Characterizing The Religious Encounter Between Moravians And Saramakas

1791 words - 7 pages

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 two groups. Because the Moravians entered Saramaka society in small numbers and with no pretense of using political force or monetary bribery (the latter of which the Saramakas would likely have accepted) to force conversions, the extent of their influence on Saramaka religion and culture was limited. Though there was some cultural exchange, including the adoption of European manufactured goods into Saramaka life and the adoption of some Saramaka medical treatments by the Moravians, for the Moravians and for the majority of Saramakas, the religious encounter was a meeting of mutually closed worlds. For a handful of Saramakas, including Alabi, an apparently true conversion took place. In addition to the few converts, there were a small number (Brother Wietz reports twelve in 1779) of Saramakas who came to Christian services regularly, and thus were interested in and perhaps persuaded to some degree by the missionaries’ message, but made no commitment to or identification with Christianity and continued in their “idolatrous” traditions. Price argues that a localized, limited syncretism developed in Alabi’s village, Bambey (225), and that during the Awakening of the 1790s many Saramaka adopted selected Christian rituals. This convergence, however, appears to be restricted to compromises regarding behavior, and not with the integration of religious beliefs.
The groups meeting one another were unique for their time, in different ways. Moravians understood Christianity as a salvation religion in which believers developed intense personal relationships with Christ. They held strict notions of what behavior was fitting for Christians, and took a very exclusivist approach to their mission work. When a convert backslid, they excluded him from the congregation until he repented (244), and were wary even about their most ardent convert, Alabi, who was not allowed to take part in the Lord’s Supper until a year and a half after his baptism. Saramaka tribes emphasized kin bonds and incorporated religious practices labeled “sorcery” by the Christians into their everyday lives. This meant that the few Saramakas who converted felt enormous pressure from their family and friends to give up their Christianity, and found...

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