Top of page

Image of pages from rare book that illustrates use of mulitple typefaces.
Example of different languages and typefaces in Lutheri Catechismus ӧfwersatt på American-Virginiske språket. Rare Book/Special Collections. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

“Yet We Desire to Rejoice…in Our Own Language”: Munsee Religious Texts in the Library of Congress

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Meg Nicholas, Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center. In this post, Nicholas details her search for materials related to the Lenape people at the Library of Congress. Nicholas is the newest member of the AFC staff. Read more about Nicholas here: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2023/06/new-faces-at-afc-staff-and-interns/.

Since starting my job at the American Folklife Center in late May, I have explored the Library’s collections through a series of sample research questions. Some of these questions have been more focused — “what resources does the Library have around indigenous foodways, specifically related to wild rice in Southern Maryland?”—while others have been more general in nature – “I wonder what AFC has on Eastern Woodlands tribes?” Through the latter question, I stumbled across several collections, including recordings of Delaware singers from Oklahoma in the 1950s and recordings of Munsee singers from the Ontario area in the 1930s. I listened, for the first time, to songs that were once used in the Big House Ceremony and songs that, according to Frank Siebert’s sparse notes, related the dreams of the singers. Despite the two collections being in completely different dialects – and my not being fluent in either – I was able to recognize a word here and there. Listening to these recordings I wondered…what else might I find in the Library if I looked outside of AFC’s collections?

This is how I found myself in the Library’s Rare Book Room, seated in front of a rare Munsee hymnal possibly consulted by my grandfather in the early 20th century (more on this later), thinking about the idea of paucity. To be honest, I think about it more often than I ever thought I would when upon first hearing the term as history major. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the presence of something only in small or insufficient quantities or amounts; scarcity.”

The concept already trespassed on my thoughts on a regular basis – how there are so many things we just don’t know anymore, that no longer exist. Words, knowledge, resources. Now that I’ve joined the staff here at the Library, the question hounds me even more. What do we not know? How did it come to be lost? And, perhaps most important in my eternally optimistic and curious mind, is it possible that missing information is out there after all, just waiting to be rediscovered?

Of course, there are many reasons that things end up missing from the record of written history or common practice. Perhaps something was never written down in the first place. Or all the records were burnt up in a fire or lost at the bottom of the sea. Sometimes, such paucity is the result of a combination of policies and practices of intentional disruption and destruction.

It has been the practice of multiple governments the world over to disrupt and even criminalize traditional Indigenous practices and languages. Not surprisingly, this approach is a devastatingly effective tool at dismantling the culture and social structure of the colonized population. What better way to weaken a people than to cut them off from the world around them by means of taking away their language? After all, if they no longer have the words to describe your connection to the land around them, it makes it easier to separate land and community physically.

My first week at the Library, someone asked if I spoke my tribe’s language. “Not really,” I responded. “Just a few phrases. Enough to say the basics: Hello. Goodbye. It is a good day. Let’s eat. Are you Lenape? Do you speak Lenape?”

I consider it the height of irony that I know how to ask “Do you speak Lenape?” but can’t actually answer the question in the same language.

When I started at the American Folklife Center, my supervisor encouraged me to make the rounds to the various reading rooms here at the Library, learn about the collections that each one oversees, get an idea of where everything is and – more importantly – how to find it. I took the opportunity to see what resources, if any, the Library might have about my people. This is more difficult than it should be. One of the tricky bits of research into tribal nations is figuring out what name they have been catalogued under. I ran searches for “Lenape,” “Delaware” and – more specifically – “Munsee” and was surprised to come back with a handful of results. Among these were a book of catechism and two hymnals housed in the Rare Book collection.

The oldest of these, Lutheri Catechismus ӧfwersatt på American-Virginiske språket, was originally printed in 1696. It is bound in leather with clear wear along the spine and the edges of the cover, the front and back embossed with the crown seal of Sweden. Inside, the book is a riot of different typefaces and languages. (Editor’s note: see image of book’s text at the top of the screen)

As near as I can determine, the book includes text in the following languages and styles:

  • Swedish words presented in a bold, calligraphic style reminiscent of the Old English Text font, presented in at least two sizes
  • Icelandic words presented in a Baskerville Old Face-like font
  • Latin presented in a font that looks like Bookman Old Style
  • English words in a font more like Book Antiqua
  • French words in an italicized Garamond-like font
  • Delaware words in both Book Antiqua and Monotype Corsiva

Usually, when I come across writing in multiple languages in a book like this, it is for one of three reasons:

  1.  What I call “the Pepys code,” similar to the way Samuel Pepys included real and fake non-English words in his diary for purposes of obfuscation
  2.  Using the Latin names in scientific writing
  3. To show how worldly and cosmopolitan the writer is

In the case of this book, however, a fourth possibility occurred to me as I fumbled through my Google-translate-assisted reading of the foreword:

Their Language is lofty, yet narrow, but like the Hebrew; in signification full, like short-hand in writing; on word serveth in the place of three, and the rest are supplied by the understanding of the Hearer; imperfect in their Tenses, wanting in their Moods, Participles, Adverbs, Conjunctions, Interjections: I have made it my business to understand it; that I might not want an Interpreter on any occasion; and I must say, I know not a Language, spoken in Europe, that hath words of more sweetness or greatness, in Accent and Emphasis, than theirs; for Instance, Octorockon, Rancocas, Oricton, Schakamazon, Poquesin, all which are Names of Places and have grandeur in them of words of sweetness: Anna is Mother, Issimus a Brother, Netap a Friend, Usque oret very good, Poru Bread, Metse eat, Matta no, Hatta to have, Payo to come, Sepassen, Passejou, the Names of Places; Tamaue, Secane, Menanse, Secatereus, are the Names of Persons; if one ask them of anything they have not, they will answer matta ne hotta, which to Translate, is, not I have, instead of I have not.

In light of this, perhaps the reason for inclusion of multiple European languages – set off from each other by their own distinct fonts – is to provide additional juxtaposition for the Lenape words throughout the rest of the book and drive home the author’s belief that this indigenous language rivals those of Europe for complexity and beauty.

I turned next to the first hymnal, published in 1847: A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Delaware Christian Indians of the Missions of the United Brethren in North America, revised and abridged by Abraham Luckenback, a Moravian missionary who worked and taught amongst Lenape communities. It is the second edition of a hymnal first assembled by another Moravian missionary, David Zeisberger.

Image of engraving that shows man preaching to a group sitted around a fire.
John Sartain, engraver. Zeisberger preaching to the Indians. 1864. Print shows David Zeisberger, a Moravian missionary, speaking to Indians around a fire. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

The first twenty-seven pages are given over to litanies of the church, also translated into the Lenape language. The general topics which the hymns are sorted into are presented in English while the titles of the hymns themselves are in German and the body of each hymn in Lenape. Zeisberger’s foreward states the book’s purpose:

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 repeatedly referring to Moravian-converted Lenape as “heathen Christians” in the foreword underscores an element of Moravian-Lenape communities: that, despite the embrace of Christianity, they often retained other aspects of their culture and remained, in essence, Lenape.

Image of page from rare book showing hymn translated into Lenape language.
Church Litany in Lenape language (Unami) from A collection of hymns: for the use of the Delaware Christian Indians, of the missions of the United Brethren, in North America, A. Lukenbach. Rare Book/Special Collections. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

In 1851 – four years after Zeisberger’s publication of the Luckenback translations – 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 its 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, twenty-two years of language and culture suppression later a second Lenape hymnal, this one exclusively in the Munsee dialect, emerged.

The second hymnal on my desk that morning was printed in 1874: A collection of hymns, in Muncey and English, for the use of the native Indians. This volume is much more selective in the number of hymns, resulting in a slimmer collection of songs. More importantly, this edition was assembled and translated by a Lenape man, Charles Halfmoon (Keeshóhwiish), credited as 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.

Page spread of hymnal illustrating a doxology in Munsee language.
Doxology in English and Munsee, as printed in A collection of hymns, in Muncey and English, for use of the native Indians. Rare Book/Special Collections. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

Munceytown – also referred to as Munsee, Munsee-Delaware Nation and Munsee of the Thames in historical records – sits just outside of London, Ontario, up the Thames River from Moraviantown. In our language, we call ourselves Nalahii Lunaapewaak…literally “Lenapes from the Upstream.” It is where my grandfather was born and where my father lived for several years when he was very young. Some of my Canadian relations were sent to the boarding schools, though I am unsure whether they attended Mount Elgin (closed in 1946) or Mohawk Institute (closed in 1970). I have never been to Munsee, have never seen the reserve except in old family pictures and recent Youtube videos of the annual powwow, and yet here I was face-to-face with a hymnal that had somehow made the journey across 150 years and 547 miles to rest in a cradle in front of me in the Rare Book room of the Library of Congress.

It is unclear when, exactly, the hymnal came to the Library. Pencil marks in the margin of the title page seem to indicate it was catalogued June 30, 1927. The Zeisberger/ Luckenbach hymnal seems to have been catalogued a few days earlier on June 27th of the same year. A mark in the margin of that book appears to record the first hymnal coming into the Library’s possession in January 1922. If the Munsee-specific hymnal followed the same journey it is possible that it had once been held by my grandfather or one of his older relatives, singing in a church in Munsee, before it was purchased by or gifted to the Library. Even the chance that my relations might have used it prior to the book’s journey south is enough to give me goosebumps.

Sitting there in the cool and quiet of the Rare Book room, I think about that book’s history, journey and impact and find 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.

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.