The Moravian Missionary Experience:


The West Indies, Guiana and Surinam, 1732-1800



European Competition and Expansion


Final Paper


17 December, 2003


I. The Moravians


The Moravians were a Protestant sect that, under the leadership of Count Nikolas Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf, experienced a strong revival in the 1720s. The doctrine of the Moravians centered on the sufferings of Christ on the cross and involved much contemplation of the various wounds he received therein. Zinzendorf began the practice of sending Brethren to minister among the heathens in the New World and Africa, and potential missionaries underwent extensive indoctrination:


These missionaries, both men and women, envisioned themselves as “brides of Christ” whose father was God and whose mother the Holy Ghost. In this imagery, the church was born in the savior’s side wound, betrothed to Christ in Holy Communion, making it the daughter-in-law of both God the Father and the Holy Ghost (Price, 57).


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


II. The West Indies


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


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


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


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


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


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