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Long before we knew each other, both of us—Rachel and Sarah—had sat in the reading room of the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, carefully paging through the contents of Box 331 of the Records of the Moravian Mission among the Indians of North America and pausing over several small booklets of hymns in Mohican dating to the 1740s. For Rachel, as a scholar of mission history interested in Native adaptations of Christianity, the hymns seemed rich with potential for exploring how core Christian narratives and concepts were quite literally expressed in Mohican. She came to more fully appreciate the potential significance of these hymns to Mohicans today during her first visit to the Stockbridge Reservation in Wisconsin for a Mohican history conference in 2001, and especially through two specific experiences: attending the performance of Bill Miller, a famed Stockbridge musician, and learning about community efforts toward Mohican language recovery. When Sarah first encountered the hymns of Box 331, she too was intrigued. A musicologist specializing in eighteenth-century performance practices and Moravian music, she was curious about the meanings of the Native-language texts but had not yet worked extensively with the Moravian mission records. She recognized many hymn tunes as being in common use among the Moravians in the mid-eighteenth century and wondered if she could somehow sing the hymns using those tunes. But her lack of knowledge of the Mohican language and of Moravian mission history led her to file the idea away for a future research project.
When we began to work together some years later, we realized these hymn booklets were far more complex than we had initially thought. Their titles announce the language to be Mohican. Most verses have a line in German above the Native-language stanza (Figure I), and we both assumed these texts were simply translations of popular German-Moravian hymns of the time. Further work in the archives revealed that a number of the Mohican stanzas were written by Native residents of the community, and their content demonstrates that the stanzas are new creations, not translations. The German heading indicates the chorale tune to be used rather than a source text as might be assumed.
Reading more deeply in the mission records made clear that these hymns were a significant element of congregational life in Mohican-Moravian communities such as Shekomeko, New York, and Gnadenhütten, Pennsylvania, in the mid-eighteenth century. They were sung to and by the sick and the dying. They were sung at gravesides. They were sung by men while hunting. They were sung at communal feasts. They were sung for visitors and when traveling to other communities, both Native and European American. They were sung to bring comfort, to call spiritual power, and to create and fortify community.1 And as written documents, the hymnbooks have become important cultural and linguistic records, silently preserving this tradition of Mohican-Moravian hymnody for more than 250 years. As material objects, the hymnbooks in Box 331 are an important, but limited, representation of what was once a living, aural tradition of hymn singing.
We had both held these same texts in our hands, wondering how these hymns might have sounded. Yet no matter how many years of expertise we had accumulated in our respective corners of Moravian studies, the texts remained stubbornly mute until we began conversations with each other and with the many others—scholars and members of a descendant Mohican community—who, we learned, had also paid visits to Box 331. In what follows we keep our focus trained on Box 331. First, we attend to the creation of the box as part of the Moravian Mission collection and how that collection has helped to draw an array of visitors in recent decades. Next, we detail the creation of the eighteenth-century manuscripts found in Box 331, specifically focusing on one hymn verse, “Jesu paschgon kia,” brought into existence through the collaboration of Mohican and European Moravians in the mid-1740s (Figure II; Recording I).2 We initially selected “Jesu paschgon kia” because it is the verse for which we have the greatest depth of related source material. We have at hand six different versions of the hymn and are able to reconstruct its revision history based on textual differences and contextual information from the Moravian records (see Linguistic Analysis, on the OI Reader); further, the tune cited in the hymn booklets, “In dulci jubilo/Herr Jesu Christ, dein Tod,” has a rich, traceable history dating back to the Middle Ages. As we examined the relevant sources more carefully, however, we discovered that our choice was even more apt than we could have known at the outset. We have learned when, where, and by whom this verse was composed: in the Mohican village of Shekomeko, by missionary Gottlob Büttner, most likely with assistance from Nanhun, a young man recently given the baptismal name Joshua. Their work on the hymn, and perhaps the first singing of the hymn, occurred during a visit of a delegation of ten Stockbridge Mohicans, including their leader Umpachenee, who were in Shekomeko for the burial of a kinsman.3
If the writing of history is the relationship of source to interpretation, scholars usually prefer to move in one of two directions: historiographical debates fuel questions that send researchers looking for evidence that might help shape a new interpretation, or researchers discover intriguing source material that sends them off in new directions in an effort to make sense of the source. We have followed the latter path, led first by curiosity and subsequently by a growing awareness of the complex webs of human relationships that created and were created by Box 331. We and the others who encountered the sparse hymn texts in Box 331 were convinced of their importance, but as individuals, we found their meaning remained even more shrouded than that of the German-language manuscripts we were accustomed to working with in the Moravian records. Individually, we could ferret out substantial material from the mission records about the relationships between the missionaries and the Native residents who produced the texts. We could also locate the chorale tunes indicated by the single line of German and consider the importance of polyglot hymnody to the Moravians’ spiritual project. Yet treating these manuscripts as texts to be read and contextualized felt insufficient because the texts themselves had been created as shorthand for the communal, embodied act of singing. It was important both that they be sung and that they be understood as sounded music, not only as written texts. Paying attention to their sounded quality led us to explore more deeply the eighteenth-century relationships through which the texts were created and sung. In turn, our effort to re-sound the hymns in the present prompted us to forge important collaborative relationships across academic disciplines and with members of the Stockbridge Mohican community, whose ties to the Mohicans of Shekomeko stretch back centuries.
Our primary scholarly identities lie in the history of religion and music, and our work together on this project evolved serendipitously and organically as new friendships were formed and new collaborations solidified, moving in directions we could not have anticipated. These conversations and the resulting hymn recordings inexorably shifted our understanding of our historical subject, helping us to appreciate in new ways the losses inflicted by colonialism and represented in archival silences as well as in survivances, to use Gerald Vizenor’s term signifying the agency of Native cultural survival, which we likely would not have seen—or heard—if we had remained in our disciplinary silos within the academy.4
In maintaining a narrow focus on just one hymn verse within one archival box, we have been able to delve more deeply into the history of the Mohican hymns. This process, ironically, has also allowed for a different kind of breadth: in order to re-sound “Jesu paschgon kia,” we needed the help of the linguists and Mohican community members who also had ties to Box 331. In the final section of this article, we render “Jesu paschgon kia” as a living, multidimensional, sounded text by placing research into the eighteenth-century creation and sounding of this and other hymns alongside three recordings we have made of the verse. Each of these recordings highlights a different set of commitments among our various collaborators: Stockbridge Mohican musicians Brent Michael Davids and Bill Miller; members of the congregation of the Lutheran Church of the Wilderness in Bowler, Wisconsin; scholar of linguistics Chris Harvey; recording professionals; and students at Florida State University (FSU) and the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. Our desire to hear the music and to sing this hymn again has not been motivated by a quixotic desire to capture the past “as it really happened”—or “as it really sounded.” Rather, the re-sounding of “Jesu paschgon kia” stands as aural testimony to the rich and multifaceted meanings that a single historical document may represent, a richness that is only accessible by engaging with others for whom it is also significant.
The three recordings that emerged from our collaboration call attention, implicitly and explicitly, to the constraints posed by underlying structures of empire and settler colonialism and to our attempts to allow different voices to be heard.5 Empire, colonialism, and European settlement all set the stage on which our story of the creation of Mohican hymnody takes place.6 Our interest here, however, is not how the stage was constructed but the ways that people on stage interacted with each other and made sense of their experiences. At the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, we recognize that the methods of stage construction have favored telling the stories of the European and not the Indigenous actors.
Although we did not set out with the explicit aim to implement an Indigenous Studies methodology, it is not surprising that we ended up there. Our work, like that called for in Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup’s recent introduction to the William and Mary Quarterly–Early American Literature Forum “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies,” prioritizes relationships with texts, with other scholars, and with communities who have a stake in the production of scholarship. This article is a concrete example of the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) scholarly method called for in the Forum: centering the active agency of Native peoples past and present, deploying a broader understanding of text to include the varied media through which Native peoples have communicated, recognizing the expertise of Native communities and knowledge bearers past and present, and understanding the “tribally specific genres, languages, chronologies, and geographic boundaries, which often contrast with European phenomena.”7 In the course of our work, we came to the conviction that the process of investigating the Mohican hymns ought to draw on the insights and methods of multiple disciplines as well as partnerships with descendant communities. Doing so generates important questions that have shaped not just our understanding of the contemporary significance of the hymns but also our interpretations of eighteenth-century Mohican-Moravian hymnody. Moving away from a single disciplinary perspective and beyond the academy has enriched our scholarship, allowing us to make contributions to multiple fields in early American studies, including Moravian studies, NAIS, musical and sensory studies, hymnology, and linguistics. This project contributes as well to our Native collaborators Bill Miller and the congregation of the Church of the Wilderness in their various endeavors to work with historic Mohican-language sources.
Rachel Wheeler and Sarah Eyerly, “Singing Box 331: Re-sounding Eighteenth-Century Mohican Hymns from the Moravian Archives,” digital companion version, William and Mary Quarterly, October 2019, https://oieahc.wm.edu/digital-projects/oi-reader/singing-box-331-rachel-wheeler-sarah-eyerly/.
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