May the lamb that was slain, receive the reward of his suffering. Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann
Those were the parting words from these two young men as they set sail in 1732 from the docks in Copenhagen bound for the islands of the West Indies in the Caribbean. Leonard, a potter and David a carpenter, were ordinary men who were answering an extraordinary call to be the first Christian missionaries to ever go to the 1000s of slaves held captive on the sugar cane plantations on the West Indies islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, now known as the Virgin Islands.
They were Moravians, members of a Christian community in Herrnhut, Germany that had been birthed out of a dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit five years earlier in August 1727. A man by the name of Count Zinzendorf had an estate there that he turned into a refuge for those fleeing the religious persecution that was so prevalent during the reformation in Europe.
An around the clock, 24/7 prayer meeting ensued out of that revival and the intensity of that prayer and intercession gave birth as it always does to an evangelistic zeal to reach others with Christ’s redeeming grace. That prayer meeting miraculously lasted for 100 years – an entire century of travailing intercession that ended up spawning what we now term the modern missionary movement.
As God began to release a vision for taking the gospel to the nations, Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann were the very first to answer the call. Their hearts were captured with a burning desire to reach the unfortunate Africans who had been sold into slavery and transported to the jungle islands of the Caribbean. As eager volunteers, leaving loved ones and family pleading with them not to go, they made their way to the coast and sold themselves to a plantation slave owner in exchange for buying passage on the ship to St. Thomas.
When these first two modern missionaries went forth, their last words as they set sail “May the lamb that was slain, receive the reward of his suffering” became the anthem and inspiration for countless thousands of missionaries who would follow in their footsteps.
Like two grains of wheat, willing to fall into the ground and die, their sacrifice continues to this day to bring forth multiplied sheaves of wheat, the harvest of the souls of human kind for glory of the Lamb who was slain. (John 12:24)
When Dober and Nitschmann arrived in Charlotte Amalie, the principal town of St. Thomas, they were stunned to find such vehement resistance by the slave masters to allowing their slaves to hear the gospel. There was an actual case of a slave caught listening who was punished by having his ear cut off. When a close friend of the two men, Frederich Martin arrived shortly after them, he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. But that did not silence him. He boldly proclaimed the gospel through the iron barred window of his dungeon cell to those outside.
When my wife Susan and I vacationed this past winter on St. John, which was once a Dutch colony, we visited the ruins of a number of the sugar cane plantations and learned of the deplorable conditions under which entire slave families lived and labored their life long.
I can honestly say that we both could sense the heinous spirit of oppression that once existed on these islands due to the inhumanity of slavery. It is an unsettling feeling given the idyllic tropical setting, with beautiful white sand beaches and azure blue waters. But the ironic tragedy of it all is palpable. To think that in such beautiful surroundings, perhaps on the very spot in which we now vacation and pamper the flesh, there once existed life and death struggles and despicable suffering, rocked me to my core.
By comparison however, we also spent one Sunday morning in worship at Emmaus Moravian Church on the east end of the Island. It was founded in 1750 as what was called a slave church. The pioneering work of Dober and Nitschmann established churches like this one, the only ones the Dutch allowed to minister to the slaves.
Worshipping in the building that was originally built in 1782, and singing traditional Moravian hymns with such sweet spirited people stood in such stark contrast to our visit to the plantation ruins. The bedrock reality of the Apostle Paul’s declaration “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” gripped me as never before. And the sense of God’s presence and redemption made for an uplifting and deeply moving experience I shall not soon forget.
Eternity shall forever be filled with praises to God for those who have sacrificed their lives that others might live. Leonard Dober, David Nitschmann and the early Moravian missionaries are part of that exclusive company, the cloud of witnesses for the Lamb who have gone before us. May their sacrifices continue to inspire us to follow in their footsteps by obeying God’s unique calling in our lives no matter what the cost.