Having tasted the joy of leaving all things for Christ, no amount of opposition could stop the Moravians from going “out into all the world” in the 1730s. The Order of the Mustard Seed revived, and in preparation for service abroad, young believers began to study languages, medicine, geography, and the Bible, with zeal. A number of them took classes at the University of Jena, but with Brother Ludwig’s caution always in mind: “You must not be blinded by reason and order, as if people first had to learn to believe in God, and after that in Christ. That is wrong, because they already know God exists. They must be instructed about the Son for there is salvation in no other.”
During this time Ludwig von Zinzendorf and David Nitschman travelled to Copenhagen in Denmark. There, in the home of a Danish nobleman, they met Anton Ulrich, a black slave from the West Indian island of St. Thomas.
The brothers listened spellbound to Anton telling of slave transport to the New World, of their wretchedness on plantations there, and of how he used to sit on the shore of St. Thomas, longing to know God. “Should you cross the ocean,” Anton assured them, “you would find many slaves in the same condition. Perhaps you would even find my sister Anna and tell her about God like you have told me.”
After baptising Anton at Copenhagen, Ludwig—profoundly moved by his story—wanted David Nitschmann to set out at once for the West Indies. But things did not fall into place so quickly. Anton travelled back to Herrnhut with them instead, where he spoke to the whole congregation on July 21, 1731. In halting Danish, with gestures and stories that struck the believers to the heart, he described slavery. “But to speak to my people would be difficult,” he told them. “To reach them you would most likely have to become slaves yourselves.”
That night, after the meeting, Johann Leonhard Dober, a young potter who had come to Herrnhut from Silesia tossed and turned in bed. He shed many tears. The thought of innumerable black people, living and dying in bondage, without hope and without God in the world, kept him awake until morning. All day long he cried inwardly to Christ. Then he met on the Hutberg, the following evening, with other believers to pray, and discovered the same thing had happened to his friend, Tobias Leupold.
On their way back from the prayer meeting the young men passed Brother Ludwig’s house. Through the open window they heard him saying to a guest, “You know, among our young people the Lord has messengers to St. Thomas, Greenland, Lapland, and who knows what other countries!”
Filled with joy on hearing this, both Leonhard and Tobias hurried home to write letters telling the congregation of their willingness to go to the West Indies. In Leonhard’s words:
I can tell you that my intention has never been just to travel abroad for a while. What I desire is to dedicate myself more firmly to our Saviour. Ever since the Count [Brother Ludwig] has returned from Denmark and spoken of the condition of the slaves, I have not been able to forget them. So I decided that if another brother would like to accompany me, I would give myself over to slavery in order to tell them as much as I have learned about our Saviour. I am ready to do this because I firmly believe that the Word of the Cross is able to rescue souls even in degraded conditions. I also thought that even if I would not be of use to anyone in particular, I could test my obedience to our Saviour through this, but my main reason for going would be because there are still souls in the islands that cannot believe because they have not heard.
Martin Linner, leader of the young men’s choir, did not like the idea of Leonhard leaving Herrnhut. He was a valuable youth, both for his working skills and his godly example among the rest. But after a year of waiting before the Lord the congregation allowed Leonhard to draw lots concerning his future. The slip of paper he pulled out said: “Let the boy go, the Lord is with him.” Not Tobias Leupold, however, but David Nitschmann received the call to go with him.
After a farewell service (during which the congregation sang more than a hundred hymns by memory) and spending their last night at home in prayer, Leonhard and David left Herrnhut at three in the morning on August 21, 1732. Brother Ludwig accompanied them to the edge of the village. They knelt on the road and prayed together. Ludwig laid his hands on their heads and gave them a solemn charge: “Do everything in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Then, with one ducat each, and a few extra clothes in a bag, they set off on foot for the other side of the world.
Whoever they met told the young men to turn around and go back. “What you want to do is unthinkable,” Danish authorities told them when they reached Copenhagen in September. “You cannot become slaves. The only way for you to reach the New World is to join the army.”
To preach the gospel to black slaves not only seemed bizarre to Danish Protestants (the country had turned Lutheran in the Reformation). It ran directly counter to their beliefs. Many of them still suspected God made white people and the devil those of other colours. To buy and sell blacks seemed logical to them. But to tell them of Christ and offer them eternal salvation—never! Even Anton, whom the brothers met in Copenhagen, changed his mind and begged them not to go.
The brothers said little and prayed much.
The Lord Christ opened the doors.
After all captains in port had flatly refused to take them to America, a Danish princess, Charlotte Amalie, learned of the young men’s desire and took their side. She sent them money and a Dutch Bible. (Neither Leonhard nor David could read Dutch, but it was the language best known on St. Thomas.) With the money the men bought carpenter tools and a captain hired them to make a closet on his ship. Seeing their willingness and careful work, he recommended them to a friend and they found passage to the New World at last.
With dread and excitement the young men first saw the palm-fringed shore of St. Thomas on December 13, 1732.
Recently purchased from France, together with St. Croix and St. John, this most prosperous island of the West Indies already supplied all of Denmark with sugar and tobacco. Dutch Reformed families, owners of its 150 plantations, lived in airy palaces surrounded by mud and cane thatched huts of black slaves whom they firmly believed “predestined to perdition.” Every month, new shiploads of naked wretches from Africa—cannons trained on hatches where they lay in darkness below deck in their own filth—arrived at St. Thomas’s harbour. Those who turned deathly sick en route their dealers tossed overboard, to save on water. Those who survived, they led, skin and bones, eyes glazed with terror, onto the wharves of St. Thomas, to place at the mercy of “Christian” landlords who promptly broke them in to work.
Under the vigilant eye of Dominie Jan Borm, Reformed pastor of the island, strict Calvinist rule kept all in their places—slaves subject to masters, and masters subject to God and the church as they understood it. Blacks enjoyed few liberties and no luxuries. Living without furniture on dirt floors, dressed (if at all) in loincloths, they ate with their hands and slept on the ground. Small pox, lockjaw, and leprosy killed many.
Outnumbered six to one by their black slaves, white Christians lived in perpetual fear of revolt. St. Thomas law required the cutting off of slave’s hands lifted against their masters. First time run-aways had one foot cut off. Subsequent attempts resulted in cutting off the second foot, then one leg after the other. Floggings occurred every week—five hundred lashes (permitted by law) being equal to the death sentence. Masters cured the wounds of minor floggings by having them washed with salt and Spanish pepper.
St. Thomas law required the prompt execution of slaves planning revolt—masters to be paid by the government for every slave decapitated or hanged. The same Protestant law fined people fifty pounds of tobacco for working on the Lord’s Day (Sunday), and obligated all whites to attend church.
Order, greed, and terror in the name of God—the two brothers from Herrnhut felt it enveloping them at once, and wondered what place they would find in it.
A Dutch planter, Lorenzen, hired Leonhard and David to finish a new house he had built and gave them a place to sleep. Then, on first opportunity they set out with a letter from Anton to look for his brother and sister.
In a plantation on the south side of the island the young men found them. Not only was Anna amazed to hear from her brother in Europe. She listened open-mouthed to Leonhard’s kind words of the Saviour. She called more of her family and friends together and even though they could barely understand his mixture of German and Dutch (the slaves spoke a Dutch creole) they heard Christ’s promise of good news for the poor and broke out in excited clapping of hands.
Leonhard and David spoke slowly. They used the simplest words they knew to tell the slaves about Christ, the Son of God, and his blood and wounds. Their message—with the Spirit’s direction—fell on open hearts. Anna, her husband Gerd, and Anton’s brother Abraham gave their lives in childlike trust to the Lamb. “If I could have the whole world,” Anna told the brothers soon afterward, “and if that kept me away from the Saviour I would not even bother considering it.”
On another occasion, when Leonhard asked her how things went, she said: “Quite well, thank God! For although the day’s work did not give me time to say my prayers, my heart has never stopped calling the Saviour. I thank God for mercifully allowing me to be with him while in the company of others.”
Life on St. Thomas gave Leonhard and David no time to exult in their first victories on the island. Many slaves, after their curiosity wore off, made fun of them and opposed their message. “Why should we do what is right, while you white people do otherwise?” they asked. Nearly all black people stole, lied and got drunk, and as one of the brothers reported, “Chastity is a virtue of which they are completely unaware.”
When Anna refused to celebrate a pagan festival, Gerd became angry with her. Suspicion and disunity arose between them and Abraham. Gerd got drunk and earned a flogging from the governor. David left for Europe on April 17’th and Leonhard turned deathly sick. On July 11’th a hurricane struck St. Thomas, then the island (that has no ground water or wells) turned totally dry. Many slaves began to die of hunger and thirst.
Leonhard, skilled in making pottery since his childhood, set up a kiln and tried to make pots and jugs. But the clay did not fire well. Even his kiln collapsed and on most days he was too sick to stand, let alone work.
Both white and black people on the island made fun of Leonhard’s projects. Then, in November, a slave revolt on the island of St. John brought panic and disorder to St. Thomas. White authorities reacted with yet more cruel tortures and executions of slaves. But from here and there, souls in need found their way to Leonhard’s hammock where he lay with a burning fever and listened to his words of instruction.
Once he had partially recovered, the governor of St. Thomas hired Leonhard to do his bookwork. But he soon saw that this put him out of touch with the island’s black population. So he resigned, and even though forced through poverty to live on bread and water, he returned to doing odd jobs and carpentry. Adriaan Beverhout, the owner of a small cotton plantation gave him work, and another slave, Heinrich, found Christ.
While Leonhard and his small circle of friends overcame one obstacle after another in St. Thomas, the entire community at Herrnhut, harrassed by the German government, discussed the possibility of moving to the West Indies. A Danish landowner invited them to settle on the abandoned island of St. Croix, so after much prayer and careful preparation, the Wenzel and David Weber and Timotheus Fiedler families left for the New World in 1733. With them travelled Tobias Leupold, David Nitschmann, Matthäus Schindler, Matthäus Miksch (a school teacher), Kaspar Oelsner and Martin Schenk who left their wives in Germany for the time being, and the single brothers, George Weber, Johann Böhm, Matthäus Kremser, and Christian Neisser.
The group, largely formed of refugees from the old Unity settlements in Moravia,
included a mason, a carpenter, a wheel maker, a tailor, and several farmers. Travelling though Stettin (Szczecin) in Pomerania, where they helped to build an orphanage while waiting on a ship, they sailed on the Einigkeit from Copenhagen on November 12, 1733.
Cramped into a compartment below deck, too low in which to stand, five yards long and five and a half yards wide, the entire group from Herrnhut faced their first trials together. No sooner did the Einigkeit enter the North Sea than a storm drove them up against the coast of Norway. For several days and nights the ship skirted disaster until it anchored safely in a fjord near Tremmesund. There they set up camp in caves along the shore until spring came. Suffering extreme cold the women spun and the men carved wooden utensils until, several unsuccessful attempts behind them, they returned to sea on March 11, 1734.
Five days later, Wenzel Weber’s wife, Elisabeth, gave birth to a baby they called Anna. Another storm, more terrible than the first rose from the sea and the little ship pitched so dangerously that water barrels below deck burst from their lashings and rolled from side to side, threatening to crush the passengers. Only after 21 days did the stars came out again. Then they entered the tropics. The wind stopped. The believers’ windowless compartment (in which a lamp had to burn all day) grew “hot as a Russian bath house,” water became scarce, only salted meat remained, and two of the brothers, Matthäus Schindler and Kaspar Oelsner had scurvy. Crew members began to die, and in their sick and crowded state, the travellers’ patience one with another grew thin.
On June 11, 1734, the Einigkeit arrived at St. Thomas. Tobias Leupold, with two others, set out at once to find Leonhard Dober on the Beverhout plantation. The only detraction from their joy at meeting one another was the news that the believers in Herrnhut had chosen Leonhard to lead the young brothers’ choir and he had to return to Europe.
A month after their arrival at St. Thomas Johann Böhms died, followed by Timotheus Fiedler’s wife and David Weber.
Deeply grieved by the misery of the slaves, the brothers and sisters from Herrnhut decided to buy as many as they could and treat them like equals—hopefully leading them to Christ and training them for work as messengers to their own people. With this in mind they bought twelve adult slaves to accompany those who would settle in St. Croix, and a seven-year-old Loango boy to send back to Europe with Leonhard Dober.
On the short trip to St. Croix, little Anna Weber died and they buried her on arrival. For thirty-eight years the island had lain uninhabited. Pigs and cattle, long turned wild, foraged among abandoned farms of the former French colony. Thorny scrub had grown up “so thick one could barely find a place to sit down.” But with a great desire to build an outpost for truth the brothers set up camp and the sisters began to work over open fires, cooking food and washing clothes.
With the help of the twelve Africans the believers on St. Croix cut back the brush to plant the seeds they had brought from Europe—lettuce, parsley, and cabbages—with West Indian cassava and yams. But the heat and bugs overwhelmed them. Rain water, carefully collected, did not reach, and when they drank from brackish streams they turned sick. By the time the rainy season began, their first two-room house, with walls of reeds, still had no roof.
Christian Neisser died on September 4, followed within a month by David Weber’s widow, then Matthäus Kremser, Elisabeth Weber and Matthäus Miksch within two weeks time. By January, 1735, when Tobias Leupold died, only seven survived, too sick to care what happened to them.
New Courage and Hope
In the meantime, back at Herrnhut, the “awakening to the blood” inspired new volunteers, Kaspar Güttner, Martin Barthol, Matthäus Freundlich, and a doctor, Gottlieb Kretschner, to join the believers in the West Indies. They left Europe in the spring with Anna Nitschmann, Elizabeth Oelsner, Maria Francke, and Judith Leopold (wives of men who had gone before), three of whom were already widows and did not know it. Completing the group were Johann Gold with his wife, and the widow Anna Berger.
The new group landed on St. Croix at the end of May. Words could not describe the shock they felt on meeting the survivors. But wasting no time in lamentation, they tended to the sick and with great love pointed all to Christ, his blood and wounds. Lack of water and all hardship notwithstanding, such joy in the Spirit broke out among them that first eight, then all twelve of the Africans from St. Thomas humbled themselves and “allowed the Lamb to wash them in his blood.”
A month after their joyful arrival all the newcomers lay sick. Anna Nitschmann died first, followed by Kaspar Güttner, Elisabeth Oelsner and Martin Barthol. The doctor, Gottlieb Kretschner died in September, Martin Francke and Anna Berger in October. Old David Nitschmann, Martin Schenck’s widow, and George Weber found passage back to Europe. So did Judith, Tobias Leupold’s young widow, and Martin Francke’s widow. But their ship, presumably taken by pirates or lost in a storm was never heard from again. Even worse, Timotheus Fiedler who stayed on St. Thomas, lost his faith and became a plantation administrator. That left only Matthäus Freundlich, the shoemaker, and in December he also moved back to the island of St. Thomas.
An Open Door
On March 13, 1736, Friedrich Martin, a young tailor who had come to Herrnhut from Silesia, landed on St. Thomas with Johann Andreas Bönike. Once again their meeting with Matthäus Freundlich brought more tears than words. But within days of their arrival, the newcomers had come to know many slaves and determined to meet every last one on the island.
On his way to a meeting he had planned on a Lord’s day before the end of March, Friedrich Martin met a boy on the road. “Would you like to know your Saviour, the Lamb of God that took on himself the sins of the whole world?” Friedrich asked him. The boy looked startled. But in sudden miraculous understanding he said clearly in Dutch creole: “With great pleasure,” and handed Friedrich two live chickens. It was all he owned.
Others began to come, some walking long distances, to attend meetings for worship and instruction. Then, on September 10, 1736, Brother Josef came. He found the brothers, surrounded by eager disciples, holding an evening prayer meeting under a cane roof.
Brother Josef sensed Christ’s presence at once, and further meetings, held on the Carsten plantation at Mosquito Bay, drew hundreds of seekers. The boy who had given the chickens became the first to receive baptism. He took the Christian name of Andreas. With him Brother Josef baptised two other young men, Petrus and Nathanael, and a great company took part in a love feast following.
But Brother Josef, for as deeply as he became attached to the new believers on St. Thomas, could not stand the climate. When the time came for him to leave, he lay sick unto death. The brothers helped him onto a ship for the island of St. Christopher. Stopping in at St. Eustatius, he saw a ship for New York and in his distress, made a transfer the Lord seemed to have arranged.
The captain who took Brother Josef aboard had lived as a child in an Anglican home on Staaten Island. His mother had taught him about God and prayed with him every night. But she died when he was twelve and in his despair he ran off to sea. There, for eight years he led a wicked life. Three times pirates caught him. One time he swam from a captured ship to safety in another. When he finally returned home he found his father had died too and he left for the sea again.
Now, when Brother Josef spoke to him about his soul, he repented with many tears and found Christ.
New Believers, New Trials
After Brother Josef left St. Thomas the awakening among the slaves kept on spreading. It spread much faster than anyone expected, and certainly faster than any white people on the island liked.
White Protestant “Christians” who owned the slaves felt convicted. Many of them (their governors and preachers included) lived in shameless debauchery. “How can you black devils live up the Gospel,” they asked, “when even we white people, to whom it was given, cannot do it?” Other masters, proud of their Christianity and of the fair treatment they gave their slaves (for whom they assumed the role of protective “father figures”) felt encroached upon by Friedrich and Matthäus’s work. “Our slaves are happy,” they insisted. “They have it much better with us than they did in Africa. So why come and stir up discontent?”
Some masters flogged their slaves for attending Moravian meetings. Nearly all took their books away if they caught them learning to read—one master making it a practice to set the books on fire and swat them in his slaves’ faces. “That,” he said, “is how my Neger will learn to read.”
Black sisters, no longer allowing themselves to be violated at will by their masters, suffered particular trials. Some, stripped of their clothes, suffered merciless floggings. One, locked into a dungeon had hot sealing wax dripped onto her head until her body was scorched. “But if we have suffered in the past for being bad,” one sister asked, “why should we be unwilling now to suffer for doing good.”
When an elderly believer turned sick his master denied him water. His wife tried to bring him some but he struck her across the head with the broadside of his sword, and when the brother died he did not allow anyone to bury him, but let him rot away in his hut.
Mobs of drunken white men regularly broke up meetings (like in the story in Chapter One). They beat Friedrich Martin severely. But no believers suffered more than those deliberately sold to other West Indian islands to separate them from Christian fellowship. Concerning these trials, Christian Georg Oldendorp, a brother from Herrnhut who lived on St. Thomas fifty years later, wrote:
Their longing for Jesus Christ and his mercy was strongest when they had to suffer and bear great distress on account of him. When their masters forbade them to attend meetings in which the brothers were to teach them the gospel, they did not fail to visit the brothers in private. They also made up for lost instruction by getting together in small groups on their own plantations to strengthen one another. Hidden in the scrub forest, many found safe places where they could gather to pray and open their hearts one to another. There they learned what Jesus meant when he said that where two or three come together in his name, he will be among them. Black brothers and sisters have assured me that during those hard times they felt such love for the Saviour and enjoyed such grace in their hearts that they gladly suffered any imaginable tortures for his sake.
Grace and Growth
Not only white people harassed the new believers on St. Thomas. Hostile fellow slaves burned Petrus’ house, with his precious New Testament. A black woman with a knife attacked a sister on her way home from meeting and those steeped in witchcraft tried to cast spells.
While trying to keep everyone encouraged and looking the right direction, Friedrich Martin found himself deteriorating rapidly. Always sick, plagued with thirst and dysentery, he became so weak he could no longer walk straight. His mind began to go blank for hours at a time and he found it increasingly difficult to remember what he did, where he had been, or where he went. Matthäus Freundlich felt sick too. Then, to make matters worse, Johann Andreas Bönike turned against them, lost the faith, and lightning struck him dead one night on the road to Mosquito Bay.
Walking skeletons themselves, Friedrich and Matthäus could think of nothing else to do but take in the abandoned children they found starving during the drought of 1737. They hired Rebecca, a free mulatto woman, to take care of them, and on May 4, of the following year, Matthäus, for the sake of decency, married her. Friedrich, who had been ordained a minister of the Unity of Brothers through a letter sent from London, England, performed the ceremony and they began their life together with nine adopted children. On the same day Friedrich married two black believers, Zacharius and Susanna.
After Friedrich’s ordination he chose four sincere young men to be his helpers: Andreas (the boy with the chickens), Petrus, Johannes, and Christoph, all of whom had proven their loyalty to Christ and whom the believers loved and respected. A month later, Andreas and Johannes’s white master sold them to a plantation on St. John. Pleas for consideration fell on deaf ears so weeping, but not in despair, they left in chains for their new place of bondage.
All setbacks notwithstanding, crowds of seekers that gathered in the evenings to learn of Christ grew ever larger. In their poverty the slaves worked hard to buy the candles needed by those who read the Scriptures. Out of unbleached linen they also managed to make decent clothing for those who would be baptised—the women in ample dresses with capes, and white head coverings tied with strings under their chins, the men in white shirts and trousers.
Every convert, after baptism, chose a “spiritual companion” with whom to meet at least once a week. Spiritual companions shared their joys and trials and encouraged one another. Beyond this, and in spite of difficulties because of their slavery, the believers formed choirs, took part in the hourly watch (day and night prayer vigils), and shared in material ways as much as possible.
Friedrich and Matthäus instructed the new believers in morality and how to live as Christian families—concepts unknown to them, both in Africa and the New World. Christian weddings, celebrated with beautiful hymns, prayers, and great joy, took place. The brothers followed them up with regular visits and advice on child training. But the planters ridiculed their efforts. “Marrying cattle,” they called it, and insisted that black people have no family feelings like whites. They made it a point to separate Christian couples one from another, to find other mates for them, and to sell off their children.
The congregation on St. Thomas celebrated frequent love feasts and communion services, everyone bringing what little food they could—fish, crabs, or vegetables—to share one with another. Before every communion the brothers held a question and answer period. They interviewed all participants privately and the better they came to know one another the more they marvelled at what Christ had done.
Not only did the congregation include both island blacks (creoles), and “salt heads” (slaves brought from Africa). It included people of many different tribes and customs. Only the first two baptisms on St. Thomas already brought members of the Mandinga, Mangree, Fante, Atja, Kassenti, Tjamba, Amina, Watje, and Loango tribes into the Gemeine. But subjected in love to Christ, they learned to make decisions together and function as one body. Christian Oldendorp wrote:
As soon as they returned from exhausting work in the fields, they gathered, falling on their knees, to pray and sing. There loved one another like members of one family to such a degree that whenever something happened to disturb the harmony of the group, they fell on their knees at once and asked the Saviour for pardon and grace. They also kept the practice of hourly intercession. . . . Even while working they took turns praying to God and asking for his intercession every hour of the day. Without clocks they kept to their hours at night by looking at the stars and by the crowing of the cocks. In this way, one slave awakened the one whose turn came next to pray.
In a letter to the brothers and sisters at Herrnhut, Petrus wrote:
God’s grace that I have received into my heart fills me with joy. I have left what is bad and learned to love Jesus Christ who died for us. Now we pray to the Lord in this place together: “Dear Lord, have mercy on us! Bless us and teach us how to know you so that no evil may remain among us. Help us to do what is right so that pride, covetousness, and immorality may no longer find place among us.
Only by walking closely with Christ could the brothers of the new church on St. Thomas meet every situation that arose. Newly converted slaves lived among constant temptations to drink cane liquor, to commit immoral acts, or take part in African religious rites. Many of them had several “wives” and children from all. But they promised, on entering the brotherhood, not to take more. And if they wished to separate from all wives but one, the brotherhood encouraged them. Marriage partners separating for other reasons lost their place in the congregation.
From the beginning, the brothers made the seriousness of taking part in communion clear. When they found calabashes decorated with ribbons, bird feathers, and sea shells (magic tokens) in an old sister’s house, they suspended her membership and admonished her to repent. Those found stealing one from another, or from their masters, also lost their membership, as did any who took part in acts of rebellion. A few, like Nathanael, one of the first baptised who turned apostate, had to be to requested not to attend services anymore for the disturbances they caused.
The goal of the brothers in St. Thomas was to overcome the evil of slavery by good, not by force. But this required much patience. Christian Oldendorp wrote:
No matter how much joy the progress of the black congregation gave the brothers, the backsliding and unbelief of some of its members brought them much sadness as well. Because the slaves lived among temptations of all kinds, it is surprising that not more of them fell into sin. Those who did were always outnumbered by those transformed through Jesus’ teachings. Still it was necessary for the brothers to admonish and keep back from communion those who did not live according to the gospel. These, they remembered with compassion and joyously welcomed back if they grew tired of their own ways and returned to Jesus Christ, the merciful high priest, and the community of his believers.
With great joy the brothers from Herrnhut watched the new believers learning to read. But newly discovered knowledge threatened, at times, to get in the way of Christ. Christian Oldendorp wrote:
Because many converted slaves did not know themselves well enough, they fell into the common error of trying to become better and more pious without first having found grace and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ blood. They simply accepted Christianity in its external forms, that is, in diligent learning, in singing and praying.
Georg Weber, one of the first Moravians on St. Croix wrote:
It would not be hard to start a Christian sect [cult] among these black people. They excell in copying external forms of religious practice without experiencing real changes of heart. Because of this many of their good resolutions do not last long. Sin resumes its rule over them, and soon after their conversion they are as deeply immersed in the pleasures of the flesh and other evil practices as before.
Only after “daily presenting Christ to them as a friend of sinners, and by persuading them that the salvation of souls can be found nowhere else but in the wounds of the Lamb” did the fire of love fall on the believers at St. Thomas and fill them with power.
The Mountain of Trumpets
As often as they had opportunity, the brothers and sisters at Herrnhut sent encouraging letters to the ones on St. Thomas. An even greater blessing came with the arrival of Johann Christoph Schönewerk and his wife in 1738,* but the heat and tropical disease overcame them. He died soon after arrival and she died three days later. By this time, with help from home, the brothers had managed to buy several of the baptised slaves and a small cotton plantation, twenty-seven German acres, on the central and highest part of the island.
Such rejoicing broke out among the black believers at the purchase of the land that a meeting for praise lasted all night and until the sun came up the following morning. Now they had a place to gather undisturbed. Hundreds came for every meeting, the sick carried in on shoulders and one-legged former runaways hobbling in on canes (one brother had lost two legs in punishment and could only crawl). Even blind and deaf people came, sensing the spirit of worship there. The congregation chose eight more leaders and baptisms became continually more frequent.
Because they used trumpets to announce meetings there, the believers named their new community on the hill the Posaunenberg (Mountain of Trumpets), but its days of peace and rejoicing were numbered.
Trouble For The New Church
Led by their pastor, Jan Borm, the white people of St. Thomas determined to get rid of Moravian influence on their plantations, once and for all. The case they picked for their excuse was Matthäus and Rebecca Freundlich’s marriage.
“Since when is it lawful for a white man to marry a black woman?” angry islanders (many of whom had mulatto children from numerous concubines) asked. “What is more, who authorised Friedrich Martin to marry them?”
In the midst of the turmoil surrounding this charge, Nathanael, whom the black congregation had excommunicated, arrived in a drunken state at Dominie Jan Borm’s house and asked for rebaptism. The Reformed pastor asked him many questions before triumphantly reporting to the governor of St. Thomas the “wretched and miserable condition of the supposed converts of the Herrnhut brothers.”
As if this were not enough, a tropical storm struck the island. The house where Timotheus Fiedler (another apostate brother) lived, suffered damage and those who came to help found valuable stolen goods in his possession. Dominie Jan Borm and the St. Thomas government needed nothing more. “These Moravians are thieves and hypocrites!” they stormed. “Not only do they come to pervert our slaves. They commit acts of perversion themselves. To jail with the accursed Herrnhuters!”
Dragged before the St. Thomas court, Friedrich Martin, Matthäus and Rebekka Freundlich, found themselves faced with the option of swearing they had nothing to do with the theft or going directly to jail. Because they could not swear (and the governor knew they wouldn’t) they landed in a putrid cell, hot like an oven during the day, nothing to sleep on at night, at once.
Great crowds of black people risked punishment to come to the barred window of their cell to listen to Friedrich’s words of encouragement. Friedrich and Matthäus made buttons in jail, and Rebecca had her sewing with her. Their example of peaceful nonresistance deeply inspired the believers, now numbering 750 souls on 51 plantations, under the able leadership of the black brothers Christoph and Mingo.
Mighty to Save, Strong to Deliver
With the German brothers in jail, Dominie Jan Borm and the Protestant officials on his side wasted no time in doing what they could to bring the black congregation to ruin. The pastor had black believers brought before the court, one by one. In particular he interrogated the leaders, throwing complicated theological questions at them to see how they would respond. On top of that he asked them to explain which faith is more Biblical, the Lutheran or the Reformed, and whether they thought black people would some day rule whites.
“We know nothing about religion,” the black Christians answered him, “except that the Lamb of God has died and taken our sins away. We do not know whether blacks will ever rule whites, but we know that after death we will stand before Christ where all men are equal.”
“See, they know nothing,” Pastor Borm rejoiced. “Those Herrnhut prophets are baptising untaught savages!”
Pastor Borm sent one of his helpers, a Protestant minister, to jail to marry Matthäus and Rebekka, but they refused his services. “We are already married,” they told him. For this the court sentenced them as a public nuisance, living in unlawful immorality, and ordered Matthäus to pay a hundred Reichsthaler within 24 hours. Rebekka, who had been baptised by her white father into the Reformed Church, was formally excommunicated and ordered to be sold again as a slave, the proceeds of her sale going to Protestant charities (the St. Thomas hospital fund).
Friedrich Martin, charged with baptising and holding communion illegally, as well as performing church functions that belong only to legally ordained ministers, was to be held for punishment and exile. But the sun had not gone down on the day of these distressing court decisions when the trade winds carried an unexpected ship into St. Thomas’s harbour.
People from Germany—and it soon became apparent, very important people—stepped onto the hurriedly cleared wharf. The governor, hiding his frustration as well as possible, could do nothing but formally welcome Nicholas Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf, with two Moravian couples, Georg and Elisabeth Weber, Valentin and Veronika Löhans, to St. Thomas.
St. Thomas authorities were surprised and confused. They knew that Ludwig came directly from Herrnhut. But they also knew he enjoyed the favour of the Danish court and that in rank he stood, as a count of the Holy Roman Empire, far above any one of them. So when Brother Ludwig cheerfully asked for Friedrich, Matthäus and Rebekka’s release, they gave it promptly and said no more about it.
The Lord had delivered them.
Triumphs Of a New Church
Brother Ludwig and the two couples from Herrnhut had a hard time believing their eyes. The growth of the Saviour’s Gemein on St. Thomas far surpassed anything they had heard or imagined. At the same time they could not believe how Friedrich Martin had changed. Disease and relentless activity had aged him so much, that when he emerged from prison no one from Germany recognised him.
Brother Ludwig, with his gift for languages, soon caught the drift of Dutch creole, and began to write hymns in the language. In his diary he wrote:
Three days after I got to St. Thomas and Friedrich Martin was still weak unto death, I took charge of the worship service for him. Brother Abraham, in moving and penetrating words, led in the opening and prayer. . . . After that I was nearly swept off my feet as the large group of black people (more brothers and sisters than I have ever seen at one time in any of our congregations) stood to sing and cry out, some with many tears, “My Lord, My Lord, the One who has redeemed me from condemnation!”
About eight days later, on a Sunday afternoon, nearly half of those plantation workers who have turned to Christ came to visit me and we had a service in a large Saal. There was hardly room for everyone to stand (yet the segregation of the sexes has already been taught and is practiced here). Oh how glad I was to be able to sing with this large congregation two of my favourite hymns: May you be praised Jesus Christ, and Let the Soul of Christ Make Me Holy!1
During Brother Ludwig’s stay the congregation chose more leaders, and to the joy of all, he bought Andreas and Johannes back from St. John for 200 pieces of eight. Friedrich Martin described the situation:
Hardly a day passes when we are not visited by souls feeling their misery and crying out for mercy. Wherever we go we hear someone in the sugar cane, among the bushes, or behind a house, praying and crying out to the Saviour, asking him to wash away his sins with his blood. We no longer have people satisfied with getting a bit of school knowledge. Now they come to us feeling their lost condition. Their only conviction is of their own wickedness and their need of the Saviour’s mercy and help.2
“The Saviour is melting souls like wax,” another worker on St. Thomas reported, and even the children, as many as four hundred at a time, came to the Posaunenberg on Lord’s Day afternoons for special love feasts. Valentin Löhans wrote:
The amazing impact of the Saviour’s grace and mercy among the heathen in these days cannot be described! The blood of Jesus flows over them, softens their hearts, and makes them see how great his love is. They feel his power. He becomes great to them and his grace, important. Their hearts have opened up. Many of them who were dead as stone have been moved by Jesus’ death, the constant subject of our preaching, and now they cry for mercy. Jesus’ death and his blood have penetrated their hearts, making them cry out and search for the Redeemer. It is heartbreaking to listen to them as they lie at the feet of the Lamb and cry out to him.
No one, however, could have felt more surprised about the growth of the new black church than the people who did all they could to stop it—and failed. Georg and Elisabeth Weber returned to St. Croix and with the help of many friends began to build a new community they named Friedensthal (Valley of Peace). This time the heat, the tangled scrub, and the scarcity of water did not surprise them. But they faced even greater opposition. During the dry season, hostile neighbours set fire to their houses again and again. Practically every night the cry of fire sounded through Friedensthal. One night ten houses burned at once, on another night fourteen. The largest fire spread to surrounding plantations destroying forty-eight houses, including many that belonged to black believers, in one night. But through severe trials, Friedensthal became a home and refuge for many. The Lord blessed gardens planted in the rainy season and spiritual gifts far outshone every material loss. Stephanus, a black leader there, told a baptismal class in the early 1740s:
We may be ignorant, but we have a master teacher, the Holy Spirit, that explains everything to us. We should enjoy and take part in everything the Saviour has earned for us. The way to it and the gate are open. Still, we should not only stand at the gate and look in, but enter and go to the Saviour himself. This cannot be accomplished only by coming to the church. No, we dare not be satisfied with that. Not the church but real communion, real Gemeinschaft with the Lord Jesus, will save us. That is the right way. No one can excuse himself by saying he has no time for this because of his master’s work. Dear brothers and sisters, I know that one can think about bad things during all kinds of work. I say this from my own experience because I have often done that all day long, during the blind period in my life. If that is true, can we not just as easily think about good things? Can we not put the beloved Saviour before our eyes, and occupy ourselves all the time with him, remembering in our hearts what he has suffered and done for us? I wish that all of you, from this time onward, might do this and enjoy the grace and blessedness our dear Lord has earned for us. He will gladly give it to you.
Grace and blessedness came to the believers on St. Thomas and St. Croix, even though trials continued. A group of drunken white men held Georg Weber up at gunpoint, but he testified so fearlessly of his confidence in Christ that they could not kill him. Others waylaid Matthäus Freundlich and nearly beat him to death. Some planters threatened the Danish government with pulling out of St. Thomas if no one got rid of the Moravians.
But the church kept on growing.
A river of mercy flowing from Christ’s wounded side attracted more and more seekers weary of sin. Brothers and sisters kept coming from Herrnhut to help in the work, and with time, reached every plantation on the island with the message of peace.
On his return from America and St. Thomas in 1739, Brother Ludwig met two young brothers from Herrnhut, Gottlieb Israel and Alban Theodor Feder, in Amsterdam. They planned to travel to the Guinea Coast in Africa, but Ludwig persuaded them to go to St. Thomas instead. “The church there needs you,” he told them.
On their way across the Atlantic Alban turned deathly sick. Gottlieb, crippled from birth and left as an orphan at Herrnhut, did his best to care for him. Then a great storm blew up. The ship lost its course and ran aground off the shore of Tortola. The captain and crew escaped, but they left the two believers and all slaves on board to perish. Three slaves and the boys from Herrnhut climbed out the bowsprit and jumped onto a rock. High waves came crashing in and threatened to tear them away. They had so little room on the rock they had to lie stacked up on one another. Alban tried to jump from rock to rock and swim to shore, but the waves carried him out to sea. “Go, my dear brother, in peace,” Gottlieb shouted after him in the wind and storm, not knowing whether he heard him before he drowned.
Clinging to the rock until the afternoon of the following day, the four survivors saw people coming to rescue them. From St. Thomas, soon after his arrival, Gottlieb sent a long letter home in which he wrote:
Oh what a great blessing it is to see how the Saviour shows himself to these black people! First they are awakened. Then they come to know their own hearts, finding out how bad they are. After that, they shed tears and cry for mercy until they have found faith in Jesus’ wounds. Oh, how joyful are they then! They come running through the night to tell us about it and bring joy to our souls.
Even though he walked with difficulty, Gottlieb Israel found his way about the island and blessings came to many through him. In another letter he wrote:
The Saviour is both powerful and merciful among us . . . but the prince of darkness has been very busy in his attempts to steal souls from him through temptations and threats . . . Pray that the congregation of the faithful may build on Christ the cornerstone and be strengthened in his blood. I am not so anxious to see a large number of converts as I am to see the ones who find the Saviour to experience his living presence in their hearts.
Georg Weber’s wife died in childbirth and their little daughter a day later. Johann Schurr’s wife gave birth to twin sons that both died and she followed them in death after two days. Gottlieb Israel turned sick and died. Johann Böhner and his wife, newly wed ran into a serious storm on the way to St. Thomas. While he struggled with the sailors to lift a broken mast, his wife died and had to be dropped overboard. By the time Johann reached St. Thomas, Valentin Löhans had died so he married his widow, Veronika.
Friedrich Martin, on the other hand, not only survived but managed to visit the new Moravian community in Pennsylvania where he married Maria Leinbach. Jakob Tutweiler, a brother from Switzerland who survived a flogging by a plantation owner, settled on St. John and began the new Bethany community. Johann Michael Wäckler, Samuel Isles, and Nikolaus Schneider fell into the hands of French pirates and landed on Martinique. Joseph Schaw, an English brother, got lost in a storm at sea and was not heard from again. . . .
The story both of the ones who came and of the ones who joined the brotherhood in St. Thomas, became one many-faceted testimony of Jesus’ grace. Not infrequently hurricanes flattened the cane fields on St. Thomas, uprooted clumps of banana plants, and carried roofs and buildings into the sea. Epidemics followed floods, and on January 17, 1759, a series of earthquakes rocked St. Croix, the third one tearing the earth open with a loud roar, nearly tipping the meetinghouse of the Friedensthal community. But in less than twenty years of Leonhard Dober’s arrival, there were usually a thousand or more applicants for baptism all the time. Slave villages had changed from night to day, squalid, nearly naked people having turned into neatly dressed men and women with orderly families. Miserable huts had given way to plastered cottages among vegetable gardens and flowers. Wild dances and sacrifices of animals to unknown spirits had given way to weddings and funerals held in peace.
By the time Christian Oldendorp came to St. Thomas in 1768, seventy-nine Pilgrims sent out from Herrnhut had lost their lives in the West Indies. But for every one that died there were sixty baptised converts. Within fifty years nearly nine thousand African slaves, only on St. Thomas, had found their way into the Saviour’s Gemeine. And this was only the beginning.
1 August Gottlieb Spangenberg, Leben des Herrn Nicolas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, 1774.
2 From a letter, 1740.