Friday, April 2, 2010

Death and the Moravian missions in the West Indies

Death played a central role in the Moravian missionary's negotiation of their place in Caribbean society. About once a week, the missionaries had to bury someone. The ritual of burial was immensely important to both them and their slaves. If a missionary got to preach at the burial, he simultaneously asserted his spiritual and earthly dominion over the souls of the dead, a performance that held powerful sway over the living. If he didn't, his authority was threatened.

In Jamaica, the Moravians codified the significance of baptism by creating a separate burial ground for their baptized slaves called "Gottes-Acker" or God's Acre. When the first baptized slave, Sampson, died in 1756, the missionaries rejoiced when they buried him on the hallowed ground. Candidates for baptism, meanwhile, were buried in a nearby but separate plot while the heathen were buried elsewhere (and their burials were conducted by slaves).

The centrality of death in Jamaican life connects in interesting ways with the mission policy shifts made by the Moravians in the 1730s and 40s. While the first Moravian missionaries in the West Indies taught reading and writing, later missionaries "simplified" Christian theology by focusing solely on the crucifixion of Christ. This shift has usually been seen as an accommodation to planter pressure, but I would argue that it was also a strategic shift that made sense in terms of Jamaican society and culture. By "deathifying" their religion, they played to the most communal social experience on the island: the experience of watching other people die.

Most recent research on Moravian missions has emphasized the Moravians' depiction of blood and wounds as central to their appeal to enslaved and free Africans and Creoles. Scholars have suggested that the blood and wounds theology could be adapted easily into an African religious context, in which blood sacrifice played an important role. Yet perhaps this emphasis on blood and wounds takes our attention away from the more important message that the Moravians were imparting: the death of their Savior. It was death, more than wounds, that became the central message to the enslaved Africans in the British and Danish West Indies.

As one can see in Oldendorp's Historie or in the numerous diaries written from the West Indies, slaves in the "post-literacy" Moravian missions (ie the Missions that no longer taught reading and writing) were primarily motivated to seek baptism when they were close to death. Take, for example, the story of one particular sick slave that Oldendorp describes:

A sick Negro was particularly anxious to be visited by a missionary, requesting baptism in order not only to ensure the salvation of his soul but also to make sure that his body would be properly buried by the believers. The missionary Georg Weber considered the matter and decided to grant his request right away. When he repeated his visit eight days later with the purpose in mind, the missionary was not a little amazed to find the man dressed in white, and his house clean and neat, wherein stood a container filled with water in readiness for the baptism." (Oldendorp CM, p. 492)

Oldendorp also recounts how many "backsliding"(ie baptized slaves who return to their "heathenish" ways) return to the mission once they grow old, begging to be forgiven. In both cases, the missionaries seem to hold the greatest amount of sway with the oldest and frailest segment of the population.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Art of Moravian Conversion

What does it mean to convert to Christianity? How is it possible to identify a "true" convert?

These were questions that were central to the Moravian missionary experience in 18th century Jamaica and today I started thinking about the variety of ideas about conversion within the Moravian leadership during this period. David Schattschneider's article "Moravians Approach the Indians: Theories and Realities" (1988) was particularly useful in this respect. Schattschneider argues that Zinzendorf and Spangenberg had divergent views on what conversion meant. Zinzendorf, who broke with the Pietists over their conception of Bu├čkampf (the idea that conversion is a traumatic struggle with a breakthrough), believed that the Holy Spirit initiated all conversions, and that conversion did not necessarily require a struggle. Zinzendorf himself had not experienced such a dramatic conversion, and he didn't see why it was a prerequisite for Christianity.

Aside from his non-dramatic conception of conversion, Zinzendorf also believed that the Holy Spirit had prepared a selected community of heathen all over the world for Christian conversion. These "first fruit" were to found and cultivated by Moravian missionaries.

Spangenberg, on the other hand, was uneasy with Zinzendorf's idea of the Holy Spirit. He would later argue that the missionary played a more central role in the conversion of the heathen.

Finally, one line in the Schattschneider article perked my interest because it reminded me of one of the Moravian diaries I read last year. On p 39, we learn that Zinzendorf found the story of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39) particularly influential for his understanding of conversion. The mention of Philip and the Ethiopian brought me back to several of the entries in the Mesopotamia, Jamaica diary, where the story of Philip and the Ethiopian plays a central role in one slave's interest in Christianity.

August 24, 1760 – The Leverings visited the negro huts today and Brother Gandrup was visited by Mathew. He pleased him with the biblical history of Philip who baptized the Moor etc. In the evening the Meeting was held on Romans 3.v.10-19. James and Mathew stayed afterwards a bit and one said: he had thought a lot about what had been read to him from the Bible. He wished for the same mercy for himself and he would like to take part in the water-bath [ie. Baptism] just like the Moor. Brother Gandrup remembered at this point again about the question that Philip had asked the Moor, when he had longed to be baptized, etc. and so he said: yes! I believe that my creator is my Lord who redeemed me with his blood etc. Then we said to him: if his belief in Jesus was accurate then the Lord would already think of him and he wouldn’t be lost or forgotten. And so they both went home very moved.

October 4, 1761 – Brother Gandrup had a conversation with Franck about his longing for baptism. Meanwhile, Mathew went to the table and found a picture in the new Testament of the baptism of Philippus the Moor, and called to Simeon and told him the story from word to word. Nota: Brother Gandrup had only read it to him once, at his own request. Simeon was beside himself with childlike joy, that the Savior wanted the poor negros etc. And finally Brother Gandrup and Franck came to their discussion, and that was an hour that the Savior made, and from which they went back home, overwhelmed (that the Savior wanted the poor negros).

There are several interesting things going on here... First of all, compare the August 24 entry to the Scripture:

Acts 8:26-40 (KJV)

26And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.
27And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship,
28Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.
29Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.
30And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?
31And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.
32The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth:
33In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.
34And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?
35Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.
36And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?
37And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
38And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.
39And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.
40But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.

I've highlighted two verses, because these are critical to understanding the actions of the missionaries. In these verses (taken from the KJV), the Ethiopian asks Philip if he can be baptized, and Philip AKS HIM if he believes that Jesus is the son of God. This line also appears in Luther's German translation of the Bible. In contemporary versions, however, (like the New International), Philip does not test the Ethiopian before baptizing him. He just agrees.

So... it seems like the Moravian missionaries are self-consciously following Philip's supposed precaution more than his decision to actually baptize the Ethiopian. But unlike Philip, they don't baptize Mathew on the spot - instead, they wait for divine intervention of some kind: "if his belief in Jesus was accurate then the Lord would already think of him and he wouldn’t be lost or forgotten." This is important because it shows that the Moravians on Jamaica were being ultra- cautious about bestowing baptism during this time. It wasn't enough for Mathew to act as the Ethiopian had acted - the missionaries were looking for more from their potential converts.

Anyway, these passages also raise a host of other questions:
-Why did Mathew and Simeon find this passage so moving? How should we read the missionaries' retelling of their reaction? Did they identify so closely with "Ethiopians" or blackness? Or was the missionaries' perception?
-Which version of the New Testament did the missionaries have?
-Note the description of the slaves as having "childlike joy" - this is typical for Moravians. I don't think it's intended to belittle the slaves, but rather to recognize the authenticity of their belief. Moravians called each other "childlike" when they remarked on their piety and authentic religion.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

New Years Resolutions: faltered. Prospectus: getting there.

Hm, well it's been a while! So I can now report that my New Decade's resolutions (to read a book of fiction and a book of non-fiction per week) have predictably floundered, but that's okay! I did have enough incentive to read some really cool stuff. My favorite work of fiction so far this year: Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, hands down. I always had this perception of Kerouac as kind of a jerk, but Dharma Bums is a surprisingly self-effacing and honest book about trying to live life and kind of understand the meaning of the world. Plus it made me want to go hiking real badly (it should really be called Dharma Hikers, but that sounds lame).

On a note more closely related to my dissertation, I have been working hard to write up a draft of my prospectus, which I just finished last week. I presented the first draft at an Early Americanist Workshop this past Wednesday, where professors and other grad students gave me their reactions. The feedback I got was: to be more specific -- and basic -- about why I've chosen this particular topic. It was good advice to get, and I'll probably hear it a lot more. Because the problem with "dissertating" is that you lose perspective about what "normal" or even "academic" people know about the topic you're researching. The truth is that you, as the dissertator, lose your well-honed ability to recognize how much information others have about your beloved topic. This phenomenon I will call the "dissertation spell," and I am grateful to all who snap me out of it!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

a new decade's resolution

After a full week of sitting in Cambridge cafes, banished from the libraries (closed for the holidays) and with no friends around, I got to thinking... this dissertation stuff can be kind of isolating! Not a novel thought, I readily admit, but an important one nonetheless. And so I've made a resolution for the new year. To read two books a week: one non-fiction and one fiction. My resolution does commit me, I admit, to more alone time, but it's a new kind of solitude - it engages different parts of the mind and the imagination.

I've started this week with Jane Kamensky's The Exchange Artist, a work of non-fiction that might as well be a novel, it's written with such superb skill. It tells the tale of Andrew Dexter, Jr., a speculating capitalist who lived in the early Republic and built an empire on paper bills. It's a boom and bust story that we can still learn from in the 21st century.

My work of fiction this week is Ian McEwan's A Child in Time. McEwan is a long-time favorite of mine. Atonement is probably my favorite book. I think what I admire most about McEwan is his skillful development of character and his eery ability to manipulate his readers.

As the theme of this post indicates, I've also decided to widen the angle of this blog to include all aspects of the dissertation process... including my writing/research blocks and the solutions I (hopefully) come up with to get over them. So, here we are: the beginning of the dissertation, and the first frustrations are already surfacing! So here's to a new year and a new decade: may there be many solutions and much fiction in the dissertation-writing years to come!