Sects and Sex

The Saal or meeting hall in the Gemeinhaus (community house) at Bethlehem, PA where men and women sat on opposite sides.

Two weeks ago, I reported briefly on the panel devoted to A. Greg Roeber’s new book on early modern marriage at the American Society of Church History meeting in DC. During the session, I figured it was only a matter of time until the discussion turned to 18th century Moravians, who fostered an interesting view on marital sexuality, and indeed, I was not disappointed. Given this recent panel, and the fact that Chris has prodded me to write more about the Moravians, I revisited this topic in my reading this week.

Nicolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf
A young, and still celibate, Zinzendorf

I first encountered this topic while doing research for my 2007 dissertation at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, when I found that Moravian elders were providing pastoral reports about married couples and how they were getting along in their marital intimacy, in the course of their correspondence. (With a surprising measure of frankness, I might add.) Since then, Moravian attitudes about sex became a hot topic (no pun intended). In 2008, for example, Aaron Fogleman published his controversial book, Jesus is Female, in which he argued that Moravian views on gender and devotional spirituality created a “feminized” Jesus. (Although Moravian scholars themselves don’t disagree with this completely, some have pushed back against this notion, demonstrating that Zinzendorf affirmed the value of Jesus’ maleness, and saw tremendous value in the physical body, both male and female.) Then, in 2011, the Journal of Moravian History printed a special issue on the topic of Moravians and sexuality that included some of the most instructive and balanced writing I have found on the subject. Particularly helpful was Moravian archivist Paul Peucker’s lead article, from which the summary below is based, and to which I point readers who want to explore this further.

During the 18th century, pamphlets and books, such as this one by Henry Rimius, routinely lambasted Moravians for what were considered radical teachings about numerous points of doctrine as well as the many rumors about their supposed immoral views on sexuality.

In a nutshell, Moravians were both uncharacteristically open about sexuality for the time period, but still a bit repressive by today’s standards. For context, Christians at the time, both Protestant and Catholic, had a dualistic understanding of the relationship between spirit and body. The physical body, and its drives, were spiritually inferior, or even down-right sinful. Sex was necessary for procreation, but its earthy, physical, passionate nature made it suspect. A sexual revolution of sorts took place among radical Pietists, however, some of whom reimagined the nature of the relationship between spirituality and sex. Some taught celibacy; others embraced it in ways that shocked those who learned what went on behind closed doors.

Like others, Zinzendorf thought about sexuality in new ways. Although there was nothing that today’s Christians would find immoral about their teachings, Moravians taught married couples to glory in marital sex, but at the same to regulate the practice and passion of it. Sex between husbands and wives was essentially a sacrament (a physical representation of spiritual union between Christ and Christians), which meant that they elevated its value far above what was typical for the time. They also fostered a culture of openness among married members. Sex was a topic of pastoral discussion, counseling sessions, and prayerful reflection. Because Moravians strictly forbid any sexual activity before marriage, older married couples assisted, mentored, and gave advice to newlyweds. So Moravians were quite ahead of their time, we might say, and a book like Rob Bell’s Sex God would have hardly seemed like novel reading.

Yet in other ways, Moravians were not without some interesting oddities. Married couples did not always live together. In fact, among the most devout, communities were divided into dormitories (called choirs) and married women lived with other married women and married men, with other married men. So conjugal activity was often regulated. A particular place was often set aside for intimacy (a “Cabinet” or small room) and it is safe to say that there was very little spontaneity, since spouses obviously needed to make arrangements ahead of time. Although this seems strange to us, since even the most conservative Christians will say that pleasure as an important part of sex, but Zinzendorf taught that sex was to be “lustless,” that is, without any hint of desire or pleasure.


Without getting too graphic, Moravians were taught to accomplish the task while focusing on their union with Christ, and with the least amount of physical arousal. Needless to say, when Moravians spiritualized sex and embraced it as good, they did not intend that married couples should then seek sensual pleasure. This, of course, would take the focus of the act away from Christ where it belonged.

So, it’s a bit of a paradox, it seems to me. Sex is heavenly, as long as you don’t enjoy it!

8 thoughts on “Sects and Sex

  1. One wonders how Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians read Song of Solomon. The must have been skilled in the art of eisegesis to keep safe from the bawdy texts.

    1. Not sure about the Moravians, Kirk. But I know that certain Radical (and some not-so-radical) Pietists were fond of S of S — “bride-mysticism” was a theme of at least two chapters in our Pietist Impulse collection.

  2. How common is marital cohabitation in the world, historically? I’m not sure this part really is that unusual. It is a very good way to help couple avoid a lot of problems that come from proximity. Some native American practices were similar; could they have been a model for the Moravians? Scheduled marital hookups remain a common source of advice to modern couples who today are frequently ending up with sexless marriages. On the pleasure part, my guess is “don’t ask don’t tell” policies emerged for the Moravians. How could it not?

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