June 19, 2020

 

Memorial for Erdmuthe Dorothea von Zinzendorf

November 7, 1700 – June 19, 1756

Today is a memorial day here at the Hermitage for a most remarkable 18th century woman about whom most people have never heard. She was Erdmuthe Dorothea, wife of Moravian leader Nicholas von Zinzendorf, and mother of Christian Renatus, the leader of our brotherhood. What made her remarkable, however, were her other achievements.

The wedding of two fiercely-independent, strong-willed, aristocrats who burned with Pietistic fervor was cast in terms of a warrior alliance as Erdmuthe and Nicholas saw themselves as evangelical equals, committed to spreading an increasingly unique and non-conforming version of Protestant Christianity.

 Missionary work was the crux of their vision, and Nicholas took lengthy trips across Europe and even came to Pennsylvania, leaving Erdmuthe (whose name can be translated as Earth Mother) in charge both of the family's vast estates and of the rapidly growing number of congregational towns that grew like seedlings in the wake of her husband's extensive travels, as well as his sermons, writings, and conferences with religious and governmental officials.

The budding sect, called the Unitas Fratrum or United Brethren, was basically a family concern, and Erdmuthe grew into the job of being both an effective financial manager as well as a capable church administrator.

The church, despite its gendered name, was a place where women, either as Single or Married Sisters, found, for the times, a liberating sense of equality in keeping with Nicholas' idea that the spirit spoke directly to each person regardless of race or gender. In keeping with what Nicholas thought was the communal emphasis of early Christianity, women were in charge of their own residential system of living and working according to age, gender and marital status.

One of Nicholas' most striking and original contributions to Christian theology was his concept of the Holy Spirit as a mother. Since the brethren already believed that Christ lived among them, most obviously in the form of Christian Renatus (Christ Returned), there was no need for a ghost of someone who wasn't dead, and Nicholas realized, on some level, as the psychologist Carl Jung would recognize two centuries later, that incorporating the divine feminine into the godhead provided a much-needed gender and psychological balance.  Nicholas instituted Holy Spirit as Mother festivals (which we will celebrate today ourselves here at the Hermitage, with a second one on her birthday in November). Many church members at the time saw the Zinzendorf family as earthly representatives of their new conception of the Trinity, with a holy family of father, mother and son.

Another aspect of Erdmuthe's legacy are the hundreds of hymns she wrote, most of which have never been translated from their original German, a work we have started ourselves in versions adapted to our own Harmonist spirituality. The hymn below is an example.

 So today is a day to recognize and to celebrate Countess Erdmuthe Dorothea, with descendants still living from her daughters. Hymn writer, administrator, mother, wife, and spiritual mentor to her son, which is another story for another day.

 

Erdmuthe Dorothea
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