Christian Frederick Denke

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Christian Frederick Denke was a Moravian missionary. While in some references, his last name is also spelled "Denkey" or "Dencke" most spell it "Denke". He was born on September 8, 1775 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to parents Jeremiah Dencke and Sara Test. C.F. Denke was married twice - first to Anna Maria Heckedorn in Litiz, Pennsylvania on August 7, 1803, and secondly to Maria (Mary) Steiner on September 12, 1828. Christian Frederick Denke died on January 12, 1838 in Salem (Winston-Salem), North Carolina.

The Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This building was constructed between 1803 and 1806.

A native of Langenbielau (Bielawa, Poland), Christian Frederick Denke's father was a prominent Moravian minister in Bethlehem, a major Moravian settlement and center of missionary activity. At ten years of age, Christian entered Nazareth Hall, the Moravian academy at Nazareth, Pennsylvania where his studies included Latin and other languages, theology, management, and also botony in which he took a special interest. He sent many letters and botanical specimens to the noted American botonist Gotthilf Herny Ernest Mühlenberg (1753-1815), first from Nazareth Hall, where Denke became a teacher, and later from Upper Canada until the War of 1812 rendered correspondence impossible.

While teaching, Denke, a deeply religious young man, felt a call to preach to the Indians and in Nazareth he heard David Zeisberger tell about the Delaware mission at Fairfield in Upper Canada near present-day Thamesville, and of plans to extend missionary work to the nearby Chippewas. Being a linguist, Denke thought he might learn the Delaware and Chippewa languages in order to translate and to preach to the Indians in their own tounges. On April 27, 1800 he was ordained a deacon and was on his way to the mission fields with John Heckewilder. At Goshen (near Gnadenhutten, Ohio), he received instruction in the Delaware dialect from Zeisberger before leaving for Fairfield. For several years, Denke attempted to work with the semi-nomadic Chippewas in their temporary villages on Big Bear Creek (Sydenham River) and the St. Clair River. Click on the diaries link for an article from the Kewa Newsletter that includes some of the Diaries of Christian Frederick Denke. In 1806 Denke and his wife, unsuccessful in their efforts to convert the Chippewas, returned permanently to Fairfield, where they would give years of valuable service in missionary work and education.

David Zeisberger was the inspiration for Christian Denke's missionary work to the Delaware Indians. The original of this painting by John Valentine Haidt is in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem PA.

The War of 1812 brought disaster to Fairfield. Committed to pacifism, Denke and his partner, John Schnall, tried to keep the local Indians neutral but some joined the British forces. Following the Battle of Moraviantown on October 5, 1813 the Americans burned Fairfield, "putting the first torch to the Moravian Church." The Schnalls returned to Bethlehem leaving the Denkes to lead the Indians to a safe place near Burlington Heights (Hamilton).


The Battle of Moraviantown (refered to above) is best known for the death of Tecumseh, Shawnee chief and Britain and Canada's greatest Indian ally during the War of 1812. These pictures  are of the death of Tecumseh and the Battle of Moraviantown.

For two years, the Denkes, unable to communicate with Bethlehem, took full charge of the Indians, with some assistance from the Upper Canadian government. In their winter camp, near Dundas there were 183 people at the end of 1813. The following spring they moved to Nelson Township. Denke also ministered to the spiritual needs of the whites in the area. In late June 1814 he began attending the eight men condemned to death for treason at the Ancaster "Bloody Assizes"(See Webmaster's note 1 below), staying with them day and night until their execution on July 20th.

Settlements in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Present-day names are in capital letters; old names are in parentheses and small letters; and names of places no longer extant are in small letters.

On May 8, 1815 the Denkes and their converts started their return to Fairfield, a journey of 18 days on foot for the Indians. Besides overseeing the building of a new church and village, called New Fairfield, on the other side of the Thames River, Denke took on responsibilities on behalf of the region's other settlers. As a member of a committee representing six townships, he prepared pages of information for Robert Gourlay's Statistical account. From this source it is evident that Denke and the other missionaries encouraged the practice of a strict moral code while discouraging a number of traditional customs. "Other Indians have vermilion from government to paint their bodies; but the Moravians are forbidden to practise this."

The Indian church at New Fairfield (Built 1827). From a drawing by L.F. Kampmann, 1842, in Moravian Archives.

Denke's health was undermined by the troubles and responsibilities of the war and reconstruction, and he developed a drinking problem. John Schnall came back to replace him in November of 1818, at which time Denke, with his wife, returned to Bethlehem for rest. After two years, they accepted a call to Hope Church, in the Salem area of North Carolina, and subsequently they served in Salem and nearby Friedberg. In 1828, Anna Maria Denke died at Friedberg. Three years later, Denke and his second wife returned to Salem where he died in 1838.

The Friedberg Church in North Carolina was built under the direction of C.F. Denke. The cornerstone was laid on Feb 5, 1823 and contruction was completed on July 28, 1827. The cornerstone from this church still sits under the the current Friedberg Church.

Still standing today in Salem, North Carolina (although it has been moved from its original location on "Factory Row" to its current spot on Salt Street) is the former home of C.F. Denke, built in 1832 - six years before his death. Photo courtesy of

Webmaster's notes:

1. THE BLOODY ASSIZE - 1814: During the war of 1812 marauding bands of renegade settlers, many of whom had defected to the United States from the Niagara and London Districts were active in Southwestern Upper Canada. A number were captured and in May 1814 nineteen prisoners were indicted for High Treason. A special court was authorized to sit at Ancaster and the acting attorney general John Beverly Robinson instructed to prosecute. The trials were conducted by Chief Justice Thomas Scott and Puisné Judges William Dummer Powell and William Campbell. Fifteen were condemned to death as traitors. On July 20, 1814, eight were executed at Burlington heights and the remainder sentenced to exile. These trials became known as the Bloody Assize.