Ph.D. Alum Patrick Erben’s New Monograph: A Harmony of the Spirits

From the publisher’s website (

A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

By Patrick M. Erben

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.


“With remarkable skill and formidable learning, Erben integrates the histories of radical religious sectarians, both English and German, in early Pennsylvania. His elegant readings cross a wide range of sources, from mystical texts to musical scores, to restore our understanding of the utopian culture shared by the linguistically diverse believers drawn to William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment.'”
–Mark Peterson, University of California, Berkeley

“Erben’s discerning and fascinating examination of the foundational vision of Pennsylvania traces the origins of the ‘Holy Experiment’ to early modern utopian concepts, advanced by John Amos Comenius and Jacob Böhme, that sought to overcome Babylonic language confusion through translation. In Pennsylvania, German Pietists and English Quakers alike applied these concepts to forge one community of believers. A crucial contribution.”
–Claudia Schnurmann, Universität Hamburg