Saturday, March 23, 2019

Left Hand Path, Moravian style

I knew that Count Zinzendorf, the founder of the “Moravian” Church, was quite the character, but clearly I didn´t know half of it. Have you ever heard about that strange religious cult (insert name here) which gather at certain dates in secluded locations to celebrate huge sexual orgies? It seems we´ve finally found the culprit. Yes, it´s the Moravians. Or, to be more precise, it was the Moravian communities in Germany during the “time of sifting” of the 1740´s. Paul Peucker tells the story in “A Time of Sifting: Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety in the Eighteenth Century”. Weirdly, Peucker is the chief archivist at one of the Moravian Church´s central archives in the United States. The material in this work is fairly bizarre and probably not for the faint of heart (or for good, honest and hard-working modern Moravians in Suriname or the Mosquito Coast)!

The Moravian Church, named after a Czech province, was really founded at Herrnhut in Upper Lusatia, then part of the German principality of Saxony. Most of the initial members actually were refugees from Moravia, but the leader and de facto prophet of the Church was the Saxon count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf. Indeed, the connection between the Moravian Church and the Czech “Church of the Brethren” (the Hussites) seems to be a very faint one, and is used by the Moravians mostly to establish a continuity with a “respectable” Protestant or proto-Protestant denomination. One reason is the scandalous period in Moravian history known as “the time of sifting”, when the communities in Germany experienced a revival with strong mystical, gender-bending, erotic and homo-erotic overtones. Or, to put it less charitably, Dionysiac orgies. Zinzendorf´s son Christian Renatus was the man chiefly responsible for the “sifting”, as the period was later called by its critics. The center of this peculiar revival was Herrnhaag, now in the German state of Hesse. Zinzendorf put an end to the exaggerations by removing Renatus from the leadership and by threatening to resign himself if the other members didn´t disavow the orgiastic practices. The Church did fall into line and has spent centuries afterwards trying to suppress all knowledge of “the sifting” by burning relevant documents, censoring others, etc. I´m surprised some documents still remain. The Wikipedia entries on Moravian history and Zinzendorf are obviously censored in the same manner – somebody should revise them with material from this book.

Zinzendorf might not have been directly responsible for the lunacy at Herrnhaag and other Moravian communities, but Peucker believes that he indirectly laid the foundations for it. Zinzendorf preached that the human soul was female-gendered, even when born in a man´s body. Thus, males would switch their gender at the return of Christ in glory. The mystical marriage between Christ and the individual believer therefore was, in a certain sense, a marriage in which the male believer became a woman. Zinzendorf wasn´t the first Christian mystic to describe the union of God and the soul in erotic terms, but he went further, claiming that sex in the here and now could be both sinless and a way to experience unity with Christ. He also introduced a weird “side hole” mysticism – the side hole was the hole in Christ´s body from which blood and water flowed during the crucifixion. Indeed, a bizarre obsession with the side hole was almost a Moravian marker. Often, “side hole” and “Christ” were used interchangeably. Peucker points out that the side hole could be interpreted as a vagina. He doesn´t mention the equally obvious fact that the spear which pierced Christ´s body could be seen as a phallus. Nor does Peucker follow another lead: Moravian couples were instructed to have sex sitting up, facing each other, with the male penetrating the female very slowly. To me, this sounds like Tantric karezza! Bridal mysticism itself could be seen as Tantric (if I had been a sectarian Hindu, I would have looked upon Bernhard of Clairvaux as a great Tantric master – and Zinzendorf was interested in this medieval mystic, otherwise mostly known for having inspired the Knights Templar!) The Moravians were also strangely obsessed with Christ´s dead body and its supposed odors, the only example I´m familiar with of necrophile mysticism. In a mysterious passage, Peucker writes that “Christ´s body” lay inside a Moravian hall, where the congregants could “partake” of it. Does he simply mean bread and wine? Or did the Moravians actually eat from a cake baked to look like the dead Christ?! If so, necrophilia was giving way to symbolic endocannibalism. Imagine what Bill Maher could do with this material…

In Zinzendorf´s absence, his son Christian Renatus (a name which loosely sounds like “Christ reborn”) took everything to a higher level. The idea that males were really females was taken literally, with predictable results. Christ could now be experienced through homosexual intercourse. (I suppose the side hole could also be seen as an anus.) Both men and women took part in wild parties, since extramarital straight sex was equally "sacred". The antinomian revelries were connected to an apocalyptic perspective. Christ´s return was believed to be near imminent, and Moravians often expected him to literally appear at their services. Of course, antinomian sects are hardly unknown and seem to take similar forms throughout history. The antics of the sifted Moravians are reminiscent of Krishna sects in India, various Russian dissenters, the OTO, and so on. And, I suppose, Tantrikas and worshippers of one Bacchus.

Zinzendorf put an end to the Bacchanalias for fear that they would prompt most European governments to simply ban the Moravian Church outright. As already indicated, after his death, the Moravians moved even further “to the right” (or into the mainstream) and became a more pious version of the Lutherans, while also laying claim to Hussite ancestry. The official explanation for the exaggerations is that God had permitted the Devil to tempt his faithful in order to test them. Among many changes enacted after the count´s death was that women were demoted from leadership positions in the Church. Another was that no new de facto prophet was appointed after Zinzendorf, the new governing body being a real collective. The whole thing could be seen as another example of the “routinization of charisma” that usually takes place in new religious movements at the death of the founder-leader.  Above all, documents were edited, stashed away or destroyed – not unique either, witness the Mormons in more recent times and arguably mainline Christianity in ancient ones (or any other institutionalized religion you can think of). Perhaps this book marks a new departure in Moravian historiography, but I wonder for how long? Similar thaws in the Mormon or Adventist churches ended when it became clear that even the fundamentals of the faith could be put in jeopardy.

The question that remains after reading “A Time of Sifting” is “why”, but I suppose only a psychoanalyst would be able to answer *that*…


  1. Deras syn på relationen med Jesus har ju vissa likheter med detta.

  2. "Familjen" är sjukare än vad jag trodde...

    Samtidigt finns det ju likheter med t.ex. extrema (manliga) Krishna-mystiker som klär sig som kvinnor och föreställer sig vara Radha som Krishna har sex med. Även de brukar låtsas ha kvinnliga orgasmer, etc.

    En ännu märkligare form av herrnhutisk mystik (som inte fick plats i recensionen) som nämns i boken går ut på raka motsatsen: man skall föreställa sig hur man blir pentrerad av Kristi kalla och "döda" kropp, så att man själv blir kallare och kallare, och till slut "dör" (bort från synden, etc).

    Något slags dödsmystik eller dödslängtan?

    Här finns material till en hel psykiatrisk kongress!