Moravian churches

The Pietist King Christian VI gave the Moravian supreme leader, Count Zinzendorf, permission to let the Moravian Brethren work as missionaries in the Danish West Indies. The oldest mission, New Herrnhut from 1737, therefore still exists in the hills east of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. Here the congregation had their own plantation with its own enslaved Africans, who enabled them to earn money and pursue converts among the colony’s remaining slaves. The congregation gathered at the mission stations, but daily religious gatherings were also held around the island’s various plantations.

In 1764 Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian council of elders decided to write the movement’s own history of the mission. They sent a man named C.G.A. Oldendorp from Herrnhut to the Caribbean in 1767 to document the mission’s work and achievements. It is clear from his illustrations that the first mission buildings were timbered houses covered with shingles.

The Moravian missionaries were mainly artisans from Germany with a tradition of craftsmanship and apprenticeship. The brothers worked as craftsmen employed by others and started the European building tradition on the islands.

Today the Mission Station New Herrnhut consists of a meeting house and a church, some outbuildings, a bell tower and a cistern. The early church should be noted in particular for its simplicity and period architecture.

This is a plain Baroque house on a high slope. Southward-slanting terrain gives the building an impressive height; towards the north the terrain rises towards a free-standing bell tower. There is a bench the entire length of the building where the congregation can sit in the shade and worship in front of the open shutters. The roof is high, hipped and rendered. The walls are about 50 cm thick. The facades are whitewashed in five broad bays with ‘basket-handle’ arches, and the shutters are grey, with heavy iron brackets.

The building recalls the most common form of contemporary institutional building in northern Europe and Denmark. The nave is simple and the rows of benches stand along the length of the room, which is typical of both the period and the Moravians. The large roof provides a bowl-shaped space called a ‘tray ceiling’ – which creates natural ventilation when the shutters are opened on both sides of the building.

The meeting house – the Brethren’s House – is from 1960 but built with features that seeks to match the church building.

The Moravian Brethren founded several missions on the islands. On St. Thomas they also established a mission called Niesky, set up after the 1830s. This complex is well preserved and significant with its large size. On St. John two mission stations called Bethany and Emmaus were started, which no longer has buildings preserved from the period.

On St. Croix the congregation assembled initially in on the Company – later the Royal – plantation La Grande Princesse. However, the mission station Friedensthal outside Christiansted soon became the centre for the Moravians’ work. The original buildings do no longer exist. The existing structures were built around the middle of the 1800s and are of an exceptional unity and beauty.

Later the church Friedensberg was founded in Frederiksted. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989 it was demolished and moved about 20 metres. At the end of the 1800s the church Friedensfeldt was built at the centre of St. Croix.