Evangelism and Culture — Moravian Missions Pt. 4

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Previous Article in the Series: Missional Community — Moravian Missions Pt. 3

During the colonization of the 18th and 19th centuries, many evangelistic efforts went beyond Gospel growth and often sought to conform native peoples to a European way of living. This practice is perhaps most clearly exemplified among the Native Americans of the New World. Sadly, religious settlers brought much hardship to the Indians due to equating evangelism with colonialism.

The Moravians were a bright light during this time. They disavowed the syncretism of evangelism and colonialism. Zinzendorf himself visited America and said such cultural evangelism of European customs was “the greatest piece of service to the devil,” and that the devil would not try to stop this practice “but wo’d rather help them as much as he co’d.”1 For their trouble, the Moravians were often the object of disgust by other religious workers, though this disgust was often reciprocated. For example, one Moravian Missionary wrote,

“I was deeply moved about my [Native American] brothers. I saw how they stood among the white people and how the whites deal with them. They do not treat them differently from a . . . [not readable] and as people without brains [die keinen Verstand haben] and with whom they can do as they like. And they cheat them at all corners. And yet they take the Native people as if it would be their obligation to work for them. That cut into my heart.”2Westmeier, “Becoming All Things to All People,” 173.

This sentiment was often echoed throughout other Moravian writings in the Early Colonial Period of America. A Moravian missionary among the Cherokee, Anna Rosina Gambold, stated, “We regret that so many bad white people live among the Cherokees. They are an annoyance to the heathen since the heathen, indeed, think they must know things better since they have the great book, the Bible, among them.”3

Moravians often adopted and utilized the cultures of those they sought to win. In the New World, some Moravians adapted so much to the culture that they were sometimes mistaken for Native Americans. Not only did many Moravian missionaries reside with the Native Americans—some also intermarried with them. Actions such as these led to Moravian persecution among the European colonies.4

But these attitudes and actions also caused the Indians to trust the Moravians. At one point, the Cherokee rose to fight the encroachment of colonization. As they began sending white people out of Native lands, they allowed the Gambold mission to remain:

“We do not view you as white people at all, but rather as Indians. God sent you to teach our people. You are here to love us; not to desire our land. You are only here for our sake. You give us food and drink and do good for our children as though they were your own. You may enlarge your fields if you just want to. No one may drive you away, because you will be seen as belonging to us.”5Gambold, The Moravian Springplace Mission to the Cherokees, 70.

Unfortunately, it must be stated that this willingness of the Moravians to adapt and accept other cultures did not last forever in the New World. However, this attitude was consistent in many other Moravian missions around the globe.

The Moravians did not preach the good message of European manners. Likewise, the missionary should not try to convert the lost to an American form of Christianity. As a culture, Americana holds no lasting hope. Only the Gospel carries within itself eternal redemption. The missionary must learn to lay aside whatever cultural weights can cause a stumbling block to the Gospel when he is evangelizing another culture.

Also, though sin mars every culture, culture can be a beautiful expression of the imago dei and is not inherently evil. Where sin corrupts the culture, the missionary, at some point, must reject and confront it. We must never exalt culture above Scripture. But where it is not against Biblical teaching, the Christian ought to adopt the native culture in deference to his brothers, sisters, and possible converts.

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