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The Moravian Missionary Experience:

The West Indies, Guiana and Surinam, 1732-1800
European Competition and Expansion
Final Paper
17 December, 2003
I. The Moravians
The Moravians were a Protestant sect that, under the leadership of
Count Nikolas Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf, experienced a strong
revival in the 1720s. The doctrine of the Moravians centered on the
sufferings of Christ on the cross and involved much contemplation of the
various wounds he received therein. Zinzendorf began the practice of
sending Brethren to minister among the heathens in the New World and
Africa, and potential missionaries underwent extensive indoctrination:
These missionaries, both men and women, envisioned themselves as
“brides of Christ” whose father was God and whose mother the Holy
Ghost. In this imagery, the church was born in the savior’s side
wound, betrothed to Christ in Holy Communion, making it the daughter-
in-law of both God the Father and the Holy Ghost (Price, 57).

Missionaries were taught to not involve themselves with politics or
commerce in the colonies, although this did not always hold true. They
also accepted slavery as the status quo, and in some cases, became slave
owners themselves.

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II. The West Indies
The Moravian presence in the New World began with the death of
Frederick IV of Denmark and Norway. Count Zinzendorf, wishing to
relinquish his secular title and gain some office within the Danish court,
traveled to Copenhagen to gain contacts within the court of the new king,
Christian VI. This protracted visit failed to gain the Count any appointed
office, but his new connections within the court shed light on a problem
that fell well within his realm as spiritual leader of the Moravian
Brethren. A slave named Anthony, the body servant of an acquaintance of
Zinzendorf’s, told the Count of “the dark moral and intellectual and
religious condition of the slaves in the Danish West Indies” (Hamilton 50).

His plans for recognition within the court of the new king quashed, the
Count immediately began to plan missions to the Danish holding in the New

Zinzendorf returned to Herrnhut, followed shortly after by Anthony,
who gave his same testimony to the Brethren that the Count had heard in
Copenhagen. Two young men, Leonard Dober and Tobias Leopold volunteered
themselves to travel to the West Indies and serve as missionaries. The
Brethren decided that Dober would travel, and Leopold would remain in
Herrnhut for awhile longer.

After undergoing extensive training Dober and David Nitschmann, a
carpenter, set out on foot for Copenhagen in August of 1732. They set sail
in October of that year, Nitschmann employed as ship’s carpenter, and
landed in St Thomas in early December.

Upon their arrival in St Thomas, the two Moravians were the guests of
a planter. Two slaves served as contacts among the potential congregation;
Anna and Abraham, the sister and brother of Anthony. Nitschmann supported
the pair for four months with his carpentry skills. Dober was unable to
find the clay of the necessary quality to employ himself as a potter. When
Nitschmann, as planned, returned to Europe, Dober was employed as steward
of Governor Gardelin’s household and tutor of his children. Although the
income was steady and sufficient for his needs, Dober found his duties
occupied too much of his time to allow him to minister to the slaves. He
resigned and found work as a watchman in town and on surrounding

Dober’s religious work among the slaves was hardly appreciated by the
planters. There were extremely strict regulations monitoring the movements
of slaves, and subsequently harsh punishments for relatively minor
infractions. Rebellions among the slaves of St Thomas and St John were
bloody and often resulted in the deaths of white planters. Mistrust and
general wariness were extreme, and Dober’s association with the slaves
earned him much of the same treatment from the planters.

In 1734, the French sold the island of St Croix to the Dutch West
India Company. Count von Pless, the Chamberlain of the Danish court, and
new owner of six New World plantations, petitioned the Moravian Brethren
for men to act as overseers of the land and the religious welfare of the
natives. Zinzendorf objected to this proposal; he did not like the idea of
missionaries involved in the commerce and politics of the island, but was
overruled by the rest of the Brethren.

In June 1734 Tobias Leopold and seventeen others arrived in St
Thomas. Some were to remain on St Thomas, others were to colonize and
evangelize the abandoned St Croix. Dober sailed back to Europe to assume
the mantle of chief elder of Herrnhut.

The journey of the new missionaries to St Thomas was a horrible one.

Forced to winter over in Norway, and enduring terrible conditions aboard
the ship, several of the missionaries were ill before they reached St
Thomas. Once there, they found the conditions not much more in their
favor; several succumbed to yellow fever before setting foot on St Croix.

In the following six months eight of the original eighteen missionaries
died, including Tobias Leopold. In February 1735 eleven reinforcements set
out from Herrnhut, including physician Dr. Grottausen, who was the first to
die. Within two months of landing on St Croix, four of these newcomers
would fall victim to various tropical illnesses. Most of those that
survived the initial illness, “during the years 1735 and
1736…returned home in a miserable plight, three of them suffering
shipwreck en route” (Hamilton, 54). In December 1736 the last Moravian on
St Croix traveled to St Thomas to join Frederick Martin, who had been in
charge of the mission there for almost a year. Martin had found some
success on St Thomas. He and his assistant had found themselves preaching,
at times, to some two hundred slaves.

1736 marked the first of the Moravian baptisms on St Thomas. As
Martin and his associated were not ordained, these were preformed by
Augustus Spangenberg. Spagenberg was a prominent member of Bethlehem, a
Moravian community in Pennsylvania. He arrived in St Thomas in September
and baptized what was to become the core of the first Moravian congregation
in the West Indies; three slaves named Andrew, Paul and Nathaniel.

Relations between the missionaries and the planters became heated
when, in August 1737, the Moravians purchased the estate of Posaunenberg.

In their anger, the planters had incited their Reform clergyman to question
some of the slaves that the Moravians had been ministering to. The
converts refused to answer clergyman Borm’s questions. In turn, Borm went
to the Common Council to petition for the Governor to prohibit the
Moravians from baptizing their converts. The Governor refused to be drawn
into this plot, so false charges of robbery were raised up against the
Brethren. To clear themselves of these charges, the Moravians were
required to take oath, which was contrary to their convictions. They were
subsequently imprisoned.

When Count Zinzendorf arrived in St Thomas in January of 1739 to find
all of his Brethren imprisoned, he immediately petitioned the Governor for
their release. His wish was granted the next day, along with an apology
from the Governor.

Zinzendorf and the visiting Brethren were impressed with the success
of the mission on St Thomas. There were some eight hundred converts among
the slaves. Zinzendorf spent his visit preaching to these new converts.

After a sensational farewell address, the missionaries accompanied
Zinzendorf from Posaunenberg to town. During their absence Posaunenberg
was attacked, causing much damage to the property. Upon appraisal of the
damage, the missionaries lodge a complaint with the Common Council, but
this only made matters worse. Relations with the planters became so
strained that services had to be held in the woods under guard for fear of

In 1739, Theodore Feder and Christian Gottlieb set sail for the New
World. After losing Feder in a shipwreck, and nearly dying himself,
Gottlieb arrived in St Thomas. He and another young Moravian, George
Weber, later left for St Croix to recommence the mission there. Progress
was rather slow, and the first converts were not baptized until 1744, and
Friedensthal, the first permanent mission station was founded in 1755.

In 1741, a pious planter on St Johns requested the presence of one of
the Brethren to preach to his slaves. Baptism was first preformed there in
1745, and in 1754, a resident missionary was stationed at Bethania, an
estate purchased in 1749.

In 1751 the New World missions of the Moravians came under the
control of the now Bishop Augustus Spangenberg. The missions came under a
program of systemic development; twenty four national helpers were
appointed, land on St Thomas, St Croix and St John was purchased for
settlement, and resident missionaries were appointed to live on these newly
purchased estates. Converts were secured as workers for these settlements
in an attempt to mitigate the supposed evils of a religious order
participating in rampant and exploitative capitalism. No real thought was
given to the conflict of taskmaster versus spiritual advisor that these
convert slaves were facing.

In 1754 two members of the English Brethren, Barham and Foster
requested that missionaries be appointed to their plantations on Jamaica.

Zinzendorf was afraid that the poor financial situation of the Brethren
would not allow him to send someone, but Zacharias Caries volunteered, and
his Jamaican patrons were very generous with their funds. Caries had a
relatively easy time of it, as compared to his compatriots on the Danish
Virgin Islands. Although he didn’t gain converts as easily as the others,
he was well supported by the Jamaican planters and was given access to the
slaves in ways that the others hadn’t. The planters provided the land for
the first mission settlement of Carmel. Many were converted, and more
missionaries followed, at the request of the planters, another mission
settlement was added at Emmaus. Later, outposts were added at Bogue,
Island and Mesopotamia, three plantations.

The 1790’s were a difficult time for the West Indies and the
Caribbean in general. The islands faced drought, among other natural
disasters, and slave revolts in the French and British colonies. The
Danish witnessed the ramifications of the successful slave revolt in Haiti,
and decided to adopt a more progressive policy, to preserve neutrality and
perhaps share in the major economic boon that was the slave trade. But
this would also expose the slaves in the Danish colonies to insurrectionist
attitudes. In an effort to preempt this, the King issued a royal order in
May of 1792 “that the traffic in slaves should cease in Danish possessions
from the end of the year 1802″ (Hamilton, 328). At this same time,
repeated requests were issued to the Brethren that they expanded the scope
of their enterprise and undertake the religious and civil education of the
children of the slaves. These requests, made by landowners on St Croix,
were refused. The Moravians faced the financial burden of reconstructing
mission settlements after a devastating series of tornadoes hit St Thomas
and Jamaica
The Moravian Brethren closed out the century reconstructing
settlements. They were attracting ever more converts, although at this
time, their focus had turned a bit more inward.

III. Guiana and Surinam
During a visit to Europe in 1734, upon the suggestion of Count
Zinzendorf, the Bishop Spangenburg met several times with the directors of
the Society of Surinam in Amsterdam. He pledged a Moravian presence in the
colony, agreeing to form one or more missions there. In 1735, three of the
Brethren were sent to explore the area. They settled briefly on the Rio
Berbice in Guiana to preach to the slaves of a Danish planter there, but
found themselves thwarted by those in charge of the estates.

In 1738 two of these men, John Guttner and Christian Dahne founded
Pilgerhut on a tributary of the Berbice, about 100 miles inland from the
coast. The only native inhabitants of this area were Arawaks, some of whom
had a small understanding of Dutch. 1739 through 1741 saw the arrival of
more Moravians from Europe. The missionaries began to travel through the
forest to reach potential converts. They would provision themselves for
long journeys and travel to Arawak and Carib settlements. By 1748, some
forty five natives had been converted, many of whom settled around
Pilgerhut. In 1750, Pilgerhut received groups of Natives from the Orinoco
and Corentyn Rivers that had heard of the mission through word of mouth. A
number of these remained at Pilgerhut. This same year a group of white
planters began to take offense at the Moravians’ interaction with the
Natives, fearing their enlightenment would be damaging to trade.

Manipulation of colonial government led to the impressment of two Christian
Natives into the colonial militia. Military duties and taxes upon the
heads of each convert were also levied against the Moravians. After these
hostilities, some of the Brethren returned to Europe.

During this time, a man by the name of Theophilus Schumann had become
prominent among the converts of Guiana. Called “the apostle of the
Arawaks”, he was a Protestant scholar that had fallen out of favor with the
church in Europe, and had found refuge with Count Zinzendorf at Herrnhut.

His arrival at Pilgerhut was the beginning of an easier time for the
missionaries that had been struggling with the language of their potential
converts. He translated parts of the scripture into Arawak and begun the
compilation of a dictionary and grammatical lexicon. Shortly after his
arrival, he was preaching in the vernacular, something that not one of his
colleagues had been able to achieve.

In 1758, Schumann was forced to return to Europe on business for the
mission. The man that was supposed to replace him for this period had
failed to find a ship in Europe. For two years, the converts at Pilgerhut
lived without one of the Moravian Brethren. When Schumann returned in
1760, he found his congregation depleted due to epidemics, raids by
maroons, and general loss of discipline. Shortly after he returned to the
mission, Schumann died of tropical disease. His passing marked the end of
the mission at Pilgerhut.

The first Moravian mission in Surinam was in the capital of
Paramaribo. Because the cost of living in the city was so expensive, and
so much of their time was consumed working to support themselves, the
missionaries found themselves with no time to work among the Natives. The
Moravians then settled on the Cottika, a tributary of the Corentyn. They
had some small successes ministering to the Arawaks, but internal divisions
lead to the abandonment of the mission in 1745.

In 1747, two tracks of land were purchased for the purpose of mission
settlement: Ephraim on the Corentyn and Sharon on the Saramaka. In 1757 a
lone missionary set up residence “on the Corentyn in the midst of an utter
wilderness” (Thompson, 137). He faced innumerable hardships, but was
pleasantly surprised when, after two years of his continued presence, a
small congregation of Arawak, Carib and Warow converts began to settle
around Ephraim. Dehne was relieved in 1759 by three missionaries; he
retired to Sharon and later returned to Europe.

After making peace with the Maroons in 1764, the Government of
Suriname solicited the Moravians to send missionaries to Maroon settlements
on the Saramaka River. In 1765, three men were sent from Europe to serve
among the Saramaka maroons; Ludwig Dehne, Rudolph Stoll and Thomas Jones,
an Englishman. Brother Dehne, the leader of the group, had served for two
and a half decades among the Natives of Guiana. Upon their arrival in
Surinam, the missionaries found themselves courted heavily by the Governor.

He wished for them to act as agents, supplying incidental
intelligence, and in return, he would provide material support. The
Brethren were somewhat wary of this offer; they had been taught to not
involve themselves in local politics, but would not be allowed to work
among the Saramaka until they made some sort of compromise with the
colonial government. The Moravians finally agreed to report any suspicious
activities among the Maroons.

The chief intermediary between the colonials and the Saramaka,
Postholder Dorig, introduced the missionaries to their new potential
converts on the day that the Maroons received their tribute in 1765.

The chiefs among the Saramaka saw two potentials in the missionaries.

First, the
white brothers, connected to the government as they were, could be used as
a connection
to the power structure within the capital of Paramaribo. Just as the
chiefs jockeyed for
favor with the Postholder, they jockeyed to have the missionaries live with
them, not for prestige, but for power. Second, as whites closely
associated with books, the Saramaka saw the Moravians as their entrance
into the hitherto forbidden world of reading, writing and arithmetic.

The Moravians found acceptance slow among the fiercely independent
Saramaka peoples. Much as with their other missions, they faced death and
disease and a general mistrust among the populace of potential converts.

No real progress was made until the son of a deceased chief, Alabi, became
the vocal proponent of the Moravian brothers. Powerful in his own right,
Alabi was the heir apparent to his father’s chiefdom, and was instrumental
in gaining general acceptance for the Moravian Brethren and their gospels.

Even with Alabi’s ascension to chief, and the knowledge that their chief no
longer accepted to obeah faith, the Saramaka remained deeply superstitious,
clinging to their old practices even after baptism.

The close of the eighteenth century saw the missions among the Arawak
and other natives dwindle. Only two posts remained in Guiana and Surinam,
these manned by six brothers. The missions among the Saramaka saw some
progress, but had to deal with occasional outbreaks of obeah. Death by
disease still loomed large over the European missionaries, and all of the
missions of the New World were constantly replacing those who succumbed to

Works Cited
Gollin, Gillian Lindt. Moravians in Two World: A Study of Changing
Communities. New York: Columbia University, 1967.

Hamilton, John Taylor. A History of the Moravian Church. 1901. New York:
AMS Press, 1971.

Kohnova, Marie J. “The Moravians and their Missionaries: A Problem in
Americanization.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 19.3
(1932): 348-61
Price, Richard. Alabi’s World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,

Thompson, Augustus C. Moravian Missions: Twelve Lectures. New York:
Scribner’s, 1890.


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