Interview with a Researcher: Christina Petterson

Posted October 10, 2023 in General

Interview with a Researcher: Christina Petterson

This interview marks the first in a new series where we meet with a user of the Moravian Archives to discuss their unique experience working with our collections in Bethlehem. In September 2023, we sat down with Dr. Christina Petterson, current scholar in residence at the Center for Moravian Studies (Moravian University), to discuss her latest book project, among other topics. Dr. Petterson will present on October 17, 2023, on “The Moravians in Greenland: Where Did They Go?” More details about the lecture can be found at the conclusion of this interview!

Tom McCullough (TM): Christina, it’s our pleasure to introduce you as our first researcher interviewed for this new series here at the Moravian Archives. Of course, I mentioned your name: Christina. Dr. Christina Petterson, that is. Could you tell people listening a little bit more about yourself.

Christina Petterson (CP): I am born in Denmark, and that’s sort of where I live some of the time. I have my own research assistance company ( I’m an independent researcher and freelancer, and I finished my PhD in 2011. For twelve years, I’ve been involved in all sorts of research.

TM: What was your PhD in?

CP: That was in cultural studies, from Australia, and the topic was Danish colonialism and Protestantism in Greenland, which of course you do when you live in Australia.

TM: Obviously at some point you came upon the Moravians, seeing that you are currently researching things here at the Moravian Archives. Can you tell me a little bit about your research journey with the Moravian Archives? How did you first learn of the Moravian Archives?

CP: I first learned about the Moravians, as such through my first degree, a masters in theology. In Danish theology, you come across the Moravians. During my PhD work with the Danish state mission to Greenland—the Moravians being there of course—I kept coming across these interesting people [i.e. the Moravians], and I was sitting there with these boring Lutheran missionaries, and the Moravians were having all the fun over there; it had me thinking, I have to get onto them as soon as I finish this. Also, towards the end of my PhD, I read a book on the Enlightenment in Denmark by a Danish professor in literary studies, who mentioned Gottlob Seidel’s publication about Zinzendorf’s choir speeches in 1755, and I thought: I really want to look at this as soon as possible. And so, in 2010, I submitted my thesis and started to read up on Moravian stuff. And then I went to the archives in Herrnhut in December 2010 and just rocked up and said, “I want to look at sexuality and the Moravians. Thank you.” And it all started from there.

TM: Is this the same Seidel who published the Ehe-Sacrament book that you wrote about?

CP: Yes, so that was actually my first foray into Moravian stuff. That article was based on a conference paper that I gave here in 2014. That was my first trip to Bethlehem and my first Moravian conference, and that was the paper I gave there.

TM: Speaking of the conference, how have your experiences been with the Moravian Conference on History and Music?

CP:  After attending in 2014, I came back in 2016, because I just loved this conference, precisely because it’s a mix of people from the Moravian community and not necessarily academics, and it’s all kinds of people from all kinds of places with very different interests in the Moravians. And that just makes for a really pleasant atmosphere, and everyone’s excited about this stuff and learning from each other. I appreciate that, and I always have.

TM: Could you tell people a little bit about the Ehe-Sacrament article you wrote for the Journal of Moravian History.

CP: Gottlob Seidel got his hands on 70-80 Zinzendorf choir speeches from the “sifting time,” late 1740s, and he published them with an introduction in 1755, which was actually after the “sifting time” had passed, because he wanted the authorities to get hold of Zinzendorf and the Moravians and kick them out of Saxony so that things could return to normal. The introduction is really interesting, because it spends less time discussing theological issues and more time discussing the socioeconomic disruptions in Upper Lusatia of the time and how the Moravians were undermining guilds and local trade, because they had connections overseas and could get their hands on cheap cloth and undermine local trade. Seidel’s point of publishing them was theological, but the argument he presented in the introduction was all about the socioeconomic upheavals of the Oberlausitz (Upper Lusatia), and I found that really interesting.

Dr. Petterson’s article,“‘A plague of the State and the Church.’ A Local Response to the Moravian Enterprise,” appears in the Journal of Moravian History 16, no. 1 (Spring 2016).

TM: Can you tell us about a “eureka” moment with something you came across while working in the Moravian Archives?

CP: Yes, but I think it’s a three-step eureka moment. I think my first holy-moly moment was—because I have a background in biblical studies and have worked with New Testament texts for a very long time—and the first time I sat with copies of Zinzendorf’s choir speeches, I realized that this material from, say, 1751, seemed much more foreign to me, or, older to me, than the New Testament texts ever had. This sort of blew me away, because New Testament texts are from the first or second century, and then you sit here with eighteenth-century material, which just seems much more strange and foreign and different. And I’ve thought about that so much…why that is. That just leads into the next eureka moment: I realized how much our research is governed by assumptions about meanings of ideas. We think we know what religion is and what economy is and what gender is, and all of these things; when I began working with this stuff, it became clear to me how unclear all that was in the eighteenth century. And so I was really trying to set aside assumptions and let myself be absorbed into this very strange world and its terminology. What you might call a true eureka moment is when I was working on these choir speeches and I presented the research in the Zinzendorf Arbeitskreis, and Gerald MacDonald asked me, “But are you interested in the choir speeches or the choir structure?” I kept saying that I was interested in the choir speeches, but what I was presenting on was the choir structure. And he really threw me with that question, and I was agonizing over it for months; I was about to give up everything, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing. And then I realized that the problem was that I was looking at it as two different things: choir structure as a social organization and the choir speeches as a literary genre. I realized they are part of the same overall way of life and system of thought. And that might sound pretty banal now, but I was like “wow, that really is a complete ideological framework—that I have to think about it in an entirely different way.”

TM: You’ve written a lot more about the Moravians since your first conference here in Bethlehem in 2014. Are there any publications or products of your research you’d like to tell us about?

CP: I’d like to point to the thing I’m most proud of, because it was quite an intellectual achievement for me and a massive effort, as well. It took ten years to write, the book called Moravian Brethren in a Time of Transition, which is the one that’s for sale here at the Archives. It’s a book on the choir system in Herrnhut, and it sort of works through ideas of gender, self, marriage, community, and how all of this was thought through and established in eighteenth-century Herrnhut. And it’s based on analysis of more than four hundred of Zinzendorf’s choir speeches given to the choirs in Herrnhut between 1745 and 1760. It took a lot of time to transcribe, read, understand, process, and figure out how to work these massive amounts of archival documents into a narrative. That whole methodological challenge took quite a while to work through.

TM: There’s not a huge body of literature written about that period in the English language. Is that right?

CP: Yes, it’s published in English. And then I have an appendix with six or seven choir speeches, transcribed in German, and then translated to English.

TM: When you presented the Moses Lecture this year at the Moravian History and Music Conference, you spoke about your upcoming book. Can you tell us about this publication?

CP: Yes. That is a book that was also quite challenging, as it was written through COVID and all the disruptions there. It was based on a Gerda Henkel research grant—that is important to mention—that I received from 2016 to 2018 to gather a heap of archival material to look at… well, the end result is different than what I began, but the end result is early capitalism in colonial missions. It’s, again, a quite archival-intense study based on material in Herrnhut and here in Bethlehem, and it looks at how Moravian missions were organized economically and how this was managed centrally from Herrnhut. It’s a story, if you put it that way, from early ad-hoc missions to a centrally managed missionary organization; how this developed and what changes had to take place to bring it about. So I focus on St. Thomas, in the Caribbean, and Greenland, because they are quite different. Greenland has no economic development in the Moravian mission, and St. Thomas has a very high level of economic development, so it’s interesting to see how the missionaries deal with that.

TM: Did you focus on a third place?

CP: I also focus on Bethlehem, but that’s not so much to analyze how Bethlehem organized missions, but more so to look at how Herrnhut reorganized Bethlehem as a blueprint for the reorganization of Moravian missions as a whole. I think I call it “flexing their administrative muscles,” by looking at how to transform Bethlehem and re-direct what they assume to be a surplus back to Herrnhut instead of allowing it to flow back into Native American missions around Bethlehem… rearranging and centralizing the economy and letting things go through Herrnhut instead of Bethlehem managing the American missions on its own.

TM: I remember there being a really interesting argument in your recent Moses Lecture about Bethlehem withholding its surplus and not contributing to the Unity.

CP: Right, they weren’t contributing. Much of this is based on Kate Carté’s book [i.e. Religion and Profit], which I really like. A Portuguese banker went bankrupt in the 1750s, and all of the communities in the Unity were required to pay into the debt relief fund. And in Bethlehem they said, “Oh, we can’t; everything we make goes into the mission.” The Unity Board pointed out that many of their expenses were also related to establishing Bethlehem and that there’d been a lot of money spent sending brothers and sisters from Herrnhut to Bethlehem, and so on. They felt Bethlehem should repay some of that money.

TM: You’ve given us a great summary of your recent presentation and upcoming book. Is there anything you wish others knew about Moravian history?

CP: For those who don’t really know Moravian history, I wish they understood how much material is there about all kinds of things…connected to Early Modern bookkeeping, music, translation studies, modern independence movements, museum studies, topography…the list is never ending. Scratch any surface in the eighteenth-century, both in Europe and the colonies, and you’ll find a Moravian. That is just inevitable. People are sometimes governed by the assumption that religion is a compartmentalized field, the Moravian Archives are not always considered relevant, because people think that it’s all about just religion and missions, and they don’t really consider how much the Moravians contributed to the development of modernity.

For people who already work in Moravian studies, I hope that people keep an open mind to the shifts that were taking place in the eighteenth century; and not be governed by assumptions that come from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, like ideas about race or gender and so on; to be aware of how that is discussed and managed in eighteenth-century materials. To give an example, regarding gender…modern ideas of gender and how we understand ourselves as men or women or many other options; but if we just stick with the men and women thing, because that’s sort of the issue in the eighteenth century. There were so many people that joined the Moravian movement who came from peasant and trade backgrounds, and the whole idea of self as a subject simply wasn’t present at that time. I would argue that the Moravian community helped peasant girls see themselves as women. That whole development is important for understanding Moravians in the eighteenth century that they helped these ideas of self that I think earlier were more connected to the aristocracy.

TM: You mentioned starting off your most recent publication with a different topic in mind. Can you say something about what the original topic was, and can you also speak to how your interests in Moravian studies have changed over time?

CP: The project that I was given money for was a comparative study of the Moravian missions. I did want to focus on how the Moravian missionaries changed in their approach to Indigenous people, from a very organic mission in Greenland to how they then became, for example, in Australia, very paternalistic and racist in their approach to the Aboriginal population. I wanted to show these changes were effected through adaptations to industrialization and capitalism and global economy that generated changes in social relations. That was what I wanted to show, and I still think it is a valid point, but I felt that I had to be able to say everything about the Moravian mission to Australia before I could even begin to analyze how the missionaries dealt with the Indigenous population. Same with Greenland: I ended up thinking I had to know the Greenland mission from 1733, when it began, to 1900, when they left, and the task just became daunting and overwhelming, and I couldn’t reach over that amount of archival material. I held onto the Australian bit, as part of the project, until about six months before finishing the book. It was fine without it, and then I could just focus on the eighteenth century and indicate some of the beginnings of these sentiments for later or for others to work with. You’ll find has a description of the book with Greenland and Australia, which is no longer applicable. And the West Indies came in later, as well. That was not part of the original proposal. I worked on the West Indies material in the first six months of the COVID pandemic in Herrnhut, so that came in at quite a late stage. But I realized that if I wanted to look at how economy distorted human relations, I simply could not get around looking Moravian slaveholding in the West Indies.

TM: Were you able to access any of the materials from the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem that had been digitized around that time?

CP: Yes, because so much of the West Indies collection was digitized, so that was massively helpful. I think many people during that time were desperate for regular research work. Because of your fabulous digitized collections, it was possible to access that stuff when everything was just shut around you.

TM: You wanted to say something about how your research interests have changed over time, right?

CP: Yes. In this study, with the chapter on Greenland, I realized that the Moravian relationship to the Danish colonial authorities was not a good one and that it became more and more intense, then plateaued a bit, and then intensified again because of Danish/German nationalism, and then Danish-German relations became problematic. In Greenland, the Moravians were always outside the development of the colonial state. That’s one thing. And when you look at Moravians in Denmark, in the Kingdom itself, they were very much part of the movement that would then lead to the development of civil society and the formation of the modern Danish state. I found it really interesting to see how, in one situation they are part of it, and in the other situation they are excluded from it. That then led to the idea that I might have another book in me. Once you think about how much archival work you need to do to produce a book, you think, “Oh, God. I can’t do that again.” But I think I can, and out of this former book grew the idea to look at the role of Moravians and the Danish state. Because I live in Christiansfeld, Denmark, I have been involved in research around that town, which meant digging into the Moravians in Denmark. And so it flows on from former studies. Moravian studies have interestingly had the biggest impact on my New Testament work. The New Testament is my go-to for working through problems of theory and methodology, and so every time I’ve come across something in Moravian studies, I go back to New Testament and try to work through it there. That meant I’ve been able to write things in New Testament studies and develop ideas there, based on things from Moravian studies.

TM: Has working in Moravian studies changed the way you view New Testament studies?

CP: Definitely. I’ve let myself be more captured by the strangeness of the New Testament texts and emphasize that more. The New Testament, because of the nature of the biblical texts, is guarded carefully against all kinds of heretical interpretations. For example, Gospel of John, which is the one I worked on after looking at Zinzendorf’s choir speeches…once you break down those barriers of interpretation, the weirdness of the Gospel suddenly explodes in your face, and you realize, “Whoa. Jesus doesn’t have a body in John. What does that mean?” And all of these things that came out of my research with Zinzendorf.

TM: It’s been a real pleasure talking with you, Christina. Thank you!

Don’t miss Dr. Christina Petterson’s upcoming lecture on October 17, 2023, beginning in the Moravian Archives’ reading room at 4:00 p.m. ET. Guests are required to register and can sign up for in-person or virtual attendance here: