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The story behind that Moravian Star

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A Moravian Star is seen hanging in Keuka College interim CFO Jeff Heckman's Ball Hall office window.

BY JEFF HECKMAN, interim CFO, Keuka College

As daylight saving time fades and autumn turns quickly into winter, the nights grow longer and the countryside becomes magically decorated with holiday lights. For the past four winters, I have contributed to that wintery scene here at Keuka College by hanging a lighted, many-pointed Moravian stars in my Ball Hall office window. I’ve always liked the appearance of that star; to me, it represents a beacon of hope that embodies the spirit of the holiday season. I’ve learned many wonderful things relating to the Moravians and their star over the past three decades; now the star has an even greater meaning to me.

My wife and I came across our first Moravian star more than 30 years ago when we lived in North Carolina, not too far from Winston-Salem. The historic “Old Salem” part of the town was first settled by Moravians in the mid-1700s; they had come from earlier settlements in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Savannah, Georgia. Named for the area in central/eastern Europe where they originated, the Moravians were one of the first Protestant Christian denominations (predating Martin Luther by at least 60 years). Like so many others, they came to America seeking religious freedom. The Moravians invented their famous star in the 1800s, and it has become a well-recognized icon for their church, worldwide, ever since. 

A journey of discovery

When my Dad had a heart attack more than a dozen years ago, I realized that I knew nothing of my family’s past. It was then that I began a journey of discovery that continues to this day. When researching my 4th great-grandmother, Anna Barbara Leinbach Heckman (who likely died in childbirth), I found that she was named for her great aunt, Maria Barbara Leinbach, a Moravian missionary who lived quite an interesting life way back in the 1700s. 

The elder Barbara was born in Germany in 1722 and landed in America on her first birthday. Her parents bought an existing log cabin in the Oley Valley near Reading, Pennsylvania; it was considered the western frontier of the English colonies in America at that time (family historians noted that Native Americans lived next door until they joined their tribe’s westward migration some years later).  Barbara’s Leinbach family became deeply involved in the Moravian Church there -- and the Church’s efforts to minister to Native and African Americans. Her family hosted prominent Church figures as they came through the area, and this gave Barbara opportunities to meet her future husbands, Friederich Martin and David Nitschmann.

Friederich Martin, Barbara’s first husband, was a gifted missionary who is credited with bringing to Christianity thousands of African slaves in the Virgin Islands (the reason for his success: he spent his free time making every effort to get to know each one of them personally). Friederich’s efforts began in 1734; his success quickly raised the opposition of plantation owners who feared he would encourage rebellion by teaching the slaves to read, write and learn of the Christian faith. The pastor to the plantation owners led the charge to have Friederich and two or three of his assistants imprisoned for several months on false and fabricated charges. It was said of Friederich: “he preached nightly through the bars to a gathered crowd” and, all the while, his congregation continued to grow. Fortunately, Friederich’s superiors were able to appeal to the local governor and have him and his assistants released from prison. 

In time, the plantation owners came to appreciate the work Friedrich was doing; they invited him to start similar missions on the other islands in the vicinity. In 1737, he founded the first Moravian church in the Western Hemisphere; “New Herrnhut;” it flourishes to this day (and at least half of the current members are descended from the slaves that Friederich ministered to). In 1743, he married my Aunt Barbara, and she joined him on St. Thomas. 

Friederich and Barbara lost the first of their two daughters to smallpox in 1747 while on a sabbatical to Germany that culminated with Friederich being consecrated as a Moravian Bishop in 1748. On the trip back to St. Thomas, they were captured by pirates near the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and held for several weeks. In Barbara’s own words (translated from German):

“I was separated from my husband and -- with a flag of truce -- returned to St. Thomas under the convoy of two hundred men; among whom I was the sole woman. The captain, who was wicked young man, did this on purpose, but the Savior saved me from all harm by His grace. Still today, I give Him praise for it, (even) while writing this.

“We arrived safely at St. Thomas, but with the loss of all our property, so that we did not own a thing but what we wore on our body. But, by the work of my hands and the blessing of God, I made enough money to buy the necessary clothes and also food.”

Life in the Caribbean in those days was not easy; in addition to pirates, they had to deal with unbearable summertime heat and humidity, hurricanes (that came without warning) and various tropical diseases. As for the latter, Friederich‘s health was challenged on a regular basis; in 1750 he died in my Aunt Barbara’s arms at age 47. She and her younger daughter returned to Pennsylvania by 1751, and Barbara continued to serve the children there.

Continuing to persevere

Carpenter David Nitschmann, Barbara’s second husband, was the first to rise to prominence in the Moravian Church of the Americas. On December 13, 1732, he and another Moravian missionary from Germany started the Protestant mission movement by ministering to African slaves in the Virgin Islands. [They wanted to offer the message of hope that is embodied in the Christian faith; they even offered to sell themselves into slavery but were allowed to minister to the slaves in return for David’s carpentry skills.] In 1735, David was ordained as the first Moravian Bishop in the Western Hemisphere. In 1736, he established the Moravian settlement in Savannah, Georgia. On Christmas Eve in 1741, he founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 

In 1754, David married my widowed Aunt Barbara. In 1755, during the French & Indian War, David and Barbara ministered to the Native Americans near the frontier Moravian mission of Gnadenhutten on the Mahony. The French had incited their Indian allies to murder 14 English colonists in the vicinity shortly before David and Barbara decided to flee the mission; two days later, 11 of their 15 missionary brothers and sisters were shot, burned alive or scalped -- including Martin Nitschmann and his wife (their relation to David has not been determined). Once again, Barbara had escaped with only the clothes on her back.

David and Barbara continued to persevere despite a number of additional hardships. They had a child together, and they continued to serve the peoples of eastern Pennsylvania until their deaths in 1772 and 1810, respectively. In her 87 years, Barbara outlived two husbands, a daughter, two sons-in-law and four of her six grandchildren. Fourteen years before her death, she suffered an injury to her face that became an incurable illness; it plagued her the rest of her life. Throughout a lifetime of suffering, Barbara never gave up hope.

A symbol of hope

One of Barbara’s brothers left the Oley Valley in Pennsylvania to purchase 2,000 acres in Old Salem, North Carolina (where I first learned of the Moravians and their star); some of his descendants became silversmiths; others founded a farm implement company that exists to this day. Most of Barbara’s siblings stayed in Pennsylvania; some of their descendants became famous regional clothiers. By 1907, one of Barbara’s brothers there had more than a dozen descendants that had become ministers in a variety of Protestant denominations.

Now, when I see a Moravian star during the holiday season, I think of the hope that it represents today -- and the hope that it gave to those who came before us … to persist and overcome, despite many hardships. The next time you walk by Ball Hall and catch a glimpse of that Moravian star, be inspired to hope -- and experience the peace that hope ultimately brings to us all! 

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