For the academic year 2020-2021, I used independent studies to write a thesis of sorts in order to engage in research that would prepare me for doctoral studies. The project was something I began in 2016-2017 and expanded on for this project. It is work I am passionate about and love researching!
A few weeks ago, I presented my thesis at a conference on campus at Wake Forest University. Many requested to few the presentation but I thought why not publish my presentation “script” here! This barely touches upon my work and all the details I studied. It was painful to take over 70 pages of work and put it in a 10 minute presentation. I cut out most of the super provocative stuff and things that I loved. If you have questions, I would be happy to talk further!
This thesis seeks to show how changing theologies within the Moravian Church led to a radical expression of human sexuality, a subsequent suppression of these events, and how this suppression of thought affects the contemporary Moravian Church as it exists today by looking at the Concerned Moravians as a case study.
Very briefly, probably too briefly, I will give a few definitions to help guide us.
Since this paper focuses most heavily on the Sifting Time, let’s start here. Disagreement over the dating of the “Sifting Time” has been ongoing. It is typically characterized as meaning the 1740s, however some scholars will say it began as early as 1738. While the beginning of this period continues to change, the ending has a pretty solid agreement of 1749 or 1750. Paul Peucker argues that the crisis began in December 1748 when Zinzendorf had been called to act upon the issue of a gender-changing ceremony where the men declared themselves to be sisters. This ceremony is where the peak of the crisis begins.
The Concerned Moravians, who I discuss closer to the end of this talk, provide an example of how the contemporary church struggles to discuss sexuality. They are an active homophobic group seeking to take over the Moravian Church Southern Province, which is based mainly within and around Winston-Salem, NC.
But to begin, I will discuss Zinzendorf’s theologies to show how this led up to the Sifting Time and how the suppression affects the contemporary church. Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf is credited with the renewal of the Moravian Church in 1727, although the church has existed for far longer.
Zinzendorf was influenced by many people and movements including Martin Luther, Mysticism, and Pietism. I have listed these influences on the slide but will not go in depth here. Just know that Zinzendorf was heavily influenced from others. To assume he was radially unique is incorrect. Although, Zinzendorf did espouse rather radical ideas about marriage and sex compared to his counterparts.
Zinzendorf is often cited for his “theology of the heart”. This heart religion was based on an intimate relationship with Christ. As for the relationship with Christ, Zinzendorf speaks of this in terms of a mystical marriage. In his First Sermon in Pennsylvania, he calls Christ the Husband, “And this is the blood-friendship with Jesus, or the divine family on earth, because in heaven we have a Father, a Mother and a Husband.”
Obvious confusion occurs when one thinks of men being married to Christ, who Zinzendorf saw as the only true male. To rectify this, Zinzendorf offers the idea that all souls are female, even in a man’s body, so that in the end-times all will be married to Christ. This is important for the “Sifting Time.
A main point in Zinzendorf’s theology was the sacramental nature of martial sex. In order to ensure that the act remained sacramental, a strict separation of the brothers and sisters was enforced. Opportunities for brothers and sisters to interact were far and few between, and any relations that they did have, were carefully controlled through the choir system which split the genders into respective locations. Even for married couples, sex was controlled and only allowed on certain days and for specific situations.
To put it succinctly, Zinzendorf was promoting sexual intercourse as sacramental, children as a blessing, a reverence for genitalia, and other radical thoughts. Calling the Holy Spirit “Mother” and sharing the idea that the soul was female also played a role in the “Sifting Time”. Seemingly in response, on December 6 and 7, 1748, Christian Renatus, Zinzendorf’s son, gathered the men from separate congregations together and proclaimed the men to be women. They will now be considered sisters in the community through this gender-changing ceremony.
The gender changing ceremony may seem strange and extreme, but looking at the piety of the times, it makes sense that this happened. I believe that Christian Renatus just took his father’s theologies to the next logical place.
In the years following Zinzendorf’s death in 1760, many records were destroyed. Through this transition, the destruction of records demonstrated a repression of the creativity that flowed through the church. These dynamic teachings and practices are what made the Moravian church stand apart from other Pietist groups. It is hard to think about and describe the extent to which this suppression and destruction of materials has affected the Moravian church. It can be seen clearly in the fact that majority of Moravians have no inkling of this history. Knowledge of the Sifting Time is still held as a secret that should not be discussed in church settings.
The inability for contemporary churches and their members to discuss gender and sexuality has a long history beyond the Moravians. However, the history of sexuality demonstrates the fluidity of definitions and the fact that norms change between cultures and time. From early on, sexuality has been defined and redefined based on the context.
This all means that there is no stable sexual norm. This should be kept in mind when witnessing people demonizing others based on the traditional definition of sex and marriage. One sexual morality does not exist and should not rule our actions towards other people.
Since history does not have a firmly defined sexual norm, we should not hold so closely to definitions ourselves, especially when they are harmful to people who are happily living their lives.
To highlight how this relates to contemporary Moravians we need a little background. In 2018, the Moravian Church Southern Province passed a resolution, #14, reaffirming the ability for each individual church in the province to decide for itself “who is or who is not admitted into the membership and leadership”, who can participate in rites and sacraments, and how the church building is used, as it relates to homosexuality. As a result, the Concerned Moravians began.
What is most fascinating about the Concerned Moravians, though, is that if one does not know about these resolutions and the history of their formation, then the person viewing their materials would probably not realize that this is all a reaction to homosexuality. On their “About” page, only three sentences refer to homosexuality. Beyond this, no mention of “homosexuality” or “gay” or “LGBTQ+” is mentioned. They reference the resolution but if one does not know what this means and does not take the time to research, they would have no clue what the Concerned Moravians are concerned about. This links back to the suppression of the Sifting Time. They are repressing any language of sexuality, even today.
This limiting of diversity in favor of a uniform standard is why the Sifting Time was erased in the first place. The leaders after Zinzendorf could not fathom holding onto the theologies that made Moravians different from surrounding communities and favored blending in, whether for fear of persecution, economic reasons, or something else. This has bled into our contemporary church and has allowed for members to be divisive, unaccepting, and downright malevolent.
In conclusion, the church cannot continue to deny God’s creation and we cannot continue to withhold our love from the LGBTQ+ community. We cannot tell others how to love or who to love, as God calls us to love all of creation. God’s call is for us to love our neighbor, and this does not carry with it any exemptions. It is time for the inclusion and affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community in the Moravian Church and God’s people worldwide as well as more widespread knowledge of our church’s history.