A history of the moravian church



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At Copenhagen, where they called at the court, they created quite a sensation. For some years there had existed there a National Missionary College. It was the first Reformed Missionary College in Europe. Founded by King Frederick IV., it was regarded as a regular department of the State. It had already sent Hans Egede to Greenland and Ziegenbalg to Tranquebar, on the Coromandel Coast; and it sent its men as State officials, to undertake the work of evangelisation as a useful part of the national colonial policy. But Dober and Nitschmann were on a different footing. If they had been the paid agents of the State they would have been regarded with favour; but as they were only the heralds of a Church they were laughed at as a brace of fools. For a while they met with violent opposition. Von Plesz, the King’s Chamberlain, asked them how they would live.
“We shall work,” replied Nitschmann, “as slaves among the slaves.”
“But,” said Von Plesz, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”
“Very well,” replied Nitschmann, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”
“But what will the potter do?”
“He will help me in my work.”
“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”
The first thing was to stand their ground at Copenhagen. As the directors of the Danish West Indian Company refused to grant them a passage out they had now to wait for any vessel that might be sailing. The whole Court was soon on their side. The Queen expressed her good wishes. The Princess Amalie gave them some money and a Dutch Bible. The Chamberlain slipped some coins into Nitschmann’s pocket. The Court Physician gave them a spring lancet, and showed them how to open a vein. The Court Chaplain espoused their cause, and the Royal Cupbearer found them a ship on the point of sailing for St. Thomas.
As the ship cast anchor in St. Thomas Harbour the Brethren realized for the first time the greatness of their task. There lay the quaint little town of Tappus, its scarlet roofs agleam in the noontide sun; there, along the silver beach, they saw the yellowing rocks; and there, beyond, the soft green hills were limned against the azure sky. There, in a word, lay the favoured isle, the “First Love of Moravian Missions.” Again the text for the day was prophetic: “The Lord of Hosts,” ran the gladdening watchword, “mustereth the host of the battle.” As the Brethren stepped ashore next day they opened a new chapter in the history of modern Christianity. They were the founders of Christian work among the slaves. For fifty years the Moravian Brethren laboured in the West Indies without any aid from any other religious denomination. They established churches in St. Thomas, in St. Croix, in St. John’s, in Jamaica, in Antigua, in Barbados, and in St. Kitts. They had 13,000 baptized converts before a missionary from any other Church arrived on the scene.
We pass to another field. As the Count was on his visit to the Court in Copenhagen, he saw two little Greenland boys who had been baptized by the Danish missionary, Hans Egede; and as the story of Antony Ulrich fired the zeal of Leonard Dober, so the story of Egede’s patient labours aroused the zeal of Matthew Stach and the redoubtable Christian David {1733.}. In Greenland Egede had failed. In Greenland the Brethren succeeded. As they settled down among the people they resolved at first to be very systematic in their method of preaching the Gospel; and to this end, like Egede before them, they expounded to the simple Eskimo folk the whole scheme of dogmatic theology, from the fall of man to the glorification of the saint. The result was dismal failure. At last the Brethren struck the golden trail. The story is a classic in the history of missions. As John Beck, one balmy evening in June, was discoursing on things Divine to a group of Eskimos, it suddenly flashed upon his mind that, instead of preaching dogmatic theology he would read them an extract from the translation of the Gospels he was now preparing. He seized his manuscript. “And being in an agony,” read John Beck, “He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” At this Kajarnak, the brightest in the group, sprang forward to the table and exclaimed, “How was that? Tell me that again, for I, too, would be saved.” The first Eskimo was touched. The power was the story of the Cross. From that moment the Brethren altered the whole style of their preaching. Instead of expounding dogmatic theology, they told the vivid human story of the Via Dolorosa, the Crown of Thorns, the Scourging, and the Wounded Side. The result was brilliant success. The more the Brethren spoke of Christ the more eager the Eskimos were to listen.
In this good work the leader was Matthew Stach. He was ordained a Presbyter of the Brethren’s Church. He was officially appointed leader of the Greenland Mission. He was recognized by the Danish College of Missions. He was authorized by the King of Denmark to baptize and perform all sacerdotal functions. His work was methodical and thorough. In order to teach the roving Eskimos the virtues of a settled life, he actually took a number of them on a Continental tour, brought them to London, presented them, at Leicester House, to King George II., the Prince of Wales, and the rest of the Royal Family, and thus imbued them with a love of civilisation. At New Herrnhut, in Greenland, he founded a settlement, as thoroughly organised as Herrnhut in Saxony. He built a church, adorned with pictures depicting the sufferings of Christ. He taught the people to play the violin. He divided the congregation into “choirs.” He showed them how to cultivate a garden of cabbages, leeks, lettuces, radishes and turnips. He taught them to care for all widows and orphans. He erected a “Brethren’s House” for the “Single Brethren” and a “Sisters’ House” for the “Single Sisters.” He taught them to join in worship every day. At six o’clock every morning there was a meeting for the baptized; at eight a public service for all the settlers; at nine the children repeated their catechism and then proceeded to morning school; and then, in the evening, when the men had returned with their bag of seals, there was a public preaching service in the church. And at Lichtenfels and Lichtenau the same sort of work was done.
We pass on to other scenes, to Dutch Guinea or Surinam. As the Dutch were still a great colonial power, they had plenty of opportunity to spread the Gospel; and yet, except in India, they had hitherto not lifted a finger in the cause of foreign missions. For the most part the Dutch clergy took not the slightest interest in the subject. They held bigoted views about predestination. They thought that Christ had died for them, but not for Indians and negroes. As the Brethren, however, were good workmen, it was thought that they might prove useful in the Colonies; and so Bishop Spangenberg found it easy to make an arrangement with the Dutch Trading Company, whereby the Brethren were granted a free passage, full liberty in religion, and exemption from the oath and military service {1734.}. But all this was little more than pious talk. As soon as the Brethren set to work the Dutch pastors opposed them to the teeth. At home and abroad it was just the same. At Amsterdam the clergy met in Synod, and prepared a cutting “Pastoral Letter,” condemning the Brethren’s theology; and at Paramaribo the Brethren were forbidden to hold any meetings at all. But the Brethren did not stay very long in Paramaribo. Through three hundred miles of jungle and swamp they pressed their way, and came to the homes of the Indian tribes; to the Accawois, who earned their living as professional assassins; to the Warrows, who wallowed in the marshes; to the Arawaks, or “Flour People,” who prepared tapioca; to the Caribs, who sought them that had familiar spirits and wizards that peep and mutter. “It seems very dark,” they wrote to the Count, “but we will testify of the grace of the Saviour till He lets the light shine in this dark waste.” For twenty years they laboured among these Indian tribes; and Salomo Schumann, the leader of the band, prepared an Indian dictionary and grammar. One story flashes light upon their labours. As Christopher Dähne, who had built himself a hut in the forest, was retiring to rest a snake suddenly glided down upon him from the roof, bit him twice or thrice, and coiled itself round his body. At that moment, the gallant herald of the Cross, with death staring him in the face, thought, not of himself, but of the people whom he had come to serve. If he died as he lay the rumour might spread that some of the natives had killed him; and, therefore, he seized a piece of chalk and wrote on the table, “A serpent has killed me.” But lo! the text flashed suddenly upon him: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them.” He seized the serpent, flung it from him, lay down to sleep in perfect peace, and next morning went about his labours.
We pass now to South Africa, the land of the Boers. For the last hundred years South Africa had been under the rule of the Dutch East India Company; and the result was that the Hottentots and Kaffirs were still as heathen as ever. For their spiritual welfare the Boers cared absolutely nothing. They were strong believers in predestination; they believed that they were elected to grace and the Hottentots elected to damnation; and, therefore, they held it to be their duty to wipe the Hottentots off the face of the earth. “The Hottentots,” they said, “have no souls; they belong to the race of baboons.” They called them children of the devil; they called them “black wares,” “black beasts,” and “black cattle”; and over one church door they painted the notice “Dogs and Hottentots not admitted.” They ruined them, body and soul, with rum and brandy; they first made them merry with drink, and then cajoled them into unjust bargains; they shot them down in hundreds, and then boasted over their liquor how many Hottentots they had “potted.” “With one hundred and fifty men,” wrote the Governor, Van Ruibeck, in his journal, “11,000 head of black cattle might be obtained without danger of losing one man; and many savages might be taken without resistance to be sent as slaves to India, as they will always come to us unarmed. If no further trade is to be expected with them, what should it matter much to take six or eight thousand beasts from them.” But the most delightful of all Boer customs was the custom of flogging by pipes. If a Hottentot proved a trifle unruly, he was thrashed, while his master, looking on with a gluttonous eye, smoked a fixed number of pipes; and the wreathing smoke and the writhing Hottentot brought balm unto his soul.
And now to this hell of hypocrisy and villainy came the first apostle to the natives. As the famous Halle missionary, Ziegenbalg, was on his way to the Malabar Coast he touched at Cape Town, heard something of the abominations practised, was stirred to pity, and wrote laying the case before two pastors in Holland. The two pastors wrote to Herrnhut; the Herrnhut Brethren chose their man; and in less than a week the man was on his way. George Schmidt was a typical Herrnhut brother. He had come from Kunewalde, in Moravia, had lain six years in prison, had seen his friend, Melchior Nitschmann, die in his arms, and watched his own flesh fall away in flakes from his bones. For twelve months he had now to stay in Amsterdam, first to learn the Dutch language, and secondly to pass an examination in orthodox theology. He passed the examination with flying colours. He received permission from the “Chamber of Seventeen” to sail in one of the Dutch East India Company’s ships. He landed at Cape Town. His arrival created a sensation. As he sat in the public room of an inn he listened to the conversation of the assembled farmers {1737.}.
“I hear,” said one, “that a parson has come here to convert the Hottentots.”
“What! a parson!” quoth another. “Why, the poor fool must have lost his head.”
They argued the case; they mocked; they laughed; they found the subject intensely amusing.
“And what, sir, do you think?” said a waiter to Schmidt, who was sitting quietly in the corner.
“I am the very man,” replied Schmidt; and the farmers began to talk about their crops.
For six years George Schmidt laboured all alone among the benighted Hottentots. He began his labours at a military outpost in the Sweet-Milk Valley, about fifty miles east of Cape Town; but finding the company of soldiers dangerous to the morals of his congregation, he moved to a place called Bavian’s Kloof, where the town of Genadendal stands to-day. He planted the pear-tree so famous in missionary annals, taught the Hottentots the art of gardening, held public service every evening, had fifty pupils in his day-school, and began to baptize his converts. As he and William, one of his scholars, were returning one day from a visit to Cape Town, they came upon a brook, and Schmidt asked William if he had a mind to be baptized there and then. He answered “Yes.” And there, by the stream in a quiet spot, the first fruit of African Missions made his confession of faith in Christ.
“Dost thou believe,” asked Schmidt solemnly, “that the Son of God died on the cross for the sins of all mankind? Dost thou believe that thou art by nature a lost and undone creature? Wilt thou renounce the devil and all his works? Art thou willing, in dependence on God’s grace, to endure reproach and persecution, to confess Christ before all men, and to remain faithful to him unto death?”
As soon, however, as Schmidt began to baptize his converts the Cape Town clergy denounced him as a heretic, and summoned him to answer for his sins. The great charge against him was that he had not been properly ordained. He had been ordained, not by actual imposition of hands, but by a certificate of ordination, sent out to him by Zinzendorf. To the Dutch clergy this was no ordination at all. What right, said they, had a man to baptize who had been ordained in this irregular manner? He returned to Holland to fight his battle there. And he never set foot on African soil again! The whole argument about the irregular ordination turned out to be a mere excuse. If that argument had been genuine the Dutch clergy could now have had Schimdt ordained in the usual way. But the truth is they had no faith in his mission; they had begun to regard the Brethren as dangerous heretics; and, therefore, for another fifty years they forbade all further mission work in the Dutch Colony of South Africa.
We pass on to other scenes. We go to the Gold Coast in the Dutch Colony of Guinea, where Huckoff, another German Moravian, and Protten, a mulatto theological scholar, attempted to found a school for slaves {1737.}, and where, again, the work was opposed by the Governor. We pass to another Dutch Colony in Ceylon; and there find David Nitschmann III. and Dr. Eller establishing a society in Colombo, and labouring further inland for the conversion of the Cingalese; and again we find that the Dutch clergy, inflamed by the “Pastoral Letter,” were bitterly opposed to the Brethren and compelled them to return to Herrnhut. We take our journey to Constantinople, and find Arvid Gradin, the learned Swede, engaged in an attempt to come to terms with the Greek Church {1740.}, and thus open the way for the Brethren’s Gospel to Asia. We step north to Wallachia, and find two Brethren consulting about a settlement there with the Haspodar of Bucharest. We arrive at St. Petersburg, and find three Brethren there before us, commissioned to preach the Gospel to the heathen Calmucks. We pass on to Persia and find two doctors, Hocker and Rüffer, stripped naked by robbers on the highway, and then starting a practice at Ispahan (1747). We cross the sandy plains to the city of Bagdad, and find two Brethren in its narrow streets; we find Hocker expounding the Gospel to the Copts in Cairo!
And even this was not the end of the Brethren’s missionary labours {1738-42.}. For some years the Brethren conducted a mission to the Jews. For Jews the Count had special sympathy. He had vowed in his youth to do all he could for their conversion; he had met a good many Jews at Herrnhut and at Frankfurt-on-the-Main; he made a practice of speaking about them in public on the Great Day of Atonement; and in their Sunday morning litany the Brethren uttered the prayer, “Deliver Thy people Israel from their blindness; bring many of them to know Thee, till the fulness of the Gentiles is come and all Israel is saved.” The chief seat of this work was Amsterdam, and the chief workers Leonard Dober and Samuel Leiberkühn. The last man was a model missionary. He had studied theology at Jena and Halle; he was a master of the Hebrew tongue; he was expert in all customs of the Jews; he was offered a professorship at Königsberg; and yet, instead of winning his laurels as an Oriental scholar, he preferred to settle down in humble style in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, and there talk to his friends the Jews about the Christ he loved so deeply. His method of work was instructive. He never dazed his Jewish friends with dogmatic theology. He never tried to prove that Christ was the Messiah of the prophecies. He simply told them, in a kindly way, how Jesus had risen from the dead, and how much this risen Jesus had done in the world; he shared their hope of a national gathering in Palestine; and, though he could never boast of making converts, he was so beloved by his Jewish friends that they called him “Rabbi Schmuel.”
Let us try to estimate the value of all this work. Of all the enterprises undertaken by the Brethren this heroic advance on heathen soil had the greatest influence on other Protestant Churches; and some writers have called the Moravians the pioneers of Protestant Foreign Missions. But this statement is only true in a special sense. They were not the first to preach the Gospel to the heathen. If the reader consults any history of Christian Missions88 he will see that long before Leonard Dober set out for St. Thomas other men had preached the Gospel in heathen lands.
But in all these efforts there is one feature missing. There is no sign of any united Church action. At the time when Leonard Dober set out from Herrnhut not a single other Protestant Church in the world had attacked the task of foreign missions, or even regarded that task as a Divinely appointed duty. In England the work was undertaken, not by the Church as such, but by two voluntary associations, the S.P.C.K. and the S.P.G.; in Germany, not by the Lutheran Church, but by a few earnest Pietists; in Denmark, not by the Church, but by the State; in Holland, not by the Church, but by one or two pious Colonial Governors; and in Scotland, neither by the Church nor by anyone else. At that time the whole work of foreign missions was regarded as the duty, not of the Churches, but of “Kings, Princes, and States.” In England, Anglicans, Independents and Baptists were all more or less indifferent. In Scotland the subject was never mentioned; and even sixty years later a resolution to inquire into the matter was rejected by the General Assembly {1796.}. In Germany the Lutherans were either indifferent or hostile. In Denmark and Holland the whole subject was treated with contempt. And the only Protestant Church to recognize the duty was this little, struggling Renewed Church of the Brethren. In this sense, therefore, and in this sense only, can we call the Moravians the pioneers of modern missions. They were the first Protestant Church in Christendom to undertake the conversion of the heathen. They sent out their missionaries as authorised agents of the Church. They prayed for the cause of missions in their Sunday Litany. They had several missionary hymns in their Hymn-Book. They had regular meetings to listen to the reading of missionaries’ diaries and letters. They discussed missionary problems at their Synods. They appointed a Church Financial Committee to see to ways and means. They sent out officially appointed “visitors” to inspect the work in various countries. They were, in a word, the first Protestant Missionary Church in history; and thus they set an inspiring example to all their stronger sisters.
Again, this work of the Brethren was important because it was thorough and systematic. At first the missionaries were compelled to go out with very vague ideas of their duties. But in 1734 the Brethren published “Instructions for the Colony in Georgia”; in 1737 “Instructions for Missionaries to the East”; in 1738 “Instructions for all Missionaries”; and in 1740 “The Right Way to Convert the Heathen.” Thus even during those early years the Moravian missionaries were trained in missionary work. They were told what Gospel to preach and how to preach it. “You are not,” said Zinzendorf, in his “Instructions,” “to allow yourselves to be blinded by the notion that the heathen must be taught first to believe in God, and then afterwards in Jesus Christ. It is false. They know already that there is a God. You must preach to them about the Son. You must be like Paul, who knew nothing but Jesus and Him crucified. You must speak constantly, in season, and out of season, of Jesus, the Lamb, the Saviour; and you must tell them that the way to salvation is belief in this Jesus, the Eternal Son of God.” Instead of discussing doctrinal questions the missionaries laid the whole stress on the person and sacrifice of Christ. They avoided dogmatic language. They used the language, not of the theological world, but of the Gospels. They preached, not a theory of the Atonement, but the story of the Cross. “We must,” said Spangenberg, “hold to the fact that the blood and death of Jesus are the diamond in the golden ring of the Gospel.”
But alongside this Gospel message the Brethren introduced as far as possible the stern system of moral discipline which already existed at Herrnhut. They lived in daily personal touch with the people. They taught them to be honest, obedient, industrious, and loyal to the Government. They opened schools, taught reading and writing, and instructed the girls in sewing and needlework. They divided their congregations, not only into “Choirs,” but also into “Classes.” They laid the stress, not on public preaching, but on the individual “cure of souls.” For this purpose they practised what was called “The Speaking.” At certain fixed seasons, i.e., the missionary, or one of his helpers, had a private interview with each member of the congregation. The old system of the Bohemian Brethren was here revived.89 At these private interviews there was no possibility of any moral danger. At the head of the men was the missionary, at the head of the women his wife; for the men there were male “Helpers,” for the women female “Helpers”; and thus all “speakings” took place between persons of the same sex only. There were three degrees of discipline. For the first offence the punishment was reproof; for the second, suspension from the Communion; for the third, expulsion from the congregation. And thus the Brethren proved up to the hilt that Christian work among the heathen was not mere waste of time.
Again, this work was important because it was public. It was not done in a corner. It was acted on the open stage of history. As these Brethren laboured among the heathen, they were constantly coming into close contact with Governors, with trading companies, and with Boards of Control. In Greenland they were under Danish rule; in Surinam, under Dutch; in North America, under English; in the West Indies, under English, French, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese; and thus they were teaching a moral lesson to the whole Western European world. At that time the West Indian Islands were the gathering ground for all the powers on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. There, and there alone in the world, they all had possessions; and there, in the midst of all these nationalities, the Brethren accomplished their most successful work. And the striking fact is that in each of these islands they gained the approval of the Governor. They were the agents of an international Church; they were free from all political complications; they could never be suspected of treachery; they were law-abiding citizens themselves, and taught their converts to be the same; and thus they enjoyed the esteem and support of every great Power in Europe.


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