A Sonic History of the Moravian Missions in Early Pennsylvania
- ISBN: 9780253047694
- Published By: Indiana University Press
- Published: May 2020
The words “soundscapes” and “sonic history” in the title Moravian Soundscapes: A Sonic History of the Moravian Mission in Early Pennsylvania point to the breadth of the book’s subject matter. Hymnody’s centrality in Moravian worship and communal life is well known, but author Sarah Justina Eyerly goes far beyond this to trace, interpret, and recreate the aural environment of early Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania. She is interested not only in their singing and music-making, but in the noises of their industry, their communal living, and the sounds of the surrounding natural environment. The book has a companion website, which greatly assists this multidimensional focus, providing static and interactive historical maps, sound recordings, and photographs. For a book in which the sense of place is so crucial, these resources are most welcome and considerably enrich the insights offered in the text. The multimedia elements also foreground the wide range of research methodologies that are featured in this project: alongside the obvious historiographical approach, Eyerly draws on approaches from sound studies, acoustics, and ecology to impress upon the reader the richness and complexity of the aural environment which 18th-century Moravians would have experienced.
The book’s four principal chapters cover different stages of Moravian missions in Pennsylvania. Each is amply documented from a rich array of historical sources; Eyerly’s decision to focus on a few individuals in each chapter and, to some extent, across chapters is justified as it creates cohesion and aids understanding of how the situations of the communities changed over time. The historical story is fascinating in its own right, especially for the way in which it brings together people from different cultural backgrounds. The robust financial support given to the early European Moravian missionaries enabled sustained work among Native communities in the region, and the lives of Native Moravians is one of the key themes of the book.
However, this book is not simply a straightforward historical account in which music and other sounds play a prominent part. Eyerly’s central argument is that the distinctive Moravian soundscape of 18th-century Pennsylvania was crucial in the European settlers’ successful engagement with Native American communities, but also played a role in the downfall of these communities. She convincingly shows that the sonic environment created by settler Moravians in their community life was crucial to the success of the missionary work and the establishment of Native Moravian communities. The relationship between the natural and built environments and the Moravian practice of improvising hymns to maintain devotional focus is shown to have resonated with existing Native ritual practices. Native Moravians adopted and developed communal ways of life in which song played a prominent role: hymns accompanied almost every task and activity. Eyerly makes a persuasive case that the way of life in which this sonic culture was bound up ultimately separated the Native Moravians both from other Native communities and from non-Moravian European settler communities. She argues that this cherished way of life had tragic consequences for them, as a key factor that led to their successive displacements and ultimately to the murderous attacks on them in 1782 that left only two survivors.
This is a remarkable book that is a testimony to the possibilities of multimedia and multimodal methodologies for historical research. It is also richly interdisciplinary, and will be of value to historians of music, religion, and American culture. On top of this, however, the author’s personal engagement with the subject matter is striking. Brief interludes between the chapters document her own attempts to trace her family history among the European Moravian settlers, and several of her ancestors feature in the chapters. Eyerly reflects on her own memories of growing up in this region and of leaving the family farm. She also grapples with the ways in which her family history is intertwined with the broader story here, and especially its horrific conclusion. She does not claim to resolve all the conflicts that this history raises, but in an era in which attentiveness to historical injustice and its contemporary repercussions increasingly demand scholarly and wider public attention, this open, self-reflexive approach is highly commendable and offers a model for other scholars to consider in their work.
Martin V. Clarke is senior lecturer in music at the Open University, UK.Martin V. ClarkeDate Of Review:February 28, 2022