In “Can You Feel Your Roots?” I spoke of my love of all things Celtic. I grew up fascinated with the Celtic culture, although at the time, I didn’t know why. Growing up, my family culture was predominantly German. I was always a bit uninterested in these ancestors, so I have spent very little time researching them. Recently, however, I have begun to dig into these German roots as well, and have also come to appreciate this side of my DNA.
My maiden name is Westhafer. There are various spellings of the name, such as Westhaver, Westhofer, and Westhoeffer. My immigrant ancestor in this line was Johan Valentine Westhafer who left Baden-Wurtemberg, Germany. From an excerpt of “The Westhafer Genealogy” by Francis M. Westhafer it states “Valentine Westhaffer was born in Hohen Sachen village, near Heidelberg, the Palatinate, now part of Germany, January 1, 1703. When he was twenty-eight years old, he and his wife and child, with other Palatines, had reached the sea and embarked for America. They were Lutherans. Their vessel was six months in crossing the ocean. Most of the passengers perished from hunger, thrist and disease. Among those who perished were his wife and child and found a grave in the sea. He landed at Philadelphia.” The Westhafers, among many other German immigrants, came to America on the ship Norris, from the area known as the Palatinate. This is an area in the southwestern region of Germany, closely located to Heidelberg. They left the area of Baden-Wurtemberg, which was part of the Black Forest. (As an interesting side note, the Black Forest was the setting of many of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.)
The Germans arriving in Pennsylvania, including Valentine Westhafer, were known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Valentine settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Valentine had left Germany with a wife and child, but both of them perished on the journey, so he arrived in Pennsylvania alone. A few months after his arrival, he married Christina Sandritter, who had also immigrated from the Palatinate. Although they were Lutherans, they were “spiritually awakened” by the Moravians in their community, and subsequently converted. They were among the first settlers of the Moravian congregation in what would become Lititz, Pennsylvania.
Several generations of Westhafers have had ties to the town of Lititz, so I decided to find out more. Located in central Lancaster County, Lititz was first settled in the 1720’s by German immigrants. In 1756, members of the Moravian Church established Lititz as a town. Originally, only members of the Moravian Church were allowed to live in Lititz. Until the mid-nineteenth century, one could not own a home in the town without also being a Moravian. Linden Hall School, America’s oldest all-girl boarding school, was founded by Moravians in Lititz. Obviously, Valentine Westhafer’s ancestors, being some of the first in the congregation, probably played a large role in the Lititz Moravian settlement. I must admit, though, that I knew very little about the Moravians.
Founded in Bohemia and Moravia (in what is the present-day Czech Republic), the Moravians got their start, in part, by a man named John Hus. Hus was a theologian who disagreed with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Hus wanted many changes, most significantly, for the worship services to be held in the native tongue instead of Latin. He wanted to bring the worship services back to the people. In 1415, John Hus was declared a heretic, and was burned at the stake. After his death, his followers went on to establish the Moravian Church in 1457, making it the world’s oldest Protestant religion. As it was still an illegal church, the Moravians suffered great persecution. They persevered. Known for their love of music as a form of worship, they published their first hymnal in 1505. The Moravians were the composers of many hymns, incorporating the use of voice, strings, brass, organ, and woodwinds in worship.
The Moravian Church experienced a large rebirth in Germany in the 1700’s. They focused their beliefs on living a Christian life, rather than placing a large focus on religious doctrine. They dedicated their lives to humility, peacefulness, and simplicity.
Some interesting practices of the Moravians are the use of a lovefeast and deadhouse. Lovefeast is a celebration used to strengthen the bonds of unity and goodwill among the congregation. A “dinner” is served (usually a sweetened bun and coffee, although this can vary depending upon the region) for the congregation, preceded by the saying of grace. After the feast, hymns focusing on unity and love are sung. The congregation then speaks to one another regarding spiritual walks. Lovefeast may be held on any special occasion of the church, such as Christmas or Watch Night (New Year’s Eve).
The use of a deadhouse was something else the Moravians practiced. This was a special structure built to house the dead until burial. In cold climates, it could be months after death until a corpse could be buried. In the Lititz, Pennsylvania Moravian settlement, “The Corpse House” still exists.
The Westhafers held firmly to their Moravian beliefs. The Moravian Church played a large role in my ancestors’ lives for generations. Valentine and two generations after him remained in Lititz. Eli Westhafer, my great-great grandfather, was a Methodist Episcopal minister. It is reported that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was greatly influenced by the Moravians. The Methodist Church today has similar beliefs of the Moravians. This heritage has passed to me as well, as I am a member of the Methodist Church.
It is amazing to me how so many things, including religious beliefs, are passed to us from our ancestors. The Moravian beliefs of peacefulness, humility, and simplicity are things which I hope I am able to pass down to my children as well. In me, the heritage begun by Valentine Westhafer will live on.
Written by Heidi
(Sources: www. wikepedia.com, www.moravianseminary.edu)