One reminder we enjoy studying is the powerful endurance of an obscure Christian community under horrific conditions beginning in the 1700s. These Afro-Caribbean Christians were persecuted on the tiny, Dutch-colonized, Caribbean island of St. Thomas. They experienced regular beatings with clubs and swords, gang assaults from resentful society, and even the unjust, months-long imprisonment of key leaders, forcing them to preach from the jailhouse window to their faithful who gathered in the open air outside.
Though they had no weapon on their side but the Word of God, the Moravian Afro-Caribbean Christians were still seen by the dominant social group as the greatest threat to life, property, and power. Much like the way Western observers have perceived many totalitarian regimes in history that have all firepower, courts, and culture on their side, Christianity was still seen then as the greatest threat—for simply asserting the truth of Scripture: that God has granted all men and women dignity, freedom from oppression, and the right to worship as they please.
But revival began to emerge in St. Thomas; testimonies whispered ear to ear in the night watches told about redeemed plantation owners struck with genuine conversion and grief over the slave trade. As well, Africans—bound to other traditions kept by their ancestors—likewise were struck by the dignity, hope, and perfect liberation the gospel offered. None were safe from the call of God to repentance.
A group of leaders arose, one of the first African-led Protestant churches in the Americas. The more they grew in Christ, and the more their New Testament–style commitment to give limb and life for the cause of Christ spread, the more of a threat they became to the unbelieving and depraved culture around them.
As they sought to teach their Sunday school lessons on the plantations and evangelize the island, they faced obstacles and horrors: amputated body parts littered their path as warnings to stop their Christian activities; they were scourged, their Bibles confiscated, their homes ransacked and destroyed.
In 1739, their leaders composed and signed a missive to the monarchy of Denmark, referring to themselves as the “600 Black Christian scholars” on the island. In part it read:
Despite all oppression by those who have come to beat and injure us when our pastors teaches us about the Savior, by those who burn our books, call our baptism the baptism of dogs, and call [our congregation] beasts, declaring that Christianity was seen as the greatest threat—for simply asserting the truth of Scripture: that God has granted all men and women dignity, freedom from oppression, and the right to worship as they please. Negroes must not be saved and that a baptized Negro is not more than kindling wood for the flames of hell. Many a Negro has suffered the amputation of feet and hands as punishment for his pursuit. . . . As for ourselves, we would gladly place our heads under the axe in defense of our congregation and for the sake of Lord Jesus, if our masters have us killed, as they say . . .
Magdalena, a free woman of color and elderess over the congregation, wrote boldly to the Queen of Denmark. She wrote in her native Gold Coast tongue (Fon) on behalf of the entire congregation. And she spoke as the equal the Bible taught her she was; woman to woman, mother to mother, human to human:
Great Queen! At the time when I lived in Papa [Popo] in Africa, I served the Lord Masu. Now I have come into the land of the Whites, and they will not allow me to serve the Lord Jesus. Previously, I did not have any reason to serve Him, but now I do. I am very sad in my heart that the Negro women on St Thomas are not allowed to serve the Lord Jesus. The Whites do not want to obey Him. Let them do as they wish. But when the poor Black Brethren and Sisters want to serve the Lord Jesus, they are looked upon as maroons. If the Queen thinks it fitting, please pray to the Lord Jesus for us and let her intercede with the King to allow [our pastor] to preach the Lord’s word, so that we can come to know the Lord and so that he can baptize us in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As their pleas for the right to worship without molestation welled up, hundreds inside their congregation ultimately joined their signatures to Magdalena’s.
The monarchy remained silent to the abuses; beatings continued and strict curfews curbed their worship but could not hinder the spread of the gospel. The faithful were interrogated and lashed severely. Despite the terror, like so many in the African American church did, they met in secret to cry out beyond earthly monarchs to the King of Kings, interceding and teaching in defiance.
Finally, in 1739, the reign of terror began to subside, and the King of Denmark was moved to intervene to protect the congregants, their homes, and their meetings.
That the blood of these St. Thomas saints served as the seed of their church is a miracle to revisit, not only during Black History month, but all year round and for all the saints. These saints remind us of the lasting power of the Ancient Story in all its New Testament glory. Raising such Ebenezers—particularly of overlooked stories—brings life and raises our hope.