Rebecca Protten and the First Black Protestant Church in the Americas

Rebecca Protten and the First Black Protestant Church in the Americas

 

            When seven-year-old Rebecca Protten was kidnapped from her family home in Antigua, she couldn’t possibly imagine that her new life in the island of St. Thomas, a Danish sugar colony in the West Indies, would become a catalyst for the conversion of many slaves and the foundation of what has been considered the first Black Protestant Church in the Americas.

            Rebecca was born in Antigua around 1718, possibly of an African mother and European father (or else of mixed descent). We don’t know if she was free before being kidnapped. In St. Thomas, she was sold to a Dutch Reformed family of planters, headed by Lucas van Beverhout, who taught her to read and write and introduced her to Christ. The family set her free when she was about twelve, soon after Beverhout’s death.

            Not much is known about her life until 1736, when she met a Moravian missionary, Friedrich Martin. Inspired by his desire to reach the thousands of slaves who lived in the island, Rebecca joined him in this venture, working mostly with slave women, and taking advantage of her mixed-race background and her skill in learning languages (Dutch, German, and Creole).

            In a letter written to the Single Sisters of the Moravian congregation in Herrnhut, Saxony, the movement’s headquarters, Rebecca expressed her excitement in what she had learned from Scriptures: “Oh, how good is the Lord. My heart melts when I think of it. His name is wonderful. Ooh! Help me to praise him, who has pulled me out of the darkness. I will take up his cross with all my heart and follow the example of his poor life. But how miserable do I find myself, my dear Sisters.”[1]

            Martin thought that Rebecca should get married – if nothing else, to better communicate with married slave women. In 1738, he proposed to her a missionary named Timothy Fielder. She was not impressed. She saw him “as a worldly man who spends his time playing the violin and is very confused. But she said she would abide by the will of the Lord.”[2]

            Martin considered other options. Finally, he proposed another missionary, Matthaus Freudlich, and she accepted. The couple lived together in the island and continued their ministry together.

            Their union shocked the plantation owners, who couldn’t conceive of mixed marriages, and questioned the qualifications of the man who had performed the ceremony. Since, as a Moravian, he had not been ordained in a recognized church, they said the marriage was invalid.

            Some suggested that Rebecca and Matthaus should remarry in a Lutheran or Reformed church, but the couple refused because this action would have disqualified the Moravian preachers in the eyes of their congregations.

            In 1742, the authorities threatened to put the couple in jail unless they renounced their marriage and admitted that they were spreading dangerous teachings. Rebecca and Matthaus refused and were imprisoned, together with Martin, under trumped-up charges of burglary and blasphemy.

            Rebecca took her imprisonment as a badge of honor. “I have spent 15 weeks in prison and I have enjoyed sweetness in prison. We were brought 7 times before the court and if I was brought before the justices it was sublime to me that the dear Savior used me poor worm to testify.”[3]

            Around the same time, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, leader and founder of the Moravian Church at Herrnhut, visited St. Thomas. Using the influence conferred by his noble status, he managed to bail the couple out of jail. Still, the authorities insisted that the prisoners leave the island.

            Rebecca, Matthaus, and their two-year-old daughter Anna Maria then traveled to Herrnhut, together with Martin. Matthaus never made it to shore, but died en route. A few years later, Anna Maria died as well. The Moravian leaders then tried to arrange another marriage for Rebecca, this time with Christian Protten, a man of mixed African and European descent. The couple married in 1746.

            Soon after her wedding, Rebecca was ordained a deaconess in the church, a title which allowed her to teach other women and lead certain ceremonies, such as foot-washing.

            Christian’s dream was to become a missionary to the Gold Coast of Africa, where he was born to an African woman and a Danish father. Like Rebecca, he had a gift with languages. But his alcohol addiction and lack of discipline caused him to become estranged by the Moravian community.

            He finally fulfilled his dream in 1756, moving to the Danish fort of Christiansborg, near today’s Accra, Ghana, where he and Rebecca taught at a missionary school. When Christian died in 1770, Rebecca continued their work for an additional ten years.

            Rebecca was one of the first African Christians who followed in reverse the path of the Atlantic slave trade – from the plantations of the Caribbean Islands to the shores of West Africa – to bring the gospel to the continent of their ancestors. Later, the same path was followed by the freed African-American slaves who planted churches in Sierra Leone, leaving a shining example of indigenous missionary work and spreading the gospel to other areas of West Africa.

 



[1] John F. Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, Harvard University Press, 2005, 103

[2] Ibid., 63

[3] Ibid., 129