Why did the Herrnhutians write? First of all – to communicate between congregations and across borders. The Herrnhutian movement was a transnational phenomenon - its centre was in Herrnhut but its missionary descriptions, reports, and letters were sent there from various parts of the world. Hymns, movement leaders’ speeches and tracts were also published as printed books.
But in most cases, Herrnhutians preferred manuscripts. Information circulation was faster in hand-written form, making it possible to bypass censorship and maintain secrecy. Secrecy was important to the Latvian Herrnhutians – their texts were not intended for prying eyes.
In Vidzeme, the first preachers who arrived from Saxony – the 'German brethren – were already translating various texts into Latvian manuscripts. Over time, they were also joined by writers from the local population. Translation was replaced by composition. Peasants didn’t simply transcribe texts - they rewrote them and their rewritings were then included in different manuscripts. Many of these writers have remained anonymous but it is possible that they included a number of women.
These manuscripts reveal a world different to the one described in official printed literature. Through these texts, peasants learned about their nation’s past, and about the life and beliefs of the people in the various lands with Herrnhutian missions. For those wanting to know what 18th century peasants thought, felt and experienced in their lives, manuscripts are the best and often only source.
Many of the manuscripts were meant to be read aloud during meetings. They were probably also read at home in the evenings alongside religious books or while carrying out everyday chores. Over time, reading to oneself became customary, mainly for the purpose of spiritual edification.
Through reading, peasants were encouraged to contemplate their inner world, to reflect on their lives and find out about the wider world. For some, it was motivation to take up the pen themselves, but writing was difficult and responsible work. It was most often done in the evenings, in the hours free from manual labour, in the dim light of a taper. The manuscripts' artistic design was austere and humble - only the content was important.
What did the Herrnhutians write down and rewrite? Sermons and hymns, letters and life stories, historical essays and literary works, descriptions of missions and church statutes.
Most of the texts that have been preserved are from the first half of the 19th century (including rewritings of older texts). During this period, peasants also created handwritten books of essays. Pēteris Baidiņš wrote such a book in 1835, extending to more than 300 pages. It features an extensive variety of texts – from a reflection on the history of the Herrnhutians and the story of Jan Huss to an abridged translation of John Bunyan’s allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Progress.