Two Histories of Race and Faith

Moravian preacher John Valentine Haidt’s 1747 painting “The First Fruits (Erstlingsbild)” offers an example of how Moravians, like Episcopalians, held conflicting views of race in which all people are counted among the “first fruits” delivered to Christ — even as both churches accepted slavery. (Museum Het Hernhutter Huis Zeist/Wikimedia Commons art)

By Richard J. Mammana Jr.

The first webinar in Past Reckoning: Exploring the Racial History of the Moravian and Episcopal Churches drew more than 400 registrants on January 25. Participants met in three successive Wednesday evening panels, each followed by discussion, and looked at three topics: the evangelization of enslaved persons, histories of racial violence, and urban social changes connected to race. The first 90-minute session is available online. The series is a project of the Moravian-Episcopal Coordinating Committee’s Racial Reconciliation Working Group.

Moravians trace their roots to the early 1400s and the Hussite Reformation of central Europe. As a missionary movement, the group spread quickly after its adoption by Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf and propagation by German-speaking visionary preachers, educational leaders, and linguists. There are centers of Moravian life today in Alaska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, several Canadian provinces, and the Caribbean, but more than 90 percent of Moravians now live in Tanzania and South America.

The Episcopal Church in the contiguous United States and the Moravian Church’s Northern Province and Southern Province have been in full communion since a 2011 agreement of mutuality in ministry called Finding Our Delight in the Lord.

The first webinar — “Evangelizing Enslaved People: Good News or Control?” — examined how Christian ministry and catechesis took place against a background of both churches’ acceptance of slavery in North America and the Caribbean. Co-hosted by Rev. Maria Tjeltveit, co-chair of the coordinating committee, and the Rev. Frank Crouch, retired dean of Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, the webinar focused on three leaders from North Carolina: DeDreana Freeman and Cathy Rimer-Surles — founders of Episcopalians United Against Racism — and the Rev. Neil Routh, president of the Moravian Southern Province’s Provincial Elders Conference.

With support from Jeremy Tackett, the Episcopal Church’s manager for creative services, and Episcopal layman Adam Bond of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the webinar series offered Moravians and Episcopalians a chance to work together on broader efforts at racial reconciliation.

The webinars bring a diversity of voices to bear on complex histories of accommodation and prophetic work undertaken in separate churches. The churches had profound geographic and social overlap, and they entered into formal ecclesial relationship long after legal chattel slavery had been abolished.

Finding Our Delight in the Lord opens with a vision of ecumenical reconciliation overcoming “great evils.” Past Reckoning opened with an opportunity to name those great evils and discuss painful topics. Webinars in February will address “The Silent Protest Parade: Responses to Racial Violence and Black Leadership in the Church” and “The Church and the City: Integration, Segregation, and White Flight,” with panelists from Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Richard J. Mammana Jr. is editor of Moravians and Anglicans: Ecumenical Sources (Project Canterbury, 2021). He has served as staff for the Moravian-Episcopal Coordinating Committee since 2014.


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