Characterizing the Religious Encounter between Moravians and Saramakas

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Characterizing the Religious Encounter between Moravians and Saramakas

When Moravians in Germany sent three missionaries to Suriname in 1765 to witness to the Saramakas, two groups with unique and fundamentally different cultural, social, and religious beliefs and structures met. During the course of their stay, the Moravians were hounded by disease and disappointed by the poor reception of the gospel; meanwhile, the Saramakas were plagued with inter-tribal rivalries and poor relations with the white government officials and plantation owners, with whom they maintained an unsteady peace. These circumstances, as well as the many ways in which Moravian and Saramaka expectations and social behavior differed, created a barrier between the
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Moravians, though they came to witness to the blacks as fellow children of God, couldn’t bridge the cultural gap; one brother wrote, “It is indescribable how uncomfortable it is for me…to lodge with the negroes in their huts…they live in a very disagreeable manner, which stems from their heathenish customs.” The restrictions Moravians placed on the behavior of converts made them trade some of their Saramaka customs for white customs, and discouraged many Saramaka from converting. As one woman said, “I still love the spectacles of the negroes. I love to dance and I cannot hear any story about the Great God just now because if I were to convert, I wouldn’t be able to dance any more” (238).

The converts, who were initially mainly children, faced many temptations to backslide (98, 320). They were often blamed for problems in the community. For instance, after Alabi and Skipio killed the cayman, Alabi’s sister became sick and the Saramakas divined that Alabi’s conversion had angered his dead father, Abini, who Alabi now needed to placate through ritual means. The Moravian’s restrictions on matters of “personal style” disappointed the children who asked permission to make a shriek of mourning for Simeon’s death, but were reprimanded for suggesting such uncivilized behavior (227). Those sacrifices were
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