In the wet fall of 1734 Brother Josef took the post coach to Köln am Rhein. High water and muddy roads hindered him all the way. At Köln he joined a company of Jews travelling to Nijmwegen. “On the way we all nearly lost our lives,” he wrote later. “Our driver got drunk and not only succeeded in rolling our wagon over once, but also got off the trail and so deeply mired in the swamp I thought we would all go under and perish. God helped us. The night was as black as a bag but a man came with a lantern and got us out. Around midnight, after totally losing our way again, we came upon another man who showed us the right road. From Utrecht we took a boat to Amsterdam.”1
In Amsterdam Brother Josef stayed in the home of the Mennonite minister Jeme Teknatel, an awakened brother, eager to take part in the Saviour’s work however he could. He helped Brother Josef contact the Dutch West India Company with the prospect of settling in Suriname on the coast of South America.
All Herrnhut, perpetually in trouble with German authorities, dreamed of settling in a new land. Would Suriname prove the Saviour’s choice? Brother Josef did all he could to find out, and a year later the community sent Georg Piesch (a shoemaker who had fled from Kunvald in Moravia), Georg Berwich, and Christoph von Larisch, a young convert from a noble family, to sea.
Their voyage started out badly. Leaving Texel in the Netherlands at the beginning of October on a ship of the Dutch West India Company, they had barely lost sight of the last lights on Cornwall before a storm struck. Everyone turned sick. So violently did the storm pitch and toss the ship in the waves that a Jew sharing the brothers’ cabin lost his mind and came plunging after Christoph, trying to stab him with a nail. Of thirty-five soldiers on board the ship, the brothers never saw more than ten sober at a time. But after three months they landed safely at Fort Zeelandia, outside Paramaribo, on the Suriname River.
Nothing they had imagined prepared them for what they found. Every year the planters of Suriname, Dutch, English, French and German, one third of them Jews, imported from ten to twelve thousand slaves from Africa. From ships unloading at Fort Zeelandia the brothers watched them come, “like walking skeletons covered with a piece of tanned leather,” to be branded, given names, and fattened for sale—traders seeing to it that women expected babies, if at all possible, to bring higher prices. Under the blazing sun the brothers from Herrnhut watched them pick cotton and cut cane. In the fine houses of Paramaribo they saw them wait on their indolent masters—many of them unmarried but living in a circle of concubines—and state of society in the New World dawned slowly upon them.
The first man the brothers visited in Suriname, a pastor of the Dutch Reformed church, warned them to avoid whoredom and laziness. “But we soon discovered he was stuck in both, up to his ears,” the brothers wrote. Horrified, they saw how white children grew up slapping and kicking slaves, and how a white gentleman cracked the skull of a slave on the street for not lifting his hat. White ladies branded beautiful slave girls on their faces, and disfigured them in other ways to keep their husbands from looking at them. Punishment for running away (something the Suriname planters feared with good reason) ranged from cutting off legs and arms, beating with steel rods until every bone was broken, decapitation, and burning at the stake, to such bizarre methods as hanging people from hooks, or tying a fourteen-year-old boy to a dog house, forcing him to bark at every passing boat until he lost his mind.
On the plantations the slaves worked in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. A hatchet hung ready in sugar mills to chop off arms that not infrequently got caught in the rollers. Slaves tasting sugar had all their teeth knocked out at once. And when the brothers found work in a stone quarry at Berg en Daal, south of Paramaribo, they began to suffer like the slaves from heat and malnutrition. Within two months of arrival young Christoph von Larisch died. The two other men, too sick to know clearly what they did, stumbled to and from work “like deaf mutes among the slaves with whom we could not speak” until they found a captain kind enough to take them back to Europe.
When he was eight, in his hometown of Wernigerode, in Germany, Ludwig Dehne’s mother died. His father, a soldier, married again, but he grew up unhappy and alone. By the time he turned seventeen, such Seelenangst (anguish of soul) had overtaken him that he thought his life had to end. But he met a pilgrim from Herrnhut instead and came to rest in the Saviour’s wounds. His step-mother, when she heard of it, spat in his face. His father turned him out of the house. But Ludwig found work as a tailor in Weimar, and after five years came to Herrnhut where he joined the single brothers’ choir.
Now, with Hans Güttner, a young brother from Silesia, Ludwig accepted the call to South America in 1738. Soon after leaving Texel in the Netherlands a storm hit them. Then Barbary pirates chased them for twelve hours. “How good it is to trust our Saviour in times like this,” Ludwig wrote in his diary.
After three months at sea, the brothers reached Suriname and the mouth of the Berbice River. Eyes wide with wonder, they floated past an Amerindian camp on the shore. Brown people without clothes sat around a fire eating what looked like the roots of a tree. Was this what the Watchword for that day, September 12, 1738, had meant? “I will give them a sign. Some who are awakened I will send to the heathen along the sea, and far away to the islands, where men have not heard about me nor seen my glory. They will tell the heathen of my wonderful works.” With hearts warmed by the Saviour’s promise in a strange land, Ludwig and Hans continued upstream to Fort Nassau.2
The Dutch governor of Berbice Colony did not welcome the brothers from Herrnhut. “Unless you swear the oath of allegiance,” he threatened them, “I will send you away on the first ship that leaves.” Only grudgingly did people give them work. For food and lodging they paid high prices, and before long they both felt sick from the heat. But Hans wrote a cheerful letter to his parents at Herrnhut, hoping it would reach them within a year:
My beloved parents, I greet you from the heart. I kiss your hand, and wish you much grace from our Saviour. This is to tell you we are well and cannot praise him enough for his faithfulness. He helps us through everything.
They do not know winter in this land. Fruit grows all year, and there are always twelve hours in the day and twelve in the night. The sun passes straight overhead. There are snakes here as thick as a man and fourteen feet long. We cannot wear our woollen clothing. It is too warm.
One makes bread here from a root. It gives two kinds of heathen here, some black and some brown. The black ones are slaves, the brown ones are not and live in little shelters. We visited them. My heart breaks when I see these people. If only I knew their language!
I am doing carpenter work here on a plantation. Brother Dehne is making clothes. Carry no worries for me. It is very well in my heart. I stay your faithful son,
As soon as the brothers knew Dutch well enough they began to teach two black boys, James and David, and the son of an Indian chief, a boy they named Jonathan, how to read and write. The also walked far into the rain forest to meet the Indians. After one trip, Hans wrote:
I got lost and wandered about until ten o’clock at night. Then I came to an Indian shelter. I stayed with them. They took me in good, and made me a fire. It rained very much. They gave me cassava bread to eat but I could not say much to them. In the morning one of them went with me to show me the right trail. I cannot help but see these people with compassion.4
In spite of struggles trying to decide what best to do (not always able to agree right away), Ludwig and Hans learned to work together. They held a Singstunde every day and began to celebrate communion in bread and wine, even with only the two of them present.
A month after Ludwig and Hans arrived in Berbice, in 1738, Georg Berwich returned to Paramaribo. This time he came with his new wife Rosina, daughter of Jakob Neisser of Sehlen in Moravia, and the young brother, Michael Tannenberger. “Sie sahen uns als Wunderthiere an (they looked at us like animals in a zoo),” Rosina wrote home about the Dutch officials at Fort Zeelandia. No one could understand why ordinary white people from Europe—let alone people without money and no intentions of making much—would come to South America.
“What will you do here?” a Dutch official asked the believers. When told that they intended to farm and work for their living, he shook his head. “You could work hard at this place for a whole year,” he said, “and have nothing to show for your efforts. Only the major cash crops, cotton or sugar, produce, and for that you would need many slaves. You white people cannot work in this heat and with these bugs. It has already been tried. The Labadists came with three hundred people and almost all of them died. So did a group of nineteen families from the Palatinate. Only one woman with her son is still living! It is impossible, and I tell you the truth, you had better go back to Germany while you can!”
Sobered, but not dismayed by the official’s words, the brothers hired themselves out to plantation owners, the Berwichs on the estate of Jan Pieter Visscher, and Michael at Sandyk, an eight hour journey away. As in Berbice, their eyes soon opened to the wickedness around them. In a letter home, Rosina Berwich wrote:
The whites here are much worse than the heathen. They steal and deceive wherever they can, yet if their deeds are uncovered they blame their black slaves! They cannot stand us because we do not live like them. All day long they do nothing but curse and swear, gorge themselves on food, drink wine, and fornicate. They say if we refuse to do likewise we will not survive here, it is the way of this land. I told them such things do not even attract us, and it is terrible how they carry the name of being Christians yet live like that.5
On the Visscher plantation, both Georg and Rosina—true to the official’s predictions—soon lay sick unto death. Then, to their horror, a black man brought Michael Tannenberger from Sandyk, skin and bones, delirious, and laid him at their feet. Michael no longer knew them. The white people of the plantation shunned them, and with the blacks they could not converse. But the Saviour did not leave them. In May 1739, Rosina wrote to her family in Herrnhut:
We got your letter and read it together. The Saviour gave us much grace and we rejoiced to hear how he does not let the work among his children in all places lie. He will not let us get stuck here in Suriname either. We got a hold of ourselves in the Spirit. We are coming to rest on a foundation of love. We drink from the flood that pours from the Rock. We walk on a highway of grace. . . .
Right now my husband is very sick according to the body. On May 17 he began having the red dysentery and fever. He has never looked as bad as now. The Saviour knows better than anyone else what is to become of us. My husband is tiny and stooped over inside. It looks bad that we have no medicines with us and I fear for him, yet since I can do nothing about it I will leave it up to the Saviour. He is a doctor to the sick in body and soul, and cures all damage with his blood and power. He is my only comfort. For myself I can say I am still doing well. Even though there are days when I cannot get up, I always recover and get up the following day. May the Saviour be praised for helping me this far so I can serve my husband. Otherwise I do not know how things would go.
This was Rosina’s last letter. No doubt sicker than she let on at the time, she died soon afterward. But both Michael and her husband survived. And the following year Heinrich and Katherina Steiner (formerly of the “Inspired” in the Wetterau), Johann Hadwig, Heinrich Meisser, and Georg Zeisberger (brother to David) came. So did Franz and Maria Barbara Reynier, formerly of the Ephrata cloister community in Pennsylvania. Their presence brought the brothers great joy and with Franz’s skill as a doctor, everything looked more encouraging. Soon after their arrival, Heinrich Meisser wrote:
What we have to do is important to us and the Saviour will help us overcome the thousand obstacles that stand in the way of freeing the heathen from bondage. We will learn the language now. The Indians are more decent and orderly than the white people among whom the devil keeps his fire and hearth. The white people live like beasts, but we bring everything to the heart of the Saviour. . . . We love one another and will let him show us what to do from here on. . . . It seems as if the power of the blood were already touching the roots of paganism and I expect to see plants and fruit. I am rejoicing in the wounds of the Lamb.
Half an hour’s walk down the river from Paramaribo, the brothers found an abandoned plantation for sale at a place called Combé. They offered its owner, a Jew, three hundred florins, and to their delight, he accepted it. Even though they did not enter the house on the property “for fear it would collapse and fall on our necks” they thanked the Saviour for the citrus and coconut trees already growing there and eagerly made plans to reclaim the rest of it from fast growing jungle vegetation. Besides this, they saw the first signs of a spiritual harvest in South America. Franz Reynier wrote:
On the evening of the day we bought the plantation, such a number of people came to our Singing Hour that the place where we stayed got full. We thought they just came out of curiosity and it would not happen again. But since then such a crowd—including both Jews and Christians—has been coming every evening that only about half of them can get into the house. The rest have to stand in the yard and those among them that know High German the best, help us sing.
On the evening of the 29’th of October we dedicated our little plantation. Before going out we had our Singing Hour in town. Then at seven o’clock we gathered there and held communion. Before going ahead with that we had our band meeting where we expressed our innermost feelings about one another, so that we could forgive one another with the whole heart. I spoke on the importance of communion and what believers may expect from it. I also gave an explanation of the rite of feetwashing and why we do it. Then we brothers practised it among ourselves and our two sisters did the same. After this we had communion and discovered in it the blessing we looked for. We live in close community and daily sense the Spirit of the Saviour among us.
With great anticipation, the brothers planted bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava on their new land at Combé. They also tried beans, cabbage, and corn. They bought some chickens, a cow and two calves. At the same time Brother Franz Reynier began to visit the “sick houses” of local plantations. In unlit, unventilated quarters, with dirt floors serving as the only drain, he found slaves too sick to walk lying on sloping boards. Undressed, unable to care for themselves, their masters put them there to avoid contaminating the healthy, but with no thought for their cure. The dead lay among the living, and in the tropical heat Brother Franz found nothing but the love of Christ able to penetrate the sick houses’ atmosphere of horror and doom. Even though he could not speak much with the dying slaves he could attend them with mercy, and little by little hearts began to respond.
Opposition From Without
At first the planters of Suriname paid little attention to the believers from Herrnhut. Expecting them to die or get discouraged they thought they had little to worry about. But when their work at Combé began to bear fruit they rose up in alarm.
For years the planters had taken care of slave rebellions, runaways, and insubmission. They had developed ingenious methods of “breaking in” slaves and training them to all manner of work. But when slaves got converted and began to live noble, orderly lives, the planters feared them. They had no idea how to deal with slaves more righteous than themselves, and resorted to further irrationality and violence.
On the other hand, most of the Moravian Pilgrims were craftsmen and day labourers, used to working for others. Most had been refugees and lived in poverty. Like the slaves they had crossed the ocean. Like them, they lived under the arbitrary rule of rich plantation owners, so they naturally felt an affinity with them, and with the Indians in Berbice, from the start. Just as naturally, they felt an aversion for their fellow Europeans. Franz Reynier wrote:
In the beginning [the white people] made fun of us, especially the Lutherans. They asked us “What do you poor people think? Will you seven be a church!” They also made fun of our living together in community of goods. They said that among the people of Suriname not even the closest blood relatives, often not even husbands and wives, could stand one another. They asked us how we could attempt anything so foolish as bringing people together from all corners of the world, people who could barely speak one with another, and who know nothing about one another, then expect them to share everything on the basis of belonging to the same religion!
Another pilgrim wrote soon
after arrival in Berbice:
The white people here are as a rule utterly depraved. They think only of staying here until they have made enough money to return to Europe to live in luxury and dissolution the rest of their lives. While they are here they revel in every abomination. For this reason we find it the most comfortable to stay among the Indians. Among them we sense wellbeing in our hearts.6
The Dutch Reformed pastor of Paramaribo warned his congregation publicly not to have anything to do with the Herrnhuters that “hold everything in common, even their wives.” Beyond that, he pressured colony authorities to pass a law forbidding the brothers to hold public meetings, to pray, to teach, or allow people to take part in their worship.
Fortunately the old house at Combé had many cracks in the walls. To comply with the new law, the brothers shut the door when they held meetings, but as great a crowd gathered as ever to listen in the darkness outside. And some who came grew as bold as to warn their masters they should sooner forbid people to go to drinking houses than to Christian meetings.
Another source of irritation to the Dutch in Paramaribo was the brothers’ refusal to swear or to take part in armed night watch duty. But in this, colony law overrode their objections. In August 1740 the authorities ruled: “In case of enemy attack or other emergencies that call for bearing arms, the Moravian brothers shall be treated in every way like the Mennonites of this country. . . . In the case of swearing of oaths they shall have the option of using the Mennoniteneydt (affirmation).” For the time being the brothers’ legal situation seemed secure. But they soon faced. . .
Opposition From Within
Living in close quarters at Combé, with constant questions about food, visitors, work, and plans for the future, the believers found their love for one another tried out. Franz Reynier wrote:
We now live together here on the farm. We are very happy one with another and only wish our little Gemein would be larger. We wish more would come to enjoy our blessedness together, but whoever thinks of coming should be ready to leave all selfish ambition and self will (Eigenheit and Eigenwillen) behind. The Saviour treats us with greater sharpness here than he does you brothers in Germany. All of us work in close proximity all the time. No one pursues his own interests. No one has more to say than another. Neither do we look through our fingers one at another for we try to help one another in priestly love, even in the small areas of life. We do this in confidence knowing that all of us want to be taken captive in every area by the Lamb. This makes our Gemeinschaft daily more meaningful and ties us together in such a way that no demon can tear the band of our unity. In the beginning it happened a few times that one did not feel like accepting the loving reminder of another. But we did nothing more than commit the matter to the heart of the Saviour. He pursued that discordant member day and night until he came back in anguish and sorrow to make things right. Now all of us fear to fall into the Saviour’s discipline, all recognising that we are students in his school.7
Often sick and usually feeling tired in the heat, the first of the group to die was Johann Hadwig. None of the rest felt able to take care of the crops they had planted and everything grew up in weeds. The planters (fearful of reports he might spread) forbade Franz to visit their slaves and he turned to making shoes. But sales were slow, the material needs of the community kept growing, and Heinrich Steiner got very discouraged. Even though his wife, Katharina, wanted to stay at Combé he took her to Paramaribo. There she turned sick unto death and in his search for work he neglected her until she had large bed sores. Tempted to discouragement himself, Franz Reynier wrote in 1741:
Men’s hearts here as hard as stone. If we hadn’t been called to come we would certainly leave. The Jews here are just like in Germany. Slavery has become a part of the black people’s mentality. They believe that after death they will go to a land where there is nothing but eating, drinking, and sensual pleasure. Therefore they are not afraid of death.8
But Georg Meisser, keeping his focus right, wrote soon afterward:
We have a free and open way to the wounds of the Lamb. This has become such reality for us that it makes pilgrimage a pleasure. How great is our joy, brothers, in being chosen to serve him! I believe the Lord will shoot us like an arrow to hit his mark. For that reason he has let me recover. We were all sick for eight months. The nature of this land and climate oppress the tent [the body] very much. Yet may the Lamb be praised that he gives us such inner cause for rejoicing!9
Coming to the Saviour, for Heinrich Beutel, meant he had to flee from Jägerndorf in Upper Silesia. Even though it was late in the year and the leaves had fallen, the threat of Roman Catholic authorities in his home village forced him on. More than that, he felt obligated to help Katharina Ludwig, another young believer attending meetings with pilgrims from Herrnhut, to escape. Her parents had threatened to turn her in to the police.
Heinrich and Katharina left late at night. But the police got wind of it and set out, four on horseback, two on foot, in hot pursuit. The fugitives heard them come and huddled down in the underbrush, calling on the Saviour to hide them until the sound of their persecutors faded away. Then they got up and ran, tearing their clothes in the night, hardly daring to catch their breath or drink water until they had crossed the mountains and the border into upper Lusatia in safety. There, at Herrnhut, they found refuge in the young brothers’ and sisters’ choirs. Katharina married Joachim Sensemann,10 and at Marienborn in the Wetterau Heinrich married Elisabeth Paschke. Eight days later, on October 8, 1739, they left for South America.
At Fort Nassau on the Berbice River, the newlyweds found Ludwig and Hans still alive and trusting in the Saviour’s wounds. On their suggestion they all moved in dug-out canoes a twenty-four-hour journey upstream to the Wironje Creek. Many Indians lived there. Further from Fort Nassau they suffered less opposition from the planters, and with good hope (although Elisabeth was sick with her first pregnancy) they built a log shelter and named their place Pilgerhut (The Pilgrim’s Watch).
An eleven-year-old black boy, whom the brothers named Christian, moved to Pilgerhut with them. So did Jaantje, the seven-year-old son of a Dutch father and an Arawak Indian mother. On December 21, 1740, Elisabeth gave birth to a little boy, and not long afterward Johann Gräbenstein, a cheerful brother who had grown up on a farm in Ansbach, in Germany, joined them.
Johann liked children and made friends with Jaantje (who knew Arawak as well as Dutch) at once. Spending hours with him, he gradually produced a simple story of Christ in Arawak, in written form. With this the “three Johns”—Jaantje, Hans Güttner, and Johann Gräbenstein—set off into the virgin rain forest to win South America for the Saviour.
On widely scattered campos (grassy clearings in the forest) they found Indian groups, usually five or six families, living with their chiefs. More often then not, the men were out hunting. Some women, if they had not seen white people before, put up their hands and ran screaming into the woods. But Jaantje became a good interpreter, and once they recovered from the shock of meeting, the Indians became very curious. The boys read for them the story of Christ and sang. Sometimes they had to sing on and on, while some Indians looked through their things or touched them to see how they felt.
Because the Indian groups moved constantly about, the boys never knew when or where to find them. They carried their own hammocks and enough cassava to last them for five to nine days. Sometimes long snakes or jaguars frightened them. Stinging bugs bothered them all the time, and on unfamiliar trails they easily got lost. Describing one such event, Hans Güttner wrote:
It got dark in the forest and I could no longer see where to go. I crawled on hands and knees to keep on the trail, but even so I got lost. I told it to our Saviour and asked him to help me. When I had told it to him I began searching again and found the way back to the river. There I found my boat and came to the brothers again. Then I thanked the Saviour.11
A few Indians made fun of the boys in their attempt to communicate with them. But as time went on, more and more showed a genuine interest in “the Creator’s Son.” On rare occasions the boys even found men who had worked on plantations and knew some Dutch. Once they met an Indian who to their amazement spoke Plattdeutsch well.
Back at Pilgerhut, Georg and Susanne (Funk) Kaske, joined the group. Susanne, a convert from Pennsylvania, had grown up on the frontier and took part eagerly on long trips into the rain forest. Not only that, she took special interest in the garden and cassava the brothers had planted. With the rest, she helped care for the fruit trees, coffee bushes, cows, goats, and chickens.
Fresh Start at Combé
After the group at Pilgerhut seemed fairly stable, Hans Güttner left to visit the brothers at Combé, near Paramaribo. By the time he got there, he felt very sick. The Steiners had returned to Europe—no longer part of the brotherhood, even though she had not wanted to leave. The Reyniers had also separated from the rest, and everyone looked discouraged. Hans grew steadily worse himself, and died on August 23, 1742. Two months later, Wilhelm and Magdalena (Müller) Zander arrived.
Newly married, the Zanders came from Berks County, Pennsylvania, where he had been studying Indian languages with Conrad Weiser. Soon after they arrived, Wilhelm wrote:
I found the brothers in a state of confusion. The devil had deceived them and filled their heads with things against one another. He had managed to divert their eyes from the wounded Lamb and was trying to turn them crazy. Yet in their hearts they longed to return to the Lamb and wished for a new hour of grace in which they could be bound together in love again. This took place on the first Sunday after our arrival, and was inwardly felt by all present. We felt him. Now we are totally new people together! Once more we are people who see the Lamb and call on him. We look to him to lead our way to the Indian people.12
Wilhelm and Magdalena began visiting the people around them—black, brown, and white—at once. Describing what happened by Christmas, he wrote:
On the night of Christ, December 24, 1742, all of us were together in great blessedness. We discussed our circumstances thoroughly and what we should do from here on. It occurred to us to ask our Saviour to send us an Indian soul for a gift. This our deep desire was granted the very next morning. A young man, an Indian, came walking in. He was a decent fellow and we named him Franz. He soon made it known that he wanted to stay with us and has been here since.
With new hope stirring the believers at Combé, they dared make an offer and purchased five hundred acres on the Cottica Creek. That involved travel in dugout canoes. None of them had experience, and in a sudden rainstorm several of the brothers almost drowned together. But not until the week of Christ’s passion did serious accidents occur. Franz set out to look for game. After waiting a long time on him to return, the brothers saw his capsized boat come floating downstream and knew something had gone wrong. They set out to look for him, but Georg Zeisberger got into deep water and drowned. Wilhelm Zander became too sick to remember what he was doing or even to recognise people, while his wife had her first baby. Six days later it died, and Franz and Maria Barbara Reynier returned to Pennsylvania.
The Gemeine at Pilgerhut
In spite of setbacks at Combé, the Saviour’s Gemeine at Pilgerhut in Berbice, flourished. One evening when the boys came to an Arawak settlement several days journey into the rain forest, a very old woman came to sit beside Johann Gräbenstein. She listened carefully as he read the story of Christ. When he finished she asked him to read it again—and again. Finally, when she understood how the Son of Kururuman (the Arawak’s name for the Creator) had come to die, and how his blood washes guilt away, her face beamed. “I want to be washed in the blood,” she said.
With Jaantje’s help, Johann talked with her and prayed. But the next day, when the old woman insisted on coming with them, the brothers gently told her it was impossible. “We live too far away,” they said. “It will take us three days to get back and you could not walk that far.”
The old woman surprised them. Shortly afterward, while the brothers worked around Pilgerhut, she suddenly appeared on the edge of the forest, with her daughter. Pointing to herself she said, “Wash me in the blood from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet!”
Struck with wonder, the believers at Pilgerhut could do nothing but praise the Saviour and get ready for their first baptism in South America. In their community diary they wrote:
We believed her desire was from the heart, and the Saviour allowed us (through the use of the lot) to baptise her on the 31’st of March. She was the first of her people. Our sisters put a long white gown on her and led her into the Saal. Brother Kaske spoke to the congregation. Then our sisters knelt with her and Brother Kaske poured water over her head, three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, while naming her Hanna. One could not keep back the tears. Our sisters laid hands on her and blessed her. Then they led her, light and joyful, out of the Saal.13
With old Hanna’s conversion the windows of heaven seemed to open over the South American rain forest. Soon after her, the brothers baptised an Arawak believer they named Simeon. After him came Magdalena, then Jonathan, the boy the Indian chief had entrusted to their care. Old Hanna’s grandson received baptism as Nathanael, along with Jakob and his wife Sara, who knew Dutch. Isaak followed, and a fifteen-year-old girl the believers named Elisabeth.
No one could doubt the transformation. Their faces shone. Released from Jawahu (Satan) whom they recognised as chief of evil spirits, they revelled in the joy of freedom from fear. As the Saviour whom they called Wakukü (Our Life) forgave them, they learned to forgive one another. Old Hanna told the brothers how her heart turned warm inside her, and others testified to feeling the Lamb’s blood pouring over them.
The believers from Herrnhut boldly preached Christ and him crucified—never questioning whether it made sense to the Arawak Indians or not. And, strangely enough, it made sense. The more Johann Gräbenstein learned their language, the better he understood their beliefs about God and the world. In the beginning, Arawak Indians believed, all people used to live happy lives in a land of plenty. No one used to die. But when people disobeyed Kururuman they had to go out of that land. That he should now have sent his Son to make it possible to get back, did not seem at all incredible. More and more believed and almost daily baptisms took place at Pilgerhut.
On the feast of Christ’s Resurrection, in 1749, the brothers and a great number of Indians gathered for the singing of the Paschal Litany and a love feast—a brown-skinned multitude, mostly naked, but with the baptised ones dressed in white linen robes. Jakob’s wife, Sara, did the interpreting and the brothers baptised a young convert they named Christian.
Christian’s parents received baptism soon afterwards as Johannes and Maria, followed by Thomas and Esther, with Isaac’s wife, eine sehr dreiste Wilde (a very bold savage), who took the name Rebekka. Joseph became a follower of the Lamb, together with his two wives, Mary and Martha, admonished by the brothers not to be selfish in their places. When Rosina and Lydia (old Hanna’s daughter who had walked with her to Pilgerhut) received baptism with Lydia’s husband Philip, three Arawak sisters, Sara, Rebekka, and Magdalena, laid hands on them. Jonas, Bathsheba, and Joshua followed. Then Moses and Miriam, a married couple baptised together, and Jeptha, who had been the most powerful bogayer (medicine man) of the region, with his wife Debora and two others.
Behind it all, old Hanna spent her days sitting on a hammock under a thatched roof on poles at Pilgerhut. Too old to work anymore she spent her time praying. Day and night she prayed until every one of her grown descendants—her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, and her great-great-grandchildren—had come, one after another, to rest in the Saviour’s wounds. She prayed until the day following a particularly blessed love feast on July 31, 1760, when with a smile on her wrinkled face, she went home.
“Orderly and Beautiful Lives in Peace”
So many Arawak people came to Pilgerhut to live that the brothers needed to settle them in sattelite communities, Gnadenhütten, and Friedenshütten, along the Wironje Creek. There, amid cassava patches and fruit trees, they learned how to follow Christ. The pilgrims from Herrnhut, a chronicler of the church in Berbice wrote, “were not only sent out as preachers, but as Christian colonists. Through their work and way of life they were to show the Indians and black people what Christ is like and to win them for him.”14
This involved challenges.
Arawak men had never done gardening or work around home. They only hunted, and let the women do the rest. Even women expecting babies, or with little ones in their care, worked in cassava patches while men sat in hammocks under the shade. How would this change? The German brothers at Pilgerhut decided to teach by example—and it worked. Before long, all believing men pulled weeds and built their own houses.
Used to continual heat in the rain forest, Arawak families lived without clothes. But after they loved the Saviour, their thinking changed. Theophilus Schuman, who came to Pilgerhut with his new wife from Germany in 1748, wrote:
Every morning and evening when they are home we have hours (meetings) with them. We read to them about the Lamb and speak with them through Jonathan, our interpreter as well as we can. We feel the presence of the Lamb among us. Four young brothers live with us so they do not have to be constantly among the naked women. They have made a room for themselves alongside that of our single European brothers, and we try to spend as much time with them as possible. Until now they have been used to nothing but unlimited personal liberty. Now they are learning to study. They are starting to speak a nice German, and are understanding us better all the time. We expect the Saviour will use them as witnesses among their own people.15
When asked if they wanted to get married, the young Arawak believers, did not seem in a hurry. They showed more interest in teaching and as soon as Immanuel and Aquilla learned how to read they began to hold classes for the rest. They also helped the brothers from Germany translate Scriptures and songs. This provided more challenges. The Arawaks, for instance, had no concept of sin. But they knew what disobedience meant. They only dimly comprehended abstract ideas like love, worship, or faith. But they lived according to rigid ethics of their own. It did not take long for the Europeans to realise they had things to learn from the Arawaks too.
The Indians kept themselves cleaner than the Europeans. Believing that sweat weakens the body, they bathed frequently throughout the day. In their houses—thatched shelters without walls—they sat on clean sand, and they treated one another very politely. Young people called their parents and others of that age “honoured ones.” Older people called all young men “handsome ones” and it took the believers from Herrnhut a while to learn the correct titles for women, girls and children, and how to use them.
Even though the Arawaks did not have an exact word for humility, they well knew the attitude. One should not look another person in the face while speaking “like a dog,” they believed. Rather, one should rise so that others might sit and count it a privilege to give. Arawak hospitality always involved eating and drinking together.
Jonathan, along with Sara, became a gifted interpreter—repeating in musical, almost sad-sounding Arawak, what the brothers told him in German. Not only did he repeat what the brothers said, he offered brilliant explanations of his own, and evening meetings at Pilgerhut soon attracted up to one hundred and fifty or more people—old Bilka, a crippled widow regularly first in the Saal. On joyful Gemeintäge (monthly all-day meetings) the Indian believers listened with great interest to letters from Germany, Greenland, Africa, and from their distant kin in North America.
Life in communal residences at Pilgerhut (from three to five families to every house) provided the new believers with pleasant fellowship. Even work became pleasant as they learned to do it together in a Christian way. Before they met the Saviour, the Indians drank fermented cassava and fought at their festivals. Now, during the cassava harvest, or at great fish poisonings along the river, they sang German and Arawak songs. They held frequent love feasts, and around fires in the tropical night they listened to brothers speak of the Saviour whom they loved.
During these evening meetings, the believers first noticed new faces among the crowd—not Arawaks, but painted Caribs and Waraus, clutching tall spears. Silently, cautiously, they came out of the woods, then disappeared again. But the brothers did not fear. The Lamb was with them in the heart of the South American wilderness, and like him, they had no need of arms.
On Christmas eve, 1748, the believers celebrated the baptism of Peter and Anna. On New Year’s day Cornelius, Noah and Tabea, Rachel (Peter’s second wife), old Leah, and Jeptha with his two wives, Caritas and Rosina, received baptism, and the community diary reports:
Our Esther went out after the meeting with several sisters and most of the visiting women. She explained to them what they had heard. They stayed out until late in the night, praying, and from this time on, it happened regularly.
The first Arawak wedding, celebrated with great joy at Pilgerhut, united Christian (Johannes’s son) and Klara, in marriage. Wilhelmina, a young Arawak believer, married Elieser, a Carib, soon afterward.
In their unconverted state the Arawaks feared nothing more than death, and the souls of the departed. But the Pilgerhut Diary describes what happened when the first believers among them died:
Our old brother Simeon was the first of the Arawak Christians to go home. He was sick for a week. Every time we spoke with him he was content and remembered the wounds of the Lamb. Minutes before he took his last breath one of the brothers asked him what he was thinking. He answered, “I am thinking about the Lamb of God and how he will make me a new person.”
Moments after Simeon went home, our old sister Naemi (mother of Jephta and Rebekka) followed him. Before her death she had spent much of her time in conversation with the Lamb.
We held the burial in the evening. We covered the coffins with white cloth and decorated them with green branches from trees. Everyone gathered in the Saal. We sang and spoke to those who gathered of the blessedness of going to be with the Lamb. Then we walked, a long column of people following those who carried the coffins, to where we laid the bodies to rest. Four brown brothers and two white ones carried the coffins. We sang while we buried them. Then we returned in an orderly way to the Saal. We thanked the Lamb for blessing with such grace the homegoing of these first believers among the Arawaks. Instead of being filled with fear and superstition they all left with a great blessing.
Another entry in the Diary reports:
Our nine-year-old Daniel was bitten by a snake and soon died. One could picture in him the boy Jesus. He was a decent, blessed, child. Half a year ago when his grandmother was mourning the death of her son Cornelius, he said: “Do not cry, Grandmother. He is with the Saviour. We will soon be there and see him too!” Yesterday in the childrens’ hour he had such a happy face, fixing eager eyes on the teacher who spoke. He always paid attention like that. Today, down by the river, as soon as he got bitten by the snake he told his parents: “I will not stay with you. I am going to the Saviour.” Soon afterward he said: “Now it is over. I no longer feel any pain.” Then he died.16
Not everyone that came to Pilgerhut learned to walk with Christ. Sometimes, because they did not understand the people well, it took the brothers a while to notice what happened among them—like the illicit relationship that developed between a black boy and an Indian woman they took in. A few walked off with things that did not belong to them, lied when questioned, or covered up the sins of others. But the beautiful testimonies of the sincere, far outshone every trial, and convinced the brothers over and over that their coming from Europe to South America had not been in vain. Wilhelm Zander wrote in 1745:
Now we live in joyful community one with another, sensing the efforts of our beloved Mother [the Holy Spirit]. The Lamb is with us and we feel his wounds. I rejoice to be his little creation, to love him and to know that he loves us—not from compulsion but voluntarily, out of grace!17
Theophilus Schuman wrote:
The Arawak brothers and sisters have the privilege of coming to know without detraction or confusion the centre of all blessedness: the Lamb with the wound in his side. Washed with the blood and water of that wound it is no wonder that excesses so often associated with revival have not occurred among them. They have thrown themselves down before their Redeemer and are constantly becoming more joyfully dependent on his wounds. Their blessedness has greatly increased since we can speak their language well enough to talk to them without interpreters.18
In a letter to Brother Ludwig he added in 1748: “As often as one comes upon Pilgerhut in the wilderness where so many live orderly and beautiful lives in peace, one has to fall down and kiss the feet of the Lamb.”19
A Growing Light
Far from a trackless wilderness, the brothers from Herrnhut found South America’s rain forest a complex world of its own—complete with efficient communications and travel. It did not take long for the parents, brothers and sisters, and more distant relatives of the Arawak believers to learn about Pilgerhut. A few, like Thomas and Esther, left on regular journeys into the forest, bringing others back with them every time. The baptised believers Amos and Ignatius with their wives, and Manasse, a single brother went to live west of the Essequibo River, toward the great falls (Kaietur). Tobias went even further, to the Orinoco River delta, and did not return for several years. But when he did, the brothers rejoiced to see him even more at rest in the Saviour’s wounds than before.
The same could be said for Jeremias and Abisai of whom the Pilgerhut Community Diary reports:
Jeremias and Abisai came back to us from the other side of the Essequibo. We had not seen them for five years. They confirmed our feeling that once a soul has truly come to know the Lamb, he will not lightly remove himself from his faithful arms. The two brothers told us we should not think of them forgetting the Saviour. The thought that he died for them and that they belonged to him, washed in the blood, never left them in all their travels.20
Jeptha, the converted medicine man, and his wife travelled far to the south where he spoke about the Saviour at many tribal councils. When he returned after a year he described how they had travelled to the end of the Essequibo, carried their canoes across the hills and floated down other streams to a great river in the south (the Amazon?). Around this time the first Warau family came to live at Pilgerhut, and a delegation of strange but “very decent Indians” came from the Orinoco delta to “hear about the Lamb.” So did a group of fifty from the Muruka area, and a chief from the Corantijn River with eighty men, women, and children.
Visits the German brothers themselves made into the rain forest no longer resembled their first laborious journeys. No one feared them anymore. Requests came constantly, begging them to come here and there. But even they stood in wonder before the Lamb the day an old man walked out of the forest into the clearing at Pilgerhut. He came with a circle of dignitaries, carrying a silver-studded cane. Through their interpreters the brothers learned he was the “chief of chiefs,” the head of the Arawak nation itself.
By the mid-1750s the brothers needed more space and Ludwig Dehne with the Arawak leader Christoph moved to a new location on the Corantijn River with a large group of believers. They named it Ephrem. But within a short time everyone turned sick. The Indians felt sure evil spirits lived there and fled. Christoph stayed for a while longer, then for two years Ludwig, trusting in eventual victory through Christ, laboured on alone.
So sick he could scarcely walk Ludwig cleared the land, planted bananas, fifty coffee bushes, sweet potatoes, oranges, and limes. Before he harvested his first crop he went many a day without food. One time an ant bit him and he did not know how long he had lain unconscious before he came to. Another time a snake nearly strangled him. In his diary he wrote:
When I lay down in my hammock to sleep a fairly large snake let itself down from the roof beams upon me. It circled three times around my neck and head and began pulling itself tight. I thought this could be my end. With my one hand I could reach a piece of chalk and with it I wrote on the table: “Do not think it was the Indians that killed me. It was a snake.” Then it came to me to call on the Saviour to deliver me. I pushed upwards on the snake so suddenly and so hard I skinned my cheek, but I got it off. It was dark and I could not see where it went, so I crawled back into my hammock to sleep. Every evening, for a while, a jaguar would roar close to my shelter.21
More worrisome than the danger of wild animals, however, were the hostile Caribs of the region. In his diary Ludwig wrote:
In November  the Carib Indians finally came to carry out their threat of striking me dead. At noon, while I was eating, around fifty men came on canoes and surrounded my shelter. They were terrible to see. Some had iron hatchets and some knives. Some carried wooden clubs and other weapons. I went out and welcomed them in Arawak. One man, whom I noticed was their captain, shouted back, “Talk to us in Carib.” They said more things but seeing I could not understand, they finally had an interpreter step forward. “Who gave you permission to build here?” he asked.
“The governor,” I answered.
“Why did you come to our land?”
I answered with pleasure: “I have brothers across the great water. They heard that the people of this land do not know their Creator, so they sent me to tell you about him. I am to learn your language, then more of my brothers may come to join me.
“Are you Spanish?”
“Are you French?”
“Are you from the Low Country then?”
“No. I came here from the Low Country, but I came from further away. I come from the brothers who love you.”
“Have you not heard that we want to kill you?”
“Yes, but I did not believe it. You have men among you who have spent time with me and who know that I did not come to harm you.”
“That is true,” the chief answered, “and they have told me that you are not like other white men.”
“So if you know that I love you, why would you want to kill me?”
At this the Carib chief began to smile and the circle broke form. Through the interpreter they began to ask me questions. Before they left they wondered how I stood for food, and promised to bring me some.22
With the Caribs on his side, Ludwig’s situation gradually improved and new believers came to join him at Ephrem. First a few, then steadily growing numbers of Caribs and Waraus found peace in the Saviour’s wounds. Visitors came, sometimes sixty or more at a time, bringing chickens, fish, and fresh venison. After several more years at Ephrem, the entire community moved to a healthier and more adequate location upstream they called Hoop (Hope). The pilgrim Hans Wied described it years later:
The house at Hoop is somewhat like an Indian house, and somewhat like the houses of the colonists. The front side is covered with boards. The other three sides have double walls of sticks, plastered white. The inside partitions are also of sticks. The floors are of a hard-packed mixture of clay and chalk. The ceilings of the brothers’ and sisters’ rooms are also of sticks, but the large room where they eat together and where they have their meetings is open up to the roof of cane and palm thatch. Covered walkways lead to all the outbuildings, the kitchen, the storehouses and stables so that in rainy weather one can get everywhere in the dry.
Early in 1757 the believers Elias, Immanuel, Bartholomäus, and sixty others set up camp at the mouth of the Corantijn to fish where its wide brown waters merge into the tropical sea. To watch a ship coming upon them did not surprise them. But when they recognised the face of their beloved brother Johann Gräbenstein on board (coming back from Germany), the Indian believers went wild with rejoicing.
Johann did not come by himself. On the brotherhood’s ship with his new wife Rosalina, he came with Wilhelm Zander, Mathias Nyborg (an unmarried brother from Finnland) and six other men—the converted sea captain, Nicholas Garrison, at the wheel—with a load of materials to build a new community in Suriname.
Much had happened to Captain Garrison since his trip to Greenland with Christian David. Coming back to Germany from there, he found his wife and one of his children had died. But he married again, made more trips between Pennsylvania, England, and the Netherlands, and now found himself in South America—eager to do what he could for the Saviour’s Gemein.
Pulling up to the docks at Nieuw Nickerie on the Suriname coast, the newcomers from Europe met their second surprise: Theophilus Schuman and a group of brothers from Pilgerhut en route to Combé. Rejoicing for the Lamb’s direction in bringing them together on the wild coast of South America they sat down for an impromptu love feast in his name.
Soon afterward the rejoicing turned into serious considerations. The group came in the rainy season and all turned sick. Johann Gräbenstein died even before Captain Garrison decided on a site for the new community, a lovely plain along the Saramakka River. His widow married Wilhelm Zander (Magdalena had died and was buried at sea). While laying out the new site Captain Garrison—as skilled a surveyor as he was a pilot—walked into a nest of bees that almost stung him to death. But with the willing co-operation of all, a circle of buildings stood in the wilderness and the brothers knelt on the clean sand floor of a new Saal by March 25, 1757.
They had hurried to finish it before the feast of the Lamb’s Resurrection. But Mathias Nyborg’s home going came first. Never complaining, always eager to help (the morning the brothers at Herrnhut knocked on the door of his room to ask him to go to Suriname they found him standing with his bags already packed) he had turned deathly sick before anyone knew it. During his last days he seemed to speak constantly, very happily, with the Saviour. But no one understood him because in his delirium he spoke only Finnish, until he drew his last breath and they laid him to rest beneath the aloe trees.
With the help of some from Pilgerhut, Aquila (chosen a leader in the congregation), Levi (one of the best hunters in the group) Ananias, Stephanus, and Timotheus with their wives, and the single sister Maria Agnes, the believers planted new cassava plots, yams and cacao at Saron. All thanked the Saviour for their new refuge in the wilderness, but the day after a blessed Gemeintag and communion on June 25, 1761 the Bosneger (bands of runaway slaves that lived in the rain forest) attacked.
Just before the morning meeting on the Lord’s day, Ludwig Dehne, on a visit to Saron, returned from his morning walk in the woods. Suddenly he saw the brother Daniel Kamm come running wildly toward him. Shots rang out, followed by terrible screams. Wilhelm Zander fled from a burning house and Ludwig saw one of the Indian brothers fall with a long arrow sticking from his back. Within moments flames roared from the palm-thatched buildings of Saron, but neither Ludwig nor any of those that escaped remained to see what would happen.
Only after days of flight in almost continual rain, living on fruits of the forest, did a number of those that survived find their way back together. At Saron they found the bodies of eight believers that had died in the attack. Eleven women and children had disappeared, presumably kidnapped by the Bosneger, and most of the buildings at Saron lay in ruins. But taking fresh courage in the Saviour, the brothers set out to repair was left and keep on building the community. Old Georg Weber, refugee from Kunvald in Moravia, pioneer on St. Thomas and St. Croix, moved with his fourth wife, Martha, into what had been an Indian shelter. Others cleaned out the cow barn in which to live, and a few settled in the carpenter’s shop. All turned sick. Both Georg and Martha soon died and Theophilus Schumann who had come to Saron followed them shortly.
Early in 1763 the community at Saron, thriving once more in the Saviour’s love, hosted three unusual guests. Black guests, and very shy, they came from a twenty-two day journey up the Saramakka River.
At first the guests, who knew some Indian words and English creole (the language used by slaves), did not talk much. They only said they came from large villages up the river where they planted yams and sugar cane, where they kept chickens and pigs, and found wild game in abundance. But the more they questioned them, the more convinced the believers at Saron became that they were the very men who had fallen on Saron earlier and destroyed it.23 Knowing this, they became immensely interested in them and tried to learn more.
What had brought about the change in the Bosneger’s attitude toward them? What did they know about God, and how could one get there?
Following the instructions their black visitors left them, Ludwig Dehne with two young brothers, Rudolf Stoll from Winterthur in Switzerland and Thomas Jones from England, left in 1765, to travel up the Saramakka River.
Several weeks travel upstream, having found their way through five sections of raging white water, the brothers reached the settlement where Abini, one of the men who had visited them, lived. In his diary Ludwig wrote:
On the 24’th of December, around two in the afternoon we arrived at the village where Abine lives. Roars and screams of joyful welcome, along with the firing of guns, followed us until we were inside one of the lodges. Close to it sat the council house. As soon as the elders had gathered there they summoned me. The head elder stood in the middle of the circle and spoke to all about what he had in mind for us and our work. Everyone was very happy and thanked him. After the meeting Abini came and invited us to live with him. We accepted his offer and I began to tell them about their Creator, and the one who loved them enough to give his blood for their peace. “Well,” he said, “You must be talking about our Gran Gado!”
“That is right,” I told him. “I am talking about the one who made heaven and earth, the one whom all men must honour and obey.” At this the Bosneger trembled and feared that their gods would be unhappy.
Several nights later a terrible roar echoed through the Bosneger village. No one knew where it came from, but the people did not doubt their gods were angry and staged a three day feast to pacify them. Even Ludwig, who had spent many years among the heathen, had never seen or heard anything like it. The Bosneger were not gentle, peace-loving people like the Arawaks. One could not even talk with them as to the stern Caribs. Pounding on drums, shouting in unearthly voices in unison, and dancing until they wallowed in the dirt, rolling their eyes back into their heads, the Bosneger worshipped cruel spirits and seemed in bondage to them. Women ruled the village, often through dark spiritual powers, and even little children took part in wild celebrations.
Unlike the Indians, the Bosneger (still remembering the horror of slavery) held no respect for white men. Some demanded guns from the brothers, and on not receiving them became angry. But Abini showed himself friendly and placed his grandson, a twelve-year-old boy named Schippio, into Rudolf Stoll’s care.
The brothers settled close to the village and began to plant peanuts. After two months Thomas Jones died, but Christ’s presence became ever more powerful. Arrabini, a leader among the Bosneger, began to question the power of their gods and show serious interest what the brothers had to say about the Saviour and his blood.
Early one morning Arrabini took a decorated wooden obeah (cult figure) and burned it to see what would happen. Then he took his gun, went down to the river and trained it on a lazy crocodile, worshipped by the villagers. “If you are really a god,” he told the crocodile, “I will not hit you. But if you are just an animal, I will shoot and kill you.”
A shot rang out and the crocodile dropped dead.
The whole village reacted in horror. “What will happen to us now?” the people wailed. “Arrabini has slain the body of a god!”
Before long Arrabini lay in his house, deathly sick. Everyone believed the gods had cursed him. The witch doctor cursed him too and said he could never have children again. But Arrabini recovered. When he found a Boma snake in his house one night (another supposed god) he killed it too, and a year later his wife gave birth to a little boy. They named him Isaak.
The unconverted villagers, led by their chief priestess, did what they could to hinder the brothers and drive them away. One man became possessed by a spirit identifying himself as Jesus, and tried to convince the villagers to listen to him instead of to Ludwig and Rudolf. But more and more began to hunger after the truth. Grego, the son of the chief priestess herself, began to come to the brothers’ evening meetings for Bible study and prayer. The Saviour touched his heart. With tears in his eyes he promised to go back to the village and tell everyone about Christ.
Thoni and Fonso, Grego’s friends, began to come, followed by a boy named Jessu, and with great joy, Rudolf noticed their hearts becoming tender before the Lamb as they learned how to read and write. When Schippio had a sore foot, an infected puncture wound, he prayed for it to get better. On his slate he wrote, “Jesus meki mi foette kom boen.” On the day Arrabini, the first believer among the Bosneger, received baptism in the name of Christ a great crowd of villagers converged upon the meeting with cutlasses, loaded guns, terrible shouts, and curses. But Arrabini, baptised Johannes, gave them a calm and beautiful testimony and the crowd faded away in fear. Schippio received baptism some time later as David, and Grego as Christian, followed by many more.
With Johannes Arrabini’s help the brothers built a community at Bambey on the Saramakka River. Once more they planted cassava and bananas. Once more they built a Saal and celebrated great love feasts in holy joy—not infrequently with visitors from the Saron Indian community they had once destroyed.
“Christ’s Sacred Nearness”
Johannes Arrabini, beloved leader of the Saramakkan Christians, became known in the communities of the rain forest as a quick and wise counsellor. When a careless man told him he did not fear hell because he would have much company there, Johannes told him: “Go stick your hand in the fire. Does it hurt any less to burn all your fingers at once?” No matter what the evil one and his followers brought up against him, Johannes overcame their opposition with the blood of the Lamb, and the Saviour’s healing power spread through Suriname.
In 1767 the brothers bought a large wooden house in Paramaribo itself. With a well and water tank, a garden, and numerous outbuildings, they began a Christian community unlike any they had attempted before. Johann Gottlieb Krohn from Stettin on the North Sea, Johann and Eva Penner from Schwerin, and other believers from Germany began to make clothes. They hired free blacks to help them and loaned slaves from masters in the city. Their business prospered. Learning songs and listening to stories about Jesus while they worked together, the employees of the clothing factory soon became a band of earnest seekers—a black brother, Cupido, who took the name Christian, becoming the first to receive baptism.
But even in Paramaribo, the heat, the opposition, and the challenge of their racial diversity, kept the believers struggling for survival—both physically and spiritually. Those not sick unto death were always hot, itchy, molested by stinging bugs day and night, or suffering from eye infections. Steady rain could last up to forty-eight hours or more, sometimes beating down so hard no one could hear what the brothers said in their meetings. After Johann Penner and most of the other Europeans at Paramaribo, including her husband Jesse, had died, Charlotte Petersen wrote a letter home in 1762:
All the men have gone home, and now Sister Weber has gone home too. Regina (Frau Millies) and I are the only ones left. We cry much and our hearts could dissolve in lamentation for all the brothers and sisters we have lost. It is very hard on the tent [the body] here, especially for people already over forty. Such people, like us, cannot take the climate and are soon delivered off. When one comes here the air is so hot and heavy it feels like one will suffocate. Then one is soon sick and it goes between life and death.24
In all the communities of Suriname and Berbice, the list of those who “went home” [died] grew rapidly longer, and in constant need the brothers and sisters of all races—black, brown, and white—learned to share their suffering with Christ and one another. One night the believers at Pilgerhut heard terrified wailing (klägliches Geschrei) outside as the Arawak brother, Philip, came running with his little daughter, just bitten by a snake. During a meeting at the same place, the sisters suddenly noticed two abaras, the most poisonous snakes of all, under their benches. Another one appeared among the children during a love feast, and at Saron an eight-foot-long kunukusi bit the Arawak brother Elias.
Spanish and French pirates lurked along the coast. On one occasion when they fell on a group of believing Indians the Arawak brother Stephanus startled them. He had lived along the Orinoco River and in good Spanish told them about the Lamb of God. In 1781 Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice fell to the English under Sir George Rodney. A year later they passed into French hands, then back to the Dutch. Then all the colonies became English until their final partition to France, the Netherlands and England after the Napoleonic war.
During these disorders the brothers Hans-Georg Jorde and Kaspar Pfeiffer suffered capture at sea. Carried off with three hundred prisoners (eighty of whom soon died) they suffered unspeakable thirst and brutal treatment. Hans-Georg died too but Kaspar kept his courage and did what he could to preserve his dignity among the wild and filthy men. One day he tried to wash his clothes. A big wave came in and swept them away. After months at sea, wasted beyond recognition with starvation and disease, long hair flapping about his face and nothing but a rag tied around his loins, he arrived on Barbados.
Pirates also caught Ludwig Dehne when he finally returned to Europe with a one-year-old black child. But no one, perhaps, had a more eventful ride across the Atlantic than Elisabeth Möser.
Coming to Suriname from Europe as a young bride, Elisabeth soon found herself a widow and decided to return. The English, at war with the Netherlands, captured her ship, kidnapped her, and gave her a berth in a cabin with six rough men. At first they tried to make her participate in wild parties on deck. But they soon came to respect her firm convictions, and left her alone to pray. When the ship docked at a West Indian port and Elisabeth realised it was Bridgetown, Barbados, she asked to see the pilgrim Johann Gottlieb Klose, then living on the island.
Bruder Klose, at first her captives did not understand, and told her, “Yes, yes. You may keep your clothes!” But when Elisabeth persisted and pointed to the town, they let her go with two friendly girls who said they knew where to take her. The girls led Elisabeth deep into the worst part of town and into a tavern. They took her upstairs and showed her a room. To her horror, when Elisabeth stepped inside, she found a man lying in bed, waiting for her. Crying to the Saviour for help, she turned and fled. A friendly captain took her to the island of St. Christopher. From that place she found passage with another ship to Cork in Ireland. There the people took her, with her plain dress and head covering, for a Quaker. But a Dutch captain could understand what she said and put her on a ship for Amsterdam from where she found her way back to the believers’ communities.
Far more serious than the threat of snakes, poverty, and pirates, however, were white planters’ continual attempts to ruin the believers’ communities. Because the brothers would not swear oaths or bear arms, the planters said, they would exile them and drive all their Indian converts back into the woods. The planters did all they could to turn the Indians against the brothers, saying Pilgerhut was nothing but a trap through which the brothers would capture them. They said the brothers planned to take them all to Europe to sell as slaves. They gave the Indians rum and warned the Dutch government the Moravians were planning a rebellion.
The Dutch Reformed church circulated a warning against contact with the Moravians because they were “doctrinally unsound.” At the same time, colony authorities tried to force the brothers to enslave all Indians living on their land, claiming it was illegal to farm in the colonies without doing so. Time after time, Dutch planters chased their cattle onto the believers’ crops, and Lauerens Storm van s’Gravensande, governor of Essequibo and Demerara threatened to kill every Moravian that would set foot on his territory.
The Indian believers, far from turning against the brothers because of the planters’ threats, lived in constant fear that white colonists would capture them. None of the pilgrims in the rain forest knew the extent of this fear until an Arawak boy saw a strange boat coming up the Wironje Creek one day at noon. He shouted an alarm and within minutes Pilgerhut stood empty. But real danger did not come, in the end, from white planters.
It came from Cuffy.
On March 1, 1763, a strange band of refugees appeared in Pilgerhut. In bedraggled clothes, their hair dishevelled and nearly senseless with fright they were a Dutch planter’s wife with six household slaves and all her children, escaping the greatest slave revolt in the history of the Guiana colonies. On February 23, in a massive uprising at the Magdalenenburg plantation on the Canje Creek, a slave named Cuffy and his supporters established black rule in Berbice. In quick succession the Juliane, Lelienburg, Elisabeth, and Hollandia plantations had fallen, followed by twenty-five others in rapid succession.
Cuffy, an intelligent and educated man, set up black rule at Fort Nassau. The tables turned. Suddenly white gentlemen and ladies worked in the fields under the whips of black masters. White arms lifted against them got chopped off. Whites trying to run away lost a leg. White women everywhere suffered violation with a vengeance and the heads of many planters stood on pikes along the road. In a wave of unspeakable savagery swarms of black men and women ravaged Berbice colony, looting, burning and killing. They beat drums and danced. In wild feasts they roasted white children to eat with their parents’ wine.
Hearing the roar of cannons on the nearest plantation, only an hour downstream, Heinrich and Elisabeth Beutel, Johann Heinrich Clemens, Georg Meisser, Friedrich Vögtle, Johann Nitschmann, Gottlieb Schultz, the Indian believers Christoph with his wife Akale, Ruth with her two children, Michael, Christian, Martin, Gottlieb (a lame boy), and the rest at Pilgerhut fled.25
In some ways, the flight from Pilgerhut reminded Heinrich Beutel of his escape from Jägerndorf in Silesia, years before. But now he was old. His wife had a hard time keeping up. Some of the group was sick and they had to leave the work of many years behind them—clothing, cattle, linen, furniture, tools, even the carefully maintained archives of the Pilgerhut community.
Stumbling through the rain forest on narrow trails in the dark, the brothers and sisters split up into smaller groups. Old Georg Meisser, pioneer at Combé, widowed for the second time, slipped on a rotten log and fell into a creek. A small group of blacks patrolling the Berbice frontier fell on them and stripped them of the few things they had managed to save—including the handwritten Arawak dictionary Theophilus Schuman had spent years to prepare—but let them escape with their lives.
Weeks later the first survivors came straggling into the plantations of the Demerara colony. Johann Heinrich Clemens wrote: “Brother Beutel and his wife . . . Gottlieb and I were almost six weeks in the forest. The brothers Vögtle, Meisser, and Nitschmann reached Demerara by Green Thursday, but the rest of us had the grace of being fed with the body and blood of Jesus Christ while still in the wilderness. . . . In all this the Saviour was unspeakably close to me.”
Pilgerhut, after Cuffy’s rebellion, lay in charred ruins. So did Ephrem, and black marauders repeatedly raided Saron—killing Nathanael (Old Hanna’s great-grandson) who served as a leader in the congregation. But as long as the believers kept their eyes on the Lamb, they flourished no matter what happened. Sixty years after Georg Piesch, Georg Berwig, and young Christoph von Larisch set foot at Fort Zeelandia, the pilgrim Hans Wied, visiting Hoop on the Corantijn, wrote:
On the day of our Gedenktag der Gemeine (day of communal remembrance), after our morning blessing at the house, Brother Lösche led the first meeting. The place was full and the worshippers reverent. At ten in the morning the whole congregation came together for a baptismal service. Those to be baptised sat in white clothes, on chairs in front of the audience. After the liturgy, led by Brother Fischer, he baptised a young Indian woman, Smerra, and gave her the name Zippora. I baptised Arowa, naming him Manasse, and Brother Lösche baptised Sebaygu, naming him Cleophas. The sacred nearness of Jesus’ presence surrounded us. It built me up to see the Indian brothers’ and sisters’ active participation and how they came, after the service, to congratulate the newly baptised ones and greet them with the kiss. In the evening we celebrated communion, in beautiful silence and order, with all the members.26
The Lamb, in the eighteenth century, built his church in South America.
1 Brief Spangenbergs an Zinzendorf, Amsterdam, d. 7. Dec. 1734
2 The site of Mara, south of New Amsterdam, Guyana, today.
3 Hans Güttner an seinen Vater, Johann Güttner, in Herrnhut, 7. December 1738
4 Hans Güttner an Leonhard Dober, 8. Februar 1740
5 Brief Rosina Berwich an Anna Nitschmann, 1738
6 Theophilus Schumann, Pilgerhut in Berbice, an Ludwig von Zinzendorf, 27. December 1748
7 Nov. 26, 1740
8 Johann F. Reynier an die theure und ehrwürdige Kreuzgemeine, 16. September 1741
9 Georg Meisser an Bruder Götz in Heerendyk 27. Januar 1742
10 With whom she travelled to America on the first “sea congregation” where she lost her life in the attack on Gnadenhütten on the Mahoney. She lay sick, upstairs, the night the Indians came.
11 Hans Güttner an die theure und liebe Kreuzgemeine, 5. December 1741
12 Bericht Zanders über seine Thätigkeit in Suriname, 1742
13 Diarium von Pilgerhut, 31. März 1748
14 Fritz Stähelin
15 From a letter to Ludwig von Zinzendorf, December 27, 1748.
16 Diarium von Pilgerhut, 31. März 1758
17 Wilhelm Zander an Ludwig von Zinzendorf, 29. November 1745
18 Theophilus Schumann an die Societät in Zeist, 23. Juli 1749
19 December 27, 1748
20 Diarium von Pilgerhut, 18. März, 1757
21 Ludwig Dehne, Lebenslauf
23 Seven years later when a band of Bosneger visited Saron, the brothers wondered about an Indian man among them. It turned out he was Gottlieb, the son of the Arawak brother Ignatz, kidnapped on the day of the massacre in 1761. He had become totally absorbed in Saramakkan black society and married there.
24 September, 1762, from Paramaribo
25 Johann Heinrich Clemens wanted to ask the Saviour first (with the use of the lot) whether they should abandon Pilgerhut, but none of the rest felt that was necessary.
26 Reise der Geschwister Hans Wied von Paramaribo nach Hoop . . . im Jahre 1794, Gemein Nachrichten, 1795