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  • A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania by Patrick M. Erben
  • Scott Paul Gordon (bio)
A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania patrick m. erben Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press and Omohundro Institute, 2012 352 pp.

In this book, Patrick M. Erben powerfully evokes the utopian promise of early Pennsylvania. William Penn’s famous plan for religious [End Page 807] toleration, like the notion of religious toleration itself, has often been treated as part of an Enlightenment project. But Erben brilliantly associates Penn’s “holy experiment,” instead, with other seventeenth-century “mystical” or “esoteric” dreams that aimed to “counter the effects of Babel” or “[repair] human divisions by discovering a common spiritual language” (8, 14). Pennsylvania was, in Erben’s beautiful phrases, a “mission field for a utopian project of reconnecting the divine Word of God and the fallen word of human language” (7). The key claims of the book appear in a series of compelling chapters that discuss the promotional literature produced to encourage immigration to Pennsylvania, the meaning of linguistic diversity in the colony, and the important figure of Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651–1720), who looms larger in Erben’s text than William Penn himself. Erben focuses in these chapters on a wide range of individuals and groups that embraced Pennsylvania as a place where they could “escape Babel/Babylon and create a more perfect society through linguistic and spiritual reform” (46).

These groups did not view the linguistic diversity that characterized Pennsylvania as an impediment to community, despite the “cultural and political myth” that prevails today that “language diversity poses a fundamental threat to communal coherence” (14). These seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century thinkers were convinced that such diversity offered an opportunity that could be realized through translation: translation could reveal the common spiritual language that lay hidden beneath the differences that separated one European language from another and European languages as a whole from the many indigenous languages that Europeans encountered in America. For many recent literary critics, as Erben briefly acknowledges, translation functions as a tool of colonization (see, for instance, Eric Cheyfitz’s The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from “The Tempest” to “Tarzan” [U of Pennsylvania P, 1997]). For the figures Erben discusses, translation rests on a faith in the existence of an original, Adamic language that perfectly captured in words the essence of things. The different groups that populated early Pennsylvania, Erben shows, imagined the new colony as a place where spiritual and linguistic renewal could happen.

Erben devotes two-thirds of his book, his introduction and chapters 1 through 4, to recovering and analyzing these utopian origins of Penn’s colony. Chapter 5 extends these concerns into the middle of the eighteenth [End Page 808] century, by which time many had given up on Pennsylvania’s promise. Yet Erben shows that some groups continued to embrace the “enduring spiritual potential of a fallen Pennsylvania” (203). Focusing on Johannes Kelpius’s experiment on the Wissahickon, the radical pietists at Ephrata, and Bethlehem’s Moravians, this chapter explores in particular the conviction that singing and hymnody could “reverse the effects of Babel, especially if members of different linguistic and ethnic origins would join their voices” (205). Erben explores, for instance, the remarkable practice of polyglot singing in Bethlehem: at a lovefeast in August 1745, the Moravian community sang hymns in eighteen different languages, including English, German, Swedish, Wendish, Mohawk, and Mahican. This practice did not “erase difference” but modeled a “post-Babel community” that recognized a “single language of the spirit.” The “multiplicity of voices” in different languages, Erben concludes, “paradigmatically reversed the confusion of Babel” (238–41).

Erben continues to search texts for traces of this yearning to reverse Babel’s effects and to discover spiritual community among diversity in chapter 6, which focuses on the latter half of the eighteenth century. Erben’s project, however, seems forced in this chapter. Take, for instance, his reading of the Martyrs’ Mirror produced in Ephrata in 1748–49 (25269). This Martyrs’ Mirror prompts one of Erben’s more fascinating stories, since the book itself, which...


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