Pietism Colloquium Recap: Jon Sensbach

Last Friday Bethel hosted its inaugural Colloquium on Pietism Studies. Yesterday I posted a summary of Scot McKnight’s keynote talk, in which he suggested that evangelicals delve more deeply into the history of Anabaptism and Pietism. This morning: a recap of our post-lunch talk. Later today: recapping our closing session…

In his keynote address, Scot McKnight credited the Pietist movement with having “remissionized the church.” That was the theme of one of the sections of our Pietist Impulse book last year, in which contributors examined the role of Halle and Herrnhut Pietism in jump-starting Protestant missions in the 18th century.

Sensbach, Rebecca's RevivalOne of the key mission fields for the Moravians of Herrnhut was the West Indies, where Europeans ran plantations with the labor of enslaved Africans. In our afternoon talk, historian Jon Sensbach (Univ. of Florida) brought alive that complicated world, home to the freed slave named Rebecca who is at the center of his acclaimed book, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World.

Of mixed African and European descent, Rebecca had already converted to Christianity and begun to preach to other Africans on the island of St. Thomas when she encountered Moravian missionaries in the mid-1730s (rather naive Germans in “the vanguard of missions” and “winging it,” as Jon aptly put it). Her marriage to one such missionary, Matthias Freundlich, and the colonial authorities’ wariness of Moravian evangelism led to a “show trial” at which she and her husband were both convicted and sentenced to prison. She managed to obtain her freedom (more on that below) and traveled to Germany with Freundlich, who died almost literally after setting foot on European soil. Nevertheless, she went to Herrnhut, where she met and married another mixed-race Moravian, Thomas Protten. They lived there for twenty years (burying one infant daughter — Jon described finding young Anna Maria’s grave in Herrnhut) before relocating to West Africa, where they started a largely unsuccessful mission school at the Danish slave-trading fortress of Christiansborg. She died in 1780.

Among its other virtues, Jon’s work is a remarkable example of globe-trotting archival research. Not only was he studying the Atlantic world — where African, European, and American cultures intersected — but his research took him to archives in Denmark and Germany. Most astoundingly, he uncovered two rare documents, both authored by Afro-Caribbean women and evincing clearly pietistic religosity: one a letter written from jail by Rebecca, in which she employs Pietist themes of suffering, unworthiness, and righteousness to describe her experience; the other a petition on Rebecca’s behalf, in which a slave named Madlena — describing herself as an “elderess of a congregation of Negroes” and writing in an as-yet-unknown African language that had been transcribed phonetically! — appeals to the Queen of Denmark for the freedom of missionaries to spread the Gospel.

An Afro-Moravian baptism, 1757
African converts being baptized by Moravian missionaries, 1757 — National Park Service (interestingly, in his PowerPoint Jon showed a similar picture in which the missionaries were off to the side, indicating that worship was African-led)

Jon’s talk made for a nice contrast with Scot’s. While the latter mined the works of key figures in Anabaptist and Pietist history for insights into Christian life and thought, the former mostly left his audience to infer theological applications from his thick description of life in the 18th century Atlantic, where races, genders, religions, and cultures came together everywhere from the plantation to the church. Both presented a complex picture of Pietism: Scot by putting it in comparison and contrast with Anabaptism; Jon first by revealing how Pietism intermingled with pre-Christian religion in the hearts and minds of Afro-Caribbean converts, and second, by exploring the ambiguity of the Moravian mission in the Caribbean, where Pietism provided creative energy and evangelistic passion, but not necessarily the resources to inspire a critique of a terribly unjust, cruel economic system.

Rebecca and her husband were freed only because the patron of the Moravians, the pietistic nobleman Nicolaus von Zinzendorf — who happened to be visiting the mission on St. Thomas — negotiated their release in return for preaching a sermon to several hundred slaves in which he reminded them of their duty to obey their earthly masters. Zinzendorf’s attitude squared with that of the Moravian missionaries, who preached a doctrine of spiritual freedom while keeping silent about the economic system in which they had immersed themselves. Indeed, they set up their own sugar plantation as a kind of model community (New Herrnhut), where slaves and masters worshiped together. (Or, in Jon’s image, a slave toiled by the fires of the sugar refinery by day, and prayed at night.)

Jon Sensbach at the Inaugural Bethel Colloquium on Pietism Studies, 4/20/12
Jon Sensbach

Empathetic, nuanced, and decidedly not moralistic, Jon’s talk — and particularly his treatment of the Moravian missionaries — exemplified the posture encouraged by historian James LaGrand in his contribution to the book our Senior Seminar students are currently reading (Confessing History, my new series on which I’ll return to tomorrow). LaGrand warns against “conflating historical understanding and preaching by focusing first and foremost on a political agenda,” since that “instrumental” mode of doing history “can’t deal with the ‘messiness’ of history, its unexpected twists and turns, the surprise of finding evil people doing good things and virtuous, moral people revealing a fatal flaw in some of their actions” — like the Moravian missionaries. Instead, he encourages readers “to find purpose in the vocation of the Christian historian as historian, and not only in the life of a Christian historian as an activist or revolutionary” (James B. LaGrand, “The Problems of Preaching through History,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, eds. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, pp. 191, 201, 209).

Stay tuned this afternoon for a summary of our closing roundtable discussion, on the ability of Pietism to provide a “usable past” for contemporary churches and denominations.

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