My name is Leonard Dober. Most of you won’t have heard of me before now, but my story is one filled with drama as I became the first Moravian Missionary. I lived in Herrnhut alongside my brothers and sisters from Moravia on the land of Count Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf. After years of persecution that nearly destroyed my beloved church we were now feeling safe and our numbers had started to grow and we allowed our thoughts to turn towards the future for our little seed.
In 1731 Zinzendorf received an invitation to attend the coronation of Christian VI as King of Denmark. Having asked for our opinion on whether he should go he left with our blessing. When he arrived back we were all keen to hear about the coronation. All the finery and pomp and circumstance that he must have seen had gotten us all quite excited. However when he returned he barley spoke of the new King and of the coronation itself, instead he spoke at length about a young slave called Anthony that he had met whilst there. He was so moved by his story that he invited Anthony to Herrnhut to speak to us all as he felt as if his words were a call from God. Anthony had been brought by his master from the West Indies to the coronation. Zinzendorf told about Anthony’s brother and sister back in the Island and of the hard and bitter lived of the slaves who were taught nothing about God and knew only the cruel whips of their masters.
That night, after hearing his story, I couldn’t sleep. All night long I wrestled with the thought that I had been called to go to the West Indies and tell them about God. All the next day I turned the matter over in my mind and that evening I went for a walk with my friend Tobias Leupold. After a while I told him of my dilemma and to my surprise Leupold burst out “I could not sleep last night either. I heard the Voice in my heart too.”
Taking courage from his words the next day we met and worded a letter to Zinzendorf offering to go to the West Indies as missionaries. It seemed a long shot to us. We were not qualified missionaries. We weren’t even ministers or theologically educated but we felt that calling and so we couldn’t ignore it. Zinzendorf was thrilled and he read the letter to the congregation, without revealing our names. There was a real buzz in the whole town that day.
A few days later Anthony arrived and warned us all of the perils of going to the West Indies. “If missionaries go to the West Indies,” he said, “they may find it necessary to become slaves themselves if they wish to reach the people.” Slaves, he continued, were not permitted to leave their plantations after sunset. Teaching them was forbidden, and they were not permitted to attend public worship. A slave who had driven his master’s carriage to church had been cruelly whipped because he had dared to peep through the doors of the church at the worshipers inside. However instead of putting me off, these words strengthen my desire to go and help. My heart ached for those poor people who had never heard the word of God or that, as St Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It soon transpired that not everyone shared our enthusiasm for mission work. Many people thought that we were just being young and headstrong. Discussions went on for months and once again I had to stand in front of the congregation and repeated my offer. Despite all their concerns and the inevitable hardships I couldn’t sake this sense of call and my desire to fulfil God’s plan never wavered. Zinzendorf suggested that the matter be decided by the lot. This was something we used a lot in major decisions. It was decided a long time ago that this was the fairest way in which God could make the decision. Three pieces of paper were placed in a box, one marked yes, the other no and the final one was blank which meant not yet. After prayer I placed my hand in the box and drew the slip which this time said, “let the lad go, for the Lord is with him”. However my good friend Leupold was instructed not to go at that time.
I was excited but also extremely anxious but I trusted in God and in the strength of his call. As a potter I intended to go and work alongside the people. It was decided though that because of the perils of traveling alone and because I would need somewhere to live that David Nitschmann who was a carpenter, would travel with me and stay until I was settled and established in my new land. On 18th August 1732 we all gathered and said our goodbyes. As was the custom, we sang covenant hymns as the brothers and sisters wished me well. There must have been over a hundred verses sung that evening. On the 21st August at three o clock in the morning David and I left with Zinzendorf in his carriage. When the time came to leave Zinzendorf he gave us a small amount of money and said, “Let yourselves be guided in all things by the spirit of Jesus Christ.”
We eventually found a ship sailing for St Thomas that was willing to take us. We had to pull a few strings and appeal to the Queen of Denmark but at last we were on our way. Many weeks and months passed and then finally on Saturday morning, December 13th 1732 we saw the island of St Thomas. When we landed on the shore we searched for Abraham and Anna who were Anthony’s brother and sister and we delivered a letter he had asked us to pass to them. Then a number of slaves gathered around and we used the doctrinal text for the day which was, “This is life eternal, that they might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”, and we preached the word of God. In spite of the fact that our Dutch wasn’t exactly fluent, some of our words must have hit home. They began to clap their hands and tears of joy streamed down their faces. For the first time, the Gospel, the Good News, was being preached to them.
That evening we attended the local public service held at the fort in Tappus. As we exited we were met by a slave who said his master wanted to speak to us. His master, it turned out, was a friend of Zinzendorf and he offered us both jobs working on building a house in his land. Both David and I couldn’t believe our luck. This was going to be easier than we thought. Every evening when we had finished working on the house we would go and preach the gospel to the slaves however we quickly noticed that their excitement in greeting us and their warmth of welcome were fast ebbing away and giving way to fear. We discovered the true extent of the oppression and violence that they were used to from white people and so they simply didn’t trust us.
After four months David left to return home as was the plan. The work on the house was completed and so I was left alone. I decided to try and earn a living by plying my trade as a potter, only I soon discovered that we had landed on an island were there was no clay. I soon became the butt of many of the slave masters jokes as a potter with no clay. However the Governor came to see me one day and knowing I was a Christian offered me a position as steward in his house. Suddenly things were looking up. I ate at the governors’ table and even bought a new suit of clothes. I was starting to feel comfortable but then I released I had made a huge misjudgement.
As my life became easier and I joined the elite of the island, my missionary work came to an end. No slave would listen to a man who ate with their oppressor and they feared me as well, thinking the words I brought them were a trap. I had forgotten the people I actually came to help and chosen instead a life of comfort. Once I realised my error I handed in my notice to the governor who was surprised to say the least. “Do you prefer starving?” he said to me, but I knew I had to make that choice.
I rented a small hut and went back to a very limited diet and earned a few pennies acting as a night watchman all the while trying to regain the trust of the people I came to save. One night while I was keeping watch I heard a voice that sounded familiar. It was that of my old friend Leupold. He told me he had come to relieve me and that I could go home as I had been elected a chief elder of Herrnhut. They had sent 18 other missionaries to the neighbouring islands. Our work had not ended, but only begun.
So you see then, that my journey was far from straight forward. But now as I look back I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t have said yes in the first place. All the missionaries that followed me had similarly difficult times but because of all of their courage and through the wisdom and strength of God, our little church in Herrnhut, is now a world-wide unity, all gathered as brothers and sisters united in Christ. And so I say to you what Zinzendorf said to me, ““Let yourselves be guided in all things by the spirit of Jesus Christ.”