A Song In The Wilderness |
Löhans struggled to understand an Afro-Caribbean man speaking
to the crowd. Far back, under a palm thatch roof without walls, she
watched the light of a lantern on his face. The man spoke eagerly,
in short syllables. He was tall and strong and moved his arms
quickly. Veronika smiled to herself in the dark. Even though she did
not understand everything he said, she did not fear him like she
would have as a child. She loved him, a brother in the Saviour’s
Gemeine (church community), and to see how he spoke to the
people filled her with happy thoughts.
moved about. Like the other women at the meeting, Veronika slapped
her legs and waved them from her ears. She wondered how the men,
mostly without shirts, could ignore them so well. But, glancing
behind her, she saw that something of far greater urgency than
night-flying bugs held the attention of the crowd.
kept emerging from the darkness under low-hanging coconut palms.
More and more—perhaps over five hundred faces—surrounded the
light and kept drawing closer to hear what was said. In spite of the
humidity and bugs, in spite of the ever tightening crowd, Veronika
felt deeply thankful for having come to St. Thomas in the West
Indies. The Saviour was here, and with the seekers around her, she
found joy in becoming little, like a worm, before him.
was young—only married a few months—but the road behind her was
already long. A peasant girl from the backwoods of Moravia, she had
lain a year in prison for having attended secret meetings of
believers. On her release she had escaped through the mountains of
Silesia to Germany. There she had joined the congregation of
believers at Herrnhut in Upper Lusatia. Immediately after her
marriage to Valentin Löhans in 1738, they had sent them
overland to Rotterdam from where they sailed to the New World.
she sat among believers on the Posaunenberg (Mountain of Trumpets)
where on a twenty-seven acre lot the brothers had built houses among
flowering jasmine and lemon trees. In the crowd gathered there to
worship she saw few white faces—until a sudden commotion turned
all heads at once.
men with swords and whips tumbled in on the multitude. Roars and
shouts drowned out the screams of terrified children. “Kill them!
Shoot them! Beat them! Stab them!” Veronika distinguished the
voices at once from musical West Indian patois. They were crude
white men’s voices and struck terror to her soul.
rolled over as terrified mothers around her snatched their children
to flee. Swinging cutlasses, heavy booted men smelling of cane
liquor charged into the circle of light beneath the lantern. They
caught the one who had spoken—a brother baptised “Abraham”—and
began to beat him wildly. One white man hit the helper
Petrus’s wife over the head. She clutched her newborn child
tighter while another cracked a bull whip around her. Georg Weber’s
wife Elisabeth, a European sister, got a stab wound through her
breast and a cutlass sunk deep into Veronika’s shoulder.
Within minutes the
multitude had vanished into surrounding darkness, the intruders had
galloped off on horseback, and only the most injured lay groaning
among patches of blood on the hard packed earth. Then the sugar cane
rustled and a few of the brothers, looking cautiously this way and
scene of violence they knelt, undismayed, to pray for their white
Protestant persecutors. Some prayed in West Indian patois and some
in the languages of central Europe. Abraham, the strong young man
who did not fight back when the drunks beat him, prayed with tears
for their “awakening.”
three weeks of the attack, the Saviour’s Gemeine on St. Thomas
(consisting almost entirely of black slaves owned by white
“Christian” masters) sent out sixteen pilgrims
to speak to the lost about their souls. They reached every
plantation on the island and the number of believers increased so
rapidly that landowners threatened the governor they would leave
unless he crushed the movement at once.
What, on St. Thomas, had
exposed the landowners’ wickedness so clearly (to their unbounded
rage) and led thousands of slaves into new life and joy? What
brought a great company of Africans and Europeans into previously
unheard of unity? What inspired young peasant women to cross the
ocean and brave life in strange tropical lands where all predicted
they would die? What turned wild drunkards and thieves into
believers noble enough to return good for evil—while the rest of
“Christendom” languished in hypocrisy and sin?
Reinhard Ronner, a German
brother walking the white trails of St. Thomas in the 1740s, came
upon the answer where he did not expect. A distance from any village
or plantation house, down where the road crossed a thicket of
tropical vegetation, he heard a song.
first he thought he must be imagining things. Then he stopped short
and listened. “Christi Blut und Gerechtigkeit, das ist mein
Schmuck und Ehrenkleid. . . .” Out of the underbrush the hymn
came in majestic strength, the voice of a young man singing with all
his heart. “Damit will ich vor Gott bestehn, wenn ich zum
Himmel werd eingehn!”
could wait no longer. He had to see where it came from, and scurried
down into the dimly lit space beneath the leaves. There he saw him,
a boy—obviously a slave from an island plantation—clearing land
with a cutlass, alone. He had has back turned and Reinhard stood
still as the song (given here in translation) poured from the depths
of his being:
blood of Christ and his righteousness, is my adornment and robe of
praise. With it I shall stand before God when I enter heaven.
see the holy innocent Lamb, my Lord and Christ—the Lamb that died
on the rough cross for me. I see the value of his blood, treasure
beyond price, eternally reckoned in heaven.
blood alone is my confidence and hope. Though all else should fail,
my confidence remains. Sure as rock it stands.
long as I continue here below, this shall be my goal: I will testify
with a glad spirit of grace in Jesus’ blood.
to you, Jesus Christ! Praise for becoming a man! Praise for buying
my freedom and that of the whole world! King of honour, Jesus
Christ, the Father’s only son, have mercy on the world, and bless
those who stay with you!
When the song ended,
Reinhard hesitated to make himself known. But the young man turned
in his work and saw him. Startled, he drew back, speechless.
not fear,” Reinhard told him. “I am a brother!”
At once the joy of having
his sins forgiven shone from the young man’s face and Reinhard
found him “inwardly small and tender to the Lamb” before leaving
him, unspeakably encouraged, to continue on his way.
road between St. Thomas cane fields seemed transformed. Dark nights
of storm and violence seemed like a distant dream. Never had
Reinhard Ronner noticed a more heavenly sunlight glistening on
rolling expanses of emerald green above the sea.
and women had seen the Lamb. “Behold the Lamb of God that takes
away the sins of the world!” And yes—in Europe, in the West
Indies and abroad, during the mid-eighteenth century—saints had
overcome evil with his blood!