A Song In The Wilderness

Veronika Löhans struggled to understand an Afro-Caribbean man speaking to the crowd. Far back, under a palm thatch roof without walls, she watched the light of a lantern on his face. The man spoke eagerly, in short syllables. He was tall and strong and moved his arms quickly. Veronika smiled to herself in the dark. Even though she did not understand everything he said, she did not fear him like she would have as a child. She loved him, a brother in the Saviour’s Gemeine (church community), and to see how he spoke to the people filled her with happy thoughts.

Mosquitos moved about. Like the other women at the meeting, Veronika slapped her legs and waved them from her ears. She wondered how the men, mostly without shirts, could ignore them so well. But, glancing behind her, she saw that something of far greater urgency than night-flying bugs held the attention of the crowd.

Faces kept emerging from the darkness under low-hanging coconut palms. More and more—perhaps over five hundred faces—surrounded the light and kept drawing closer to hear what was said. In spite of the humidity and bugs, in spite of the ever tightening crowd, Veronika felt deeply thankful for having come to St. Thomas in the West Indies. The Saviour was here, and with the seekers around her, she found joy in becoming little, like a worm, before him.

Veronika was young—only married a few months—but the road behind her was already long. A peasant girl from the backwoods of Moravia, she had lain a year in prison for having attended secret meetings of believers. On her release she had escaped through the mountains of Silesia to Germany. There she had joined the congregation of believers at Herrnhut in Upper Lusatia. Immediately after her marriage to Valentin Löhans in 1738, they had sent them overland to Rotterdam from where they sailed to the New World.

Now she sat among believers on the Posaunenberg (Mountain of Trumpets) where on a twenty-seven acre lot the brothers had built houses among flowering jasmine and lemon trees. In the crowd gathered there to worship she saw few white faces—until a sudden commotion turned all heads at once.

Rough men with swords and whips tumbled in on the multitude. Roars and shouts drowned out the screams of terrified children. “Kill them! Shoot them! Beat them! Stab them!” Veronika distinguished the voices at once from musical West Indian patois. They were crude white men’s voices and struck terror to her soul.

Benches rolled over as terrified mothers around her snatched their children to flee. Swinging cutlasses, heavy booted men smelling of cane liquor charged into the circle of light beneath the lantern. They caught the one who had spoken—a brother baptised “Abraham”—and began to beat him wildly. One white man hit the helper1 Petrus’s wife over the head. She clutched her newborn child tighter while another cracked a bull whip around her. Georg Weber’s wife Elisabeth, a European sister, got a stab wound through her breast and a cutlass sunk deep into Veronika’s shoulder.

Within minutes the multitude had vanished into surrounding darkness, the intruders had galloped off on horseback, and only the most injured lay groaning among patches of blood on the hard packed earth. Then the sugar cane rustled and a few of the brothers, looking cautiously this way and that, returned.

At the scene of violence they knelt, undismayed, to pray for their white Protestant persecutors. Some prayed in West Indian patois and some in the languages of central Europe. Abraham, the strong young man who did not fight back when the drunks beat him, prayed with tears for their “awakening.”

Within three weeks of the attack, the Saviour’s Gemeine on St. Thomas (consisting almost entirely of black slaves owned by white “Christian” masters) sent out sixteen pilgrims2 to speak to the lost about their souls. They reached every plantation on the island and the number of believers increased so rapidly that landowners threatened the governor they would leave unless he crushed the movement at once.

What, on St. Thomas, had taken place?

What exposed the landowners’ wickedness so clearly (to their unbounded rage) and led thousands of slaves into new life and joy? What brought a great company of Africans and Europeans into previously unheard of unity? What inspired young peasant women to cross the ocean and brave life in strange tropical lands where all predicted they would die? What turned wild drunkards and thieves into believers noble enough to return good for evil—while the rest of “Christendom” languished in hypocrisy and sin?

Reinhard Ronner, a German brother walking the white trails of St. Thomas in the 1740s, came upon the answer where he did not expect. A distance from any village or plantation house, down where the road crossed a thicket of tropical vegetation, he heard a song.

At first he thought he must be imagining things. Then he stopped short and listened. “Christi Blut und Gerechtigkeit, das ist mein Schmuck und Ehrenkleid. . . .” Out of the underbrush the hymn came in majestic strength, the voice of a young man singing with all his heart. “Damit will ich vor Gott bestehn, wenn ich zum Himmel werd eingehn!”

Reinhard could wait no longer. He had to see where it came from, and scurried down into the dimly lit space beneath the leaves. There he saw him, a boy—obviously a slave from an island plantation—clearing land with a cutlass, alone. He had has back turned and Reinhard stood still as the song (given here in translation) poured from the depths of his being:

The blood of Christ and his righteousness, is my adornment and robe of praise. With it I shall stand before God when I enter heaven.

I see the holy innocent Lamb, my Lord and Christ—the Lamb that died on the rough cross for me. I see the value of his blood, treasure beyond price, eternally reckoned in heaven.

This blood alone is my confidence and hope. Though all else should fail, my confidence remains. Sure as rock it stands.

As long as I continue here below, this shall be my goal: I will testify with a glad spirit of grace in Jesus’ blood.

Praise to you, Jesus Christ! Praise for becoming a man! Praise for buying my freedom and that of the whole world! King of honour, Jesus Christ, the Father’s only son, have mercy on the world, and bless those who stay with you!

When the song ended, Reinhard hesitated to make himself known. But the young man turned in his work and saw him. Startled, he drew back, speechless.

Do not fear,” Reinhard told him. “I am a brother!”

At once the joy of having his sins forgiven shone from the young man’s face and Reinhard found him “inwardly small and tender to the Lamb” before leaving him, unspeakably encouraged, to continue on his way.

The road between St. Thomas cane fields seemed transformed. Dark nights of storm and violence seemed like a distant dream. Never had Reinhard Ronner noticed a more heavenly sunlight glistening on rolling expanses of emerald green above the sea.

Men and women had seen the Lamb. “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” And yes—in Europe, in the West Indies and abroad, during the mid-eighteenth century—saints had overcome evil with his blood!

1 lay leader

2 evangelists sent out by the Moravian church