The Politics of Conversion: The International Moravian Baptismal Controversy in the 1750s

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)
Katherine Gerbner , Harvard University
When the Moravian evangelist John Cennick converted the absentee Jamaican planters William Foster and John Foster Barham in England, the two brothers pleaded with the Brethren to send missionaries to their slaves in the Caribbean. Soon afterward, Zacharias George Caries, a thirty-seven year old Moravian from Schleswig, sailed to Jamaica to found the first Moravian mission on the island. In just two years, Caries succeeded in converting and baptizing several dozen slaves and making contact with the Maroon community. In 1756, he wrote to Joseph Spangenberg in Pennsylvania to announce that over 100 black slaves had been converted to Christianity. Despite Caries’ success, problems arose when the experienced North American missionary Christian Heinrich Rauch joined the Jamaica mission in December of 1756. According to Rauch, who had spent over a decade doing mission work among Indians, Caries had been too lax bestowing baptism, and Christian slaves were still living in sin. By 1759, Caries had been reassigned and Rauch took control of the mission. With Rauch’s new baptismal requirements, the Moravian population on the island shrank dramatically and the missionaries bemoaned the numbers of “backsliding” slaves. My paper will investigate the politics of slavery and conversion in the Moravian mission on Jamaica, looking specifically at the effect of “backsliding” on church mission and policy. It will also examine the ways in which major church controversies were discussed and resolved in a transatlantic context. Furthermore, I am interested in how Moravians understood the relationship between their Indian and slave missions. Were all heathens the same? How did strategies differ in Pennsylvania and the West Indies? And how did baptismal controversies in Jamaica force the international Moravian community to rethink what it meant to be Christian?
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