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.


  1. Hi Katie! If your dissertation is half as beautifully-written as your blog postings, you'll be on your way to a prize-winning book!

  2. Thanks Prof Block ;) I hope your predictions are correct!!

    Just checked out your blogs btw - so great! I had no idea you were a fellow blogger :)