Colonial power

The Moravians: Missionaries in the West Indies

The pious Moravians, also called “baas”, were the dominant Christian religious community in the Danish colony in the West Indies. The Moravians wanted to evangelize for their Christian faith but were also driven by a desire to improve the miserable living conditions for the enslaved population.
The Bethany mission station in the hills on the west end of St. John.
The Bethany mission station in the hills on the west end of St. John. Farthest back at left is seen the east end of St. Thomas. (The Royal Library).

The Danish state engaged in Christian missionary activities everywhere in the Danish colonies. But the Danish Lutheran mission in the West Indies was never particularly extensive or effective. On the other hand, the Moravians were especially active on the three islands. This involved very pious Germans who came from Herrnhut in Germany, where Count Zinzendorf had founded the religious community in 1727. A few years later he was the guest of Christian VI in Copenhagen, where he heard that the enslaved laborers in the West Indies had a miserable life and lacked knowledge of Christianity. Two missionaries were therefore sent to St. Thomas in 1732, where after a difficult start and under great personal privation, they eventually gained a foothold and began to evangelize among the enslaved.

The strict faith

The Moravians were an extremely pious denomination. The doctrine of salvation is connected to the death of Jesus on the cross and the suffering of Jesus, and it emphasizes the importance of the emotional life. The Brethren established a number of mission stations on all three islands, where they build churches, lived, taught and held church services. For example, Niesky on St. Thomas, Bethany on St. John and Friedensthal on St. Croix. But much of their activity occurred here and there on the plantations in the enslaved laborers’ sparse leisure time. In order to make the best possible contact with the population, the missionaries learned the scorned Creole language which the enslaved spoke among themselves. Every effort was made to win souls, and baptism was not just an outward formality. The congregation was supposed to really understand what Christianity meant.

The Moravians’ relationship to slavery

The Moravians also sought to improve the enslaved laborers’ conditions, among other things by training them to be craftsmen. But the missionaries accepted slavery at the same time. They even owned slaves themselves, citing the Bible’s words that everyone in the societal pyramid shall subject themselves to their masters, “not just the good and gentle, but also the unreasonable”.

One of the most prominent Moravians was Friederich Martin, who did missionary work on St. Croix in the period 1736-1750. He had a rare ability to win the trust of the enslaved. Another important missionary was C. G. A. Oldendorp, who was sent out in 1767 to describe the mission’s history and who on that basis published a detailed description of the conditions on the islands.