This article was originally published on June 1, 2016.
On November 24, 1755, ten Moravian missionaries and a child were murdered at Gnadenhütten, Pennsylvania, near modern-day Lehighton, on Mahoning Creek. Susanne Luise Partsch, who had recently come to Gnadenhütten with her husband George, saw men “running from one house to another with firebrands to set them alight.”1 A Native American war party burned the church, school, bakery, and dwellings to the ground, and burned several residents, including an infant, alive in their homes. The cattle were slaughtered, while stores, tools, and supplies were taken or ruined. One woman whose husband was killed in the raid was seized; while in captivity, she was raped and abused so severely that she never fully recovered. Susanne Partsch survived by leaping from a second-story window, fleeing, and taking shelter under a hollow tree. A local militia member found her the next morning and returned her to the settlement. She wrote of her experience, “I fainted at the sight of the charred bodies, and they had trouble bringing me back to my senses.”2
The massacre of the mainly German missionaries was a minor event in a much larger conflict between France and England called the Seven Years’ War. The North American theater of this conflict was known as the French and Indian War, during which American colonists fought alongside British troops and their Native American allies against the French and their Native American allies. Native American tribes were forced to decide between fighting for the British or resisting them. For some Native Americans, most notably the Delaware chief Teedyuscung, the war presented an opportunity to reclaim ancestral lands the British had stolen. Teedyuscung had converted to Christianity before the war and lived with the Moravians at Gnadenhütten for some time, but when the Delaware were attacked by other tribes, the Moravians urged them not to resist, which offended Teedyuscung. He rejected Moravian pacifism and began raiding white and Native American settlements.
Only twelve days before the massacre, on November 12, the Moravians had decided, despite signs of impending violence, that it was “better that a Brother should die at his post than withdraw and have a single soul thus suffer loss.”3 The Moravian missionary John Martin Mack, who had devoted his life to ministering to native peoples, had encouraged the missionaries at Gnadenhütten (“houses of grace”) to remain at their post. (On hearing the news of the slaughter, he was heartbroken, yet still joined other Moravians in urging their friends among the Delaware not to seek revenge on their behalf.)
- Memoir of Susanne Luise Partsch, in Katherine Faull, ed. Moravian Women’s Memoirs: Their Related Lives, 1750–1820 (Syracuse University Press, 1997), 111–113.
- Quoted in J. T. Hamilton and Kenneth G. Hamilton, History of the Moravian Church (Bethlehem, 1967), 142.
- Joseph Mortimer Levering, A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 1741–1892 (Bethlehem: Times Publishing Company, 1903), 315.
- Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Colin Podmore, The Moravian Church in England, 1728–1760 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
- Jared Burkholder, “Neither ‘Kriegerisch’ nor ‘Quäkerisch’: Moravians and the Question of Violence in Eighteenth-Century Pennsylvania,” Journal of Moravian History 12 (2012): 143–169.
- J. T. Holmes, The American Family of Rev. Obadiah Holmes (Columbus, Ohio: 1915).
- Quoted in Major Problems in American History vol. 1, ed. Elizabeth Cobb et al. (Cengage, 2011), 205.