A Harmony of the Spirits

Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

By Patrick M. Erben

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3346-6
    Published: February 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-3819-8
    Published: June 2013
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4240-4
    Published: June 2013

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

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Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Awards & distinctions

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

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 associate professor of English at the University of West Georgia.
For more information about Patrick M. Erben, visit the Author Page.


"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

"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

“[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 has masterfully translated the multilingual sectarian voices of the past into an academic treatise on spiritual cooperation.”--William and Mary Quarterly

“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

“Intriguing. . . [and] remarkably successful in helping readers understand the broader context for many of the religious groups of early Pennsylvania.”--Journal of Moravian History