The Moravians in Jamaica: The First Hundred Years
The initiative for the establishment of a Moravian Mission in Jamaica came from two brothers, William Foster and Joseph Foster-Barham, who owned estates in western Jamaica. The brothers lived in England, where they came under the influence of the Moravian Church. They sought religious instruction for their slaves and applied to the Governing Board of the Moravian Church in Britain for missionaries to be sent to Jamaica – pledging to support them financially. Their request was approved, and three missionaries arrived in Kingston on December 7, 1754
Initially, the missionaries lived at Bogue, which was one of a cluster of estates in the parish of St. Elizabeth owned by the Foster family. Later, the Foster brothers presented the missionaries with seven hundred acres of land situated in the parish of St. Elizabeth, about ten miles from the Bogue estate. In 1756, the place was opened as a separate mission station and given the name Carmel. The missionaries also decided to cultivate provision grounds and to keep a cattle-pen at Carmel so that they could better support themselves. In order to do this, the missionaries became slave-holders and Carmel was worked by thirty to forty slaves. It was a decision that the Moravian Church was to later regret deeply.
The Mission was soon enlarged, and other preaching places were opened. However, there was little success for the missionaries in the first fifty years: only nine hundred and thirty-six slaves were baptised during this time. The missionaries were too few to cover the area of the Mission, and, to make matters worse, many of them died from disease after a short time in the island. The missionaries also found it difficult to overcome various existing belief systems among the slaves, as they noted that some of them were Muslims, and others practised African-derived rituals. The fact that they were patronised by planters, as well as being slave-owners themselves, also hindered their attempts to gain converts.
The early nineteenth century was the beginning of a successful phase of the Mission. In seeking to extend their sphere of influence, the missionaries first went to an area and preached a few times. Interested persons were then invited to be registered as catechumens and they became candidates for baptism. After baptism they formed the beginning of a congregation; they were regularly visited by the missionaries and attended services at the mission station. To assist the missionaries in their efforts, helpers were appointed from among the converts. There were usually between ten and twenty helpers in each congregation, including women, and their services were very valuable. One of the most notable helpers was Archibald Monteith, a native of West Africa who was enslaved and sold to an estate in Westmoreland. He became a helper and devoted evangelist, church worker and preacher in the western section of the island.
This early nineteenth century growth was also aided by the work of Wesleyan and Baptist missionaries who arrived in Jamaica at the close of the eighteenth century. Of particular importance was the work of a number of black and coloured men under the influence of the American Baptists, who had undertaken some religious work among the slaves in the island. The missionaries recognised and utilised this native talent – in particular, the services of George Lewis and Robert Peart.
George Lewis was a native of Guinea, who sold into slavery and brought to Jamaica. He was subsequently sent to Virginia where he joined the Baptist Church there. He returned to Jamaica and, while still a slave, engaged in itinerant preaching in Manchester and St. Elizabeth, parishes forming the heart of the Moravian Mission. He made a good impression upon the Moravian missionaries, who collected £100 from their congregations to purchase his freedom. After this, Lewis spent time at the Carmel mission station and frequently accompanied the missionaries on their visits to plantations. However, he only stayed a short time with them and never joined the Moravian Church. Robert Peart was born a Mandingo on the West African coast and was in training to become a Muslim teacher when he was enslaved and taken to Jamaica in about the year 1777. According to Moravian accounts, he practised his Islamic religion secretly until he met George Lewis who had an influence upon him. He visited the Moravian mission at Carmel for counselling and eventually joined the Church and later became a helper.
During these years, the Moravians added a new dimension to their work in Jamaica: they began to play a role in education. The Moravians established Sunday schools in their mission stations and day-schools wherever they could. There was some success for the Moravians in their work with Sunday schools, which slave-children attended. Large groups of slave children turned up on Sunday mornings, and they were taught to read in addition to their religious studies. Day-schools, for free children, were established in St. James, St. Elizabeth, Manchester and Westmoreland. Notably, in their search for suitable teachers, the Moravians employed local brown and black men, such as Archibald Clarke, who were members of their churches. The Moravians also became involved in other educational projects. In 1832, a special institution called the Female Refuge was established at Fairfield. It was intended as a place of shelter for orphan or otherwise destitute girls, and was in operation for twelve years before closing due to a lack of funds. The Moravians also established a teacher training school at Fairfield in 1840 in order to supply teachers to staff their growing number of schools.
After one hundred years, the Moravian Mission in Jamaica was the most numerous of all Moravian missions, numbering 13 stations with a population of approximately 13,000 in connection with the Church. There were seventeen Moravian day schools attached to the stations and thirty other day schools in various districts, with a total of 3,622 students registered at these forty-seven schools. The movement had overcome numerous obstacles and had begun to make important contributions to the social development of Jamaica.
Buchner, John Henry. The Moravians in Jamaica: History of the Mission of the United Brethren’s Church to the Negroes in the island of Jamaica, from the year 1754 to 1854.London: Longman, Brown, and Co., 1854.
Hark, Walter, and Augustus Westphal. The Breaking of the Dawn, or Moravian Work in Jamaica, 1754-1904.Belfast: Wm. Strain and Sons, 1904.
Hastings, S.U., and B.L. MacLeavy. Seedtime and Harvest: A Brief History of the MoravianChurch in Jamaica, 1754-1979. Kingston: Clarke’s Printers Ltd., 1979.
Jamaica Archives, PEC D/3, Minutes of Mission Protocol Conferences, June 1821.
Jamaica Archives, Carmel O/1, Carmel Diary and School Statistics 1837 – 1870.
Thompson, Augustus C. Moravian Missions: Twelve Lectures. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882.
Tucker, Jimmy. The Story of the Moravians: A Jamaican Caribbean Perspective.Kingston: Pilhanna Jamaica Productions, 1995.