One year after the first brothers from Herrnhut sailed for St. Thomas, Christian David, with Matthäus and Christian Stach (cousins) left Copenhagen for Greenland. Ignorant of what lay before them, they “took nothing with them for the journey” and expected to find food, a means of income, and lumber to build, on the island.
Their first sight left them speechless. They saw rocks and snow. Unfriendly fishermen in furs slipped about in kayaks between chunks of floating ice in the harbour. The few Danes who ran a trading post there felt discouraged themselves and did little to help the brothers. Inspired nevertheless, by Christian David’s boundless faith in Christ, they set to work with a will.
Already late in spring, but with plenty of snow left in the shade, they planted cabbages, lettuce, and turnips. Nothing grew. From the Danes they purchased a few sheep and a goat and cut skimpy grass for hay. They also learned to use seal oil for their lamps and how to make bedding and clothes out of seal skins. But on their first hunting trip they lost their boat in a storm and an early winter caught them unprepared.
Instead of helping them, the Greenlanders made fun of the brothers from Herrnhut and kept asking how soon they would go away. They stole what they could from the brothers and instead of showing interest in Christ, tried to tempt them into immoral acts.
Matthäus and Christian Stach attempted to learn the Greenlanders’ difficult language, but led by their angekoks (spiritual leaders) the people of the island refused to teach them anything. Even though two thousand lived around the crude shelter the brothers had built, none of them ever came to visit or find out what they did. Then, in 1733 they began to die of smallpox.
First dozens, then hundreds of Greenlanders died. So frightened did they become that when they saw pox beginning to appear, many stabbed themselves to death, or jumped into the sea to drown. Following the epidemic, the Danish settlement where the brothers from Herrnhut lived, suffered even greater want. Then, in 1735 no ship from Europe came. With only half a barrel of oatmeal left for another year, and a few dried peas and biscuits, the brothers knew they faced starvation. Every day they combed the beach for shell fish and sea weed. But every day they found less. Already weak with hunger they set out in a leaky boat, hoping to find food further away. A storm came up, soaked them to the skin, and carried them out to a barren island where they had to keep running in circles through the night to keep from freezing. After four days they made their way back with the Lord’s help. Then winter storms struck in full force. Daylight hours virtually disappeared and in their dugout of stones and frozen sod, suffering from scurvy, they drank the soup of boiled tallow candles to stay alive.
The Lord heard their prayers.
Forty leagues to the south of where the brothers lived he moved the heart of Ippagan, a Greenlander, to travel north to bring them food. And when the ice finally opened and a ship arrived, on July 7’th 1736, who should stand on deck but Matthäus Stach’s widowed mother (one of the original refugees from Moravia) with his two sisters, Rosina, twenty-two years old, and Anna, just turned twelve!
First Fruits of Greenland
After five years of continual struggles—struggles to stay alive, to build a relationship with the Greenlanders, and to get along one with another in trying conditions—the brothers finished their preliminary translation of the Gospel of Matthew into the Eskimo language.
Shortly afterward, Kayarnak, another man from the southern part of the island came to visit and listened carefully to stories about Christ. He brought his extended family and before the end of the month two other families moved in. The brothers began a school for children and scarcely able to believe what was happening, held instruction classes for those who repented and believed in the Lamb.
On March 29, 1739, on the feast of the Lord’s resurrection, Kayarnak, his wife, a son and a daughter, became the first Greenlanders to enter the Saviour’s Gemeine through baptism. David Cranz, a brother who spent time in Greenland during the 1760’s, wrote:
The converts explained in public the full reason for their hope in Christ. They promised to renounce all heathen practices and superstitions to walk according to the Gospel as they had been taught. Then they received baptism with fervent prayer and the laying on of hands, commended to grace in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In the meeting where this took place, the presence of the great Head of the church could be felt in the most powerful way. Tears flowed in streams from the eyes of the recently baptised and those who had come to watch were so overcome that they earnestly desired to become partakers of the same grace.
That the Saviour himself brought about this change of heart among the Greenlanders no one doubted. But it also had to do with a change among the Moravian brothers. David Cranz wrote:
Around this time a great change took place in the way our brothers instructed the Greenlanders. Up to now they had mainly spoken to them of the existence, the attributes, and the holiness of God. They had called on the people to obey God’s laws, hoping through this to prepare their minds gradually to receive the higher and more mysterious truths of the gospel.
It is true, common sense would tell us this is the right thing to do. But in practice it does not work at all. For five years the Pilgrims in Greenland tried this route, barely managing to get people to listen to them. But as soon as they determined to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified, without first “laying the foundation of repentance from dead works, and faith towards God,” they saw its converting and saving power. No sooner did they bring this “word of reconciliation” to the Greenlanders in all its natural simplicity, than it reached the hearts of those they spoke to and produced the most astonishing effects. A way opened up to their consciences and their understanding was opened up to the light. . . . They saw that they were sinners and trembled at the danger in which they stood. They rejoiced in the Saviour’s offer of grace and became capable of enjoying higher pleasures than to have plenty of seals to eat and partners to sleep with.
Building on the sure foundation of the crucified Redeemer, new converts rapidly gained an abhorrence for sin and the power to do what is right toward God and their neighbours, living soberly, righteously, and in a godly way, in this world. They began to look forward to the glorious hope of life and immortality, and walked in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.
So powerfully did conviction fall on the Greenlanders, after 1739, that one worker reported people “trembling like frightened deer” in their meetings, bursting out in tears and running away to weep. Kayarnak, the first of the believers, soon travelled south and stayed away for a year, only to come back with many more. At long last a Christian community began to take shape around the brothers’ first miserable settlement. They named it Neuherrnhut, and by 1747 built a Saal large enough to accommodate three hundred or more people—the number that often met to worship there.
A People Transformed
To everyone’s dismay, Kayarnak, after his return from the south, contracted tuberculosis. But he prepared to die in peace. “I was the first of my people to know Christ,” he said. “It is right now that I should be the first to go and meet him.” His Christian burial, held in an orderly way with singing and a reading of Jesus’ words in the Eskimo language, stood in powerful contrast to the wretched deaths of unbelievers on the island.
Soon afterward, another believer who had taken the name of Daniel, became the first Greenlander chosen to leadership in the congregation. He helped both the islanders and the settlers from Europe very much. Not only did he preach simple, powerful sermons. He showed the Europeans how to hunt, how to store dried meat and fish, and make better clothes. Everyone, even the Danish traders, looked up to him as a man of God.
The winter of 1752-1753 lasted longer and turned colder than any other the brothers had seen. The ocean froze as far out as one could see. Such high winds blew down from the north that their houses shuddered as if in a constant earthquake. Even icebergs split open offshore, everything blew full of snow and lightning flashed in the storms. Following this hard winter came three months of sickness when great numbers, including thirty-five believers, died. Many orphans and widows stayed behind. But the people of Neuherrnhut had become loving and caring. Not only did they assume responsibility for those in need, they responded with open hearts to the needs of people they had never met.
When the news reached Greenland of the massacre of Indian believers on the Monocacy Creek in Pennsylvania, the whole assembly broke out in loud weeping. Some offered to send reindeer skins or boots to those who survived. One brother said, “I will send them a seal so they will have something to eat and oil to burn.”
Following the translation of the Gospels into the Eskimo language, the brothers worked on a hymn book and simple catechism. With the community at Neuherrnhut firmly established, Matthäus Stach moved further south and began another one, Lichtenfels, on an island close to the shore. In a few years it also became the home of three hundred people. After that Johann Sorensen and his wife and Gottfried Grillich began the third community, Lichtenau, 700 km south of Neuherrnhut where another
two hundred joined the community.
A Transformed Sea Captain
Working with Danish traders, not always favourably disposed to believers on Greenland, involved trials and expense. For that reason, when the brotherhood’s ship, the Irene, landed at Godthåb in the summer of 1747, loaded with building supplies from the Netherlands, it brought great joy to the whole congregation. Not the least among the joys was to greet Christian David, returned after several years absence, and Nicholas Garrison the sea captain Brother Josef had led to Christ in the West Indies.
Captain Garrison, now working full time for the Unity of Brothers, had much to tell. After his conversion he had hurried home to his family to bring them the good news. Then, with his fourteen-year-old son John, he had returned to sea to bring the Gospel to the wretched men he had wasted so many years with. On this trip, Spanish pirates captured him and his son and dumped them onto the shore of Cuba. There they walked fifty km through the wilderness toward Bayamo. Carrying his son, dying of thirst in the heat, Captain Garrison had walked until he could go no step further. Then the Lord showed him a stream. They both recovered and found their way to the town where the governor threw them into jail. There, amid terrible curses and fighting in the heat, Captain Garrison spoke of Christ with miraculous results during fourteen months. Then they let him go. Brother Ludwig and his daughter Benigna sailed with him back to Europe in the brotherhood’s ship, almost landing on the rocks off the Isles of Scilly, in a storm. In England, the Captain met his son John, who had found his way there from Cuba. They returned quickly to New York, picked up Mrs. Garrison (whom the Saviour also awakened) and the rest of the captain’s twelve children, and returned to Europe. The French captured them en route and took them to St. Malo. From there they found their way through the Netherlands to Marienborn in the Wetterau where they settled among the believers.
On their way back from Greenland, narrowly escaping disaster among icebergs in Davis Strait, Captain Garrison and Christian David took five Eskimo believers to visit Marienborn and other communities in Europe.
Perils On Land and Sea
Even though the believers’ communities on Greenland became better established—the brothers and sisters from Europe living in wooden homes with their animals protected in comfortably attached stables during long winters—getting to and from the island grew no easier. They could have written books about their adventures.
After years of faithful service in the community at Lichtenau, Gottfried Grillich left one year in the fall for Denmark and Germany. Pack ice trapped his ship for five weeks. With winter coming he made his way back to shore, but left again in February. This time the ice crushed the ship he travelled on. He helped the sailors drag a lifeboat across the ice for a two day journey before they came to open water. A storm caught them unawares, but after three months of struggling to stay alive, he reached the island community of Lichtenfels. That fall he managed to leave safely.
Other pilgrims in Greenland, Christian David Rudolph and his wife left Lichtenau after twenty-six years, in the month of June. Trapped in the ice until mid-July, they finally managed to distance themselves from the shore, but icebergs roaring and crunching shifted around them. The sailors fastened slabs of ice to the sides of the ship with grappling irons to protect it. In a letter, Christian David Rudolph described how it went:
Early on August 25 a storm rose in the south-west. It drove the icebergs close to our ship. They looked terrible and we expected them to crush us. Once we struck a small rock but not much happened. Then we hit the ice head-on with such force that several planks broke and water rushed in. The captain and part of the crew jumped into a life boat at once. The rest worked frantically to loosen another boat for the ship was filling with water and going down fast on her starboard side. By the time they had the boat ready, only the gunwhale remained above water. My wife and I stood on the deck alone, with the water already higher than our knees, holding fast to the shrouds, before the sailors helped us into the boat.
We were about a league out from shore and seventy-eight miles from Lichtenau. We feared our lifeboat, heavily laden and leaking badly, would sink too, so we steered for the nearest island. It was a steep naked rock, but we found a small spot with grass. From there we tried to salvage what we could of the wreck, but the waves beat frightfully against the rock and tossed the boat so violently that our rope broke, and it got away on us. Eight men jumped into the other boat at once and caught it. But the wild waves kept them from regaining our landing place and carried them out among the ice that quickly crushed both boats. Only one man drowned, however.
All hopes of reaching land vanished and there was much weeping. When it got dark we lay down, close together, with no tent or covering. All this time it had rained heavily and it kept on raining through the following day and night, the water rushing down in torrents from the summit of the rock. All of us were soaked and lay in the water that stood in pools around us. But this was good for in this way we had fresh water to drink.
On August 27 the captain and most of the sailors made their way, jumping and climbing across the floating ice, to shore. We would have gone with them but after two days without food did not feel strong enough. With the ship’s cook we stayed behind on the rock with no hope but what came from the Lord our almighty Saviour. We saw nothing else but that we would die here. The thought of lying unburied as food for the ravens and other birds of prey already hovering around us, troubled us for a short time, but the consolations of our Saviour overcame them and we soon felt entirely resigned to his will.
After nine days a band of Eskimo seal hunters found the Grillichs and the cook, still living. They gave them food and dry clothes, and brought them back to Lichtenau. Other believers travelling to and from Europe simply disappeared.
Friedrich Martin, pilgrim to St. Thomas, wasted no opportunities to speak with others about Christ. Travelling on a Dutch ship he spoke to Hans Christian Erhardt, the ship’s mate, who humbled himself and came to trust in the wounds of the Lamb.
Back at Zeist in the Netherlands, Hans Christian became a member of the believers’ community. But he could not forget the people and places he had seen. Already in 1741 he had served on a whaling crew off the wild, desolate, coast of Labrador (now part of Canada). With the support of brothers in England he organised a group to travel there in 1752. They took supplies and building materials for themselves, as well as goods to trade with the Eskimos for a means of contact. But shortly after their arrival and the founding of the community they named Hoffenthal (Valley of Hope), hostile Eskimos fell on Hans Christian and six others with him on a trading excursion and killed them.
In the meanwhile, the Lord had prepared a brother from Denmark to work on the Labrador coast. Jens Haven first came to know Moravian pilgrims travelling though Copenhagen. Struck with their message, he found his way to Herrnhut where he worked ten years in the community’s printshop. Then, even though he felt attracted to the Labrador coast he had heard and read about, he followed the Lord’s call (through the use of the lot) to Greenland. Four years later, after learning the Eskimo language at Lichtenfels, he returned to England and with the brotherhood’s approval left from there for St. John’s in Newfoundland.
At first Jens found work as a carpenter in the British colony. But, speaking their language, he soon made friends with the Eskimos. After another trip to England where the Lord gave him with a wife, Mary Butterworth of the Lamb’s Hill in Yorkshire, he returned with two other couples, a widower, and seven single brothers to establish a new community at Nain, 250 km north of Hoffenthal’s ruins.
One of the first to find rest in the wounds of Christ at Nain was a medicine man and leader among the Eskimos. The brothers baptised him Peter. Another medicine man, Tuglavina, even more powerful and obstinate, followed. But for twenty-five years the brothers worked in Labrador’s extreme cold and poverty with few results. Seeds of love they scattered in the snowy wilderness did not bear fruit until two young Eskimos, Siksigak and Kapik, coming to make trouble repented instead and a time of glorious awakening broke out. With the help of Eskimo believers the brothers rebuilt the former community at Hoffenthal and began two new ones, Okak and Hebron, far to the north on the shore of the Ungava Peninsula.
Cold Feet, Warm Hearts
Finding their way between scattered Eskimo settlements in Labrador proved no less challenging than in Greenland. In 1774 Christoph Brusens and Gottfried Lehmann drowned when an ice floe crushed their boat. Several years later a group of believers travelling on the ice from Nain to Okak met a similar disaster.
All day long it had snowed heavily. Guided by the Eskimo brothers Markus and Joel, and an old medicine man travelling with them, the believers found themselves a good distance from shore when the ice began to break. With a thundering roar the floe buckled as the ocean lifted and lowered it. At intervals the brothers could see rocks protruding along the shore and rushed with their dogs and sleds to scramble onto them while the ice sank.
No sooner did they gain this refuge than the floe broke up. “The sight was tremendous and awfully grand,” one of the group wrote afterwards. “Large fields of ice raised themselves out of the water, struck against one another, then plunged into the deep with a violence that cannot be described and a noise like the discharge of innumerable batteries of heavy guns. The darkness of the night, the roaring of the wind and sea, and the dashing of the waves and ice against the rocks nearly deprived us of the power of speech.”
With the help of the Eskimo brothers, the group made an igloo in which to sleep. But by two in the morning salt water dripped through. Everyone awoke. Joel snatched his wife and child. Mark and the others scrambled out behind him and they just reached the top of the rocks before another great wave came crashing in and carried their igloo out to sea. In the darkness, in densely swirling sleet and snow, they built another shelter but “not a thread” of their clothes remained dry, and they nearly starved during the five days it took them to return Nain.
Epidemic followed epidemic on Labrador. The Hudson’s Bay Company opposed the Moravians’ work and supplied the Eskimos with liquor. Gruesome murders took place among them. But warm love for the Saviour flourished in his Gemeine and the brothers and sisters that lived there overcame every difficulty in their way.
Three years before he left for Greenland, Christian David already felt the Saviour calling him north. Setting out from Herrnhut on foot he found a way along the Baltic Sea, through Poland and Courland to Riga. Some of the time he walked barefooted along the beach. In other places he struggled through swampy forests, wading up to his knees in water for hours, and after the snow fell he joined a fifteen-sled train to Reval (Tallin) on the Gulf of Finland. There a noble woman invited the brothers from Herrnhut to begin schools and many doors opened to the Gospel. Ten years later, Christian David wrote:
The Saviour’s work in Livland [Estonia] goes on. But we need help. Rejoice with us that his grace is accepted by hundreds of seekers, like men rejoice in the time of harvest or after a battle when they divide the spoil. Praise the Saviour in his Gemein! Sing to him and do not keep silent for he is the blessed and beloved one! Who would not want to serve him with all his heart?
The Lamb of God knows how much it cost to redeem us and how much he loves our souls. It is still like in the days when John baptised. Many come to confess their sins and ask what they must do to be saved. But faith in the wounds of Christ is only now being comprehended. . . . Many who believe still depend on the law for their salvation. The side-shrine opened by a spear in Jesus’ side has not yet been opened to them. But a few have obtained grace to enter that holy of holies through Jesus’ blood. . . . In Livland and the surrounding area more than six hundred thousand people still need to hear this message. But for the time being we must hang our pilgrim gear on a nail and sit still. We must teach the people through quiet example, showing them first how to work with our hands. Jesus compels no one to conversion, but moves them with the power of love.
When the Lammsberg (mountain of the Lamb) and Seitenschrein (side wound) communities took shape in Livland, Christian David became the enthusiastic director of their building projects—choir houses, meeting rooms, and Gemeinhäuser patterned after Herrnhut.1 Even though faced with opposition he wrote in 1743:
I am building cheerfully and let nothing disturb me. Overseeing various projects at the same time, I have carpenters, masons, furniture builders, and sawyers at work. Several stone cutters are getting ready to build the mill. Others are making wheels, digging wells and burning brick. The boys take care of the horses and wagons and the girls bake bread. . . . We have not started with building the Saal, but the first storey of the large residence is ready for its ceiling. Its windows have glass in them. I have not yet decided what to do with the plank house that gets too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. But we will figure something out. . . . There will be two kitchens, one for single brothers and one for the sisters, and two dormitories. The ceramic works and bakery have been built under one roof, the ovens, windows, and doors already done. . . . Along with this, we are threshing a good crop of rye. The foundations for a mill and a dam have been laid. All four millstones are finished and a waterwheel and gears will soon be ready to use.
From Reval, Andreas Grassman, Daniel Schneider and Johann Nitschmann found their way to the Lapps in far northern Sweden, and later with Michael Miksch to the Samoyeds and other tribes living along the Arctic Ocean. At Archangelsk, Russian authorities took them captive and kept them in a dungeon for five weeks. Then they sent them, with three soldiers, on foot to St. Petersburg. Crossing a frozen lake, two of the soldiers broke through and would have drowned had the brothers not acted quickly and saved their lives. They arrived at the Russian capital as friends and the Tsar sent them back to Herrnhut unharmed.
Travelling, working, building, praying—with their eyes fixed on Jesus, brothers and sisters from Herrnhut watched his Gemeine take shape in the far north, during the mid-eighteenth century.
1 Falling from the second storey of a building in progress, Christian David surprised everyone when he got up and began running away at top speed. “I wanted to keep my blood circulating,” he explained later.