There’s Nothing New about the Moral Dilemmas Raised by Violence… Just ask 18th Century Moravian Missionaries

Today I’m happy to welcome Grace College professor Jared Burkholder back to the blog for a timely guest-post.

With shootings in MichiganKansas, and Washington this past week, we are again confronted with moral dilemmas about responding to violent threats. In the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino back in December and the debate over Falwell’s now infamous comments at Liberty University, the question of whether the answer to gun violence should be more gun violence (albeit by the “good guys”) has become particularly divisive. Positions on this largely fell along predictable lines with gun advocates and their opponents seeing the evidence in ways that affirm their bias. Then there was Brandon Ambrosino, who called out both sides by asking “Whom would Jesus Shoot – and Why?” These questions can be particularly thorny for those of us who are committed to some form of Christian nonresistance (pacifism is by no means monolithic). This is especially true when there are innocent lives in the balance. After all, shouldn’t any and all means be used to protect the innocent?

One question at the heart of this issue is whether or not it is possible for violence to be redemptive. The moral validity of “redemptive violence” (righting an injustice through the application of violence) is largely unquestioned in American society – just consider the last popular action film you’ve seen. But however satisfying the depiction of redemptive violence is in the movies, Christian proponents of nonviolence argue that real life is a bit more complicated, unpredictable, and morally complex. Violence is not transformed into redeeming action, they argue, simply because it is wielded by the “good guys.” This is why pacifists believe that redemptive violence is a myth.

An Eighteenth Century Parallel?

As is the case with most debates, our dilemmas are not new. In working on a chapter for a book project, I’ve recently revisited some bloody scenes from the history of Moravian missions during the 18th century and the moral tensions with which church leaders were confronted. And I have been intrigued by the possible parallels.

For context, Moravian missionaries in the mid-Atlantic colonies lived between cultures, as many missionaries do both past and present. They straddled the divide between Euro-American society and native cultures and, during the Seven Years War (you may know this as the French and Indian War), their mission stations were sitting in a war zone as English and French empires fought over who would control the North American continent. They occupied space that was no less violent than our world today. Native warriors, in alliance with European empires, attacked frontier settlements and frontiersman became the arbiters of vigilante justice, arbitrarily attacking whatever Indians happened to be in reach.

French and Indian War 1905
The theater of battle during in the American phase of the Seven Years War (public domain)

In the midst of this, Moravian missionaries stayed in their mission stations hoping to remain beacons of Christian neutrality. Though Moravian leaders did not dictate what their members should believe about “bearing arms,” the church did believe that peacemaking was an important goal for Christians. Questions about what this meant in real life situations became urgent in 1755 when the Moravian mission station of Gnadenhütten was attacked by Indians aligned with the French. (This is present day Lehighton, PA and not to be confused with a later attack on Gnadenhutten, Ohio.) The attack was brutal and resulted in the death and mutilation of 11 of the 15 members of the settlement – both Indian and Moravian. Due to attacks like this, as well as other episodes of violence, frontier refugees streamed eastward and many ended up in the Moravians’ central village of Bethlehem, where villagers braced themselves for another attack.

Levering title page
Levering’s History of Bethlehem provides one of the best accounts of the attack on Gnadenhuetten.

Enter August Gottlieb Spangenberg. Bishop Spangenberg was perhaps the second most influential Moravian leader (after Zinzendorf) and was responsible for Moravian activity in the colonies at the time. Given the threat, would Spangenberg decide to turn what was essentially a religious community into an armed garrison? If he decided to maintain a strict application of peace and neutrality, wouldn’t he compromise the lives of the innocent refugees and Moravian church members inside the town? But if he took armed defensive measures, wouldn’t he be compromising Moravian ideals of peace and neutrality? Would he respond to violence with still more violence?

Records indicate that Spangenberg labored over the right course of action. Ultimately, he decided to stockpile weapons, set up armed sentries, and build stockades around Bethlehem and the neighboring Moravian town of Nazareth. Women even piled stones by their upstairs windows so they could be dropped onto would-be attackers.

August Gottlieb Spangenberg by Johann Gotthard von Mueller (public domain)

Some have viewed Spangenberg as a hypocrite. Benjamin Franklin, in fact, chided the Moravians saying the were all too ready to put their religious ideals aside when their safety was threatened. (Franklin failed to understand that strict pacifism wasn’t mandated by Zinzendorf. Moravian leaders, in fact differed among themselves.) For his part, Spangenberg believed his measures were both responsible and consistent with peaceful ideals. If we take a closer look at his defensive measures, we see that he took steps to mitigate “blood shedding on both sides.” He instructed his sentries to fire into the air in order to warn their attackers and, if it was still necessary to fire at the enemy, they were to aim at the legs so the wounded could be recovered and treated. They were not to hunt down their enemies as soldiers of the empire, but rather protect the innocent as a father would protect his family. And, he said, his actions were not meant to replace their trust in divine protection. “I know that some of the Brethren say – Yes! Had we but more guns … But I say not so my Brethren … on this very account, [God] might allow the enemy to attack, where we think we are most efficiently secured,” Spangenberg declared, but “If the Lord only be right satisfied with us — I fear nothing in the world! Were the Indians this minute a million, and were their cruelties a thousand fold atrocious – I would not fear them.”

In the end, an attack on Bethlehem never materialized. Spangenberg and his sentries never needed to make these hard decisions. But like us, Moravians nevertheless found themselves wrestling with this tough dilemma.

Bethlehem 1830s
A romanticized image of Bethlehem from the 19th century artist Karl Bodmer. (public domain)

Now, I realize that comparing the threat of guerilla-style Indian attacks during wartime is not exactly an “apples to apples” comparison to an active shooter scenario in today’s world. Still, I think it’s always helpful to know that the debates we face in our modern world are not entirely new. And perhaps reflecting on this 18th century example might even facilitate the kind of positive, nuanced conversations Ambrosino has called for. What do you think? Was Spangenberg’s response consistent with a nonviolent ethic or was it a compromise? Were there other options? Are there ways to remain faithful to nonviolent ideals while talking action to protect the innocent?

By the way, Anabaptists have attempted to find creative nonviolent solutions to violent threats for decades; I would recommend the books by John Howard Yoder and John Roth shown below. If you care to explore the Moravians further, you can find my article on Moravian views on war and violence in the Journal of Moravian History 12:2 (2012). roth book

Yoder what would you do


3 thoughts on “There’s Nothing New about the Moral Dilemmas Raised by Violence… Just ask 18th Century Moravian Missionaries

  1. I appreciate how Jared shows that being a pacifist is not an either/or proposition. It is more about the starting point (seeking peace) than the conclusion. At the same time, he does show that that starting point shapes the outcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.