The Moravians and their faith community are part of the history of Bethlehem’s creation. Yet besides having seen the Moravian architecture that still survives, many Bethlehem residents don’t know all that much about the historic Moravian community or individuals who lived within it. As part of Women’s History Month, Bethlehem Area Public Library (BAPL) offered a virtual discussion to explore the life and opinions of one particular Moravian woman, Mary Penry. The discussion was led by facilitator Rayah Levy and Lehigh University scholar and professor, Scott Gordon, who has recently published a book about this topic: The Letters of Mary Penry: A Single Moravian Woman in Early America.
Mary Penry’s life, and the letters she left behind, are interesting for many reasons. She was a part of the Moravian community of Bethlehem, a faith community that is incredibly unique. In addition, she was writing and living as a woman in early America, before and after the American Revolution. Finally, Mary Penry remained unmarried her entire life, and this singleness, possible because of the financial security of the Moravian communal way of life, resulted in a kind of freedom that most other women at the time could not access.
Mary Penry moved from Wales to Philadelphia with her mother as a young girl. In 1756, she moved to Bethlehem at the age of 19, and became a Moravian. In cities, Moravian communities functioned much like other faith communities, dispersed and interwoven with other groups. However, in places like Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz, PA, Moravians lived in exclusive communities. For Penry then, moving to Bethlehem was in many ways like leaving the world. An individual had to apply to join the community, and your acceptance was determined by your spiritual readiness. The Moravian community collectively took care of all of your survival needs, and individuals gave up the pursuit of individual profit and financial accumulation to be part of the community. Material wealth was considered an obstacle to the true spiritual motivations of faith. Mary Penry’s letters reveal that she seemed to have struggled with this material detachment at some periods of her life, as she writes a number of times revealing anger at her mother being cheated out of her inheritance.
Mary Penry was a “single sister” within the Moravian community. In the Bethlehem community, single women all lived and worked together, as did single men, in “choirs.” Single womanhood was very rare for early America, as only 3% of marriage-age women were single. In contrast, in the Moravian communities in the 1750s, about 40% of women were committed to single life. The Moravians believed that the best way to bring people into good relationships with their savior Jesus was to work and live in similar gender and age groups.
These groups were also economic groups, in that choirs contributed to the general economy through their labor, but they all shared equally in the general economy, regardless of the profit they produced as a choir. For example, the single sisters of Bethlehem ran a self-sufficient textile business. This partitioning of work and living quarters was not absolute—these women were not cloistered like nuns for example—but seemed to be an emotional community that many Moravians deeply enjoyed. Many married women within the community have written about how hard it was to leave the single sisters choir. There were no private dwellings. Married couples did not live together, but rather in gender-based choirs for married individuals. There was likewise separate housing for nursing mothers, but after nursing, children were raised communally.
Mary Penry was a very industrious woman. Like all Moravians, she wrote a memoir of her life, which was a testimony to her faith. But Penry also wrote hundreds of letters, translated over 500 pages of text from German to English in one year, and was in charge of the accounts for the single sisters’ textile industry. Her letters comprise the primary sources of Gordon’s book. She corresponded with historical women figures like Quaker Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and Hannah Callender Sansom. Mary Penry also was deeply interested in education for boys and girls. Moravian communities were very invested in education, and the Bethlehem girls’ school, which ultimately became Moravian College, was founded in 1742. Though Penry did not teach at the school, she wrote about the Moravian schools often in her letters. The elites of early America started sending their daughters to this school in 1785 when the school was opened up to non-Moravians. The school was noted for not teaching rote memorization of the Catechism as was typically the teaching style at the time, instead pioneering more engaged learning styles.
The Moravians in general are known for their egalitarian ideas, which resulted in the “Communal Economy” in Bethlehem from 1741-1762. In communities like Bethlehem, everyone was treated equally, and all property was held in common, so that all could be equally cared for. This resulted in women holding leadership positions within these communities, and women even becoming priests. In addition, the Moravian Church had a complicated relationship with slavery. The Moravian Church owned some enslaved Africans in their community, though according to historical accounts, day to day they received the same resources and were treated the same as European immigrants and Native Americans. However, that does not diminish the fact that these enslaved Moravians were not free to leave the community and were legally viewed as property. Like all moments of history, there are many positive things we can learn from the Moravian’s way of life, and yet many troubling elements that we need to reckon with as part of the history of Bethlehem.
Mary Penry and her insights into early America, the freedom she experienced as a single woman, and the opportunities and values she had because of her religion, are a fascinating story that give Bethlehem residents insight into the history that makes up this city. Read more about Mary Penry’s extraordinary life by checking out a copy of Scott Gordon’s book at Bethlehem Area Public Library!