Caurrunāšana, which translates as talking through, was an interesting tradition – discussing one’s soul’s experiences and inner life either with another person or in public. In this tradition, a congregation member related their spiritual experience, while others listened. Caurrunāšana encouraged the habit of writing down life stories.
For Latvian Unity of Brethren, translations of life stories from German were the first to appear. The Latvians used these translations as examples to write their own life stories. All the biographies had a similar structure – there were very strong genre conventions. Firstly, writers introduced the childhood and lives of Herrnhutians before they joined the congregation, and then related their following religious awakening and feelings. Memories of childhood and adolescence had a special role in representing one’s first experience of sin. In this way, spiritual growth was presented as a transition from youth to maturity and the subsequent lifelong struggle with the temptations of worldly life.
There are no autobiographies in which the path to salvation goes smoothly, without trials, temptations and falling into sin. Nevertheless, each autobiography is accompanied by a pious ideal and the idea of salvation. A person’s passing away was also of great importance in Herrnhutian life stories, depicted as a joyful event experienced in the presence of many congregation members. This was often accompanied by lyrics appropriate to the situation. Often, the person lying on their deathbed indicates what songs they want to hear while dying.
The schematic and predetermined structure of Herrnhutian life stories differentiate them from autobiography in our modern-day understanding. This is best seen in the ways in which writers’ individualities are revealed. Herrnhutians autobiographies typically have both an individual and collective orientation. The writing of autobiographies strengthened the identity of the Herrnhutian community, the sense of belonging to a wider group.
Many Latvian Herrnhutians’ life stories contradict the generally accepted idea of the bleakness and suffering of peasant life resulting from the inhumane conditions of serfdom.
One such example is the life path of Skangaļu Jēkabs (also Jacob Skangel). Skangaļu Jēkabs’ biography is the world’s most widely distributed Latvian Herrnhutian life story, having been published in the Beyträge zur Erbauung aus der Brüdergemeine periodical in 1817, and consequently read in the Unity of Brethren diaspora and mission lands. The fragment of the manuscript stored in the National Library of Latvia is possibly an early copy of the Latvian translation, which passed from hand to hand among Vidzeme Herrnhutians. Only the first page of the manuscript has survived, torn and touched by many hands. German versions of the life-story manuscript are held by the Utrecht archive in the Netherlands and in the Unity Archive in Herrnhut.
Skangaļu Jēkabs experienced his initial awakening feelings in Valmiera. In 1738, being a very fast runner, he was recruited, against his will, to be an errand boy at the court of Duke Ernst Johann Biron in St Petersburg. His good work was rewarded with a document freeing him from serfdom and he returned to Vidzeme around 1740. In 1745, he left his homeland to join the German brethren, stayed in various places in Germany and settled in the Unity of Brethren centre at Zeist in the Netherlands, where he founded his own company and became affluent, financially supporting friends and relatives in his homeland.
English, Danish and Swedish life stories were also disseminated as manuscripts. Reading them, Latvians found out about distant and foreign lands, which drew closer as they got to know their characters. The Latvian Herrnhutians felt a sense of unity with their religious brethren and sisters from other countries, whose life paths and inner experiences were to a certain extent comparable to their own.