Guest Post: German Pietism and the Black Atlantic

Guest Post: German Pietism and the Black Atlantic

This is the second post in The Junto’s roundtable on the Black Atlantic. The first was by Marley-Vincent Lindsey. Mark Dixon is a PhD candidate in Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary writing a dissertation on the interaction and exchange between German Pietists and enslaved Africans in colonial South Carolina. He spent the past year (2015-16) as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow researching in Pietist archives in Halle and Herrnhut, Germany. He produces Church History Chat, a podcast featuring interviews with historians of Christianity, which will begin publishing episodes in February 2017.


A painting depicting the first Moravian converts. Johann Valentin Haidt, “First Fruits” (1747). Source.

If it sounds strange to speak of a German Atlantic in the first place, it must sound even stranger in a conversation dedicated to new scholarship and understandings of the Black Atlantic. After all, Germany was not an Atlantic colonial power, and German speakers were not as deeply involved in the slave trade as their British, Dutch, Portuguese, or Spanish neighbors. Indeed, Aaron Fogleman’s 2015 keynote lecture, “A German Atlantic, or Germans in the Atlantic?” delivered at the McNeil Center’s spring workshop, questioned the label’s usefulness for historians.[1] I want simply to assert the reality of the German Atlantic, and more importantly speak to its surprising utility for scholars interested in the experiences of Africans and people of African descent in the eighteenth-century Atlantic. In particular, the activities of German Pietists (and their surviving sources) can enrich Black Atlantic studies.

Although there is need and opportunity for much more, a good deal of excellent work has already been done. Over the last decade or so, several scholars have engaged to varying degrees the intersections between German-speaking and African-descended peoples in early America and the Atlantic world.[2]. Jon Sensbach charted a course, but this relationship is not a recent discovery. Pietists have been writing denominational histories of their slave missions since the nineteenth century.[3] Likewise, W.E.B. DuBois noted the importance of German Pietists to the development of the black church back in 1903.[4]. Despite DuBois’ stature, this theme has not factored greatly into African American religious historiography, and has thus been confined largely to Pietist studies. This has been detrimental to both fields—Pietism could benefit from new methodological approaches, and Black Atlantic and African American studies could benefit from the rich sources hiding in German archives.

In general terms, the relevant history begins with the 1732 arrival of Moravian missionaries among Afro-Caribbeans on St. Thomas, and continues through the Württemberg Pietist missions to Ghana beginning in the 1830s. The geographic scope is also considerable. The Moravians alone accounted for eighteenth-century missions around the Atlantic basin in Suriname, the Caribbean, South Carolina, and South Africa. Halle Pietists were less active as missionaries in the Atlantic, but their encounters with and reactions to slavery in North America offer valuable perspective.

For a specific example of the entanglement of African and German Atlantic histories, Anton Ulrich’s life would interest Black Atlantic students. Formerly enslaved on a Caribbean sugar plantation, Ulrich was taken to Europe to serve a member of Denmark’s royal court. His chance meeting with Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf led to an invitation to Herrnhut (the original home of the Moravians), where Ulrich’s account of his enslavement moved that community to begin its remarkable missionary exploits. This well-known episode illustrates the influence Africans and German Pietists had on each other, and invites historians to expand their picture of the eighteenth-century Atlantic to include Herrnhut (located in the utter east of modern-day Germany).[5]

Terms like “Pietism” and “mission” should not deter historians working outside those fields. The sources produced in the course of the missions—correspondence, ego documents, maps, censuses, etc.—could serve economic, anthropological, religious, scientific/technological analyses, and many more besides. Greater collaboration will be no small challenge. Most German historians have failed to follow the Pietist legacy as far as the development of an independent black church tradition in North America; the reasons for this shortcoming are complex and merit further examination. On the other hand, most historians of early America or the Black Atlantic do not receive the necessary technical training. In addition to a reading knowledge of German, archival research in this area requires the ability to transcribe arcane German script.[6]

Further, these sources are not to be found in the places American historians usually look. It is illustrative (and understandable), for example, that The Junto’s own roundtable on “Archives around the Atlantic” included no mention of German repositories. Interested researchers can begin with digital catalogs for the Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle, and the Unitätsarchiv der Evangelischen Brüder-Unität in Herrnhut. The former contains documents related to the Halle Pietist activities in North America, and the latter a wealth of sources on the Moravian missions around the Atlantic basin. Thankfully, there are at least two domestic research destinations, namely the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Winston-Salem. The Bethlehem location contains copies of many of the original records stored in Herrnhut, and both American archives boast considerable original source collections pertaining to Moravian activities on this side of the Atlantic.

In January 2015, Gregory E. O’Malley wrote a post for Uncommon Sense, the OIEAHC blog, in which he sought to encourage “more studies [of African slavery in the Atlantic] that employ both quantitative methods and vivid accounts of human experiences.” The records produced by German Pietist missionaries—including many firsthand accounts of conversations with African and African-descended individuals—are rare and precious sources allowing historians to approach the “vivid” realities of human experiences in the years before figures like Equiano produced their own autobiographies. An extraordinary story like Ulrich’s, for example, is a dissertation (perhaps more than one) waiting to be written, and it is crucial that some of this work be produced by scholars outside the German Pietist historiographical tradition, for the sake of that field and Black Atlantic studies more broadly.


[1] Lecture delivered at McNeil Center for Early American Studies spring workshop, “Fraktur and the Everyday Lives of Germans in Pennsylvania and the Atlantic World, 1683-1850,” Philadelphia, March 2015.

[2] For example, see Jon F. Sensbach, Rebeccas Revival (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Gerbner’s forthcoming Christian Slavery: Protestant Missions and Slave Conversion in the Atlantic World, 1660-1760; Fogleman, Two Troubled Souls (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Engel, Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013); and Atwood, “German Pietism and the Origin of the Black Church in America,” in A Companion to German Pietism, 1660-1800, ed. Douglas H. Shantz (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 527-56.

[3] For an early English-language history see John Beck Holmes, Historical Sketches of the Missions of the United Brethren for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen, from Their Commencement to the Year 1817 (London, 1817).

[4] In a chapter entitled, “The Moravians, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians,” DuBois credits the Moravians as, “the first who formally attempted the establishment of missions exclusively to the Negroes.” W.E.B. DuBois, The Negro Church (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1903), 15.

[5] Ulrich’s role is recognized in nearly every history of Moravian missions, but I know of no published work dedicated solely to his story. For a good modern example see Jon Sensbach, “‘Don’t Teach My Negroes to be Pietists:’ Pietism and the Roots of the Black Protestant Church,” in Pietism in Germany and North America, 1680-1820, ed. Jonathan Strom et al. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 183-99. Eighteenth-century sources include Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan, inbesondere der dasigen Neger und der Mission der evangelischen Brüder under denselben, ed. Gudrun Meier et al. 4 vols. (Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2000-2002); a heavily edited English translation exists—History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, ed. Johann Jakob Bossard, transl. Arnold R. Highfield et al. (Ann Arbor: Karoma, 1987); Rüdiger Kröger, ed., Johann Leonhard Dober und der Beginn der Herrnhuter Mission (Herrnhut: Comenius-Buchhandlung, 2006).

[6] Fear not! An affordable, effective, and short script course is available right here in the US at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Historical Narratives, Contemporary Tools « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Resistance and Adjustment in Suriname: A Durable Eighteenth-Century Cultural Schism « The Junto

  3. Thanks for the informative post.

    I know that with regard to Moravian activities in Suriname, in addition to the archives you mention, the Dutch Nationaal Archief in Amsterdam, the Surinamese Nationaal Archief in Paramaribo, and the archive of the Evangelische Broedergemeente – Suriname (EBGS), also in Paramaribo, all have significant holdings of Moravian records (though the Dutch NA, over the last decade, has been shifting significant quantities of original materials to the latter two institutions). In each case, some of the relevant holdings are in German, some in Dutch, and some in Sranan Tongo (the local creole language).

    Either as a general rule, or as relates to South Carolina in particular, what is your experience as to the distribution of types of sources tends to be between Moravian archives transferred to state and academic institutions, those in possession of regional church administrative bodies, and those that got sent back to Germany to be maintained?

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Echoes of Revolution: Resistance, Hip Hop, and the Black Atlantic « The Junto

  5. Pingback: The Pietist Option for a Multiethnic Church – The Pietist Schoolman


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