A Biography of Rev. David Zeisberger
By James Buddy Smith
October 27, 2014
THE LOT OF DAVID ZEISBERGER
It is the unfortunate lot of some heroes to be forgotten. David Zeisberger is a prime example. This man was a trailblazer who “had a frame of steel.” Dauntless, he forged a path through America’s 18th century frontier, seeing what no white man had seen before and braving the hostilities of those who considered him an enemy. This courage was necessary, however, for it is also the lot of heroes to be tested. In a time of bigotry and war, he and his followers faced false accusation and persecution. A normal person would have retreated into a more comfortable manner of living, but Zeisberger was by no means normal. He was a man transformed by divine love. It was this love, shown in the suffering and death of Jesus that drove him to deny the temptation of complacency. It is a pity that a man of such devotion should be mostly unknown, “except to a small number of religious scholars, most members of the Moravian church, and a section of the general citizenry that live near the sites of his former mission.” Zeisberger’s story should not be told as a set of successively laid out facts which lack relevance or meaning, but as a testament to the power of God working in the life of a faithful disciple. The purpose of the following biographical sketch is to commend the passion of a man whose life is not just worthy of studious research, but diligent emulation.
THE LIFE OF DAVID ZEISBERGER
David Zeisberger’s Early Years
David Zeisberger was born on April 11, 1721 in Moravia, Bohemia. Since Bohemia was intolerantly Catholic, Zeisberger’s parents were forced to secretly attend the Unity of the Brethren Church, founded by John Huss. Persecuted, the family fled to Herrnhut, Germany. Zeisberger was only six years old and his infant sister, Anna, was also forced to endure the journey. Despite the difficulty, Zeisberger’s parents wisely chose Herrnhut as the family’s new home. In 1722, Count Nicholas Zinzendorf had generously established this village on his land for refugees of the Brethren (a.k.a. “Moravians”). At Herrnhut, Zeisberger began to show “a natural faculty for acquiring languages” in his Latin studies. This skill would eventually play an important part in his ministry among the Indians.
In 1736, Zeisberger’s parents sailed with a group to the newly-founded colony of Georgia, while he was sent to Holland to continue his studies. There he showed increasing promise. As Rice describes, “He was distinguished by his alert, cheerful ways and the punctuality with which he attended to all his duties.” Despite his noble character, he was wrongly accused of theft by his superiors. After such unfair treatment, Zeisberger joined his parents in Georgia in 1737. His new home in America began to shape him into a man. He was in the wilderness now and the “school of frontier life” transformed him into the hardy individual he would need to be in order to face the calling “which Providence had destined.” Zeisberger briefly ministered among the Creek Indians in 1740, but it was not long until the Savannah settlement had to be abandoned due to the war with Spanish Florida. So, in 1741, Zeisberger went north to help found Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, his future base of missionary operations.
In 1744, Zeisberger began to study the Mohawk language. His dedication and success in this work were unmatched. He was, in fact, the “star pupil” of his class. His devotion is best understood in light of the spiritual experience he had a year before. In 1743, Zeisberger was to be sent back to Europe with Zinzendorf, who had come to America on a visit. Before departing on ship, Zinzendorf noticed Zeisberger’s sadness. Asking him what was wrong, Zeisberger replied, “‘I long to be thoroughly converted to Christ and to serve as a missionary to the Indians of this country.’” Zinzendorf gave him permission to return to Bethlehem, so, without hesitation, he jumped ashore. Deeply depressed and doubting his salvation, Zeisberger attended a worship service and, during the singing, “a great light came into his soul.” Having full assurance of his salvation, Zeisberger eagerly applied to be missionary candidate, hoping to one day preach the Gospel to the Indians.
David Zeisberger’s Evangelistic Approach
While other Evangelicals before Zeisberger labored to bring the Native Americans to Christ, they were not nearly as effective. “Protestant Christians, especially the English, were late in their arrival.” Cotton Mather was a key proponent of early Protestant mission work among Native Americans. Puritans, like Mather, were strongly Calvinistic. God’s glory motivated them to establish a theocratic utopia in the New World. New England was seen as “the devil’s territories,” which could only be conquered by converting, or “casting out the heathen.” Heathen Indians interfered with the Puritan ideal, so their salvation, which included the adoption of English ways, was necessary. Moravian missiology was very different. They, being “pietists who eventually separated from Lutheran churches,” were tired of the stale faith and doctrinal bickering that characterized Lutheranism in the 17th century. Their emphasis on personal, vibrant spirituality impacted their perspective on missions. Unlike the ethnocentric Puritans, the Moravians were not apathetic elitists. Puritans saw unsaved Indians as an obstacle to be removed if God’s glory was to be maximized, while Moravians “served for the love of God in Christ.” The latter were not in America to create a theocracy, but, being “dedicated exclusively for missionary work,” were sent from Europe with the sole purpose of reaching the lost.
Zeisberger was well ahead of his time in terms of contextualization. He believed that effective evangelism among Native Americans “required delicate skill to combine…two radically different cultures.” Destroying Indian culture did not bother the Puritans. Indeed, they thought they were doing the Indians a favor by including them in their societal reconstruction. Of a more sympathetic attitude, Zeisberger understood the cultural shock involved in Indian conversion and “tried to find a halfway station that borrowed some elements from both cultures.” Still, though sensitive to culture, he was also able to look beyond it. His words to a Seneca chief at one point in his ministry capture his mindset perfectly:
“‘You say they [Indians] are created in order to roam through the forest and run after bears and deer. Oh, no, my friend! They are made for higher purposes. Believe me, it is God’s will that they, too, should be saved.’”
Zeisberger believed that the Gospel transcends human culture and that it is task of the Church to preach it to all men, a conviction which influenced William Carey. Amazingly, only twenty years after Herrnhut, the Moravians had deployed more missionaries than every Protestant church since the Reformation. Zeisberger was their “most famous missionary to the Indians.”
Moravians were thoroughly Christ-centered. As Scripture teaches (Rom. 1), the existence of God is apparent to all, including Native Americans. Indeed, the Delaware believed in an “all-powerful god or spirit” that humans relate to through “Manitus (little spirits).” Therefore, Zeisberger focused on the mediating Lamb of God. As Zinzendorf wrote, “Whenever they [Moravians] talk with people, they preach to them the crucified Christ into their hearts and paint Him before their eyes how he really died for them.” The Christian Indian, Tschoop, told the Moravians at Bethlehem that on two separate occasions before coming to salvation he had opposed missionaries preaching in his village, Shekomeko. The first missionary preached that there was a God and the second preached on the immorality of theft, lying, et cetera. Tschoop rebuked both, saying that the Indians were already aware of these things. Finally, Christian Henry Rauch, a Moravian preacher, came to Tschoop’s village in 1740. He told the Indians there of “the Lord of earth and sky, who left His glory in the Heavens, for men to bleed and die.” A revival broke out and many, including Tschoop, were saved. This exciting event at Shekomeko was the catalyst which led to further evangelism among the Indians and, as Hutton reminds, “the great hero of this work was David Zeisberger.”
David Zeisberger among the Iroquois (1745-1755)
After a year of studying the Mohawk language, Zeisberger was given the opportunity to perfect his skill in the field. In 1745, he set out with his superior, Christian Frederick Post, for the Mohawk Valley. This mission was quickly terminated, for the two men were both arrested and imprisoned. Falsely charged as being French spies, they suffered fifty-one days in jail. Seeing as the English were engaged in war against the French at this time (King George’s War), suspicion was high and these faithful men fell prey to circumstance. This would not be the last time Zeisberger’s ministry would be hindered by war. In any event, his imprisonment had the positive outcome of preparing him for the “appalling dangers and deprivations” the future held for him and taught him a “lesson of intrepid obedience to his Master’s guidance.”
Free from prison, Zeisberger’s eagerness to reach the Indians grew. After less than one month of restless respite, he returned to the wild frontier with Augustus Spangenberg, Bethlehem’s chief leader. The destination was Onondaga, the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy. Rice notes the difficulty of this journey, a key feature being the men’s “miraculous deliverance from death by starvation.” The aim of the mission was to get permission to establish a permanent mission among the Iroquois. Though welcomed by the Indians, the aforementioned King George’s War again interfered with this purpose, resulting in another delay of five years. During Zeisberger’s stay at Onondaga, he was adopted into the Turtle Clan and even received an Indian name, “Ganousseracheri.” In 1746, as King George’s War continued to rage on, he, along with Martin Mack, founded the Gnadenhutten mission. While at the time it was only a transitory appointment, “Gnadenhutten was the beginning of the Zeisberger ministry.” After working under Mack for two years at Shekomeko, Zeisberger was finally ordained in 1749. In no time at all, he was elevated to the status of head missionary of Shekomeko, where, using his skills in linguistics, he started working on a dictionary of the Iroquois language. Now that he was ordained, and the King George’s War was over, he “led the Moravian missionary vanguard among the Iroquois.”
Zeisberger’s work among the Iroquois was also slowed down by excessive rum consumption. When seeking the approval of the Grand Council of the Iroquois to live at Onondaga and learn their language, he discovered that many members of the Council were intoxicated. This disabled any orderly decision-making on the Council’s part. Soon after this unfortunate affair, Zeisberger visited the Senecas. During his stay, the Indians’ addiction to rum went from an annoyance to a dangerous threat. One night, the drunk Senecas wanted Zeisberger to take part in their debauchery and would not accept a refusal. At one point, “he had to defend himself with his fists against a bevy of lascivious women.” With God’s help, he escaped the village unharmed, making his way back to Onondaga. Here, the Grand Council finally approved his plan to live among the Iroquois. He was made an official member of the Onondaga and given freedom to preach among them as their “brother in name and in fact.”
At Onondaga, “the Indians’ daily life became an object of familiar inspection” for Zeisberger. Now acclimated to native society, he built a large mission-house, acted as “Keeper of the Archives of the Grand Council,” and continued working on his Iroquois dictionary. Most importantly, the deep respect he earned among the Iroquois of Onondaga gave him a good reputation among other tribes, a reputation which would aid him considerably later on. Sadly, “on the threshold of success,” Zeisberger’s work at Onondaga was cut short by the beginning of the French and Indian War in 1755. The outset of this war marked the end of any substantial mission work among Iroquois and started “seven years of enforced cessation from active gospel work among the Indians.”
David Zeisberger among the Delaware (1763-1808)
After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, Zeisberger jumped back into action. The Delawares of Machiwihilusing wanted the message of Christ to be preached among them. Zeisberger wasted no time and quickly set out for the village. Arriving after an arduous journey lasting a week on foot, Zeisberger did not even wait until the next day to start preaching. The Indians’ response was so positive that they requested for Zeisberger to remain in the village. He agreed and began to translate hymns into the Delaware language. One especially important conversion occurred during Zeisberger’s stay at Machiwihilusing. The village’s chief prophet, Papunhank, was amazingly convinced of the Gospel’s veracity and begged the forgiveness of his Indian brothers for previously deceiving them: “I used to preach to you; I imagined myself a good man; I did not know that I was the greatest sinner among you all. Brothers, forgive and forget everything I have said and done.”
Radical transformation, like Papunhank’s, continued to occur and the fire of revival spread. Yet this fire was slowed by the Pontiac Indian Uprising of 1763. Heightened hysteria led to the imprisonment of 125 Christian Indians by the government of Pennsylvania. Many of the converts died from small pox, but Zeisberger stayed with his new brothers and sisters during this horrible ordeal and led them back to their home after their release in 1765. The new town of Friedenshutten provided a new start for the converts. While the mission was successful, Zeisberger longed to be back on the trail. Traveling the Forbidden Path, a Seneca trail on which whites were not permitted, he went deep into Indian Territory. One Seneca challenged Zeisbeger, demanding the reason why he was on the Path. After a heated debate, Zeisberger’s identity was revealed. Knowing he was talking to the great Ganousseracheri, the Seneca embraced the missionary as his brother. Zeisberger continued on his journey to found Goschgoschunk on the Allegheny River and Friedenstadt on Beaver River.
More whites began to settle the frontier, causing more Indians to resent Zeisberger’s mission. “Native leaders looked upon the mission work as a threat to their culture.” Nevertheless, God was with Zeisberger. One heart the Lord melted was that of the warrior, Glikkikan. While renowned for martial prowess, Glikkikan was also an eloquent man. He prepared a speech to refute Zeisberger, but when he came before him he was dumbstruck. Glikkikan “submitted to Zeisberger like a child,” becoming his staunch follower. Another notable convert was White Eyes. This Delaware war captain told his fellow tribesmen, “We shall never be happy until we are Christians.” While such support gave Zeisberger momentum, he needed to find a way to secure his settlements. By Providence, in 1771 a message came from the powerful Delaware chief, Netawatwes. This peace-loving chief wanted Zeisberger to bring the “praying Indians” to the Muskingum valley and preach Christ. Overjoyed at God having answered his prayers, Zeisberger founded the villages Schoenbrunn and Gnadenhutten.
Zeisberger’s work in the Muskingum valley was “the apex of the Moravian missionary effort.” This success is due, in part, to the advisors of Netawatwes. The chief’s son, Gelelemend, and White Eyes were Zeisberger’s chief advocates among Netawatwes’ council. Still, not all members of the council favored Moravian pacifism, such as John Killbuck, the war-loving son of Netawatwes. Despite opposition, Zeisberger’s success continued. Old Netawatwes saw his wish come true before his aging eyes, for “by early 1775…a majority of the Delaware has agreed to embrace Christianity as their tribal religion.” A third village, Lichtenau, was built near Goschachgunk, the Delaware capital. As Netawatwes desired, the Indians living in the capital could now travel a short distance to learn the Word of God. In 1776, Netawatwes went to the Lord knowing the good news was spreading among his beloved people. His death changed the disposition of the Delaware council.
Gelelemend and White Eyes struggled to keep the Delaware out of the American Revolution, but the defection of Captain Pipe and his Munsee Delaware to the British made their efforts difficult. Zeisberger was in the middle of this turmoil. Due to his precarious position, Zeisberger had all the converts gather at Lichtenau. This way, they could all move quickly if the Delaware council became a threat. One threat did soon arise. The British-allied Wyandot chief, Pomoacan, passed through Lichtenau, but was surprisingly peaceful. Yet the peace soon ended, for Pomoacan was on his way to attack Fort Henry and Zeisberger warned the fort of his approach. Pomoacan and the British now scorned the missionary as a colonial sympathizer. This was more or less true, for “his church’s connections were with the colonies, not with England.” As the Delaware council became less neutral, Zeisberger abandoned Lichtenau. This was a wise move, for the Delaware capital was soon attacked by colonials and the tribe joined the British.
Without the support of the Council, Zeisberger would now face the most difficult time of his life. In 1781, the British forced Zeisberger and his Indians to relocate to the Sandusky region on the suspicion that he was a colonial spy. This began a period of constant unrest, the greatest problem being the scarcity of food. During this tribulation, Zeisberger heard the horrible news a group his Indian converts has been massacred by colonial militia. In 1782, this group of 90 people returned to the abandoned Gnadenhutten settlement in search of food. While in the fields, the men of Colonel Williamson arrived at the village. Speaking falsely, these men promised that the Indians would not be harmed. Trusting the militia, the converts did not put up a fight, but, after they had sung hymns of praise to God, were butchered despite their non-resistance. The total number of slain was 29 men, 27 women, 11 boys, 11 girls, and 12 infants. This event “ranks among the most treacherous acts perpetrated by whites against Indians” and led to further bloodshed (i.e. Crawford’s Expedition). After this massacre, Zeisberger and his Indian converts wandered for years. The British arranged for their stay in Michigan, but the native Chippewas forced them out the land after the Revolution ended. An act of Congress in 1787 provided the Moravians with lands for “promoting Christianity” among the Indians, but post-war struggle between new government and the tribes made a return to the Muskingum valley impossible. The missions of New Salem and Fairfield achieved relative success before the exiles finally returned home to the Muskingum in 1798. The new settlement of Goshen would be Zeisberger’s last place of service. There, at the age of 87, he left the mortal world to be with his Lord (1808).
THE LEGACY OF DAVID ZEISBERGER
Zeisberger spent 63 years among the Indians, “a record unequaled by any other Protestant Indian missionary.” While this longevity is impressive, his true legacy lies in his heart and modus operandi. Imitating Paul (1 Cor. 9:20-22), Zeisberger became “an Iroquois to the Iroquois, a Delaware to the Delawares.” Yet more important than the approach is the love behind it. Zeisberger exemplifies two aspects essential to effective evangelism: love and contextualization. In addition to these, he possessed an unwavering commitment to doctrinal purity. His testimony, like his spirit, lives on. May it inspire the same zeal that Zeisberger’s life so beautifully manifests.
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Wellenreuther, Hermann et al. The Moravian Mission Diaries of David Zeisberger. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ., 2005.
 J.E. Hutton, A History of the Moravian Church (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004), 252.
 Earl P. Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware (Kent: Kent State Univ., 1991), xii.
 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 414.
 Wm. H. Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren (Bethlehem: Moravian Publication Concern, 1897), 13.
 Ibid., 13.
 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribner, 1985), 595.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 5.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 16.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 34.
 Nina Baym, ed., The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Vol. A (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 308.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 35.
 Mark Noll, Turning Points (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 223.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 36.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., xiv.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 134.
 A Kenneth Curtis et al., The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1991), 133.
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2010), 263.
 Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 594.
 Hermann Wellenreuther et al., The Moravian Mission Diaries of David Zeisberger (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ., 2005), 20.
 Ibid, 54.
 Hutton, A History of the Moravian Church, 249-250.
 Hutton, A History of the Moravian Church, 249-250.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 5.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 19.
 Ibid., 5-6.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 23.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 22.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 6.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 25.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 27.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 32.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 7.
 Hutton, A History of the Moravian Church, 252.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 14.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 19.
 Ibid., 28.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 43-44.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, 54.
 William Federer, America’s God and Country (St. Louis: Amerisearch, 2000), 326.
 Rice, David Zeisberger and His Brown Brethren, 51-52.
 Olmstead, Blackcoats Among the Delaware, xii.
 Hutton, A History of the Moravian Church, 251.