Interview with a Researcher: Luke Soderstrom

Posted July 2, 2024 in General

Interview with a Researcher: Luke Soderstrom

This interview marks the fifth 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 June 2024, we sat down with Luke Soderstrom to discuss his ongoing Ph.D. research and experiences since learning German script at the Moravian Archives.

Tom McCullough (TM): Luke, thank you for joining us for our fourth “Interview with a Researcher.” I greatly appreciate your willingness to participate, not only because you have so much interesting research findings to share, but also because it’s always nice to talk to you! Could you tell us a little more about yourself?

Luke Soderstrom (LS): Hi, I’m Luke Soderstrom. I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I am currently dissertating right now, and I am working on a chapter that is dealing with eighteenth-century formations of the child. One significant piece of that right now is looking at the history of early Renewed Moravian Church and how Moravians worked alongside children.

TM: How did you first learn about the Moravian Archives? What’s your research journey been like?

LS: That’s an odyssey of sorts. When I first started looking at potential projects for myself, I was interested in Christologies: different ways in which people talked about the person—and specifically, the embodiment—of Jesus. And I went down a rabbit trail looking at a text from Athanasius and some commentaries on it and specifically about the circumcision of Christ, and in one of those texts there was mention of Moravian litanies that were engaging this masculinity of Christ. And so for me, I was kind of like, “This is so interesting. Why have I never heard of this?” I then discovered the historical journals, the Journal of Moravian History, put out by the Moravian Archives. From there, I got really interested in the blood and wounds theology of the period and read a whole lot more, discovering that all the topic was controversial even within the current scholarship. I figured that I would definitely need to get into the primary sources, and that led me first to the digital archives of the Moravian Archives. Going through materials that y’all had scanned and working through some of them, I quickly realized that I could not read anything that was not printed in German. I did a little bit more digging on y’alls website and found the script course, which I understand you guys are in the midst of right now. And that was really my full introduction, I’ll say, to the resources and the kinds of possibilities for the project that I’ve developed since then. So it was a lot of research during Covid times, finding journal articles that then led me to the archives online and then in person, as well. Since then, I’ve been able to come through and work in person, which has been great.

TM: Awesome. I don’t know if I realized you had done some research on the Moravians before completing the German Script Course. Of course, some folks become interested in the Moravians during the script course, but it sounds like you had already gotten started.

LS: Yes. It’s a tricky subject in that you can get a really nice general understanding of the state of Moravian historiography and the ways in which Moravian theology has been thought through, but to really be able to make a contribution, you have to really get into the sources. After learning how to read German handwriting as part of the script course, I was able to begin to specify my project to say, “Okay, this isn’t just a general project about this unique (or maybe not so unique if you think of it from a medievalist perspective) form of theology; there’s something unique happening with their children and how this form of theology is being worked into their lives and even the writings of children.

TM: You mentioned working with different primary and secondary sources, online and in person. Does a particular moment in your research stand out where you discovered something you thought was really important or maybe sent you in different direction?

LS: Yeah, there have been quite a few, honestly, which is in part why I stuck it out with this material in this historical period. There have been lots of moments where you discover hints of the puzzle that allow you to orient yourself in the broader scholarship. For me, as I’ve started to kind of hone in looking at children’s lives and the way in which this theology and piety started to inform their daily walk, so to speak, where—looking at some of the children’s diaries most recently from St. Thomas and Nazareth—you start to get a feeling that these kids are not just having their catechism drilled into them, but they’re taking it and they’re playing with it and experimenting with it, too. They’re using these kinds of diminutives and the bloody theology that’s in the air and being spontaneous with it. And I think that really brought some things alive to me, especially when you can start to look at the meticulous records that the Moravians kept to say, “These were the kinds of things happening in this period. In that month, these were the kinds of texts that they were reading. These are the sermons that they were hearing. Here’s a kid who was acting up. It can give you just this fuller sensorium of what’s happening in the historical moment, which I have not been able to encounter elsewhere, I think in part because of how studious the Moravians were in their recordkeeping for the period. You can get this really generous understanding even when there might be full years where they don’t keep the records. It can allow you to make some of these educated guesses to make those kinds of connections, which is a lot of fun.

TM: Very cool! In the beginning, you noted that you were dissertating. Is that your primary focus? Are you presenting or publishing your research elsewhere?

LS: I have not published anything on this material yet. I’ve presented this publicly in groups and meetings at the Divinity School and also the American Academy of Religion. I presented a small piece of the research trajectory that I’m working through right now. Primarily this is something I’d like to get done for the dissertation, and in part, because there is so much material to work through that I kind of want to ensure that I’m not losing my threads as I continue writing. Hopefully this is something that’ll come out in book form or in a journal article.

TM: The Journal of Moravian History is always a good spot to share your research. Your topic, I think, would really interest our readers.

LS: Right on. Absolutely. I’m wanting to put together some quality material, and I will gladly submit something to the journal.

TM: Before you were working with Moravian Church sources, what sort of academic interests did you have? Were you looking at other groups or topics before you pivoted to research on the Moravians?

LS: Yeah. Originally, what I had worked on when I was going through seminary getting an MDiv (i.e, Master of Divinity) was—actually here at Western Seminar where I’m working now—theologies of disability. Thinking through how we understand differences of embodiment, how we see that through church history, how folks have been treated, how that’s come up in sacramental practice, etc., and then pivoted towards kind of a more practical theology output for that. That’s how I first got introduced to academia. As I was going through the programming and coursework, I started to get really interested in the historical study of, not necessarily how people think about disability in that exact phraseology, but how do the elements that we moderns think of, that term kind of cropping up in the historical record. That’s kind of my initial thought process: let’s see who’s taking this embodiment of Jesus really seriously. Who’s going to talk about the fact that he was crucified and had wounds? These are some of the general connections that you can make. And then when I discovered the Litany of the Wounds of the Savior, that—to me—was just kind of shocking to see those kinds of descriptors and what I call “grindhouse” descriptions of Jesus, very gory and bloody, and flipping the effective mode; not to be disgusted by it but to somehow be drawn to it, to be in love with these things, to have the scars of Christ be the one way in which you can actually identify Him as Savior…has a lot of resonance within disability studies. As I’ve continued on, just the way that Zinzendorf, in particular, talks about anti-rationality, how he plays with this concept of the fool and holy madness, I think, is another interesting through line to how we can connect to more modern concepts about how we think about being rational people of faith, or is it possible? What does madness look like in some of these discourses? I find this really fascinating. In part, one of the reasons that I really stuck through with the Moravians is that they are—I don’t want to say understudied, because there’s quite a bit of really good scholarship out there—but they’re not popular enough, I’ll say. There aren’t enough people talking about the contributions that they had to the historical record, in different ways that we can trouble some of the really easy paradigms that are generally used to talk about the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. You know, the quick split between faith and rationality is really kind of scrambled in a lot of ways, in the way that Zinzendorf talks about being foolish or being simpleminded. He’s not just saying, “Reject all forms of rationality,” but rather “we’re going to be picking and choosing how those things are applied” and how their faith in Christ, this human being, God-man, then is going to direct the proper use of rationality and reason. It can serve as an alternative history of sorts where you can trouble some of our simple ideas about the past and really open up what history looks like in the United States, especially what religiosity looked like from Colonial, even pre-colonial Americas to present. Hopefully it’ll be a really helpful contribution.

TM: I totally agree with your statement that Moravians aren’t popular enough. That being said, what do you wish others knew more about; either regarding the Archives or Moravian history?

LS: Yeah, there’s a whole lot! The kind of narratives that we have surrounding Colonial American religiosity are pretty well said by classic scholarship over the last few decades, where we look at the Puritan canopy that breaks apart and then the movement towards to pluralization and acceptance of Catholics to the more modern studies of fundamentalism. To be able to talk about how Moravianism as a kind of evangelical movement, while also participating in the Philadelphian movement and also some of the more interesting parts of radical pietism that existed in Pennsylvania, kind of gives you another perspective about how religion in America was forming itself. It gives us a fuller perspective of what it means to have the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in our constitution, which, right now, are actually really important items to consider as we look at what’s happening in our own court systems today. I think there’s just a richness to what this can add to our understanding of religion in America. And more broadly, I wish people knew how much [archival] material the Moravians left behind. It’s not just religious studies or theology that could benefit from an engagement, but also folks that are looking at Indigenous studies I know have been through the Archives, and some of the earliest accounts are coming out from these missionaries, and of course they’re going to be biased in some sense, coming from these European folks who have a desire for conversion, but if you can understand their worldview, if you can work through the German Script Course, then you can get these really rich descriptions that have been very important in our understanding of First Nations and Indigenous peoples in the areas. The Moravians throughout history, from the eighteenth century and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, have been such a missional movement. They have been in Nicaragua during troubling times and again have maintained strong records. Again, it’s one of these things where y’all have a wealth of information that maybe people wouldn’t initially say, “Well, let me go to this church archives to better understand, say, Oldendorp’s taxonomy of plants from the Caribbean,” but there are actually these types of resources that y’all are preserving and digitizing.

TM: That’s a good point. I wonder if more people would use the collections if they weren’t handwritten in German script cursive, it being such an unfamiliar handwriting to decipher and read. Perhaps it limits some use of materials that would be relevant in different disciplines. How has it been for you since you took the German Script Course? Do you still feel like you can read the documents pretty well?

LS: When I first left the script course, I didn’t recognize how much I would use it. In part, that’s because I was largely working with the printed sources such as Zinzendorf’s sermons and speeches. But now as I’m kind of getting more into the weeds, so to speak, it’s not just in the sermons but it’s also showing up in the daily life, I’m making a lot more use of the script reading. I’m wishing I had paid even more attention now that I’m getting to the more unique handwritings that come out of this research. It’s been a little more slow-moving, but thankfully, just being able to quickly identify certain terms has allowed me to say that these are pieces and passages I need to work through. I think that the skills that you helped develop in the course, coupled with the materials you sent us home with, maintained that for me. It would be nice if I could continue to get back up to speed, have that kind of intensive transcription again, but it has been a lasting skill, thankfully, for me, in the identification of relevant text. I’m still not quite to where I can pick up a page and read it very quickly, but there are sentences and sometimes multiple sentences at a time that flow together, and that feels real good.

TM: It sounds like you’re able to—at very least—page through a document and identify relevant passages to photograph, even if it might take time later to read and transcribe them.

LS: Yeah. As someone who wasn’t originally trained as a Germanist, it’s kind of all just moving through these motions, but I think the capacities are there. One of the nice things is how organized the Moravians were by giving headings and sub-headings and so on. And I say, “Aw, thank you so much.” Because those tend to me written a little larger and clearer, and they were thinking of their readers, and I appreciate that.

TM: We truly appreciate you coming on and sharing your research today! Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

LS: I’d like to reiterate that there is just such a wealth of knowledge that exists, and I think a big piece of the lack of popularity in Moravian studies is the difficulty of the German script. The fact that y’all are offering ways to learn that and make it accessible—once you go through that process, it really is just a goldmine. And as a researcher and someone who’s considering their next topic in research, this is in some sense untapped because of that difficulty, and it has proved prohibitive to some folks, even native German speakers, to take these topics on because of the script. When you do put in the effort to learn the handwriting, it does really bring forth some of that gold that is a contribution to academic society or personal genealogical work, work for churches, etc. Again, it’s not all written in the eighteenth century; there’s a lot of material that goes well beyond that.

TM: I really appreciate getting to know researchers like yourself who come in and visit and share their knowledge of a topic. Thanks, Luke, for joining us for this Interview with a Researcher!

LS: Thanks so much. It’s a top-notch staff that you all have there at the Archives, and Paul Peucker is a world-class archivist and scholar when it comes to early Moravian studies. I can’t laud that enough.

Enjoyed this conversation? Be sure to check out our previous interviews here: