Christianity and the Moravians

Since hardly any of the colony’s African population was Christian before coming to the Caribbean, there was a basis for Christian missionaries to build missions in the islands. At first there was no great interest in converting the Afro-Caribbeans to Christianity, as there was in most Protestant areas in America. In the Catholic colonies, though, the missionary effort was massive and was tantamount to compulsory Christianization.

Despite the fact that the Danes belonged to a single Christian worldview, in which being a Christian was a given thing, it seems that there was a scant interest in converting the large non-Christian population. This reflects a perception of Africans as belonging so much to a different category – less civilized than the Europeans – that the Christian message was not automatically applied to them. It should be added, however, that there is no indication that Europeans did not regard Africans as human beings.

The Company’s men and the plantation owners who lived off the Africans’ labour were not interested in their souls. However, other Europeans came with a different view of conversion. In 1732 the Moravian Brethren began their mission among Afro-Caribbeans. They had come to the Danish West Indies for this purpose alone, and they had great success over the years. They constituted the first true Protestant mission in the New World – America – and their mission launched a major movement that laid the foundations for the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and other Protestant communities who focused on missionary work. The variety of churches in the Virgin Islands today, the Caribbean in general and the USA in particularly, has a history that started on St. Thomas.

The Moravians were the only dedicated missionary congregation, but gradually the Reformed Church, the Lutherans and especially the Catholics made a more or less wholehearted attempt to convert Afro-Caribbeans. The Catholic Church was especially successful and in the first half of the 1800s this was the church with most African-Caribbean members, followed by the Moravians. With few exceptions, the entire population of enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity during the 1800s.

The African religions that came with the first generations of enslaved Africans were diluted and only survived in certain areas in the form of legends and folklore that continued to exist alongside Christianity. The religious roots of the Africans can be traced in their use of herbal medicines, of magical tools – called ‘obeah’ – and in their recognition of spiritual places that traditionally stretch far back in time.

Eventually a mixture of European and Afro-Caribbean churches developed, but to this day they have different characters. The Lutheran Church, inspired by the Danish state church, now has a greater proportion of white members than the Moravian community, for example, which has grown into several Afro-Caribbean congregations.