Top of page

Image of text with large letters that read "MUNCEY LANGAGUE" across the top.
Halfmoon, Charles, tr., A collection of hymns, in Muncey and English, for the use of the native Indians. Toronto : Printed for the Wesleyan missionary society, at the Conference office, 1874. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

“In Our Own Language”: Lenape Hymnals in the Rare Book Collection

Share this post:

The following post is by Meg Nicholas, Folklife Specialist, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Among the Library’s resources in the Lenape language are two hymnals, published in 1847 and 1874 respectively. Printed at a time when governmental policies in Canada and the United States were actively attempting to destroy tribal languages, these hymnals provided a way for Lenape communities to remain connected to their language even amongst attempted erasure. The Lenape (pronounced Len-AH’-pay) are the indigenous people whose traditional homelands, prior to European contact, stretched from the Delaware Bay to Long Island and westward into the Catskill Mountains and western Pennsylvania, a territory known as “Lenapehoking.” Forced to migrate west and north, Lenape communities (later named the Delaware) were dispersed. Both state-and federally-recognized tribes can be found today in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Delaware, as well as in Ontario, Canada. The hymnals in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division were created for two such displaced communities.

Printed in 1847, the Lenape hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Delaware Christian Indians of the Missions of the United Brethren in North America, is the second edition of an earlier imprint from 1803 that was assembled initially by the Moravian missionary, David Zeisberger. This second edition was revised and abridged by Abraham Luckenbach, a Moravian missionary who worked and taught amongst Lenape communities.

Title page for a "Collection of Hymns for the use of the Delaware Christian Indians of the Mission of the United Brethren."
A collection of hymns : for the use of the Delaware Christian Indians, of the missions of the United Brethren, in North America. Bethlehem : Printed by J. and W. Held, 1847. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The first 27 pages of the hymnal provide the litanies of the church translated into the Lenape language. The table of contents (the categories into which the hymns are sorted) is printed in English, while the titles of the hymns are printed in German, and the text of each hymn is printed in Lenape. It is unclear which of the two Lenape languages is used, though, it is likely to be Unami as this was the liturgical language used by Moravians working in Lenape communities.

Addressed to a non-Native audience, Zeisberger’s preface states his purpose in the creation of the hymnal:

Dear Brethren, I beg leave to dedicate to you a collection of Hymns in the Delaware language, translated from the newest German and English hymnbooks of our Church, and request the favor of you to cause it to be printed for the use of the Indian congregation.

As the singing of psalms and spiritual songs has always formed a principal part of the divine service of our Church, even in congregations gathered from among the heathen, it has been for many years my ardent wish, to furnish, for the use of the Christian Indians, a regular and suitable hymnbook, wherein the grant subjects of our faith should be recorded and set forth in verse, which is so easily imprinted in the memories, particularly of young people.

Zeisberger’s repeated references to Moravian-converted Lenape as “heathen Christians” underscores an important element of Moravian-Lenape communities: despite an embrace of Christianity, these communities often retained other aspects of their culture and remained, in essence, Lenape.

Image of a page of text titled "The Church Litany."
A collection of hymns : for the use of the Delaware Christian Indians, of the missions of the United Brethren, in North America. Bethlehem : Printed by J. and W. Held, 1847. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

In 1851 – four years after the publication of the Luckenbach edition – the Mount Elgin Residential School opened in Muncey, Ontario within an area known as the Caradoc Indian Agency. The school pulled students from multiple tribal communities located within Caradoc’s borders, including the Chippewas of the Thames, Oneida of the Thames, and Munsee of the Thames. Prior to Mount Elgin’s founding, students from these same communities were often sent to another boarding school – Mohawk Institute – in nearby Brantford, Ontario. Both Mohawk Institute and Mount Elgin, like other residential schools throughout both Canada and the United States, emphasized the Christianization of their students, the suppression of indigenous languages, and the subjugation of Native bodies through demanding physical labor.

And yet, despite twenty-two more years of linguistic and cultural suppression, a second Lenape hymnal, this one exclusively in the Munsee language, emerged in 1874. More selective in the number of hymns, A collection of hymns, in Muncey and English, for the use of the native Indians is a slim volume, but, instead of being the work of non-Native missionary linguists, this imprint was assembled and translated by a Lenape man, Charles Halfmoon (Keeshóhwiish), who is credited as being an Assistant Missionary in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. In his preface, Halfmoon writes:

Although the number of the Munceys, or Delawares, for whose use this collection is designed, is small, embracing only three Congregations in the Dominion of Canada, yet we desire to rejoice with our Brethren of other tribes and nations, while we sing the praises of God, in our own language, around our hearthstones and in our Churches.

The preface is signed: Charles Halfmoon, Munceytown, Dec. 4, 1873.

Munceytown – also referred to in historical records as Munsee, Munsee-Delaware Nation, and Munsee of the Thames – sits just outside of London, Ontario, up the Thames River from Moraviantown. The language originally spoken by this group is related to the Unami language but is considered sufficiently distinct. This language was once spoken in what is now New York City, as well as areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Most of the resources on Lenape language within the Library’s holdings are in the Unami language – indicative of the vast number of linguistic resources on that language. Far fewer resources are available in Munsee. This hymnal is one of a handful of Library holdings in the Munsee language.

During my first visit to the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room this past summer, I sat in the quiet space thinking about that book’s history, journey, and impact. It is unclear when, exactly, either hymnal came to the Library, but evidence suggests that both works were acquired and possibly cataloged by June 30, 1927. These books somehow made the journey across 150 years and 547 miles to rest in a book cradle in front of me at the Library of Congress. As I turned the pages of the Munsee hymnal, I, a student of the Lenape language and a direct descent of this Munsee community in Ontario, found myself contemplating those words from Halfmoon’s preface: “Yet we desire to rejoice…in our own language…” I desire that as well, and, perhaps with the resources I have found here at the Library, I might have some hope of doing so.


Click here to subscribe to Bibliomania and never miss a post!



Meg Nicholas is a Folklife Specialist in the American Folklife Center. For more information about her search for materials related to the Lenape people at the Library of Congress, read her latest blog post in Folklife Today or send a query to Ask-A-Folklife Librarian.

Questions about the collections in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division can be directed to Ask-A-Rare Book Librarian.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.