1775 document: Colonists asked pacifists to pay
From the page: “In a fledgling nation hungry for men to fight in the American Revolution, conscientious objectors were frequently greeted with scorn and their loyalty was questioned.
As war approached, leaders in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County sought to ease tensions by urging the growing number of German immigrants with religious objections to war to demonstrate their patriotism by giving as much money as they could afford to the revolutionary cause.
The proposition is spelled out in a July 11, 1775, public notice known as a “broadside,” which is on display at the Moravian Archives & Museum here. Experts recently confirmed it as the only known English-language copy.
Lancaster played an important role in the nation’s early history. It was the largest inland town in America, said Scott Gordon, an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. It was the nation’s capital for one day — Sept. 27, 1777, while the Continental Congress was fleeing British troops who had captured Philadelphia. And it was Pennsylvania’s capital from 1799 to 1812.
Gordon stumbled across the broadside while researching another aspect of the colonial era. Driven by curiosity, he checked authorities on the historical significance of early American publications and confirmed its uniqueness.
The one-page broadside does not alter historians’ understanding of colonial history, but it adds texture to the record of the fierce debate among colonists over how to deal with the Anabaptists, Quakers, Moravians, and other religious groups that were built on pacifist principles and whose members were moving to Pennsylvania, said Gordon, who also chairs Lehigh’s English Department.
The Moravian Church, which traces its origins to the 15th century in what is now the Czech Republic, calls itself the world’s oldest international Protestant denomination.
Early American policymakers wrestled with the conflicting forces of religious tolerance and wartime patriotism.
“There’s nothing that’s printed on this broadside that’s brand new,” Gordon said. “It’s just one of those incremental steps by which this very new, local democracy tried to manage these competing diverse communities.”
The 236-year-old broadside, yellowed but still clearly legible, urges citizens whose “religious scruples” prevent them from bearing arms to contribute toward the “necessary and unavoidable” expenses of the larger community.
No contribution amount is suggested, but the notice says the sum should be enough to dispel suspicion that they are using their beliefs as a pretense for not paying their fair share.
“A cause that affects all, should be borne by all,” the broadside warns.
The broadside was published by Lancaster County’s “committee of correspondence and observation,” one of many panels local leaders formed at the request of the Continental Congress to keep citizens informed.
The Lancaster County committee published at least 10 broadsides during 1775 and 1776, Gordon said. The notices were posted in public places or read aloud. Most were printed in both English and German — up to 400 copies in each language.
A torn portion of the German-language version of the July 11, 1775 broadside is in the possession of the Library of Congress in Washington. But checks with that institution, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., local collections in Pennsylvania and standard references on historical publications turned up no copy of the English version, Gordon said.
Without fanfare, the Lititz broadside has been displayed in the museum of the shade-dappled Moravian Church Square since the 1970s, according to Dorothy Earhart, who is in charge of tours of the complex.
It is expected to stay there, alongside artifacts that include a Moravian hymnal, drawings of the main buildings, the land grant for the 491 acres that made up the original community and a display of antique women’s bonnets bearing ribbons of different colors that signified whether they were married, single or widowed.
The Moravian church established Lititz as a closed community — open only to church members — on donated farmland in 1756. It began allowing outsiders to buy property in 1855.
The Revolutionary War years were a time when many members began debating the church’s stance on war, said one of the Lititz church’s two pastors, the Rev. Dean Jurgen. The modern church does not take a pacifist stand but leaves the decision on whether to serve up to individual members, he said.
In colonial times, Earhart said, “We had people in all phases, from those who were very much opposed to the war and anything to do with it to those who went into the militia — and all colors in between.””