About forty miles south of here there lies a pretty little town, situated on a wide and fertile bottomland, surrounded by low wooded hills. I have been there a couple of times, when my son Patric was playing on an all star Little League team. There are around a thousand souls living there, and it is unremarkable save three things: the presence of a Moravian church, some reconstructed log homes from the 1700s, and a historical monument.
The Moravian church has always seemed like one of the most attractive expressions of Protestantism; they are noted for their hymnody and affective, even mystical spirituality (which touched John Wesley immensely). They also were influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy, which had roots in their native Moravia, and whose practices of married priesthood and liturgy in the venacular they were trying to restore (and they recite the Nicene Creed without the filiouque). They even started a monastic community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, noted for its illuminated manuscripts.
While the Moravians were the earliest missionaries to Ohio’s Indians, there are only a few Moravian churches in the area today. The one in this village is notable for its history, for not only was this the earliest pioneer settlement in Ohio, it was the site of an atrocity, a massacre of converted Mohican and Lenapi (Delaware) natives.
The town is Gnadenhutten, which means, in German, “huts of grace”.
In 1782 the Christian Indians of the village were trying to remain neutral in the Revolutionary War that had ripped the frontier. Many of their native brothers had chosen one side or the other, but the Indians of Gnadenhutten were determined to not fight, to live the peaceful lives they had been taught to live by the Moravians.
This was not good enough for the rough frontiersmen of the revolutionary militias, and on March 8, 1782, a group of militiamen entered the town and captured the villagers. A vote was taken and it was decided that the Indians must be killed. 96 men, women and children perished. The only survivors were two young men, who had been scalped but lived.
I recently picked up a book of local history at the library and found a story I had not heard before. A certain Mohican, one Abraham, was a notorious backslider. As they waited, bound, for the soldiers to kill them Abraham spoke to his friends: “Dear brethren, according to appearances we shall all very soon come to the Saviour, for as it seems they have so resolved about us. You know I am a bad man, that I have much troubled the Saviour and the brethren, and have not behaved as becomes a believer, yet to Him I belong, bad as I am; He will forgive us all and not reject me; to the end I shall hold fast to Him and not leave Him.”
They all began to sing and pray until the militamen came for them. Abraham was the first to die.
I have always been moved by tales like this. In persecutions the more devout often apostasize to save their lives, while the lukewarm hold fast. I think of the English priest, whose name escapes me, during the Elizabethan persecutions, who was a notorious womanizer. But when faced with the choice he said “Fornicator have I been, heretic never.” He died a martyr, which traditionally is understood as a very direct way to Heaven.
And I think about how I have reconnected with old friends on Facebook, which has been a revelation: many people whom I last knew thirty years ago, who were sticking needles in their arms and living with a druggie girlfriend, have now been long married to that girlfriend and are grandparents and business owners. One woman, who was very dear to me, and whom I last knew as a promiscuous drug enthusiast is now a professor at a large state university and has been married for over twenty years.
Meanwhile, what of my friends who were enthusiastic young Christians at the time? Many, if not most, are divorced, sometimes after adultery. Others are actively gay or otherwise living lives that they never would have dreamed of in their idealistic youth.
Life is full of surprises, and so is grace. We must, it seems, be slow to conclude anything about anyone based upon what we can see, for only God knows the heart. The inner life is a great mystery; today’s sinner may well be tomorrow’s martyr, while the righteous may be heading for a fall.