Skip to main content

On May 26, 1742, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf (1700–1760) gave a speech in Philadelphia, in the British colony of Pennsylvania—in Latin. It was his birthday, and he had come to a momentous decision: he would renounce his nobility and be known henceforth simply as John. Aware that even the best educated men in Philadelphia would have trouble following his Latin oration, he took care to have copies of the text printed in advance by the city’s foremost printer, Benjamin Franklin, which were then distributed to his audience. But after thundering through several pages of thoughts cloaked in the obscurity of a learned language, he had a crisis of confidence; he declared that he needed to consult with some of his friends in Germany and collected the copies of the speech. The bemused crowd thought that he was crazy. James Logan, William Penn’s secretary and one of the most learned men in the colony, called him “cracked” and compared him to Don Quixote.

Logan had also been tapped by Zinzendorf to prepare an English version, but the Count’s baroque Latinity foxed him: “It was done in Latin, but in a style much more odd than even his French—in some parts carrying a show of elegance but little propriety, in other places mere balderdash; in some places plain enough, and in others perfectly unintelligible.” A glance at almost any passage from the speech will confirm this bafflement. The first sentence, for example, runs: quae nobis hodie mane lucet, ultima lux est, auditores conscripti, hebdomadum sex, quas uiuo, optimae prima. This apparently means: “The day that dawns on us this morning is the last, ‘conscript auditors,’ of the 42 years that I have lived, and the first of the best (sc. which will follow).” That is to say, “this is my 42nd birthday, and my life is about to get so much better after I’ve renounced my nobility.” (In slightly more conventional terms he will later describe himself as tertium hunc supra quadragesimum annum inchoans.)

These obscure turns of phrase were not a function of deficient Latinity. Far from it. Zinzendorf had received the best Latin education available, as his schoolboy notes and exercises—preserved today in the Moravian Archive in Herrnhut, Germany—abundantly demonstrate. He, at least, knew what he was doing in this speech, as we can deduce from an annotated copy of the printed text with his own alterations and improvements. Not being conversant in English, he chose to use Latin as the universal language of communication. He had come to Pennsylvania on missionary work as bishop of the Moravian Church, and his decision to renounce his nobility was in large part a calculated ploy to ingratiate himself with the local populace; he thus wanted his decision to be widely understood and well publicized. Zinzendorf, however, had completely misjudged his audience; the convoluted style and recherché vocabulary that would have been prized in a contemporary European court was entirely out of place in colonial Pennsylvania. His speech fell on confused and decidedly unappreciative ears.

In my paper I will briefly sketch the social context, background, and significance of Zinzendorf’s speech, the most enigmatic Latin text printed in colonial North America. I will then undertake an analysis of the speech itself, which has not been reprinted since Franklin’s first edition and has never been translated into English. It is a fascinating product of late humanism, packed with allusions that range from Vergil to the New Testament, and from the intrigues of contemporary European courts to New World gossip. In an unfortunate irony, Zinzendorf’s very choice of the “universal language” of Latin ensured that he would not in fact be understood by his intended audience. 275 years later I hope at last to make his message clear and to explain its sophisticated (if ill-chosen) rhetoric in cultural and historical context.