Paul Peucker. A Time of Sifting: Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety in the Eighteenth Century. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015. 264 pp. $84.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-271-06643-1.
Reviewed by Alexander Schunka (Freie Universität Berlin)
Published on H-Pietism (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Peter James Yoder
Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety
Paul Peucker’s book offers new insights into what has remained one of the greatest mysteries in eighteenth-century Moravianism: the so-called Sifting Time (derived from Luke 22:31), a period of turmoil within the Moravian community. This Sifting Time or, in German, Sichtungszeit, massively affected the theology and culture of the Moravian Church and, the author argues, changed the community significantly from a radical Philadelphian group into a widely acceptable mainstream Protestant denomination. Although historiographers since the nineteenth century agree that some unusual and, perhaps, even indecent doings took place among the Moravians, what brought about these changes as well as what exactly happened among in the years just before 1750 has remained quite unclear. Today, shedding new light on this period is a difficult task. The Moravians, despite (or because) of their sophisticated tradition of archival record-keeping, deliberately and thoroughly destroyed practically all documents pertaining to this period. In order to reveal the mystery of the late 1740s, researchers must take detours, involving a good amount of detective work. The author of the present book (one of the foremost experts in the history of eighteenth-century Moravianism) has succeeded to an impressive degree in this detective-like undertaking.
Setting the Sifting Time in context, the book presents more than just an analysis of some crucial years of the Moravian Church but rather its eighteenth-century history. Founded by German count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in 1722, the Moravians quickly spread across the globe and became one of the most influential Protestant missionary churches of the eighteenth century (and beyond). Church historians have long subsumed them under the umbrella of “Pietism,” although the Moravians’ relationship to, for instance, Halle Pietists, was at best problematic. What distinguished the Moravians theologically from other churches was their blend of Lutheran doctrine, Philadelphianism, and mysticism. Consequently, Peucker argues that the Sifting Time was not a rupture but rather a culmination of previously existing Moravian thought: a “combination of Lutheran theology, with its emphasis on justification by faith alone; of bridal mysticism; and of traditional passion symbolism. It was also a reaction against the austere Pietism of the time, resulting in provocative playfulness” (p. 2). What was so provocative to contemporaries was that among a number of younger, mostly male Moravians in 1748-49, the idea of being sinless resulted in a festival culture involving gender transgression, an exaggerated adoration of the side wound of Jesus on the cross, and finally, sexual action that undermined traditional norms of gender and marriage.
While the introduction briefly sketches out the aims of the book and situates the Moravians in the context of research on eighteenth-century radical Pietism, chapter 1 is a brief but concise overview of the early history of the Moravian Church under Zinzendorf, focusing on its geographical scope and in particular on devotional and organizational characteristics such as blood and wounds-mysticism and the quasi-monarchic choir system, since both features played a significant role in the developments to come. The following chapter (whose position in the book could perhaps be discussed) deals with the treatment of the Sifting Time in Moravian historiography from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century. It becomes clear that earlier approaches very much circled around Zinzendorf, who was either, as in the German tradition, idolized as a charismatic founding figure fighting alleged aberrations or, as in the Anglo-American tradition, was rather seen as only a temporary patron of a church dating back to fifteenth-century Czech reformer Jan Hus. Zinzendorf, according to the author, was sometimes even made the “main culprit” (p. 37) of the Sifting Time. Chapter 3 describes the uncovering of the Sifting Time in the late 1740s, starting from Zinzendorf’s powerful letter of reprimand of 1749 which ordered all branches of the Moravian Church to stop any indecent behavior; otherwise, Zinzendorf himself would step down as leader of his church. As the ensuing chapter argues, a strong belief in justification by faith alone, combined with the idea of finally having become free from worldly sins, resulted, especially among the choirs of unmarried males, in extensive playfulness, the celebration of luxurious festivals, and erotic speech and action. This culminated in a ceremony in Herrnhaag in 1748 where Zinzendorf’s son Christian Renatus declared all single men to be women, as based on older, mystic traditions which considered the female gender most perfect (an idea outlined in chapter 6). Though lack of sources makes it unclear which sexual actions exactly happened among Moravians in 1748-49, side wound iconography, some surviving texts of Moravian songs and hymns (chapter 5), and pamphlets written by ex-members of the community point to the fact that extramarital contacts between the sexes as well as same-sex relationships took place, making the central issue of the Sifting Time one of marriage and sexuality. According to Peucker, Moravian notions now changed from a sacramental understanding of marriage, involving sex without lust, to “sex without sin” (p. 167). Subsequent chapters focus on how Zinzendorf and some of his aides terminated the affairs, which had apparently quickly spread among all Moravian communities; how certain leading figures (with Zinzendorf’s son among them) were either eliminated or turned themselves into reformers (such as Johannes von Watteville); and how the face of the church changed quickly from radicalism into mainstream Protestantism (especially after Zinzendorf’s death in 1760). In retrospect, the Sifting Time seemed to illustrate to contemporary Moravians that their church had survived a test from God.
Since almost all of the sources relating to the Sifting Time were carefully destroyed immediately afterwards, the author relies upon only few reports from within and outside of the Moravian community, carefully investigating the material and their authors’ roles. Although little is still known, this book does well approximating the events of the late 1740s within the Moravian Church.
The idea that the Sifting Time derives from an exaggeration of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith, combined with older mystic traditions, is convincing and often striking. In many respects, the book opens up new paths for future research. From the angle of social and cultural history, it would be interesting to learn more about the social consequences of this era. For instance, were more illegitimate children born among Moravians? Did the Sifting Time play a role in a possible increase (or decrease) in popularity and membership? Should the period be considered some sort of an “anti-authoritarian” youth movement? Might the Moravian memoirs (Lebensläufe) reflect upon this period, or might these memoirs have developed in relation to the Sifting Time? If the Moravians’ turn toward a Protestant mainstream church went hand in hand with a reorientation toward its alleged pre-Reformation origins (i.e., to the ancient Unitas Fratrum, p. 149), it would be interesting to know more about this.
Although its structure and in particular the arrangement of chapters did not always appear fully convincing to the reviewer, the book is nevertheless a fascinating read and provides far more than an examination of one obscure episode within just another Protestant church. Instead, it illustrates the fluidity of boundaries, the wide-ranging intellectual influences, and the gender-transgressive potential within eighteenth-century Protestantism, and therefore is a strong contribution to the cultural history of religion in the Euro-Atlantic world.
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Alexander Schunka. Review of Peucker, Paul, A Time of Sifting: Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety in the Eighteenth Century.
H-Pietism, H-Net Reviews.
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