"Forgotten Worthies: David Zeisberger." The Congregationalist, 14 Jan. 1886.

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"Forgotten Worthies: David Zeisberger." The Congregationalist, 14 Jan. 1886.







While John Woolman[1] was still a baby in the poor farm house at Mount Holly, another boy of like spirit, and destined to a noble work, was born in an obscure little hamlet among the Carpathian Mountains.[2]

David Zeisberger’s forefathers were peasants, the followers of John Huss.[3] He inherited nothing from them, not even special intellectual alertness. Unless, indeed, we count as a heritage the drops of blood which ran in his veins from more than one of the noble army of martyrs. When he was five years old, his family fled to escape persecution to Herrnhut,[4] where Count Zinzendorf[5] then had gathered the remaining Hussites.[6] David’s father and mother were among the Herrnhutters sent by Zinzendorf to Georgia, but the boy was left in Moravia to be educated by the church of the Unitas Fratrum.[7] This church, as we all know, claims today to hold the place in an especial manner of the mother to the children in her communion, and no mother’s care could be more keen or benignant than it is now. But in Zeisberger’s day her rules was that of the typical stepmother. He was a small delicate lad, with something in his face which attracted the notice of Zinzendorf. He sent the boy to a prosperous community of the church near Utrecht, where education as in godly private families of the time was given through the lash. David went through a steady discipline of work, beatings and fastings.

One day a stranger whom he helped, when he was lost in the morasses near the town, gave him two pieces of gold, bidding him keep them and not give them to the community. David’s conscience, however, forced him to give one piece to the Brethren, who immediately charged him with having stolen it, and publicly punished him as a liar and a thief.

This was the stroke too much. That night, David, with another boy named Shober, escaped from the community and set off to America, with no means but the solitary piece of gold which he had kept. It paid their way to London, there General Oglethorpe[8] met the lads, and, struck by David’s sensitive face and singular gravity, procured them a free passage to Savannah.

In the backwoods of Georgia, Zeisberger at last found his father and mother. He set himself to learn to plow, to trap bears and hunt panthers; but, scarcely had the winter opened, when the Moravian settlement was broken up by raids of the Spanish soldiers from Florida. The Zeisberger family were carried as laborers by Whitefield farther into the wilderness, up to Pennsylvania. There they, as if guided by God, came to where Nitschmann,[9] a bishop of the Unitas Fratrum had just arrived, meaning to found a colony of the Brethren.

With this handful of men and the Zeisburger family he penetrated the mountains to the head waters of the Delaware. The place is familiar to us all; but to understand David’s story we must set it back a century. The unbroken forest walled them in; the silence was oppressive. There were none of the singing birds which appear with civilization, no dogs, cows, poultry, no cheerful village life. Outside of their tents the world sank suddenly into a gloomy wilderness, tenanted only by beasts of prey and the savages who peered at them from the underbrush, or fled with hoarse cries like a legion of devils. David, who was always neat and finical as a woman, felt an intolerable loathing for their indecency and filthy habits. Yet, back of that, they had a singular power over him. Their souls met him naked as their bodies. They were to him lost creatures of God, knowing not their Father. Yet, he asked himself, what did he, the child of the church, know of God more than they? That winter, working alone in the forest, the boy passed through that hour of wrestling which comes to every young man. “What was he? What was God? Why was he here?”

Every young man who is to have real work in the world keeps this vigil in his youth. Even the Indians know that, and send their sons, before they can become braves, alone into the wilderness for two moons to torture themselves and to fast, in order that they may “find God.” The Son of Man Himself, before He began His work, went alone into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

This little German, always prim and grave, endured strange anguish of soul. At times he heard, like John Woolman, a Voice telling him that his work was to bring these lost savages to God. The next hour this seemed impractical folly. He would go back to Utrecht to a trade, to almost certain success. What had he to do with the savages more than with other brutes?

Just at this juncture arrived Count Zinzendorf. He saw the lad, and detected again the same singular hint of promise on his face—a prophecy which he could not interpret.

He told the Brethren that the boy must have a chance, and appointed him one of his staff to return with him to Moravia. David came with him to Philadelphia, and embarked with the understanding that a clear road to fortune lay before him in Europe, and that he never was to return to America.

The ship weighed anchor. Bishop Nitschmann, passing down the deck, saw the lad, pale and haggard, gazing at the receding shore.

“Zeisberger,” he said, “is it possible that you wish to return?”


“But for what reason?”

“That I may learn to know Christ, and teach Him to the Indians,” said David, finding speech at last in his extremity.

“Then, if that be your mind, in God’s name, even now go back!”

The ship was brought to, and the boy sent back. After this, the Moravians regarded him as Eli did Samuel: he was called of God.[10] His name was entered on the list of the Brethren and their trades, as David Zeisberger, destinirter Heidenbote.[11]

The lad at once left the community and went to the lodge of the great sachem of the Mohawks, and there lived and worked to learn thoroughly the habits and language of the Indians. He was adopted into the tribe of the Onondagas.

Thus begins the remarkable history of a work which extended over sixty-two years. Zeisberger was always, as a beardless boy or tottering old man, an itinerant[12] among the fiercest tribes then on the western continent. He made his way through interminable forests, through morasses in which he sank to his neck; he was dragged to jail as a French spy, and as a rebel emissary; he was tortured by the cannibal tribes and barely escaped with life; but he was, through all, the same quiet, prim little man who never was heard to complain, and who seldom spoke except when he was “about his Father’s business.” So silent was he that when he was in the settlements whole days would pass in which he would not utter a word. Yet his passionate bursts of fiery eloquence had a singular power over his dusky hearers. They held him as one of their kinsfolk. He was Ganonsserachi. They knew him to be reticent and as unflinching under torture as themselves. He went into tribes where hundreds lay dead from small-pox, and alone nursed the sick and buried corpses. Again and again he faced a mob of drunken, howling savages, and cowed them with his quiet, indomitable spirit. He spoke the dialects of all the principal tribes, he controlled the grand council of the Delawares, and held the rank of sachem among the six nations. He left complete grammars and dictionaries of all the principal Indian languages, with hymnals, the gospels, collections of sermons, etc., in the Iroquois and Lenni Lenape tongues.

No other single man ever did as much to civilize and Christianize the red man in America as Zeisberger. He traveled throughout the United States and Canada, and established forty Christian villages as the nucleus of Indian civilization. In these villages he not only taught them the gospel, but set them to work as farmers and mechanics. If the work begun by this unobtrusive little German had been carried out, there would not be an uncivilized Indian on the continent.

During his sixty-three years of labor, Zeisberger never took a penny from the church for his support.

“I am no hireling,” he said quietly. “God set me to this work.”

In the history of colonial days, set over against the massacres, witch-burnings, and battles of both New Englanders and Virginians with the red devils, there is the figure of this silent, insignificant-looking Moravian, going in and out of the wilderness at his work. It is t our eyes like one of the apostles.

In 1782 a body of militia men fell unprovoked on the two Christian villages of Salem and Gnadenhütten, driving the inhabitants into inclosures prepatory to killing them. The Indians passed the night in singing hymns and in prayer. In the morning they were butchered like so many beeves. David never recovered from this blow: these dark-skinned martyrs were dear to him as children. He foresaw, too, that the cause of Christianity would be thrown back among the Indians a hundred years by this crime. The work of the Moravians among the Indians stopped.

Zeisberger died in extreme old age in an Indian village. Bishop de Schweinitz,[13] in his history of the Moravian missionary, tells us that, when the hour of his death drew nigh, the passing bell tolled, ad his white friends, the Brethren, withdrew and gave way to the Lenape Indians, who gathered around his bed. They sang the hymns in their own tongue, which he had written for them, and on these strains of lofty hope his soul passed. “Then,” says the chronicler, “the red men fell upon their knees and wept aloud, for they knew that their best friend was gone forever.”

[1]John Woolman (1720-17772) was a Quaker Preacher and abolitionist who is the subject of another Forgotten Worthies story by Davis.

[2] Range of mountains throughout Central and Eastern Europe

[3] Also spelled Jan Hus or John Hus. Huss (c.1372-1415)was a Czech theologian, church reformer, and philosopher who inspired Hussitism predating Protestantism.

[4] Town in Saxony Germany.

[5] Nikolaus Ludwig (1700-1760), Reichsgraf von Zenzendorf und Pottendorf, German religious leader who founded the Herrnhuter Brudergemeine, the Moravian Church, also known as the Unitas Fratrum.

[6] Followers of the teachings of John Huss who set themselves apart from the Holy Roman Empire and Roman Catholic church after his execution.

[7] The Moravian Church, one of the oldest Protestant denominations dating back to the Bohemian Reformation.

[8] James Ogelthorpe (1696-1785) was the founder of the colony of Georgia and social reformer.

[9] Daid Nitschmann der Bischof (1698-1772) was one of the first missionaries of the Moravian Brethren and helped found Bethlehem, PA.

[10] See 1 Samuel 2-3.

[11] German for “destined pagan messenger.”

[12] Traveling from place to place.

[13] Edmund Alexander de Schweinitz (1825-1887), American Bishop of the Moravian Church and writer of The Life and Times of David Zeisberger.


Laney Jolley Smith


Updated June 15, 2020


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Laney Jolley Smith, “"Forgotten Worthies: David Zeisberger." The Congregationalist, 14 Jan. 1886.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/216.

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