3 Cultures In Danger of Becoming Extinct in the U.S.
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Since before its declaration of independence, the United States has been a haven for immigrants. Peoples have arrived with different colors, religions, and traditions behind them. In doing so, they have joined the dominant culture and been assimilated over time. This continues “the great experiment.”
Some cultures assimilate quicker and more fully than others and, in doing so, risk losing all of their identity. Others have retained a strong sense of cultural identity. Germans, Irish, Italian, and Poles have, for example, blended in but have kept strong senses of their heritage from generation to generation. This is due, in part, to the existence of familiar structures and infra-structures when they arrived. As different as these groups were, for example, they were all still European in origin.
There are a few cultures that have contributed to the American character but are at risk of losing their heritage and identity:
Wends are Slavic immigrants from a section of Europe that is now in eastern Germany. Also known as Sorbs, Wends arrived in central Texas and the Galveston area in 1853. Their original homeland no longer exists as a distinct nation, and its borders have changed repeatedly since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. The region is now called Lusatia and its population renamed Sorbs. By 20th Century, they had no geographic identity in the maps drawn after WWI and WWII.
The immigrant Wends spoke German, Sorbian, and Polish because part of the homeland once included modern day Poland. For a thousand years or more, the Wends resisted assimilation and conscientiously preserved their language, dress, and music even though they surrendered their political independence. With Poland to their east and Czechoslovakia to their south, they absorbed elements of the language and customs of both nations.
Conquered by Charles, son of Charlemagne, in 806, the Wends were under the thumb of German lords who allowed them participation in cultural institutions and events if and only if they spoke German. Under such pressure, many Wends adopted German names, language, and manners. By 1500, most wends were Lutherans in the German tradition.
The Wends’ immigration to the United States coincided with the immigration of other Germans, many of whom settled in Texas where many city names recall a German heritage. Led by a preacher, named Johan Kilian, the immigrants represented a small group of Lutheran churches. Arriving through Galveston, they purchased a large grant in what is now Lee County, TX and built homes, churches, and farms. They farmed cotton and corn, and most avoided military service in the Civil War. They succeeded, when they did, only through frugality and self-denial. Conflict arose over time between the two sects represented by the regional dialects, and this was aggravated by dissension over the proper Lutheran practice.
During WW and WWII, anti-German sentiments across the nation pressed the Wends away from their Sorb language and traditions towards acceptance of English. In post war years, Wends were lured by jobs, education, and marriage to urban areas like Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Others moved to more fertile lands and established towns with German names.
Some very elderly Wends speak Sorbian, but most contemporary youth speak English only. The old language and remnants of some religious, seasonal, and wedding ceremonies survive. Despite the presence of a Wendish Museum in Serbin, Texas and the dogged persistence of some Wends to record heritage, language, and customs, the Wends have virtually disappeared as a recognizable group.
Philosopher, scientist, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) received direction from Jesus Christ through a series of divine visions. In these visions, Swendenborg witnessed the Last Judgment and foresaw the establishment of a New Church to serve the New Jerusalem following Christ’s second coming. It is a tenet of The New Church that belief in Jesus Christ and adherence to the church’s teachings will assure salvation – whether or not the believer belongs to The New Church or not.
Swedenborg himself did not lead a church, but his writings attracted followers in England in the late 18th century. They reached the US through missionaries, including John Chapman, the legendary Johnny Appleseed. Swedenborg taught that African races were closer to God (because he found they thought more interiorly and were, therefore, able to listen to Christ’s word), and many church members become abolitionists. Other beliefs incorporate then current thinking in spiritualism, alchemy, theosophy, and psychology. The teachings, in retrospect, appear to contain elements of Platonic and Buddhist ideas, to parallel the origin of Mormonism, and to foresee the thinking of Scientology.
The New Church has barely survived splits in its organization and core teachings. Its American origins are embodied in a gorgeous Gothic-style church and gardens in Bryn Athyn, PA. Another handsome church can be found in San Francisco. The General Convention of the US has rarely reported more than 2,000 members in 35 churches throughout the country, but the teachings have spread in various divisions throughout South Africa.
American adherents to the teachings include Helen Keller and Daniel Burnham. The church has had no unique ethnic attachments, is very intellectual in its appeal, and boasts little charisma in its ceremonies or outreach. Consequently, it retains mostly local adherents near its 30 some churches. The lack of strong evangelization and charisma may explain its static population as members intermarry out of and move away from their home churches.
Moravians trace their routes to Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Originally converted to Christianity through Eastern Orthodox traditions, they were drawn to the teachings of John Hus in the late 14th century. Hus would be tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1415 thereby becoming the first Reformation leader against the Roman Catholic Church. The Moravian practitioners suffered heavy persecution that subsequently drove them into Poland and other surrounding areas. Deep in Moravian Bohemia, a group practiced their beliefs underground for centuries and came to be known as “the hidden seed.”
Moravians have no developed theology, preferring to focus on behavior as a manifestation of faith. They teach that the Bible is the faith and conduct manual. They receive communion in both hands, treasure great liturgical music, and encourage a commitment to the poor. They also preach the acceptance of all religions, and, in doing so, deflate their own specialness. Their missionaries have been successful in countries throughout the world, largely through example and not evangelization.
Moravians established Bethlehem in Pennsylvania in a still active church and community enabled by the Count vin Zinzendorf in 1744. Another large settlement formed what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The church followed the movements of Czech and German populations as far west as California. Today, the church has founded colleges and seminaries, and followers are still attracted to its traditions of self-less work among the powerless.
The Moravian culture remains at risk despite its 50,000+ adherents in the US. Its music tradition remains alive in great choirs at their major churches and the unique Bach Festival hosted by the Bethlehem community each year. Their connection to the language and customs of their homelands is strongly attenuated through assimilation. And, since little emphasis was placed on liturgical ritual and on passionate evangelization, they bank on people being drawn to their charity. Traditionalists keep some elements alive in a living-history approach in Bethlehem and Winston-Salem, but there is also a detached curiosity about this. Growth in the United States does not appear promising.
These ethnic/religious groups have no strong central administration. They eschew a strong and dominant episcopacy. And, they pursue a worship and belief system that is open and non-evangelistic. Members would consider these characteristics as virtues, but, organizationally speaking, they do not promote growth.
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