier. Many Moravian missionaries had died on the frontier, generally not through violent encounters with the Indians but from the general dangers that were common to all living under such harsh conditions. Heckewelder mentions especially the case of Bishop Cammerhof.

Johann Friedrich Cammerhof was an assistant to Bishop Spangenberg, who was a close confidant of Count Zinzendorf. Cammerhof came to America to take a kind of general supervisory role over all the work of the Moravian Brethren in the colonies. While in America, he spent much time visiting scattered Indian villages and preaching the Christian message to them. He died in America in April 1751. Bishop Johannes de Watteville was also sent from the Brethren in Lower Saxony to make a “visitation” or inspection of the Moravian settlements in the American colonies. He spent a little over a year in America, visiting congregations among the white settlers as well as the Indians.

These excerpts from Heckewelder’s history of the Moravian missions among the Delawares and Mahicans illustrate the complexity of intercultural relations between Europeans and American Indians in colonial America. The Moravian Brethren were representatives of European culture and adherents of the Christian religion, but they also constituted a subculture within European Christendom and their pacifism set them apart from many parts of European social and political culture. Imperial relations and warfare between the French and British also complicated this picture, as did the colonial administrations of various British colonies in America. Many historians of American religion have suggested that the Moravian Brethren were among the most successful of missionary groups in converting Indians to Christianity, so the results Heckewelder describes here were typical of Moravian efforts, but not typical of the missionary efforts of other Protestant groups in British North America.

Essential Themes

Several significant themes about the interaction of Christian missionaries and native peoples of North America are shown in these excerpts. First, the reader can clearly see that missionaries never encountered the Indians in a cultural vacuum. Besides being evangelists of the Christian religion, the Moravian missionaries were also representatives of a European culture that the Indians had difficulty understanding, just as the Europeans had difficulty understanding the cultures of the diverse tribal peoples in North America. Mission efforts by numerous Christian groups from Europe were often hampered by the cultural bias of the missionaries, who tended to believe that Indians had to embrace not only the religious teachings of Christianity, but many of the nonreligious aspects of European culture as well. Although the Moravians were not free of this bias, it seems to have affected them less than it did many missionaries. This may well be because the Moravians were not totally at home within European culture, either. As a group that stressed close-knit fellowship among believers living in covenanted communities, living disciplined lives and refusing to bear arms, they themselves were somewhat countercultural within European Christendom.

The reader can also see in these excerpts the impact that imperial and colonial policies had on the Indians, the settlers, and the missionaries. Although Moravians were invited to come to Georgia by the colony’s trustees, their refusal to bear arms in times of war with the Spanish colonists in Florida made it difficult for them to fit into the settlers’ society in Georgia. In New York, they again encountered suspicion of their neutrality being regarded as possible sympathy for the French enemies in the colonial wars undertaken by the British. Pennsylvania, with its Quaker heritage, proved to be more hospitable to the Moravians and their Indian converts.

The impact of other settlers upon the work of the missionaries is another major theme illustrated here. Missionaries were trying to impress upon the Indians the truth and value of the Christian message, yet both the missionaries and the Indians were often surrounded by other European settlers who claimed to be Christians, yet showed an insatiable appetite for the Indians’ land.

Lastly, one can also see the precarious position of the Indian convert. American Indians who converted to Christianity often felt they no longer fit in among their own tribes; missionaries often encouraged converts to move to separate villages made up only of Christian Indians. Yet European settlers often failed to accept Christian Indians fully into their society, either.

  • Beaver, R. Pierce. “Methods in American Missions to the Indians in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Calvinist Models for Protestant Foreign Missions.” Journal of Presbyterian History 47.2 (1969): 124–48. Print.
  • ---. “Protestant Churches and the Indians.” Handbook of North American Indians. Ed. William C. Sturtevant and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Vol. 4. Washington: Smithsonian, 1988. 430–58. Print.
  • Berkhofer, Robert F. Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862. New York: Atheneum, 1972. Print.
  • Bowden, Henry Warner. American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. Print.
  • Chaney, Charles L. The Birth of Missions in America. South Pasadena: William Carey Lib., 1976. Print.
  • Kohnova, Marie J. “The Moravians and Their Missionaries: A Problem in Americanization.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 19.3 (1932): 348–61. Print.
  • Loskiel, George Henry. History of the Missions of the United Brethren among the Indians of North America. Trans. Christian Ignatius LaTrobe. London: Brethren’s Soc. for the Furtherance of the Gospel, 1794. Print.
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Additional Reading
  • Gray, Elma E. Wilderness Christians: The Moravian Missions to the Delaware Indians. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1956. Print.
  • Olmstead, Earl P. David Zeisberger: A Life among the Indians. Kent: Kent State UP, 1997. Print.
  • Rondthaler, Edward. Life of John Heckewelder. Ed. B. H. Coates. Philadelphia: Townsend Ward, 1847. Print.
  • Wallace, Paul A. W. Thirty Thousand Miles with John Heckewelder: The Travels of John Heckewelder in Frontier America. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1985. Print.
  • Weslager, C. A. The Delaware Indians: A History. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1972. Print.
  • Zeisberger, David. Schoenbrunn Story: Excerpts from the Diary of the Reverend David Zeisberger, 1772–1777, at Schoenbrunn in the Ohio Country. Columbus: Ohio Hist. Soc., 1972. Print.

Categories: History