Missionaries Against Terrible Odds

by Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp

Missionaries Against Terrible Odds From a contemporary translation by Kate Hettasch of Geschichte der Mission der evangelicschen Bruder auf den Caraibischen Inseln, S. Thomas, S. Crocr, und S Jan, Barby, 1777Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 1 in 1982 ]

THESE TWO BRETHREN, Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, started their journey, sure of their heavenly calling and determined to persevere for Christ’s sake in spite of all of the difficulties. Yes, with their lives they would venture all, having received the blessing of the congregation at the meeting in Herrnhut on the 25th of August 1732. Count Zinzendorf himself blessed Dober by laying his hand on this man who had felt called to go forth as a witness. “Let yourself always be led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” said the count.

On their joumey to Copenhagen they visited various God-fearing friends, many of whom advised them against going. Hearing of their calling and plans, these people tried hard to change the men’s minds. They sought to show them the impossibility of their ambition, and the disadvantages which lay in front of them and that at the end of their indescribable and untiring efforts there could only be certain death for them. Seeing how strongly they objected, the brethren did not try to contradict them, but remained true to him who had called them, assured that they could do nothing but follow their convinctions.

Only Countess von Stollberg at Wernigerode strengthened the brethren in what they planned to do and encouraged them to venture all for Christ’s sake. It was such an encouragement to hear the countess speak in that way for until then, only Count Zinzendorf had spoken encouragement.

In Copenhagen, where they arrived on the 15th of September, no one agreed with them or with their calling. The brethren were told that they would only have the greatest difficulties. The people there tried to convince them of their folly, first, by saying that no ship would take them and, second, that if they ever did arrive in St. Thomas, they could not survive there. Their hope of preaching the gospel to the slaves was considered impossible.

Dober answered that they themselves were willing to become slaves. He and Nitschmann thought that in that way they would be able to reach them in their pitiful condition and tell them the way of salvation.

But this was considered absurd and almost laughable by their friends for no one was ever allowed to become a slave. These people, knowing of the climate and the very hard life the slaves endured, were convinced that it would really not be worthwhile going. The brethren were held in the highest esteem, on the other hand, because they were willing to give up everything for the spreading of the gospel .

When questioned about their means of livelihood once they reached St. Thomas, Nitschmann answered that he would use his trade as a carpenter. He was sure that he could provide a living for both of them. They told this to men of the West Indies Company, friends of Count Zinzendorf who were in favor of spreading the gospel of God, and asked for their help, yet these men were decidedly against helping them accomplish their goal.

Some in Copenhagen suggested that Dober and Nitschmann even join the army as a means of income, but they emphatically refused. How could they reach their goal if they joined the army?

To all of these difficulties experienced by the two brethren was added one more disappointment, the great grief that the Negro Anton (Anthony Ulrich), who was the real reason why they were going to St. Thomas, had suddenly changed his mind. In Herrnhut he had expressed the deep desire of his sister and brother and others in St. Thomas—and himself—to hear the word of God. Now suddenly he denied he had ever pleaded for this! His good intentions had been smothered by the influence of the folk who were dead set against the missionaries. Anthony even tried to change the mind of these two brethren. But before they left he gave them a letter to his sister.

Had the intention of these two brethren been merely selfish—had their going been of their own will or desire—they would not have been able to withstand these bitter disappointments they went through. But they remained steadfast in what they were called to do. As all human help completely forsook them they clung more and more to their Lord and Master who, now and again, in special ways, upheld and comforted them.

Once, at a critical moment of seeing how their plans would proceed, they read in the Daily Text from Numbers 23:19—“Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?” Reading these words encouraged them not to doubt, but to go on with their plans. God was at their side and would sustain and uphold them. For what God started, he would surely accomplish.

Their constant persistence finally impressed some friends in Copenhagen who decided to pay more attention to them and try to help them. Among these were the two court chaplains, the Reverend Reuss and the Reverend Blum who themselves came to the conviction that what these two brethren planned was in response to a direct call from God. Therefore they intended to support them fully. Other prominent friends came to the same conclusion.

The young men’s goal and desires even became known in the royal court of the queen who very graciously encouraged them. Princess Charlotte Amelia gave a certain great amount toward their expenses without its having been suggested to her in any way, and also sent a Dutch Bible to the brethren. And they received more unexpected blessings from several other friends. Some of the state leaders who saw the constant joy of these two brethren concerning their call changed their minds and finally gave them God’s blessing, sending them forth with these words:

So, go in the Name of the Lord, our Lord, who chose fishermen to preach his gospel and who himself was a carpenter, the son of a carpenter.

As none of the West Indies Company ships would take them, Mr. Conrad Friedrich Martine, an officer of the royal court, found a Dutch ship on which they would be able to work as carpenters on the voyage to St. Thomas. The captain of the Dutch vessel was very willing.

Officer Martine not only succeeded in gaining permission for the men to take along all their belongings, with no payment for livelihood; he even supplied these two men with the tools they so badly needed. Grateful that God had opened the door and with a constant desire to serve God to the end with all their hearts, they went on board the ship on Oct. 8, 1732, having said farewell to their many various high and low class friends in Copenhagen. The vessel sailed out of the harbor that very day.

On this trip they were the source of very much opposition, laughter and mocking, but also of compassion. Some treated them kindly and went out of their way to help them. The crew described to them the hardships of their sea trip saying, “You won’t be able to endure all this,” and, “You’re sure never to survive this trip; you will surely die, or if you arrive you will die of hunger in St. Thomas because the prices for any food are extremely sky high. Besides that, most of the Europeans become very ill and have to cope with bad diseases and usually die.”

Instead of replying to all these stories the two brethren gave thought to how they could find a soul for Christ aboard the ship. It looked at times as if they were succeeding in winning some pour soul for Christ, but this always ended in disappointment.

In spite of the many difficulties and dangers of the journey, such as being in great waters with uncharted rocks, storms, sailing for ten weeks, the two brethren turned always to their Lord and experienced his help and his presence.

When the sea was calm and the weather fair David Nitschmann used his time in carpenter work. He made a wardrobe for the captain’s clothes which so pleased the captain that later, arriving in St. Thomas, the captain told about David’s work.

On the 7th of December when they saw one of the first islands of the West Indies, the text for the day was so appropriate as on many other days. One of the verses was “There is no speech, nor are there words; where their voice is not heard” (Psalm 19:3). And the hymn verse was: “Amen, ours the joyful lays/and unto God the praise; Bring every tongue that’s spoken/into one belief. Amen.”

A special prayer request of Brother Dober was that the ship would sail into no other harbor but St. Thomas, for the captain had planned to run into St. Eustacius, which would have delayed their journey for some time. But opposite winds made this impossibe and they arrived in St. Thomas on Dec. 13th and went ashore. Brother Dober’s prayer had been answered.

The Two Brethren Begin Their Mission Work and What Follows

One would think that after God had led them so safely to the end of their journey that their hearts would have been overflowing with gladness. Yet the brethren’s diary brings rather the opposite impression. A spirit of depression settled upon them as they saw St. Thomas lying before them. The text for that day was Isaiah 13:4. Indeed they found themselves at the battlefield where their faith and their endurance would be tested. They would surely experience suffering in their intention through Jesus Christ to win souls of the blacks out of the power of Satan, from darkness into light, to win them to God. The response (in the Daily Text) reflected their feelings: “The strength of God is mighty in the weakness of his servants.”

Against all expectation, on the day of their arrival (which was a Sunday) they found a planter whose name was Lorenzen, who gave them lodging. Without their knowing about it, Mr. Lorenzen had received a letter concerning these brethren from a friend in Copenhagen.

This man offered to take them free of payment and to see to all the essentials until they were able to exist on their own or until someone else would offer them their home and help them. They saw with deep gratitude God’s guidance and care in the warm welcome of Mr. Lorenzen. This was just at a time when they had been concerned where they would find lodging in this so foreign place, and how to cope with paying for it all because everything was so very expensive.

On the very first Sunday they began in the Name of Jesus Christ to do what they had come to do. They went in search of Anton’s sister Anna who, with her second brother Abraham, served on one of the company plantations. They brought her the letter from her brother Anton and read it to her. In the letter he told how he had become converted, become a Christian, and he pleaded for her to do likewise. Anton quoted in his letter the Scripture, John 17:3. Reading this, the brethren pointed out to Anna, and the other Negroes who were there, the blessing of salvation.

“Yes, for you too,” they said, “Jesus conquered death to save you and give you eternal life and this is the reason we have come here, to make this known unto you.”

Even though they mixed the German and Dutch languages (in what they said to them) the Negroes still understood them. Accepting their talk as a message which heaven sent them, they rejoiced, clapping their hands. Up to then they had believed that what the white brethren (those preachers who ministered in the churches attended only by whites) had brought was meant only for white people, and that the black had no right to accept it.

A deep impression of the first sermon of Christ’s love and grace remained in the heart of Anna and her brother Abraham. From that day they looked up to the brethren as sent from God as teachers. This was the Third Sunday of Advent and the text given was from Matthew 11, in which the Lord spoke, “The gospel is preached to the poor” (vs. 5). This was the simple beginning of the work of the brethren among the Negroes of St. Thomas whose blessings years later spread among thousands of the people on the island.

Zinzendorf and the Moravians: A Christian History Translation

This translation [above] into English from the German is the first known time that this account has been published in America. It was originally written during the years 1766 and 1767. Reverend Christian George Andrew Oldendorp had spent these years in the Danish West Indies studying the geography, fauna and flora of the Islands. Of special interest was the study of the history and language of the black slaves and particularly he chronicled the influence and effect of missionary outreach in the area within the generation following its establishment. His inquiry was preserved in more than three thousand pages of manuscripts. In 1777, Rev. John Jacob Bossart, professor at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Saxony, condensed Oldendorp’s accounts into a volume of over a thousand pages. This substantial work, published in 1777, remains one of the most interesting and valuable contributions to Moravian missionary literature. The two chapters presented above offer rare insight into the early days of modern missions. 

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