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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 30-64

"Inspired by Flames of Love":
Homosexuality, Mysticism, and Moravian Brothers around 1750
Paul Peucker
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In 1751 a disappointed ex-Moravian from Berlin, Heinrich Joachim Bothe, attempting to place the Moravians in a bad light, published his experiences with this Protestant group, with whom he had been close for almost ten years. Among many things Bothe claimed that the prayer group within the Berlin Moravian congregation had to be dissolved because of homosexual activities ("Man mit Man Schande") that had supposedly taken place among its male members. 1 A similar assertion had been made elsewhere four years earlier. When in 1747 a bill requesting privileges for the Moravians was discussed in the British Parliament, one of the influential Old Whigs, Robert Nugent, claimed he wanted nothing to do with the Moravians, whom he referred to as "Enthusiasts and Sodomites." 2 These are two rare eighteenth-century instances where Moravians are mentioned in direct public connection with what we now call homosexuality. Even though both passages could be interpreted simply as defamations by their opponents, the personal correspondence and private records of the Moravians provide ample evidence of homoeroticism among the Brethren, the scandal that ensued from it, and—more astonishingly—the celebration that (at least temporarily) accompanied it.

The Unity of the Brethren, or Brüdergemeine, as the Moravians called their church themselves, originated when Protestant refugees and descendants of the old Unitas Fratrum settled on the Saxon estate of Graf [End Page 30] Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), founding the community of Herrnhut in 1722. Under the leadership of Zinzendorf the Moravians (named after the country of origin of some of the first settlers) developed their own form of piety that drew from many different sources, including Lutheranism, German Pietism, medieval mysticism, and the traditions of the ancient Unitas Fratrum. Central to their ideas was a personal surrender to Christ, whose suffering and death on the Cross was to touch the heart of the believer. Within a few years, Moravians founded communities in Europe and America and started missions in distant corners of the globe.

Despite their name, neither the community of Herrnhut during its formative years nor the movement that emanated from there should be considered an exclusive "Moravian" affair. As early as 1727 only half of the residents of Herrnhut originated from Moravia (or from any other part of what is now the Czech Republic), and they should not all be considered descendents of the Unitas Fratrum. The Brethren's movement of the eighteenth century was comprised of people from various European countries and from divergent denominational backgrounds. Moravians (in the sense of being members of the Brüdergemeine) are therefore true representatives of the cosmopolitan eighteenth century. Consequently, the findings of this study have relevance to the general religious climate of the period.

Moravian perceptions of homoeroticism should be viewed in connection with their ideas about eroticism in general. Mid-eighteenth-century Moravians were relatively late adherents of the idea of the mystical marriage between the believer and the divine. Medieval mystics had traditionally used the metaphor of being God's bride to describe the desire of the individual for Christ; the Moravians used this language mostly within the context of a church community. Furthermore, for Moravians the metaphor of the mystical union had practical consequences for the sexual life of married couples. 3 Zinzendorf held that sex between a man and a woman both symbolized and reenacted the unification of Christ and his bride, the church, making sex into such an important act that Moravians referred to it as a "sacrament." Sexual intercourse between husband and wife was seen as a liturgical act that was to be enjoyed as such. Moravians believed that a married couple could [End Page 31] experience the union with Christ by means of having sex together. 4 More surprisingly, single men pictured their mystical union with Christ in similar sexual terms, and in consequence much...


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