Chapter 9 “The Spirit of Freedom in the Land”: From Immigrants to Americans in the Moravian Experience

In: Moravian Americans and their Neighbors, 1772-1822
Jon Sensbach
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“Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America,” wrote Oscar Handlin in The Uprooted. “Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” This essay examines the Moravian experience in early America as an ostensibly classic story of immigration. Leaving Germany for the promise of religious sanctuary and economic security in America, the Moravians lived in the seams between loss and gain, the familiar and the unfamiliar, as they gradually became something else--American. In traditional immigration history, this arc is generally cast as a story of progress, of assimilation and transformation, of the gradual release of old ways to embrace the better life and democratic ethos of America. But, like many immigrants eager to fit in once they arrive in America, the Moravians absorbed racist practices they found here to establish themselves as “white.” They embraced the slave economy and racial separatism of the new republic, distancing themselves from African Americans whom they once considered spiritual kin. They also eagerly joined the U.S. government’s effort to “civilize” Native Americans in the nineteenth century by establishing missions among Cherokees, demonstrating the capacity for recent immigrants to instruct the nation’s first inhabitants on changing their ways. As immigration, and debates about immigration, continue to shape the modern U.S., the Moravian experience is both a classic and a cautionary story of the immigrant experience and what it means to become American.

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