Himmelsbriefen were in Most Homes
Movable type was invented in 15th century Germany and the consequences were world changing, allowing literacy and the Reformation to spread with previously unimagined speed. Overnight, reading was “all the rage.” Printed text in the fifteenth century, no doubt, had the immediacy and impact that the internet has today.
In addition to books, early printing presses produced volumes of single sheets called “broadsides.” One author defines broadside as “any piece of paper that was printed on one side that was intended to be given away or sold.” The range of material included not only street literature but also such documents as elegies, spiritual testaments, and certificates of birth, baptism, confirmation, and marriage. Additionally there were medical broadsides, political and military broadsides, sale bills, posters of all sorts, house blessings and finally “Letters from Heaven” our topic today.
Perhaps because religious iconography, indeed visual art of any kind, was effectively banished from protestant homes (the Bible and other religious texts being the sole source of inspiration) the possession of a Himmelsbrief, literally “Heaven-letter,” was quite common among the Pennsylvania Dutch. A sort of insurance against a multitude if misfortunes, the letters could be found tucked in family Bibles or other places in the home, framed and hanging on walls, or folded into amulets to be carried, sometimes by soldiers into battle.
The appeal and stark power of the Himmerlsbrief was the claim that it was written by God Himself in golden letters and sent down to various sites on earth. Dozens of versions in German and English were printed in the untold thousands in Pennsylvania and sold by itinerants and at fairs, festival, and village stores. The text of the letter itself encouraged spreading duplicate copies.
The most common Himmelsbrief is the so called Magdenberg Letter with a spurious date of 1783. In fact, versions of it date to the 15th century and are among the first examples of the genre. The text of the Magdenberg letter is, as with the other Himmelsbriefen, an earnest admonition to man to repent and stick to the straight and narrow. In return, keeping the letter in the house protected the house from lightening and all manner of misfortunes. It reads in part in translation: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost… whoever carries this letter with him shall not be damaged through the enemies’ guns or weapons, God will give strength! that he may not fear robbers or murderers and guns pistols, sword and musket shall not be hurt…Whoever has this letter with him shall be protected against all danger. …
“…This letter was found in Holstein, 1724, where it fell from heaven; it was written with Golden letters and moved over the Baptism of Madagmery and when they tried to seize it, it disappeared until 1791 that everybody may copy it and communicate it to the world then it is further written, whoever works on Sunday he shall be condemned….” There follows a listing of stern admonitions reinforcing the ten commandments.
The letter closes with “Whoever has this letter in his house no lightening shall strike it, and whosoever carries this letter shall bring forward fruits, keep my commandments which I have sent to you through my angels in the name of my son Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Himmelsbriefen usually expressed stern admonition and command. The St. Germaine letter reads in part: “…I have given you six days in which to perform your work, and on Sunday ye shall early proceed to church to hear the holy sermon and listen to God’s word. If ye will not do this I will punish ye with pestilence, War and Hard times. I command you that on Saturday you labor not late, and that on Sunday you go to church early with others, young and old, and there devoutly ask and pray that your sins be forgiven you. Swear not in anger by my name, covet not silver and gold, and yern not after fleshly lusts and desires. As easily as I created you so suddenly can I destroy you….”
Folded and carried on the person, Himmelsbriefen were amulets (objects that were supposed to provide protection against bad luck or negative forces). Professor Don Yoder, widely published researcher on Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture, writes: “There is plenty of evidence from Pennsylvania that the heaven letter was carried by soldiers in all of the American wars. A friend of mine…once presented me with a framed heaven-letter in German that his father had carried with him folded up in his uniform through the Civil War. I put it in a place of honor at the University of Pennsylvania and year after year shared the story…with my students. On retirement, I dutifully transferred it to my study at home, and if it is capable of acting, it is acting.”
It must be noted that the heaven-letter was not an accepted part of the protestant canon, but rather belonged with folk-religion akin to pow-wow, hexerei and such. In fact, if the minister came to call, the framed Himmelsbrief was likely taken down from the wall or turned around as the clergy occasionally spoke out against such things.
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