Interesting Christians: Abraham Büninger (Bininger)

Abraham Büninger (Bininger)

Abraham Büninger was born January 18, 1720 in the village of Backen Bülach, near Zurich, Switzerland to Abraham Büninger and Verona Utzinges. He was raised in the Reformed church. His mother talked to him about spiritual matters and introduced him to Christ when he was very young.1

Most accounts of Abraham say he came over on the same ship bringing John WesleyA to Georgia and that both his parents were buried at sea, leaving him an orphan.6 However, Abraham writes in his own memoirs that when he was eight or nine he became acquainted with the first Moravian Brethren going to Georgia, including “Brother Joseph” SpangenbergB, and that his mother died on the voyage over.1 Spangenberg sailed on the “Two Brothers” in February of 1735. The Moravians were put in charge in charge of 40 Swiss immigrants by the captain. They arrived in Savannah on April 8, 1735. Four of the Swiss are recorded as dying en route and being buried “hastily and without ceremony”.5 One of these would have been Abraham’s mother. The Moravians were discouraged in their attempts to talk to the Swiss about spiritual matters, but Abraham was probably influenced to join the Moravians by the care they gave his mother. She told him to wait and join the Brethren after his father died, so evidently his father was hostile to the Moravians.1 Abraham must have been off on his age, though, as he would have been 14 at the time of the voyage, not 8 or 9.

John Wesley didn’t sail until October of 1735, on the “Simmonds” with the second party of Moravian immigrants, all the non-Moravian passengers being English, so this story is definitely untrue.6 Unfortunately, it is repeated in a variety of sources, including Methodist histories.10

Abraham also writes that he settled with his father in Purisburg, So. Carolina and in 1736 moved with him to Friderike (Frederica), Georgia, working as a carpenter, where his father died in November. Before his father’s death, he gave Abraham permission to join the Brethren.1 (Frederica was established in February of 1737 on St. Simon Island by Governor OglethorpeC to protect the southern borders of Georgia from the Spanish. The Biningers undoubtedly went there to work as carpenters in building the settlement. The conflict with the Spanish and the resulting pressure on the Moravians to serve in the military resulted in them beginning to leave Georgia for Pennsylvania. By 1740 they were almost all gone.)

Abraham returned with his brother to Purisburg, then went to Georgia in 1737 to work in a mill, In 1738 he was evidently back in Purisburg, for he writes a sermon by Peter Bohler (Boehler)D there awakened his heart, but he took no action. In 1739 he began working for George WhitefieldE, who had come over in 1737 to supervise an orphanage in Georgia. In 1740 he went to Whitefield’s orphanage (likely as a worker, as Whitefield went back to England in 1739-40). In May of 1740 he and his brother joined Oglethorpe’s disastrous military expedition against St. Augustine, then Abraham returned to the orphanage. In this year he made the acquaintance of John HagenF who had arrived in May and stayed at the Whitefield’s until George’s return.1 John Hagen and George Whitefield got along well for awhile and worked together, but on August 14 they got into a bitter dispute about predestination.5 Whitefield was a strict Calvinist, holding only the elect could be saved, and Hagen held all men could be saved. Hagen left and went to Savannah. (Whitefield returned to Pennsylvania in November of 1740 in anger and ordered all the Moravians (who had been working for him) off his land immediately, but was shamed by the neighbors for doing so in the dead of winter and allowed them to remain until Spring. By that time his funds were exhausted and the Moravians bought him out.) Abraham Bininger and John Hagen got along well and in Sept. 1741 Abraham left the Whitefields and moved in with John Hagen in Savannah, later accompanying him to Philadelphia.1

On January 9, 1742 Abraham Bininger joined the Moravian Brethren in Philadelphia and in February went with David ZeisbergerF to Bethlehem, and was received as a member of the congregation there on July 22, “Ludwig” (Count Zinzendorf)G giving the message.1

The church decided by lot that Christ intended Abraham for service among the Negroes and sent him to Germantown in 1743 to live and work with BechtelH, but it didn’t work out and he returned to Bethlehem. (In the early days, the Moravian brethren made most important decisions by lot) The next few years seem uncertain, but he seems to have worked as a carpenter, though he was seriously ill most of 1745. On October 5 or 16th of 1746 he married Martha Mariner of New York, John Martin MackI and Joseph Spangenberg performing the ceremony.1, 7 (Marriage partners among the Moravians in the early days were arranged by the church leaders and determined by lot – Abraham and Martha probably didn’t even know each other beforehand. The sexes were raised apart and seldom got to know each other, though if a boy did have a girl in mind to marry he could submit her name to have a lot cast. The girl had the final say, no matter which way the lot went.)8. Martha claimed, however, that she was “ordered” to marry Abraham by “Mother Maria”J Spangenberg.10 (Martha was born in Rhode Island in October 1723, daughter of John and Elisabeth Mariner. She and her mother went to Jamaica when she was a child searching for her father, whom she never met. He was presumed to be lost at sea. She was indentured to a Quaker named Augustus Hix, of Long Island, who raised her as a daughter. She moved with him to New York. After she grew up she moved to Brunswick, NJ. where she was influenced by the Moravian Brethren. She returned to New York for a time until an edict against the Moravians was published in New York, then moved to Philadelphia where she lived with Hix again for a time. In March of 1745 she moved to Nazareth and was received into the congregation there by Mrs. Spangenberg on Sept. 28, 1746.)10

Soon afterwards the couple were sent “beyond the Susquehanna” where they kept a school in a house, after which they went to a boarding school for children for a short time, then back to Bethlehem, where there first child, Christian, was born September 10, 1747. Twelve days later Abraham departed for the Susquehanna, where he labored alone for four weeks before returning to bring his wife and child home, where they kept school again through the winter.1 The school was held in a house, and they had to live with a family in the area, which must have been uncomfortable.

Abraham taught at various schools until 1749, when he went to Patgatgoch (Scaghticoke) near Kent, Connecticut to keep school for Indian children. He also visited around in Wechgaudnach, Quanachtnok, Vesterinook, and Stockbridge, all in the western Connecticut, eastern NY, southern Massachusetts area. He remained there, apart from a visit home to Bethlehem when his son Abraham was born, until he was struck by a epidemic in July of 1750. He then returned to Bethlehem to recover for a time, returned to Patgatgoch, went back to Bethlehem as a carpenter, returned to Patgatgoch again, where he built a small house, and then went back to Bethlehem in December of 1751. Here his memoirs end, though there is a note that he was ordained a deacon May 25, 1756 by Bishops Spangenberg and HehlK, also that he was received with his wife at the first Synod in January 1788.1 He and Martha had a daughter, Martha, born October 6, 1752 who died April 1753 and who was buried at Nazareth, so it is safe to assume he was back at Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1752-53.10

There is a story that Abraham Bininger went to the Island of St. Thomas as a missionary and wrote a letter to the Governor offering to become a slave so he could preach to the slaves, as it was forbidden for anyone else but a slave to do so, and that the king of Denmark, to whom the letter was forwarded, wrote back authorizing him to preach to whoever he wanted to. Abraham and Martha Bininger did arrive in the West Indies on July 8, 1756 and left on May 20, 1758. Their son John was born there Sept. 23, 1757.10 However, St. Thomas was the Moravians earliest mission station and they had been preaching to the slaves there since 1732.5 By 1782 the Moravians had 13,000 converts and a number of churches in the Virgin Islands.9 This story is also almost certainly not true. Although Bininger descendants claimed to have a copy of the letter in the mid-1800’s, it may have been a simple letter authorizing him to preach in the West Indies.10 The story likely originated with a talk by Anthony UlrichL in 1731 that discouraged the establishment of a Moravian mission to St. Thomas, telling the Moravians (falsely) during an address at Herrnhut, Germany that no one could be a missionary in St. Thomas without becoming a slave. The two original prospective missionaries, DoberM and LeupoldN, were not discouraged and were willing to become slaves if necessary, but Ulrich’s talk did succeed in delaying the approval of the mission for a year.9 A letter may have been written at this time to clarify matters, but it would have had nothing to do with Abraham Bininger, who was only 11 at the time and not yet a Moravian. This event was probably later distorted and erroneously attributed to Abraham Bininger.

Abraham and Martha Bininger returned to Nazareth, Pennsylvania after their return from the West Indies. Their son Isaac was born there September 12, 1760. Sometime after this they seem to have moved to New York City. There were major changes in the Moravian church around 1762, probably the most important of which was the ending of the communal economy, the system of living the Moravians had followed almost since they arrived in America, based on Acts 2: 44 – 47. Instituted by Spangenberg, this system enabled the congregations at Bethlehem and Nazareth to focus their limited resources on sending out ministers and missionaries at no expense to those they served, who were usually unable to give much anyway. It was never intended to be a permanent system. Its end in 1762 probably meant that Abraham had to find other means to support his growing family, and went back to carpentry. Count Zinzendorf also died at about this time and the Spangenbergs were soon summoned back to Europe. The finances of the American church were placed under the control of the Board in Germany, and the American Moravians entered a 100 year period of relative stagnation.11

Abraham is listed as one of the subscribers to Methodist preacher Philip Embury’sO John Street Church in New York City.10 The Biningers remained staunch Moravians until their deaths, and Abraham on at least one occasion expressed a tolerant cynicism for Methodism, so it is likely his support for Embury’s work was based on their personal friendship. Both were ministers of the gospel and carpenters.

In the early 1770’s the Biningers moved north to the Camden Valley with the Emburys. Abraham’s name is on the document for the land there, leased from James DuaneP. Although he remained a Moravian, he seems to have given up his ministry and made his living by farming in Camden. He preached Philip Embury’s funeral in 1775.10

The Revolution brought an end to the small community in the Camden Valley. Most of the Methodists remained loyal to Britain and had to flee to Canada. Abraham took the American side and two of his sons fought under Washington, but son John took the other side and went to Canada. Abraham had difficulty with much of his property being illegally seized even though he supported the American cause, and complained in a letter about being impoverished.10

Approximate location of the Moravian church in Camden.

Old Moravian Cemetery

Abraham’s Gravestone

Abraham died in Camden on March 16, 1811. Some sources say Martha died there in 1812, but a letter exists in Canada written from Abraham to son John and wife Phoebe in February 1804 telling him his mother had died. 10 The Salem cemetery records also have her as being buried in 1804, without a stone. Abraham is buried in the Moravian Cemetery there, his stone reads “Here repose unto the resurrection of the just, the mortal remains of the venerable father in Christ, Abraham Bininger, a missionary of the United Brethren’s Church (commonly called Moravians). After serving his Divine Master with fidelity both in the West Indian island of St. John’s and among the Indians of this country, he retired in the decline of life in communion with his Redeemer, a pattern of Christian holiness to all around, and fell asleep in Jesus, full of the hope of glory, at the age of 91 years, 2 months, 8 days. He was born at Bulach, Canton Zurich, Switzerland January 18, 1720. Departed this life at Camden, March 16, 1811. He walked with God, and he was not for God took him.”10.

Of their sons, Christian may have died young – there seems to be no record of him. Abraham III either remained in New York City or soon returned there and may have been the one who began a prosperous distillery. He married Catherine Embury. Joseph came to Camden with his parents and died in Sandgate, Vermont in 1807. John went to Canada, but returned after the Revolution for a time – in his own words: “Your Petitioner then returned in the Colonies to assist his aged parents, who had been greatly distressed by the calamities of the War, and after discharging his filial duty to them, your petitioner returned in June 1791 to settle himself in this, His Majestys new Province,–“.12 Isaac was captured during the Revolution and taken to Canada, where John got him released in a prisoner exchange.He returned to Camden, dying there in 1827. Isaac’s family was responsible for bringing the Moravian Church to the valley, requesting a Moravian minister. Van Vleck made a tour of investigation in 1830.13 They finally got a regular minister in 1832. In 1834 the congregation was officially recognized by the Moravian Church, and it continued to exist through 1852. 10


Sources and links for further reading:

  • This page was first written in 2004 and has suffered greatly from “link rot”. I have restored what links I could, and extracted the information for the rest from the Wayback machine and formatted it as PDF files so the documentation is not lost again. I will not post these because of copyright issues, but if anyone needs the documentation I can email a copy to you. Ted Rice, 2017. rhys12@bluebottle.com
  • 1Memoirs of Abraham Büninger taken from bdhp.moravian.edu/personal_papers/memoirs/buninger/buninger.html This link no longer works, but I extracted information from the wayback machine and formatted it as pdf files.
  • 2Mashantucket Pequot Museum – Moravian Records at www(dot)pequotmuseum.org/Articles/ARCHIVEDARTICLES/CrossPathsWinter20023/OnTranslatingtheMoravianRecordsPart2.htm This link no longer works, but I extracted information from the wayback machine and formatted it as pdf files
  • 3Pennsylvania Moravian Baptisms at http://www.awesomegenealogy.com/pennsylvania_moravianbaptisms17421756.pdf
  • 4The Moravians in Georgia 1735 – 1740 at http://historicaltextarchive.com/books.php?op=viewbook&bookid=59
  • 5The Moravians in Georgia 1735 – 1740 at https://archive.org/details/moraviansingeor00friegoog (Alternate Source)
  • 6The History and Mystery of the Bininger Family at http://www.glswrk-auction.com/039c.htm This link still works, but all the links to images in the page are broken.
  • 7Moravian Marriage Records at bdhp.moravian.edu/community_records/register/marriages/marriages1746.html This link no longer works but I have extracted it from the Wayback Machine and saved it as a pdf file.
  • 8Pennsylvania Dutch History at www(dot)horseshoe.cc/pennadutch/religion/moravian/moravian.htm This link no longer works, but I extracted information from the wayback machine and formatted it as pdf files
  • 9Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church at https://archive.org/details/historyofmoravia00hutt
  • 10Wilson, Richard M. The History of the Old Cambridge District: The Valley Called Camden, Vol. 1 Old Cambridge Archive and Record Center, 1993. Pp. 1 – 17. Available at the Cambridge, NY Library.
  • 11Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church at https://archive.org/details/historyofmoravia00hutt
  • 12The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies at http://www.royalprovincial.com/genealogy/settle/lndbininger.shtml
  • 13Stocker, Harry Emilius. A History of the Moravian Church in New York City. Page 223. Source researched by Jane Gill at the Bethlehem Area Public Library and emailed to Ted Rice on June 22, 2004. Can be downloaded for free from Veritas Seminary

Persons mentioned:

  • AJohn Wesley (1703 – 1791) = founder of Methodism, along with his brother Charles.
  • B“Joseph” Spangenberg (1704 – 1792) = August Gottlieb Spangenberg, leader of the Moravians in America under Count Zinzendorf. Picture.
  • CJames Edward Oglethorpe (1696 – 1785) = Englishman, conceived of the idea of relieving the debtors prisons of England by opening a new colony in North America. He arrived in America in 1732 with the first immigrants and became governor of Georgia
  • DPeter Boehler (1712 – 1775) = bishop of the Moravian church, he came to Georgia in 1738 and later helped found Bethlehem and Nazareth in PA. He had a powerful influence on John Wesley.
  • EGeorge Whitefield (1714 – 1770) = Baptist preacher who God used to bring about an immense revival, the Great Awakening.
  • FDavid Zeisberger (1721 – 1808) = probably the greatest missionary to the American Indians, lived among them for about 63 years and won many to Christ. He lived long enough to see much of what he had accomplished destroyed by the American Revolution.
  • G“Ludwig” = Nicholas Lewis, Count Zinzendorf, renewer and leader of the United Brethren or Moravians, who had been persecuted since the death of John Hus.
  • HJohannes Bechtel (1690 – 1777) = from the Palatine, moved to Pennsylvania in 1726. Was a master craftsman and a Reformed preacher, until expelled in 1744 because of his sympathies for the Moravians, having heard Count Zinzendorf preach in 1738. He moved to Bethlehem in 1746.
  • IJohn Martin Mack (1715 – 1784) = Came to Georgia in 1735, helped found Bethlehem, PA, and became a missionary to the Indians in the New York, Pennsylvania, and New England areas. Was called to the West Indies in 1760 and labored there preaching to the slaves until his death
  • J“Mother Maria” Spangenberg = wife of August Spangenberg.
  • KMatthew Hehl (1705 – 1787) = assistant to Spangenberg, he worked at Bethlehem through 1756, then transferred to Lititz. He was an eleqoquent preacher and wrote several hymns.
  • LAnthony Ulrich = a converted slave from the West Indies that Count Zinzendorf met at the coronation of Christian IV in Copenhagen.
  • MLeonard Dober (1706- 1766) = one of the first two Moravian missionaries, sent to St. Thomas in the West Indies in 1732 to preach to the slaves.
  • NTobias Leupold (d. 1734) = desired to go with his friend Dober, but the lot fell against him and David Nitschmann went instead.
  • OPhilip Embury (1729 – 1775) = Methodist clergyman and carpenter, founded the first Methodist congregation in America in New York City.
  • PJames Duane (1733 – 1797) = born in Salem, NY, lawyer and land speculator, member of the First Continental Congress. Tried to delay the Declaration of Independence, but served on the Committee of Safety. Mayor of New York City 1784 – 1789, helped write the State Constitution, also a member of the State Senate and the Constitutional Convention of 1788, and was a US District Judge for New York. Founded Duanesburg, NY.

 



Abraham Bininger | Lorenzo Dow | Philip Embury | Barbara Heck | William Waite


Author: Ted Rice, June 2004

Revised: January 21, 2017