Digital Collections Spotlight #1: The Ettwein Papers

Posted April 8, 2020 in Digital Access

Digital Collections Spotlight #1: The Ettwein Papers

Digital Collections Spotlight #1: The Ettwein Papers
By Jonathan Ennis, digital archivist

As part of a new series of posts, we’ll be highlighting different MAB collections that have been digitized and are accessible online.

John/Johannes Ettwein (1721-1802), in addition to his role as bishop of the Moravian Church, also shows an interest in science and current events in this late 18th-century essay on spontaneous combustion and the risks inherent to the phenomenon.¹ In it Bishop Ettwein talks about a major fire at a facility in Boston that was manufacturing rope for sailing ships, which prompts him to reference several other accounts he had read of similar incidents. He describes how he had read of spontaneous combustion in Intelligence Leafe², a periodical from Leipzig, saying “That some plants under certain circumstances had the power to set themselves on fire…” He goes on to mention a Russian frigate that had caught fire and how during the resulting trial of one of the ship’s officers’ tests were performed by order of the court; and thus proved the fire could have been started by the spontaneous combustion of materials soaked in oil. Ettwein’s essay mentions a treatise about spontaneous combustion (German: Selbstentzündung) in which the German chemist Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Bucholz had listed several materials that could ignite on their own. Ettwein also refers to another article in a 1790 issue of Intelligence Leafe³ that describes a German grocer who had a quantity of succory (i.e. chicory, used as a filler or substitute for coffee) stored, stating that “in the night it began to burn of itself and caused a fire, by which 5 Houses were burned…” All in all, while brief, the document demonstrates how the early Moravian leaders in Bethlehem were well informed and interested in advances in science and news from throughout the world.

¹ PP EJ 1502, Moravian Archives, Bethlehem.
² i.e Leipziger Intelligenz-Blatt.
³ Ibid.

For those interested in reading more of Ettwein’s writings from the comfort of your home, you’re in luck! Over 1,600 documents from Ettwein’s personal papers are digitized and freely available at

A complete listing of digitized resources is available at

Further Reading:

  • See period article describing the Russian ship fire and trial, in William Tooke, “Observations on Spontaneous Inflammations,” The Weekly Magazine of Original Essays, Fugitive Pieces and Interesting Intelligence II, no. 14 (May 5, 1798).
  • Chris Eline, Nancy Rutman, and Karen L. Samuels, Firefighting in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1741-1917 (Bethlehem, PA: Perseverance Publishing, 2017).

See the next post in this series at