Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

A Harmony of the Spirits

Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

Patrick M. Erben

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3557-9 ($50.00)

Copyright 2012
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Dale Brown Book Award, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies (2013)

In early Pennsylvania, translation served as a utopian tool creating harmony across linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences. Patrick Erben challenges the long-standing historical myth—first promulgated by Benjamin Franklin—that language diversity posed a threat to communal coherence. He deftly traces the pansophist and Neoplatonist philosophies of European reformers that informed the radical English and German Protestants who founded the "holy experiment." Their belief in hidden yet persistent links between human language and the word of God impelled their vision of a common spiritual idiom. Translation became the search for underlying correspondences between diverse human expressions of the divine and served as a model for reconciliation and inclusiveness.

Drawing on German and English archival sources, Erben examines iconic translations that engendered community in colonial Pennsylvania, including William Penn's translingual promotional literature, Francis Daniel Pastorius's multilingual poetics, Ephrata's "angelic" singing and transcendent calligraphy, the Moravians' polyglot missions, and the common language of suffering for peace among Quakers, Pietists, and Mennonites. By revealing a mystical quest for unity, Erben presents a compelling counternarrative to monolingualism and Enlightenment empiricism in eighteenth-century America.

About the Author

Patrick M. Erben is professor of English at the University of West Georgia.


With remarkable skill and formidable learning, Erben integrates the histories of radical religious sectarians, both English and German, in early Pennsylvania. His elegant readings cross a wide range of sources, from mystical texts to musical scores, to restore our understanding of the utopian culture shared by the linguistically diverse believers drawn to William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment.’

--Mark Peterson, University of California, Berkeley

Erben’s discerning and fascinating examination of the foundational vision of Pennsylvania traces the origins of the ‘Holy Experiment’ to early modern utopian concepts, advanced by John Amos Comenius and Jacob Böhme, that sought to overcome Babylonic language confusion through translation. In Pennsylvania, German Pietists and English Quakers alike applied these concepts to forge one community of believers. A crucial contribution.

--Claudia Schnurmann, Universität Hamburg

In this masterful study, Erben recovers the world of those German Pietists and English Quakers who sought to transcend the chaos of a post-Babel world and craft a linguistically pure New World utopia. Along the way, he forces us to rethink the relationship between language, religion, and community in early America. A virtuoso performance.

--John Smolenski, University of California, Davis

A Harmony of the Spirits permits us access to a utopian Pennsylvania where potent souls could commune directly with the hearts of others, regardless of language, culture, gender, or age. Exploring this Neoplatonic aspiration for understanding enacted through translation makes the early Pennsylvania Piestists seem the opposite of the sectarians history deems them to have been. Erben refreshes our sense of the radical ways in which various German believers received William Penn’s promise that philia would be the ground of a new community in America.

--David S. Shields, University of South Carolina

Erben makes compelling arguments. . . . [He] successfully broadens our view of early Pennsylvanians and their efforts to create a harmony of the spirits.

--Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

An extraordinary book. . . . Beautifully recaptures the lost voice and vision of the early American Philadelphian mystics.

--Nova Religio

Erben has masterfully translated the multilingual sectarian voices of the past into an academic treatise on spiritual cooperation.

--William and Mary Quarterly

Highly readable. . . . The book is wonderfully written and profound in its observations.

--Mennonite Quarterly Review

Scholars interested in transatlantic conversations and in particular Pietist and Quaker studies will find this well-researched and well-written book a welcome volume. Erben's method of providing translation and quotations invites a continued conversation among those who have a shared interest in the spiritual, social and even political life of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Pennsylvania.


[A] wonderfully imaginative work on language and translation. . . . A Harmony of the Spirits is thoroughly worth reading for those interested in the religious and ideological underpinnings of American colonization.

--Journal of American History

Erben's project powerfully reconstructs another lost hermeneutic that will hopefully inspire future scholarship.

--American Literature

Erben's work uses previously unexploited sources to give a fresh perspective on the founding and early history of Pennsylvania. . . . This is a magnificent book that deserves to be widely read and emulated.

--American Historical Review

Erben brilliantly demonstrates how religion, language, and affect come together in the interrelationships among nations, faiths, and individuals. . . . [This book] redefine[s] the parameters of discussion for colonial English and Germany literary culture in early Pennsylvania.

--Journal of American Studies

Intriguing. . . [and] remarkably successful in helping readers understand the broader context for many of the religious groups of early Pennsylvania.

--Journal of Moravian Histor