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.