Persecuted 1738, on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
Veronika Löhans struggled to understand an Afro-Caribbean man speaking to the crowd. Far back, under a palm thatch roof without walls, she watched the light of a lantern on his face. The man spoke eagerly, in short syllables. He was tall and strong and moved his arms quickly. Veronika smiled to herself in the dark. Even though she did not understand everything he said, she did not fear him as she would have as a child. She loved him, a brother in the church community, and to see how he spoke to the people made her glad.
Mosquitos swarmed about. Like the other women at the meeting, Veronika slapped them from her legs and waved them from her ears. She wondered how the men, mostly without shirts, could ignore them so well. But glancing around her, she saw that no night-flying bugs would disrupt the eager attention of this crowd.
Faces kept emerging from the darkness under low-hanging coconut palms. More and more – perhaps over five hundred faces – surrounded the light and kept drawing closer to hear what was said. In spite of the humidity and bugs, in spite of the ever-tightening crowd, Veronika felt deeply thankful for having come to St. Thomas in the West Indies. The Savior was present here, and with the seekers around her, she found joy in coming together to worship him.
Veronika was young – only married a few months – but the road behind her was already long. A peasant girl from the backwoods of Moravia, she had spent a year in prison for having attended secret meetings of believers. On her release, she had fled through the mountains of Silesia to Germany. There she had joined the congregation of believers at Herrnhut in Upper Lusatia, on the lands of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who had become one of their own and a leader among them.
Immediately after her marriage to Valentin Löhans in 1738, the community at Herrnhut had agreed to send them out as missionaries to the New World. They traveled overland to Rotterdam, and from there they set sail for the island of St. Thomas.
Now Veronika sat among believers on the Posaunenberg, where on a twenty-seven-acre lot the brothers had built houses among flowering jasmine and lemon trees. In the crowd gathered there to worship she saw few white faces – until a sudden commotion turned all heads.
Rough men with swords and whips charged in on the multitude. Roars and shouts drowned out the screams of terrified children. “Kill them! Shoot them! Beat them! Stab them!” Veronika distinguished the white men’s crude voices at once from the musical West Indian patois, and they struck terror to her soul.
Benches rolled over as desperate mothers around her snatched their children to flee. Swinging cutlasses, heavy-booted men smelling of cane liquor charged into the circle of light beneath the lantern. They caught the one who had been speaking – a brother baptized “Abraham” – and began to beat him wildly. One white man hit a woman over the head as she tried to shelter her baby. She clutched her child tighter while another man cracked a bull whip around her. Elisabeth Weber, a European sister, was stabbed through the breast, and a cutlass sank deep into Veronika’s shoulder.
Within minutes the multitude had vanished into the surrounding darkness, the intruders had galloped off on horseback, and only the severely injured lay groaning among patches of blood on the hard-packed earth. When the coast was clear, the sugar cane rustled and a few of the brothers returned.
At the scene of violence they knelt to pray for their white Protestant persecutors. Some prayed in the West Indian dialect and some in the languages of central Europe. Abraham, the strong young man who did not retaliate when the drunks beat him, prayed with tears for their “awakening.”
Within three weeks of the attack, the church community on St. Thomas (consisting almost entirely of black slaves owned by white “Christian” slave owners) sent out sixteen missionaries. They reached every plantation on the island and the number of believers increased so rapidly that landowners threatened to leave unless the governor crushed the movement at once.
What brought a great company of Africans and Europeans into previously unheard of unity in the Caribbean? What inspired young peasant women to cross the ocean and brave life in strange tropical lands where everyone predicted they would die?
It started when Zinzendorf and David Nitschmann travelled from Herrnhut to Copenhagen. There, in the home of a Danish nobleman, they met Anton Ulrich, a black slave from the West Indian island of St. Thomas. The brothers listened, spellbound, as Anton told of slave transport to the New World, their wretchedness on plantations there, and how he used to sit on the shore of St. Thomas longing to know God.
After baptizing Anton at Copenhagen, Zinzendorf brought him back to Herrnhut, where he spoke to the whole congregation on July 21, 1731. In halting Danish, with gestures and stories that struck the believers to the heart, Anton described slavery. “But to speak to my people would be difficult,” he told them. “To reach them you would most likely have to become slaves yourselves.”
That night after the meeting, Johann Leonhard Dober, a young potter who had come to Herrnhut from Silesia, tossed and turned in bed. The thought of innumerable people living and dying in bondage, without hope and without knowing God, kept him awake until morning. The next day he wrote to the congregation offering to go to the West Indies:
I can tell you that my intention has never been just to travel abroad for a while. What I desire is to dedicate myself more firmly to our Savior. Ever since the count has returned from Denmark and spoken of the condition of the slaves, I have not been able to forget them. So I decided that if another brother would like to accompany me, I would give myself over to slavery in order to tell them as much as I have learned about our Savior. I am ready to do this because I firmly believe that the Word of the Cross is able to rescue souls even in degraded conditions. I also thought that even if I would not be of use to anyone in particular, I could test my obedience to our Savior through this; but my main reason for going would be because there are still souls in the islands that cannot believe because they have not heard.
The leader of the young men’s choir did not like the idea of Leonhard leaving Herrnhut. He was a valuable youth, both for his working skills and his godly example among the rest. But after a year of waiting the congregation allowed Leonhard to draw lots concerning his future. The slip of paper he pulled out said: “Let the boy go, the Lord is with him.” David Nitschmann was chosen to go with him.
With dread and excitement the two men first saw the palm-fringed shore of St. Thomas on December 13, 1732. Recently purchased from France, together with the islands of St. Croix and St. John, this most prosperous island of the West Indies already supplied all of Denmark with sugar and tobacco. Dutch Reformed families, owners of its one hundred and fifty plantations, lived in airy mansions surrounded by the cane-thatched mud huts of black slaves whom they firmly believed “predestined to perdition.” Every month, new shiploads of captives from Africa arrived at St. Thomas’s harbor. Those who turned deathly sick en route were tossed overboard to save on food and water. Those who survived were led – skin and bones, eyes glazed with terror – onto the wharves of St. Thomas and placed at the mercy of “Christian” landlords who promptly broke them in to work.
Under the vigilant eye of Jan Borm, Reformed pastor of the island, strict Calvinist rule kept all in their places – slaves subject to masters, and masters subject to God and the church as they understood it. Blacks enjoyed few liberties and no luxuries. Deprived of furniture, bedding, decent clothing, and utensils, slaves were forced to sleep on the ground and eat their meals with their hands. Small pox, lockjaw, and leprosy killed many.
Outnumbered six to one by their black slaves, white slave owners lived in perpetual fear of revolt. St. Thomas law required the cutting off of slaves’ hands lifted against their owners. First- time runaways had one foot cut off. Subsequent attempts resulted in cutting off the second foot, then one leg after the other. Floggings occurred every week – five hundred lashes (permitted by law) being equal to a death sentence. After less severe floggings, slave owners were known to rub salt and pepper in the wounds.
St. Thomas law required the prompt execution of slaves planning revolt – their owners to be paid by the government for every slave decapitated or hanged. The same law fined people fifty pounds of tobacco for working on the Lord’s Day (Sunday), and obligated all whites to attend church. Order, greed, and terror in the name of God – the two brothers from Herrnhut felt it enveloping them at once and wondered what place they would find in it.
Leonhard and David were not able to sell themselves into slavery because of a Dutch law prohibiting the enslavement of white people, but a Dutch planter hired them to finish a new house he had built and gave them a place to sleep. Then, at the first opportunity, they set out with a letter from Anton to look for his brother and sister. On a plantation on the south side of the island, the young men found them. Not only were they amazed to hear from their brother in Europe; they listened open-mouthed to Leonhard’s stories of the Savior. Then they called more of their family and friends together. Even though they could barely understand Leonhard’s mixture of German and Dutch (the slaves spoke a Dutch creole), they received Christ’s promise of good news for the poor with joy and gave their lives to him.
The awakening among the slaves kept on spreading. It spread much faster than anyone expected, and certainly faster than any white people on the island liked. White Christians who owned the slaves felt convicted. Many of them lived in shameless debauchery. “How can you black devils live up to the gospel,” they asked, “when even we white people, to whom it was given, cannot do it?” Other slave owners, proud of their Christianity and of the fair treatment they gave their slaves, felt encroached upon by the missionaries’ work. “Our slaves are happy,” they insisted. “They have it much better with us than they did in Africa. So why come and stir up discontent?”
Some slave owners flogged their slaves for attending Moravian meetings. Nearly all took their books away if they caught them learning to read – one slave owner making it a practice to set the books on fire and swat them in his slaves’ faces. “That,” he said, “is how my slaveswill learn to read.” Converts were deliberately sold to other West Indian islands to separate them from Christian fellowship. And mobs of drunken white men regularly broke up meetings.
Despite all this, the crowds of seekers that gathered in the evenings to learn of Christ grew ever larger. Not only did the congregation include both African and island-born slaves – it included people of many different tribes and customs. The first two baptisms on St. Thomas already brought members of the Mandinga, Mangree, Fante, Atja, Kassenti, Tjamba, Amina, Watje, and Loango tribes into the church.
In 1738, at the suggestion of a former slave and with help from Herrnhut, the Moravians managed to buy several of the baptized slaves and a small cotton plantation on the central and highest part of the island. Such rejoicing broke out among the black believers at the purchase of the land that a meeting for praise lasted until the sun came up the following morning. Now they had a place to gather undisturbed. Hundreds came for every meeting, the sick carried on shoulders and one-legged former runaways hobbling in on canes (one man had lost both feet in punishment and could only crawl). Because they used trumpets to announce meetings there, the believers named their new community on the hill the Posaunenberg (mountain of trumpets). But the days of peace and rejoicing wouldn’t last long.
Two Moravian brothers, Friedrich Martin and Matthäus Freundlich, had decided to take in the abandoned children they found starving during the drought of 1737. They hired Rebecca, a mulatto woman who had been freed from slavery at age twelve and joined the Moravians as a teenager, to take care of the children. The following year, she and Matthäus were married. Friedrich, who had been ordained a minister, performed the ceremony, and they began their life together with nine adopted children. Rebecca became a leading evangelist for the Moravian mission and provided pastoral care to women in the church.
Led by their pastor, Jan Borm, the white people of St. Thomas determined to get rid of Moravian influence on their plantations once and for all. The case they picked for their excuse was the marriage of Matthäus and Rebecca Freundlich. “Since when is it lawful for a white man to marry a black woman?” asked angry islanders (many of whom had mulatto children from numerous concubines). “What is more, who authorized Friedrich Martin to marry them?”
Dragged before the St. Thomas court, Friedrich, Matthäus, and Rebecca all refused to swear an oath and soon found themselves in a putrid cell, hot as an oven during the day, with nothing to sleep on at night. Great crowds of slaves risked punishment to come to the barred window of their cell to listen to the prisoners’ preaching and words of encouragement. Their example of peaceful nonresistance deeply inspired the believers, now numbering 750 souls on fifty-one plantations, under the able leadership of two black brothers, Christoph and Mingo.
With the German brothers in jail, Jan Borm and the Protestant officials wasted no time in doing what they could to bring the black congregation to ruin. The pastor had black believers brought before the court, one by one. In particular, he interrogated the leaders, throwing complicated theological questions at them to see how they would respond. On top of that he asked them to explain which faith was more biblical, the Lutheran or the Reformed, and whether they thought black people would someday rule whites.
“We know nothing about religion,” the black Christians answered him, “except that the Lamb of God has died and taken our sins away. We do not know whether blacks will ever rule whites, but we know that after death we will stand before Christ, where all men are equal.”
“See, they know nothing,” Pastor Borm rejoiced. “Those Herrnhut prophets are baptizing untaught savages!”
The court sentenced Matthäus and Rebecca as a public nuisance, living in unlawful immorality, and ordered Matthäus to pay a fine. Rebecca, who had earlier worshiped in the Reformed Church, was formally excommunicated and ordered to be sold as a slave. Friedrich Martin was to be held for punishment and exile, but was later released because his health was so poor.
A few weeks later the trade winds carried an unexpected ship into St. Thomas’s harbor. People from Germany – and, it soon became apparent, very important people – stepped onto the wharf. The governor, hiding his displeasure as well as possible, could do nothing but formally welcome Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf to St. Thomas.
The St. Thomas authorities knew that the count came directly from Herrnhut. They also knew he enjoyed the favor of the Danish court and that in rank he stood far above any of them. So when Zinzendorf cheerfully asked for the release of Matthäus and Rebecca, they granted it promptly and said no more about it.
Arriving on the ship with Zinzendorf were Veronika Löhans, her husband Valentin, and another Moravian couple. It would be only a few months before Veronika would experience the assault recounted at the beginning of this story.
By 1768, seventy-nine missionaries sent out from Herrnhut had lost their lives in the West Indies due to hardship and tropical diseases. But for every one that died there were sixty baptized converts. Within fifty years nearly nine thousand African slaves on St. Thomas alone had found their way into the church community.
Adapted from “Behold the Lamb: A Brief History of the Moravian Church,” by Peter Hoover (unpublished manuscript). For more on the Moravian mission in St. Thomas and particularly the life of Rebecca Freundlich, see Jon Sensbach’s biography, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
Illustration by J. Finnemore, 1897