The Christmas Bride by Melanie Dobson is based on her own ancestors five generations back who were married by lot. That’s how things were done in the Moravian community, known then in the 1750s as the Unity of the Brethren under Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf. If a man wanted to marry, he went to the brethren with his request. They consulted the lot, which, for them, was a tube with three pieces of paper in it. One said “Yes,” one said “No,” and one was blank, indicating “Wait.” If the answer was yes, the woman still had the opportunity to accept or decline. Sometimes the couple knew each other beforehand and were in love: other times they did not know each other or didn’t really have a relationship, but the man needed to marry to participate in certain forms of ministry. Melanie writes in her afterword that many women were reluctant to marry in this way but accepted it as the will of God. Her own ancestors were married for fifty-eight years. The couple in her book were not based entirely on her ancestors, as she did not know much else about them, but she researched the Moravian customs at the time and represented them faithfully.
This story opens with the wedding of Susanna and Christian Boehler – and several couples in a group wedding. Susanna had seen Christian from afar and admired him, but she did not know him. She was excited about their upcoming ministry to Indians in Pennsylvania and willing to accept marriage as part of God’s will. She was understandably concerned about what her relationship with her husband would be like, but she was willing to be a good wife. Yet, at the end of the ceremony when Christian simply nodded to her and left the building, she was disappointed. What she didn’t know was that Christian had loved another, who was marrying someone else in the same ceremony.
Married couples in the Brethren did not live together at this time in Moravian history. The community was divided into “choirs” – not singers, but groups divided by gender and marital status. the single woman lived in one house, the married women in another, etc. Married couples had the opportunity for a one-hour private meeting once a week in a room for that purpose. Children live in the community nursery.
At first Christian and Susanna were married in name only and lived much as they has as singles. They’re awkward with each other, and Susanna is dismayed when she’s too ill to accompany Christian on his first mission. He’s gone for more than six months, but she finds ways to be useful. She befriends an Indian woman in the community, begins to learn the language, and enjoys visiting the children in the nursery.
Most of the Indians that the Moravians visit are not interested in their message. Some are friendly: others are openly hostile, not just due to a message about a different religion, but because of other issues with the French and British. The Moravians aren’t associated with the fighting and practices of the other white men, but it’s hard for the Indians to distinguish between them. But a few do believe – an individual or a handful here and there.
The rest of the book details the growing ministry to the Indians with its problems and blessings, Christian and Susanna’s getting to know each other amidst fits and starts, and a subplot with Susanna’s friend, Catherine, who comes from a more refined family and has trouble adjusting the the hardships of their life – and who, unbeknownst to Susanna at first, was the woman Christian originally loved.
Melanie’s afterword shares that the separation of families only lasted for about twenty years altogether. The purpose of that separation was so that people couple serve the Lord and community without the problems and distractions of family life. But, as Melanie shows, that separation strained family relationships, and some began to wonder at the wisdom of it.
I don’t know much about Zinzendorf. I heard bits and pieces from his life in a presentation on BBN Radio produced by Moody Bible Institute, but not enough to have a firm grasp of it. From what I understand, he preached and taught the gospel. But I would differ from him in many aspects, family living being a major one.
The physical side of the Boehler’s relationship is an issue in the story, because there was none at first. When they finally do come to love each other in that way, there’s just a bit more description leading up to it than I care for, but nothing explicit.
This book was originally published under the title Love Finds you in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Melanie graciously offered the Kindle version of it free under its new title to subscribers of her newsletter.
It was interesting to learn of this background of the Moravians, and I enjoyed the different plotlines. I especially enjoyed the way Christian and Susanna and Catherine grew in their faith through their circumstances.