Tag Archives: Moravian Brethren

Missions and Empire: Are Protestant Missionaries Colonists?

A Historical Inquiry

In some colonial contexts, nominally Christian religion was forced upon natives as part and parcel of the endeavor of colonization. This being the case, many missionary groups have historically been denied state support, even when tolerated by monarchs; others, like the Donatists (4th to 6th c.) and the Brethren (19th c.), would not accept such support if it was offered. The charge of colonialism, so often levied against the Christian religion, may not be applied equally to all Christian groups, since they have quite different visions of the state-church relation.

If we try to draw together a broad treatment of the relation between Protestant missionaries and their home governments, what we find historically falls into three categories: missions and empire in unity, missions and empire at odds, and missions and empire at distance.

Missions and Empire in Unity

Catholics in Latin America

As someone who publishes books on pioneer missions, I often come across the platitude that Christian missions is “the handmaid of empire”. This sweeping criticism is held up as a banner by detractors of Christianity, secular and religious alike. It is a just verdict in particular of the Iberian colonial powers, whose vision of Catholic Christianity was that of an unchallenged state religion.

Unlike other European colonizing powers such as England or the Netherlands, Spain insisted on converting the natives of the lands it conquered to its state religion.

Adriaan C. van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, p. xi

Even there, reformers arose to oppose the systematic violence against indigenous peoples. Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos, Pedro de Córdoba, and Bartolomé de las Casas were bright spots in a dark tide of bloodshed, as they chose in 1511 to denounce violence against the people of Hispaniola.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Protestant Reformation did not immediately lead to any change in church-state relations. Luther and Zwingli were not more tolerant than their predecessors in Germany and Switzerland. Likewise, Protestant missionaries of the seventeenth century were not so different from Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded with an explicitly eschatological vision of a Christian utopia, with no room for plurality of religions. This included the intention of converting and civilizing natives, as the 1629 Charter spells out.

. . . whereby our said People, Inhabitants there, may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the KnowIedg and Obedience of the onlie true God and [Savior] of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth, which in our Royall Intencon, and the Adventurers free Profession, is the principall Ende of this Plantacion.

Massachusetts Bay Charter, 1629

Evangelization of indigenous did not precede settlement though, as is sometimes described. John Eliot did not attempt to preach to the Indians until 1646. Charlotte M. Yonge writes that Eliot thought that faith would lead to civilization. Though he worked with approval from colonial authorities, Eliot may also be regarded as a voice crying in the wilderness, since so few shared in this work at that time.

Anglican Missions

For two more centuries, the unity of missions and empire remained prevalent among Church of England missionaries—mainly working within the British Empire—but it declined as independent and evangelical Protestant churches began to proliferate. In 1900, the Governor of Bengal viewed missions as an “unofficial auxiliary” of British government there.

I view, then, the missionary work as an indispensable, unofficial, voluntary auxiliary of the government in carrying out in India its highest aspirations, the ennobling of the whole Hindu people.

Sir Charles Elliott, Governor of Bengal, quoted in Jacob Chamberlain, The Cobra’s Den, 1900, ch. 26

The sentiment was sometimes reciprocal. The President of the Church Missionary Society wrote as late as 1907:

[A. B. Lloyd] has been bearing his share of “the white man’s burden” of ruling, civilising, and Christianising the “silent peoples,” of whom John Bull carries no less than 350 millions on his back.

Sir John H. Kennaway, Preface to A. B. Lloyd’s In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country: A Record of Travel and Discovery in Central Africa, 1907, p. 7.

But even at that time, these were becoming outmoded ways of discussing a Christian’s role in reaching indigenous people. In a way, another reformation had been slowly spreading in European Christianity: evangelicalism. It was the focus on individual faith, rather than institutional loyalty, that began to lead to a major shift in Christian attitudes toward the state.

The First Evangelicals

To understand how all this began to change, we need to understand the beginnings of evangelicalism. In 1688 and 1689, at the university in Leipzig, August Francke and Philip Spener began holding a series of meetings in which the New Testament was read and discussed. They focused on a personal and living faith, but this was seen as an affront to the concept of a state church. Teaching individual conversion was controversial, and Francke became embroiled in conflict. After being prohibited from teaching in Leipzig, he began ministry in Erfurt; after fifteen months in Erfurt, he was expelled by the local authorities and given forty-eight hours to leave the city. All this happened in spite of his Lutheranism.

Francke continued his ministry by teaching children. He established an orphanage in 1698, which eventually became the largest charitable organization in the world. In 1893, the Missionary Review of the World called him “the father of evangelical missions.”

Count Zinzendorf was educated at Francke’s Foundations in Halle. In 1722, Zinzendorf founded his famous Herrnhut community for the Moravian Brethren. In 1727, a revival occurred in Herrnhut which led to several men volunteering to become missionaries.

In 1738, George Whitefield and John Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries. Wesley was greatly impressed by the faith of the Moravian colonists on their ship. Whitefield had been ordained in the Church of England, but in time his outspokenness led to him being rejected by ecclesiastical authority, and he began to pave his own path. Wesley, in a similar position, went to Herrnhut to learn of the Moravians. In 1739 and 1740, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching in the open air and at “revival” meetings. Their preaching sparked the First Great Awakening in America.

Missions and Empire at Odds

The First Lutheran Missionaries in Tranquebar

In 1705, the King of Denmark, Frederick IV, asked August Francke to select two men to go to the Danish colony of Tranquebar, in present-day Tamil Nadu. These were the first Lutheran missionaries. Francke chose Batholomaüs Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau, both trained by him in Halle under a yoke of Prussian Pietism. Though they were sent by the king, as Pietists, their eschatology and missiology was very much at odds with the Danish colonial government, and they butted heads on several occasions. Theologian Joar Haga writes, “the king’s interest in mission activity has been quite a riddle for historians to explain”, but apparently he was impressed with Francke’s work in Halle.

In addition, the Lutheran theologians in Copenhagen had grave doubts about the legitimacy of mission work. The Gospel had already been declared all over the world by the Apostles, according to leading theologians such as Niels Hemmingsen (1513–1600) and Hans Resen (1561–1638). They had explained that the Gospel had been declared twice before Christ’s arrival. . . . []

Joar Haga, “Consecrating the New Jerusalem in Tranquebar.” p. 419.

Haga writes that “The idea of mission was not a part of the original plan for extending Danish rule to India.” (p. 420) The Danish East India Company had been present for almost a century (since 1616) before Ziegenbalg established a church for Indians. In addition, the missionaries were not allowed to use the church used by the Danish and Germans. Even though they had the support of the king, they lacked many supports on the mission field, being generally regarded as radicals. Missions is certainly not the “handmaid of empire” in their case.

When Zeigenbalg preached the consecration sermon for his New Jerusalem church, he stated that it should never be used for “worldly and domestic” use, but that it would be dedicated to spiritual use, meaning preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Their stated goal on the mission field was always that polytheists would leave idolatry for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Denmark.

Reform for Sati

The British East India Compny was very reluctant to interfere in native customs in India, to the extent that they did not even outlaw sati. Jemima Luke writes that the Baptist Missionary Society, the London (Congregational) Missionary Society, and the Church (Anglican) Missionary Society, along with many Hindus and Christians, including missionaries James Peggs and William Carey, sought reform for this practice, finally succeeding in 1829. Reforming native religion and practice was not conducive to resource colonialism (as opposed to the settler colonialism practiced in Latin America).

The East India Company and Independent Protestants

British colonial government had a tenuous relationship with those missionaries in its midst who were Protestant but unconnected to the state church. In a biography of Sarah Loveless, Richard Knill writes:

The East India Company would not allow Christian missionaries to sail in their ships; therefore Dr. Carey, Mr. Loveless, and many others, were glad to sail to British India in the ships of foreigners!

The Missionary’s Wife, 1839; quoted in Thomas Timpson, Memoirs of British Female Missionaries.

Most Protestant missionaries, without any support of a state church, did not have the backing to travel to mission fields within the British Empire. In 1804, the Lovelesses sailed on an American ship for Chennai. Knill comments that arriving on a foreign ship “made it very difficult for a missionary to labour there.”

In the same volume, Thomas Timpson narrates how this policy of the East India Company changed “after great opposition” from British Christians. He records how in 1813, 900 signatures were sent to Parliament.

Divine Providence appeared to open a wide door in the year 1813, especially by the renewal of the East India Company’s Charter. Religious liberty gained a most glorious triumph over avarice and infidelity in the new charter: for Christians of various classes, especially . . . the committees of the London and Baptist Missionary Societies, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, sent 900 petitions to Parliament, for permission to propagate the gospel in Hindustan; and after great opposition, a clause, introduced by the government, was carried in the House of Lords, July 20th, securing protection to Christian Missionaries residing in India!

Thomas Timpson, “Elizabeth Harvard.” Memoirs of British Female Missionaries. 1841.

It is telling that Timpson, a Baptist, celebrates a unified victory of the British independent churches, and the Church of Scotland, seeking religious liberty—from their own government! Even after the change in policy, two missionaries who arrived in Bombay wrote that they were not supported beyond transportation. They were “as missionaries, unknown, unexpected, and even undesired.”

Other examples could be adduced. Recall that when Adoniram Judson and James Colman appealed directly to the Emperor of Burma in 1820 for the right to live and minister freely, they were denied. British aggression certainly did not serve his cause, and Judson was a prisoner of war to the Burmese for nearly two years, though an American. They could not help thinking that an English speaker would be helping their imperial enemy.

In his book on Unoccupied Fields (1900), Samuel M. Zwemer writes that the British government was happy for Muslims to advance their religion among pagans, but, except in Egypt, Christians were routinely prevented from doing so. Christian missionary activity in Muslim-majority lands was seen as provoking retaliation from local fanatics. Even alongside Anglican missionaries, who were sometimes seen as an approved “auxiliary” to British colonial governments, most British Protestant missionaries were considered a liability to their home governments.

Missions and Empire at Distance

Christians among Arabs

The criticism of colonial pretenses comes frequently from Muslims because, Islam being a political vision as much as a religious one, Muslim thinkers cannot help but believe that Christian missionaries work hand in hand with what they perceive to be Western, Christian governments—or, if not, they claim that that is how Protestant missions started.

This Islamic perception of Christians has been around since the earliest eras of Christian mission. Thus you will come across statements from pioneer missionaries in the Arab world, like the following:

I imagine his impression is, that we are sent out by the king of England.

Anthony Norris Groves, Baghdad, April 2, 1830; Journal of a Residence at Bagdad.

The prevailing idea is that we get so much money for every case from the Queen or our Consul in Jerusalem.

Archibald Forder, in a letter dated January 1893; With the Arabs in Tent and Town, ch. 2.

As a matter of fact, both Groves and Forder paved the way as pioneer missionaries apart from institutional backing; and both are held up today as early examples of “indigenizing” missionaries rather than colonizing missionaries. As a very early member of the Brethren movement, Groves absolutely rejected any entanglements between state and church. And Forder, far from “civilizing” Arabs, is regarded by two modern Arab academics as an example of “going native”. As much as was in his power, he dressed, travelled, and spoke like the Bedouins he worked among.

As evangelicalism began in Europe largely in the context of institutional opposition on the local scale—both among the Pietists in Germany and the Methodists in Britain—it now continues largely in the context of institutional apathy from Western governments. Today, most Protestant missionaries are not affiliated with a state church, but supported by independent churches and societies. Their home governments do nothing or almost nothing either to prevent or encourage them from overseas evangelism.

Conclusion

I conclude with these words from Susie Rijnhart, an unaffiliated missionary in Tibet.

Kind Christian friends have questioned our wisdom in entering Tibet. Why not have waited, they ask, until Tibet was opened by ‘the powers,’ so that missionaries could go under government protection?

The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.’ . . . Persecutions came upon them from every side, but nothing, save death, could hinder their progress or silence their message. . . . So it has ever been in the history of Christianity. Had the missionaries waited till all countries were ready and willing to receive them, so that they could go forth without danger or sacrifice, England might still have been the home of barbarians. Livingstone’s footsteps would never have consecrated the African wilderness, there would have been no Carey in India, the South Sea Islanders would still be sunk in their cannibalism, and the thousands of Christians found in pagan lands would still be in the darkness and shadow of death.

Susie C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, 1901, p. 393–395.

Meet the Moravians

Two Moravians didn’t volunteer to be slaves for the Gospel—three did. But none of them actually became slaves.

You may have heard a story passed on in many sermons about two Moravians. A former slave comes to the Moravians and tells them that his people are longing to hear the Gospel—but no one has access to them except for slaves. “Fine,” respond the undaunted Moravians. “We will sell ourselves into slavery.”

Then we fade into a shot of the two Moravians on the deck of a slave barge, headed to the West Indies, shouting at their weeping families, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!” And that is the last that their flesh and blood ever heard from them.

——

This story has taken on legendary proportions in the modern evangelical church, probably because of Paris Reidhead’s erstwhile viral sermon, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt,” and its reincarnation as the “Revival Hymn.”⁠1 But of the two scenes that pass before your mind’s eye, only one of them is true.

Fortunately for the two Moravians, the second scene is either somewhat mythical, or it is someone else’s story. The two Moravians did go to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas as missionaries, and they did preach the gospel to many slaves, but they did not become slaves themselves. Here it is worthwhile to unpack the full story of these remarkable men. I think you will agree with me that the truth of this story is just as inspiring as the legend—or more so.

Revival

The story starts with a widespread revival in the Moravian community, dated to August 13, 1727.⁠⁠2 There was a great stirring among the immigrants who had sought asylum in Count Zinzendorf’s estate, and many spoke about the claims of Christ in unknown lands.

According to Hutton’s account, many Moravians were longing to spread the Gospel abroad during the years that followed, but without any precedent, they were unsure how to move forward. On February 11, 1728, several of them made a covenant that they would go overseas once the way forward was made clear. No Protestant church was sending its own missionaries at that time, although the Danish government had supported a few in its colonies.⁠⁠3

In 1731, that changed. Antony Ulrich, a former slave from the Danish colony of St. Thomas, visited Copenhagen. He told the Danish king that the residents of the island and its slaves were primed to respond to the Gospel. He especially pleaded on behalf of his family members.

On July 24, 1731, Count Zinzendorf shared Antony’s story with his Moravian brothers. The shocking Macedonian call was passed on from ear to ear among the Moravians. A few were quietly contemplating the possibility of going to St. Thomas, but no one spoke up publicly or immediately.

Volunteers

In time, Johann Leonard Dober brought the matter up with his friend, Tobias Leupold, and they wrote a letter to Zinzendorf, declaring their intent to go. Zinzendorf shared the news of the letter with the congregation, but did not disclose their names.

Antony Ulrich, the Caribbean freedman, was still in Europe, and he followed up with Zinzendorf around this time (in present-day Germany). He spoke to the Moravians in Dutch. When Zinzendorf asked Ulrich about sending two men right away, Ulrich—mistakenly—told him that they could only come as slaves.

Both Leonard Dober and Tobias Leupold repeated without hesitation their willingness to go to St. Thomas, even as slaves. Dober wrote the congregation as he had earlier written their leader. It was a heroic declaration of sacrifice that shocked and stirred the Moravian settlement, and inspired many others to consider a commitment to preach abroad. In the end, though, such a sacrifice of freedom was both inadmissible and unnecessary.

Changed Plans

Eventually, the church decided that only Dober should go.⁠⁠4 Dober then chose another Moravian named David Nitschman to accompany him. Just like Tobias Leupold, whom he replaced, Nitschman fully expected to become a slave for the Gospel. Thus, at that point, three men had publicly and enthusiastically declared that they would be enslaved in exchange for the opportunity to preach to the unreachable.

Hutton describes the two men, waiting outside Zinzendorf’s house in the pre-dawn hours on August 21st, 1732. The Count spent the night in prayer, and then he drove them part of the way to Copenhagen. They received a prayer of blessing, and departed on foot to Denmark to secure their passage to the Caribbean.

They had a few belongings and very little money. Although the idea may have been naive, both of them—Dober and Nitschman—fully intended to sell themselves into slavery.

In the end, however, the Danish king deemed this impossible. Dober and Tobias met with Von Plesz,  the chamberlain of King Frederick VI. Here is the dialogue given in Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church:

Von Plesz, the king’s chamberlain, asked them how they would live.

“We shall work,” replied Nitschman, “as slaves among the slaves.”

“But,” said Von Plesz, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”

“Very well,” replied Nitschman, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”

“But what will the potter do?”

“He will help me in my work.”

“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”⁠⁠5

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1706, King Frederick IV of Denmark had sent the first Protestant missionaries to his colonies. But Dober and Nitschman went without royal support. They were not even offered passage by the Danes.

The Rest of the Story

The ‘tall tale’ of two Moravians says that they never saw their families again.  In fact, Leonard Dober only stayed for about two years, until he was called to Herrnhut to take office as General Elder of the church there. Amazingly, Tobias Leupold—who had been turned down as his companion—broke the news to Dober in person in June 1734.⁠⁠6 This was not the end of the mission, however. The Moravians would send 18 more missionaries to those islands in the next two years.

Dober arrived in Europe February 5th, 1735 and held the office of General Elder for six years, travelling often to Holland and England during the remainder of his life. He spent the last few months of his life in Herrnhut.

David Nitschman only went to St. Thomas as an assistant to Dober in his travels, and so he left St. Thomas after just four months.⁠⁠7 Nitschman later took passage to Georgia in 1736, where he met John Wesley, and spent the later years of his life in the Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Forerunners in Protestant Missions

Today, Moravians are little known in America; we tout them as a missionary powerhouse, but that’s where the story ends—at least at missions conferences. But in the 18th century, many Europeans viewed the Moravians as a cult, an uneducated church for spiritual outcasts and fanatics.

They had strange and unique customs, some gleaned from Zinzendorf’s leadership. The original settlement had a rote discipleship system which would sound today like a drug rehab program. They were passionate, committed, communal, innovative, and evangelistic.

When John and Charles Wesley sailed to Georgia with twenty-six Moravian shipmates, they were greatly impressed by their no-nonsense attitudes and the way they returned blessing for insult. John Wesley feared for his life during day after day of violent Atlantic storms, but he wrote in his journal of the Moravians:

“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces. … A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’

He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’

I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’

He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.'”⁠8

The Moravians’ historian takes great pride in the fact that many English Moravians preceded William Carey to the mission field. When they left for St. Thomas, Dober and Nitschman preceded William Carey by sixty years. There is no doubt that they were the first Protestant church, as far as we know, to send missionaries with no worldly or political ties.

Careers

Why, then, does the modern legend transform Nitschman and Dober into slaves? It betrays a deep confusion in modern American missiology. Maybe deep down, we believe that going overseas is pointless unless the sacrifices are tangible, irreversible, and impressive.

But it was not their romantic sacrifice that gave them access to the unreached—it was their flexibility. They did not hang on to some heroic vision of missionary life, but showed that they would undergo any hardship—even pursuing a secular vocation!

“For over one hundred years no missionary in the West Indies received from the Moravian Church one penny of salary for his services. Each man, during all the period, had first to earn his own living.”⁠9

Maybe we should also think about where the legend ends: “They went overseas.” But that is where the preface ends, and we reach page one. Leonard Dober and David Nitschman, in fact, preached the gospel to numerous slaves. They worked hard, maintained careers, baptized disciples, and preached the Gospel in the Caribbean. And their impact outlasted them.

Results

An important point to this story is that these two were not just two among a centuries-long stream of missionaries out of Herrnhut. They were the first. Immediately inspired by their commitment, a trio of Moravians joined Hans Egede in his apostolic work in Greenland.⁠⁠10

Many of the workers that followed our wayfaring pair to the Caribbean died of tropical diseases. After they left, 18 Moravian missionaries began work in St. Croix, and within two years, half of them had died. In fact, Moravian missionaries had to take their own headstone across the Atlantic with them, because the Caribbean islands couldn’t supply them with stones.

By the time Leonard Dober died, there were more than 5,000 former slaves in the Moravian congregations of the West Indies.⁠11 The Moravian Brethren still have disciples in the Caribbean today, and it started with those two young men volunteering.

Takeaways

There are a few things that stick out about this story.

First, they didn’t sell themselves into slavery; they did something much less heroic—they plied their trade. No one wants to share a story of two volunteer missionaries saying: we will do anything to reach people, even manual labor.

Second, volunteering was not enough. After they declared their intent to go to the mission field, they had to find a way to support their work. They had to be sent. The church decided one of them shouldn’t go. When they got there, real life had to happen. Willingness was only one ingredient.

Third, the story didn’t end when their ship weighed anchor from Denmark; then their work had only begun. They only contributed to the work for a couple of years, but they paved the way for the Moravian missionaries that followed them—both in the West Indies, and globally.

In the end, the mythical version says more about our generation than theirs. We would not pass on the story if it did not have a ring of romance to it. The legendary retelling certainly appeals to our heartstrings. But the heroes this generation needs are not going to be those one or two who give it all, forsake their families, and cross the seas to become slaves. We need an army of workers willing to scrap their way, by any means, to the unreached and the inconvenient lost, whether or not they have to use a university degree to do so.

Share the true story and help restore our generation’s understanding of missions. As A. W. Tozer said, you don’t become a missionary by crossing the sea; you become a missionary by seeing the cross.


1 The audio of Reidhead’s famous sermon is available here.

2 You can read about this revival, for example, in John Greenfield’s book, Power from on High, or The History of the Moravians by J. E. Hutton.

3 See, for example:

Helen H. Holcomb, Men of Might in India Missions. 1901.

J. Ferd. Fenger. History of the Tranquebar Mission. 1842. Translated from the Danish in 1863.

Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. 1904.

4 Remarkably, this decision was made using a system of casting lots for Scriptures, a practice that the Moravian Brethren have since given up, for obvious reasons.

5 J. E. Hutton. History of the Moravian Church. Book II, Chapter VI. “The Foreign Missions and Their Influence.”

The story is also told by J. E. Hutton in his History of Moravian Missions. 1922.

6 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 37-38. 1922.

7 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

8 Richard Watson. The Life of John Wesley, p. 43. 1857.

9 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 38-39. 1922.

10 Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. Ch. 6.

11 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.