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Mammon for Missionary Work

How the British Moravians Financed their Missionary Activities in Labrador around 1800

Thomas Dorfner | Aachen University

Extract from a map of the Labrador coast showing the Hopedale Moravian Mission. From 'Plans of Anchorages on N.E. Coast of Labrador', surveyed by Comr. W. Chimmo, R.N., and the officers of HMS 'Gannet'. Engraved by Davis, Bryer & Co. Published by the admiralty, 1867. Image in the McGill University Collection.
Extract from a map of the Labrador coast showing the Hopedale Moravian Mission. From 'Plans of Anchorages on N.E. Coast of Labrador', surveyed by Comr. W. Chimmo, R.N., and the officers of HMS 'Gannet'. Engraved by Davis, Bryer & Co. Published by the admiralty, 1867. Image in the McGill University Collection.

On 17 June 1797, the Harmony left the port of Gravesend in England and started its annual journey to Labrador, where it arrived on 27 July. The two-master belonging to the Moravian Church provided the missionaries at the missionary stations of Nain, Okak and Hopedale with supplies every summer. The Harmony transported clothing, food products, tools, medication, letters and large quantities of building materials to Labrador. For the pietistic Moravians, who had been officially recognised as the Episcopal Church in Great Britain since 1749, getting supplies to their missionaries in Labrador was a Herculean task from a financial perspective: they had to maintain and insure the Harmony, pay the crew and purchase the supplies and many other items. On average, supplying the missionaries in Labrador cost the Moravians £1100 per year, which was a vast amount of money at the end of the 18th century. This begs the question of how the Moravians succeeded in ensuring the long-term financing of their expensive missionary activities in Labrador, which had begun in 1771. The following economic history article aims to answer this question.

The history of missionary activities has undergone a renaissance over the past two decades and has primarily been researched as the history of the globalisation of knowledge. Numerous studies have reconstructed how missionaries created and disseminated colonial knowledge. At the same time, questions of economic and financial history still remain one of the most under-researched aspects of historical missionary activity. Very little is known of how catholic, protestant or pietistic missionary activities were financed. This article aims to make a small contribution towards closing a major gap in the research. It will demonstrate that the Moravian Church had two very different sources of income for financing its missionary work in Labrador: transatlantic trade and raising donations. On the one hand, the Moravians imported raw materials from Labrador which were highly sought-after in the young British consumer society. On the other, they intensively targeted noble and bourgeois supporters to ask for donations.

The Moravian Church was established in the 1720s under the leadership of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Intensive missionary activities were characteristic of the Moravians from the very beginning. They felt particularly bound by the so-called great commission of the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 28, 19-20) and considered proclaiming the gospel to “heathens”, Jews, and Muslims to be one of their most important tasks. The Moravians started their very energetic missionary activities in the Atlantic World in 1732. They set up missionary stations in Greenland (1733), Georgia (1735), Suriname (1738) and the Danish West Indies (1738). Despite their missionary activities, the Moravians had a rather negative reputation in Great Britain and central Europe in the 1740s: Numerous critics described them as dangerous "sectarians". Only during the late 1750s a fundamental shift in the perception of the Moravian Church took place. The older view of reality according to which the Moravians were dangerous sectarians was replaced by the perception that the Moravians were hardworking, obedient, yes almost exemplary subservients.

The following details are based on extensive research conducted at the Moravian Church House Archives (London) and the John Rylands Library (Manchester), which I was able to carry out thanks to a fellowship with the German Historical Institute London.

1. Raw materials from Labrador for the British consumer society

King George III authorised the Moravians to set up missionary stations in Labrador in 1769. In Whitehall, people hoped that missionary work with the Inuit may reduce the conflict between the Inuit and English merchants. One year later, the Moravians created the foundations for their Labrador missionary activities in London: they founded a ship’s company and acquired the ship for their annual Labrador journeys. The company acquired the capital required for this by issuing 100 shares, each at a value of £10. The ship’s company had 30 owners; however, the operational day-to-day business was managed by a six-person committee. This committee was responsible on the one hand for ensuring that the ship was fully equipped and waiting in the port by early summer each year. On the other, the committee had to ensure that the ship returned to London with raw materials that sold well. For this reason, the company sent two trading agents to the Nain missionary station in June 1772. The only task for which their agents John Hill and Joachim Wolfes were responsible was trade with the Inuit. Their focus was on three raw materials which were highly sought-after in London and Great Britain: whalebone, whale and seal oils, and furs.

Whalebone had been used for producing corsets for noble customers since the 16th century. The bone plates from the jaw of a whale were used as corset stays and gave the garment its original name “corps à la baleine”. The growing influence of the bourgeoisie in the 18th century was associated with the popularisation of the corset, which led to increased demand for whalebone. This demand had also been met by the Moravian Church since the start of its missionary work in Labrador. Whale oil and seal oil, on the other hand, served as fuel for oil lamps. In Great Britain, the majority of poor households were unable to afford candles made from beeswax, and as such oil lamps were the primary source of artificial light.

Hill and Wolfes sold all manner of tools and traps for hunting in their stores in Labrador. Their customers included Inuit buying goods to meet their own requirements as well as so-called Inuit “middlemen” who purchased the goods in larger quantities in order to later sell them on. However, the church leadership had strictly regulated the trading activities of both agents: all trading activities had to comply with biblical and/or Christian standards. This meant that the agents were forbidden from taking the maximum possible profit from the Inuit. The goods had to be sold to the Inuit at a fair price. The Moravians designed their Labrador trade according to the principle of the iustum pretium formulated by Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). At the same time, the church leadership had prohibited the sale of certain goods, such as alcohol or weapons, which it believed to be harmful to the Inuit. The Moravians were in no way exempt from colonial patterns of perception and believed unbaptised Inuit to be “wild, murderous people”. In their opinion, selling guns or swords would promote breaches of the fifth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”). In 1786, 15 years after the first missionary station was set up, the Moravian Church permitted the sale of guns to the Inuit. In previous years, the missionaries had noticed that English merchants had been selling substandard guns to the Inuit “that burst in their hands” at inflated prices. Following extensive discussions, the trading agents were permitted to sell functional guns to the Inuit at fair prices. Eight to ten whalebones were determined to be an iustum pretium for a gun.

This episode proves that the Moravian Church felt committed to an economic concept designed for the common good, which is strongly reminiscent of the old European economic concept of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Around 1500, striving for wealth in a self-serving manner was seen as a breach of the divine order and thus as sinful. Traders and merchants were expected to earn enough to buy ‘sufficient food’ without falling victim to greed for profit. Although the Moravians pursued an economic concept designed for the common good, the Ship’s Company made a profit as early as 1773, two years after it was established. As shown by numerous profit distributions to the owners, the economic development was positive until the mid-1780s. At the end of the 1780s, however, the Ship’s Company experienced financial difficulties. Some of the factors responsible for this included a temporary oversupply of whalebone on the British market, which led to a rapid downward price trend. Accordingly, in 1790, the London Moravians complained that the price of whalebone had “decreased by more than half in 2 years”. In view of this development, the second source of income became significantly more important.

Extract from 'Plans of Anchorages on N.E. Coast of Labrador' (above) showing the  Moravian Mission at Hopedale seventy years on. Image in the McGill University Collection.
Extract from 'Plans of Anchorages on N.E. Coast of Labrador' (above) showing the Moravian Mission at Hopedale seventy years on. Image in the McGill University Collection.

2. Raising donations in noble and bourgeois circles Raising donations was the responsibility of the Moravian Church’s ‘Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel’ (SFG), which was based in London. A look into the minutes of the SFG shows that raising donations was clearly one of the primary tasks of the organisation, which had been set up in 1741. At the start of every meeting, the secretary recorded the donations which had been received since the last session and who had acquired the respective donation in the minutes. The donors were primarily members of the British upper class. In the SFG meeting on 30 March 1801, the secretary recorded, for example, donations from Admiral James Gambier, the philosopher Lawrence Butterworth, Lady Robert Manners, and Sophia Vansittart, the daughter of the Director of the East India Company. But how did the Moravians come into contact with potential donors? How did they inform the donors about their missionary activities? As early as in the 1760s, i.e. before the start of the Labrador missionary work, the Moravians had connections with high-ranking crown officials, scholars and clergymen in the Anglican Church. They used methods which were customary in a court context: personal attendances and congratulatory letters on new appointments or at the turn of the year. After the start of the Labrador missionary work, personal attendances became increasingly important because the SFG was able to connect (potential) supporters with those returning from Labrador. For example, Paul Eugen Layritz returned to London from Labrador in November 1773. Just a few days later, Layritz had to report on his experiences in Labrador to numerous high-ranking supporters. Thanks to a letter by Benjamin LaTrobe, we are very well informed about the attendances. LaTrobe informed the missionaries in Labrador: "Upon Br. Layritzʼs return [from Labrador, T.D.], I went with him to all our Patrons & Friends, e.g. Lord Dartmouth, Ld. Hilsborough, Mr. Pownal, Mr. Knox (the other Under Secretary of State for America), Sir Hugh Palliser etc. etc., and they all took real share in your prosperity, and every one of these have desired me to assure you of their regard & willingness to assist where they can. By the means of Mr. Banks & Dr. Solander Br. Layritz, Hutton & I dined with the Royal Society & were at one of their Sessions. Several made particular enquiry about Labrador, and wished us much success." “Patrons and friends” were people who did not belong to the Moravian Church but were interested in Labrador or the Labrador missionary work for various reasons: Sir Hugh Palliser, for example, was the Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador between 1764 and 1768. As botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, two of the most eminent Fellows of the Royal Society, were interested in the plants of Labrador. In addition, gifts were given on multiple occasions during attendances of this kind. Particularly sought-after items included minerals and plants from Labrador, which enjoyed a great deal of interest, both from scholars of the Royal Society and from political officials. Accordingly, letters to the missionaries in Labrador regularly contained requests to send more valuable minerals to London.

Figure 1: Benjamin LaTrobe (1728-1786), head of the Moravians in Great Britain since 1768.
Figure 1: Benjamin LaTrobe (1728-1786), head of the Moravians in Great Britain since 1768.

However, the SFG also offered some less prominent supporters the opportunity to get in touch with missionaries. They held meetings with missionaries at their Fetter Lane premises in London. On 19th December 1797, for example, the Beck family reported on their many years spent as missionaries in Labrador. Brother Beck had spent 24 years in Labrador and Sister Beck 22 years. They returned to Europe in the autumn of 1797 to allow their daughter, Louisa, who had been born in Labrador, to start school. In order to make the meeting a memorable experience for the friends and supporters of the missionary work, “Br. & Sr Beck” appeared “with their Daughter […] in the Esquimaux habit”. Appearing in Inuit clothing would, no doubt, be criticised as cultural appropriation nowadays. The participants of the meeting, however, had no such objections to the appearance of the missionaries. On the contrary: they rewarded the appearance of the Beck family by making donations to the missionary work in Labrador.

Moreover, in 1790, the acquisition of donations was taken to a new level. The SFG set up its own journal, the ‘Periodical Accounts’, to inform the British public about its missionary activities in Labrador and in other parts of the world. However, setting up a missionary publication was anything but revolutionary. Catholic orders and pietistic groups had already been publishing journals to report on their missionary activities for many decades. In recent times, historical research has been able to demonstrate again how important these journals were in the 17th century in terms of acquiring supporters and raising donations for the missionary work. The SFG regularly published letters from missionaries in Labrador in its ‘Periodical Accounts’. However, the letters were heavily edited and shortened before publication. The editors removed, for example, passages which related to the trading of raw materials from Labrador. The Moravians did not wish to provide their opponents with any additional material with which to attack them. In the 1770s in particular, opponents spread the rumour that the missionary activities were merely a pretext for creating an opportunity to make major trading profits.

The importance of the ‘Periodical Accounts’ in expanding knowledge among the British public about Labrador and the Inuit can hardly be underestimated. The Moravians’ missionary publication was one of the most important sources of information about Labrador around 1800. At the same time, it must not be overlooked that the ‘Periodical Accounts’ reinforced colonial thinking and a negative image of the Inuit: unbaptised Inuit, for example, were consistently presented as wild, uncivilised and superstitious people. Only after conversion did an Inuit receive the paternalistic label of “our dear Esquimaux”.


The British Moravians established two financial mainstays in order to be able to implement the missionary activities they had started in Labrador in 1771 on a long-term basis: they imported whalebone, oil and furs to Great Britain from Labrador and ensured that all trading activities were carried out in compliance with Christian standards. At the same time, they carried out extensive work dedicated to acquiring donations for the missionary work in Labrador from noble and bourgeois circles. Whilst the nobility and bourgeoisie of London were able to come into personal contact with the missionaries, the rest of the country was given the opportunity to find out about the missionary work in Labrador from the ‘Periodical Accounts’ published from 1790 onwards.

Whilst the missionary activities in the 1770s were primarily financed from trade revenues, donations became significantly more important from the middle of the 1780s onwards. Both sources of finance enabled the Moravians to establish their missionary activities in Labrador on a long-term basis. In total, the missionaries were active in Labrador for 234 years and they established eight missionary stations in total. The missionary activities of the Moravian Church in Labrador only came to an end in 2005 when the final missionary left the Inuit country.


Further Reading

  • Dorfner, Thomas, '"Commercium nach dem Sinn Jesu". Überlegungen zum Marktverhalten der Brüdergemeine am Beispiel des Labradorhandels (1770–1815)', Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte / Economic History Yearbook, 61/1 (2020) 39–66.

  • Friedrich, Markus / Schunka, Alexander, (ed.), Reporting Christian Missions in the Eighteenth Century. Communication, Culture of Knowledge and Regular Publication in a Cross-Confessional Perspective (Wiesbaden 2017).

  • Jensz, Felicity, 'Overcoming Objections to Print. The Moravian "Periodical Accounts" and the Pressure of Publishing in Eighteenth Century Britain', Journal of Moravian History, 15 (2015), 1–28.

  • Mason, J. C. S., The Moravian Church and the Missionary Awakening in England 1760–1800 (Woodbridge 2002).

  • Rollmann, Hans (ed.), Moravian Beginnings in Labrador. Papers from a Symposium held at Makkovik and Hopedale (St. Johnʼs, 2009).

Thomas Dorfner is a research fellow at the History Department of the RWTH Aachen University. He attained his doctorate in 2015 at the University of Münster. His dissertation, which was published by Aschendorff Verlag, earned him the “Research prize for Legal History” for the year 2016. He is also currently working on a book about the economic activities of the Moravian Church in the Atlantic World.

Instagram: @tomdorfner


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