Review: God's Fields
Leland Ferguson. God's Fields: Landscape, Religion, and Race in Moravian Wachovia. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2011. 288 pp. ISBN 978-0-9130-3748-6.
Leland Ferguson follows up on his award-winning writing and research in archeology and colonial African American culture with a more narrowly focused study of the eighteenth and nineteenth century burial practices of the Unitas Fratrum. This religious denomination, more commonly known as the Moravian Church, settled the Wachovia region of piedmont North Carolina, which is roughly modern Forsyth County. The main title of this work is Ferguson’s translation of Gottesacker, the German term used by Moravians for their burial grounds, which rightly informs the reader that this work is primarily archeological. However, as the subtitle implies, the author also looks for both the contributing factors and resulting outcomes of changes over time in these burial practices. Thus, to explain these shifts, Ferguson also draws heavily on official church records and family communications. Despite the political and racial complexity of the subject matter, the end result is a very readable work that shows the changes in the ways Moravians dealt with race, which eventually led to spiritual and geographical segregation.
To make this work suitable for advanced undergraduate and graduate students, Ferguson includes a brief, broad history of the Moravian Church. He discusses Moravian theology, socio-economic constructs, town planning, missiology, and racial awareness. Ferguson builds the case that Moravians arrived in Wachovia Region of North Carolina as a community-oriented, egalitarian society with very progressive views on race and inclusivity. He shows that over the course of the next century, Moravians shed much of their distinctive identity and adopted local approaches to liberty, gender, property, and race, including the willingness or desire to own people of other races. Ferguson illustrates how detrimental this course of events was for African Americans affiliated with the Moravians, either by ties of church membership or those owned as slaves. In painting an ever-bleaker picture of life for these African Americans, Ferguson avoids overly large brushstrokes, pointing out differences in practices between Moravians, sometimes even between members of the same extended family. Ferguson shows that many Moravians resisted the American values that emphasized work for personal profit over a sense of vocation that benefitted the community that were an important part of the changes in Moravian approaches to slavery and race. This nuanced account is situated in a larger explanation of how much the Moravians lost from their original utopian goals.
Though Ferguson notes that African Americans were members of other Moravian settlements in the Wachovia region, he focuses on the town of Salem. He devotes the bulk of this book to the relationship between Moravians of the originally integrated congregation of Salem and later the separate congregation of Saint Philips Moravian, which white Moravians established for African Americans. Ferguson’s archeological research both on the various church buildings and the burial practices that the white Moravians established for African Americans provided the foundational information for his writing.
The Saint Philips buildings and the God’s Acre—the cemetery—for this congregation are located within the historic district of Old Salem. Ferguson addresses the ways that relationship between Old Salem, the Moravian Church, and the Saint Philips congregation further complicates the representation of African American life in and around Salem, especially since Old Salem endeavors to deal with issues of history rather than religion. Furthermore, just as the physical layout of the eighteenth-century community of Salem and the various access points that visitors had to that Moravian town affected the understandings that historical “others” had of Salem, so too do the decisions that Old Salem has made regarding signage and historical interpretation affect the understandings that contemporary “others” develop regarding Moravians and race in previous centuries and possibly even in the present.
Ferguson deals with these complex issues with both accuracy and tact. Race, church property, and membership in various Moravian religious groups are not just relegated to history. Early in the book Ferguson refers to an official church resolution from 2006, and his appendices contain a 2010 news release, showing that the Salem Congregation had once again included the Saint Philips Moravian Church within its member institutions.
Ferguson is honest in acknowledging his personal history and interest. He notes at the outset his own contact with Moravians, his appreciation for certain customs and practices, and his discomfort with other racial and ethnic attitudes that he encountered earlier in his life, which were the eventual outcomes of the changes he addresses in this work. He ends by reciting many questions of history, race, topography, voice, participation, and past and present practice that still remain, and celebrates the value of these questions. With this book, Ferguson offers a wealth of historical and archeological evidence to help people enter into these questions as more informed participants.