Religious freedom

When you visit the US Virgin Islands, churches are a distinctive feature in the overall picture. There are churches everywhere – partly because the majority of the island population are active churchgoers, but also because virtually every existing Christian community is represented, and each has its own churches. There has been a notable increase in the many different Christian churches over the last 100 years, but on the foundation of the colony the religious landscape was already more varied than in most other places in the world.

In Denmark there was no religious freedom. With few exceptions which had to be approved by the King, everyone had to belong to the Evangelical-Lutheran State Church until 1849, when the first democratic constitution was granted.

It was clear early on in the administration of the West Indies that it was not profitable to adhere strictly to religious ideas. It was hard to find colonists from Denmark, which is why many of the Euro-Caribbean residents came from Holland and the Dutch-Caribbean colonies, and Anglicans came from the British colonies. Huguenots and Catholics too came from France. The Euro-Caribbean population was therefore not subject to the Danish state religion guidelines, illustrating that it was not national law but the desire for economic development that defined the rules for how the Danish West Indian colony was to be governed and administered.

In the very earliest colonial times, there were no church buildings, so the Lutheran Evangelical service was held at Fort Christian, while the other communities held their own gatherings. Only from the middle of the 1700s did the various congregations began to build churches, many of which characterize the townscape today. The fact that there is only one registry – even for the many mixed marriages – demonstrates that the Church had administrative and legal functions, although it did not control public faith.

Religious freedom continued throughout the colonial period and included religious communities with more and more Afrio-Caribbean members such as the Moravians from Herrnhut.

Religious freedom also applied to Catholics, Anglicans and Jews, since the colonization of St. Croix brought the English, the Irish and the Sephardic Jews to the islands.

The religious diversity seen in the Virgin Islands today has its roots far back in time. The many forms of religion show that even within the small European minority population there was a rich blend of multicultural groups reflected not only in the many different European languages, but also in the many religious faiths.

Today on the islands there is strong support for the Rastafarian movement, which is a more recent religion based on Christianity, founded on Jamaica around 1930 by Marcus Garvey. The movement is based on the Afro-Caribbean origin in Africa and aspires to make Africa ‘Zion’. The idea of the original homeland and the sanctification of ‘Ras Tafari’ – later known as Emperor Haile Selassie – are key elements in countering the repression that the Afro-Caribbeans have had to endure. Rastafarian supporters turn against modern society and raise their families and till the earth as pillars of their communities, and cannabis is regarded as a sacrament. The movement has no church buildings.

Sources:
John Brøndsted: Vore gamle Tropekolonier, 1967 Fremad
Harald Lawaetz: Brødremenighedens mission i Dansk-Vestindien, 1769-1848: Contributions to a characterization of the Moravian Church and its ministry, and of the coloured races’ position on Christianity. Copenhagen 1902
St. Thomas and St. Croix, Kunstakademiets Arkitektskoles Forlag 2004, ed. Thorkell Dahl and Kjeld de Fine Licht.
Interfaith Directory of St. Croix, 2009
Wikipedia: “Rastafarian movement”