Moravian Missions through the Caribbean and West Indies

Religion is an important aspect of many people’s lives throughout the world. Not all beliefs are widely accepted and due to this intolerance, religious persecution has occurred at different times in history. Moravians are no stranger to this type of thought as many viewed this religion with tremendous skepticism. This holds true during the many travels of Moravian missionaries to the West Indies and the Caribbean as they spread the word of Christ and the teachings of founders Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf and Spangenberg. These missionaries were active in a transatlantic approach to the spiritual unity of Moravian communities scattered throughout the Caribbean islands and maintained a consistent set of beliefs through worship and conversion.

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As the development of the Moravian doctrine began to take shape, Zinzendorf’s leadership in the eighteenth century had the Moravian community looking outside of its borders for the first time. Prior to the stabilization of life in Hernhutt, the primary focus of community leaders was to ensure the survival of the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf and his Moravian missionaries had seen great success in areas such as Holland, England, and America which, in part, helped to give credibility to what the Moravians were doing, but why would he choose to expand all the way to the Caribbean?
The idea of missions first came in 1731 when Zinzendorf was introduced to an African slave living in the Virgin Islands, along with two Greenlandic Eskimos, all who had been converted to Christianity. Zinzendorf was no stranger to the idea of travel to the East and West Indies thanks to the stories he heard as a child from his grandmother who would read about the East Indies and the activity of the German Pietists in the area (Hamilton 40). This never left his mind and only inspired Zinzendorf, especially “as a boy in Halle, Zinzendorf had met some of these men in person, and what he learned of these experiences had inspired the founding of “The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed”. The Count never lost this interest in the unevangelized parts of the world.” (Hamilton 40).
These encounters as a young boy provided the foundation, but the words of Anthony Ulrich is what motivated the church to mobilize and begin to take action. Ulrich, “a former slave from St. Thomas then in the country, was invited by Count Zinzendorf to make a plea for missionaries to be sent to the West Indies before the congregation of Hernhutt” (Furley 3). He spoke of his brother and sister, Abraham and Anna, and their desire to hear the Gospel. “If only some missionaries would come, they would most certainly be heartily welcomed. Many an evening have I sat on the shore and sighed my soul to Christian Europe” (Hutton 17). To Zinzendorf, this was nothing short of a message from God. One of the most interesting statements made by Ulrich during that meeting was that “no one could possibly preach to the slaves unless he first became a slave himself” (Furley 3). This urgent appeal to Zinzendorf from Ulrich about the spiritually deprived slaves in St. Thomas was the final deciding factor for the launching of the first mission.
After hearing the words of Ulrich, a man named Leonard Dober was touched, intrigued, but also distressed about these slaves who have no way of hearing the words of the Gospel.
Dober and another man, David Nitschmann, “a carpenter and established church leader” (Richards 59), were selected to be the first missionaries to make the difficult journey to St. Thomas. They arrived on the shore of the island on December 13, 1732. Remembering the words of Anthony Ulrich, Dober and Nitschmann attempt to sell themselves into slavery in order to reach those already enslaved. However, a Dutch law that was in place prohibited the enslavement of white people. They were able to find work and a place to sleep as a Dutch planter hired them to complete work on a house.
As soon as they had the chance, both men set out to find the brother and sister of Anthony Ulrich and eventually found them on the south side of the island working on a plantation. Both were pleasantly surprised to hear from their brother in Europe, but even more amazed to hear Dober’s stories discussing the Savior. Although they had a difficult time understanding the words of Dober who spoke a mixture of German and Dutch, they gathered family and friends together in order to hear the promise of good news from Christ the Savior and give their lives to him.
This spiritual awakening among the slaves continued to spread like wildfire throughout the different plantations on the island. This was not readily accepted by the plantation landowners and they made their displeasure known in their actions. Many slave owners beat their slaves for attending any Moravian meetings and would take all their books away if they were caught learning to read. However, none of this would deter the enslaved men and women. In fact, the crowds that gathered during the evening to hear the teachings only grew larger.
One way the Moravian missionaries were able to reach the ears of those enslaved and spread the word of the Gospel was through the help of a woman known as Rebecca. Detailed in the book Rebecca’s Revival ​ ​by Jon F. Sensbach, it is her strength and unwavering dedication to the overall Moravian mission that enables two Moravian brothers, Friedrich Martin and Matthaus Freundlich, to “travel along the road in an aggressive recruitment drive for souls”(Sensbach 73) also known as “The Path”. Martin noted the extraordinary leadership Rebecca displayed by writing in his journal in 1737, “Rebecca is a very diligent worker, when I am out in the countryside, she takes my place so that the Brethren don’t have to look after the Negro women which they do not want to do. The Lord is with her and grounds her heart in faith. It is a serious duty for her to spread His word.” (Sensbach 76,77)
Another island the Moravian missionaries would reach was that of St. Croix. A count from the Danish court petitioned the Brethren at Hernhutt for men who could act as overseers to his recently purchased six plantations, but also have the opportunity to teach the enslaved men and women about Moravian beliefs (Hutton 61). Zinzendorf was skeptical of this opportunity, believing that this dual role would create conflict and not allow the missionaries to do what they were sent to do. The chance to spread the word of Christ and preach to slaves was too much to resist and Zinzendorf felt as if the risk was worth taking.
However, St. Croix would prove to be much more difficult than anyone had imagined. The selected eighteen colonists, fourteen men and four women, set out for St. Croix but their boat was forced to dock in a port of Norway due to weather. More than half a year went by before their journey resumed and many died while on St. Thomas for twelve weeks before departing for St. Croix. Only half of the original eighteen made it to St. Croix but they were stricken with a fever and were unable to perform their missionary duties. Reinforcements arrived in 1735 in the form of eleven people, but four of the eleven died within two months of arriving which caused the whole mission to be abandoned.
It had been more than a century after Jamaica became a territory to be owned by the British that any attempt would be made to send a mission to the island. The Moravian mission to Jamaica was founded in 1754 by Zacharias Caries, Gottlieb Haberecht, and Thomas Schallcross. Two wealthy landowners, William and John Foster, owned land in Jamaica but lived in England and invited the Brethren to bring their teachings of the Gospel to the slaves that worked on their sugar plantation. It was on this seven hundred acre plantation run by the Fosters that the first mission station, Carmel, was established. The Moravians would eventually open four more mission stations on the island, but the early years of the missionary effort did not go well.
Religious conversions were slow, possibly due to the strenuous daily work on the sugar plantations which left many who worked in a state of absolute exhaustion. Or it may have been due to the strict requirements if one was to convert. For example, the practice of the selling of slaves would almost always tear families apart, notably husbands and wives. Moravians would allow these slaves, torn from their husbands or wives remarry, but only if there was no chance they would be united with their original partners. Also, the climate and constant fear of fever wreaked havoc on the population, especially the missionaries who had come to the island hoping to preach the word of the Gospel.
A journal written by J.H. Buchner, who was a missionary in Jamaica for fifteen years, documented just how much the Moravians sacrificed in order to try and help many of the slaves in their salvation to Christ. He notes that, “Of the sixty-four brethren and sisters who died in the service of the Jamaica mission, there was only one who lived to endure the severity of the service for nineteen years! Since the commencement of the mission, 193 brethren and sisters have been engaged in the work- sixty-four have died on the island, 98 have returned home, or were called to labour in other islands, and thirty-one are now engaged in the service here”(Buchner 21).
He also provides a first-hand account of just how hard it was for those enslaved to have any time to attend any of the missionaries’ teachings; “When, or at what time, could a missionary labour among these people? One or two hours during the week were allowed to the slaves to attend his ministry, and when they had returned home at night he might be seen making his way through their houses, sitting down with them by the fire while they cooked their evening meal, conversing with and teaching them”, (Buchner 33). He also goes on, expressing his frustration at the rigorous work the slaves must endure. An example of this frustration as Buchner explains it, “How could a man with sensitive feelings, with a heart full of love, endure this?” (Buchner 33).
Although the Moravian missionaries did not necessarily agree with slavery, they were hesitant to bring this up as it would lead to more complications and ultimately lead to them being ostracized from the island or even being put to death.
Moravian missionaries traveled to many other small islands in the Caribbean as well as the Eastern and Western Indies. On the island of St. Kitts, they were able to establish the town of Bethesda in 1819 with well over two thousand people as members of the church. There was also consistent progress on the islands of Antigua and Barbados. In Antigua, work began on a new station called Newfield with church membership numbers swelling to over seven thousand within the congregation. One thing that seemed special about Antigua over all others was the attitude toward slavery by the British Parliament in regards to their adoption of the first Emancipation Act on August 28th, 1833. This act, in part, would have seen a number of years pass before a slave could be trusted with complete freedom. “However, the government was so convinced of the fitness of the Moravian Negroes on Antigua-more than ten thousand in all- that the act included a special clause permitting emancipation to take effect on that island the following year,” (Hamilton 253). Barbados saw the same level of popularity so, much to the delight of the brethren, the Church was able to acquire eleven acres of land in order to establish a new station named Sharon in 1794. This was the only Moravian congregation on the island.
Moravian missionaries did not receive funding from their home church. In efforts to become entrenched amongst the indigenous, local culture, they employed a strategy of missions in which they worked within the local community to make their own living. Zinzendorf felt it paramount that his missionaries earn their own money in a society in order to teach others the dignity of work. Funding for their missionary work only came from the work they did. This approach to foreign missions gave its users a multifaceted benefit of, first, helping to stimulate the local economy by creating industry and jobs, and, second, providing a bridge with the local people in which to develop relationships and trust in order to present the Gospel.
Missionaries were active in a transatlantic approach to the spiritual unity of Moravian communities scattered throughout the Caribbean islands and maintained a consistent set of beliefs through worship and conversion. The missions vision of Count Zinzendorf paved the way for this small refugee community to alter the landscape of cross-cultural evangelism as it devoted its existence to global outreach. By the end of the eighteenth century, Moravian settlements and mission stations had been established in Germany, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Greenland, Labrador, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, the West Indies, and on the African coast of Guinea. Their vision was to create a transatlantic network of like-minded communities which formed the center of the Moravian missionary efforts. The strategy to conduct this type of undertaking was not a project to be taken lightly. From its base back home in Europe, there was a great emphasis placed on cohesion amongst the Moravian’s established missions communities throughout the transatlantic region. Within each settlement, there was deliberate standardization in styles of worship, social organization, and institutional administration. Great importance was placed on communication and interactions between the leadership back home and the isolated missionaries, allowing the Moravians to function as a tight-knit community even though many of its members were separated by thousands of miles.
The missions and missionaries of the Moravian church still hold an enormous amount of relevance in today’s times.
Works Cited
1.) Furley, Oliver W. “Moravian Missionaries and Slaves in the West Indies.” ​Caribbean Studies​, vol. 5, no. 2, 1965, pp. 3–16. ​JSTOR​, ​​.
2.) Hamilton, J. Taylor, and Kenneth G. Hamilton. ​History of the Moravian Church: the Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 1722-1957​. Interprovincial Board of Christian Education, Moravian Church in America, 1983.
3.) Sensbach, J. F. (2006). Rebeccas Revival​ ​. Harvard University Press.
4.) Hutton, Js Emsl. A History of Moravian Missions​ ​. Moravian Publ. Off., 1922.
5.) Buchner, J. H. The Moravians in Jamaica. History of the Mission of the United Brethrens​ Church to the Negroes in the Island of Jamaica, from the Year 1754 to 1854. Longmans, 1854.