History of the Moravian Mission and the Moravian Church in Tanzania

In this section you find an overview to the History of the Moravian Church of Tanzania linked to examples from the archive’s collection.

1. German Colonialism in ‘Deutsch Ostafrika’

During the nowadays so called ‘Hochimperialismus’ – with its most significant political event, the Berlin Conference in 1885 – after some hesitation, the German ‘Reich’ under it’s ‘eiserner Kanzler’ Bismarck began to conceive a political expansion within Africa’s ‘untouched’ areas.

By confirming and supporting the initially self-appointed colonization of East Africa by Carl Peters’ ‘Gesellschaft für deutsche Kolonialisation’, and under constant negotiations with the British competitor and local rulers, the lands of today’s Tanzania became successively German and by 1891 were finally put under direct German rule.

Nevertheless the whole region remained only partly controllable and its destiny determined by local struggles of local peoples as well as by larger revolts against the colonial government. The fighting of the Wahehe up to 1898 and the Majimaji-rebellion in 1904-1907 can be cited as prominent examples in this notion.

2. Missionary tradition of the Moravians

Against this background the Moravians began to consider an expansion of their at that time already notable mission work to East Africa. Mission work was one of the defining characteristics of this formerly small ‘Unity’ in Saxony, which had been founded in 1722 by the Count of Zinzendorf in Herrnhut to accommodate an immigrating group of ‘Husians’ which had fled prosecution in Moravia. Many important characteristics are related to their eagerness to do missionary work: their international outlook, the ability to adapt to different cultural and political contexts and the social organisation in small communities with egalitarian structures.

The cause for this early mission tradition is not easily defined: besides the general Christian tendency to evangelise (Mathew 28:19) and the necessities, respectively possibilities of the time, to proceed in hitherto unknown mission fields. Also socio-economical reasons in Herrnhut, small and haunted by winter hardships, where the unity, through ongoing immigration, was constantly growing. Especially in the 19. Century also the abolitionism movement backed up evangelisation and mission amongst plantation-slaves consisted a big part of the work from the early beginnings. Still, it was in truth not an emancipation in law or liberation of the slaves, which the first missionaries bore in mind, but rather their spiritual salvation through baptisms and by preaching the gospel.

3. Ideological background of the late 19. Century German mission

In the second half of the 19. Century the German evangelic missions began to nationalise, especially in differentiation to the English one. With the founding of the ‘Allgemeine Missionszeitschrift’ 1874 and the emerging idea of a ‘Volksmission’ to evangelise according to ‘naturally’ given ‘Völker’, as especially Gustav Warneck propagated it, the different German missions received a theoretical frame to act within. However, precisely the evangelisation of complete peoples didn’t fit with the individual approach of the Moravian mission and stood in obvious contradiction to the usual way of finding ‘first fruits’ which after their conversion should help to spread the word. By 1891 this debate within the Moravian mission institutes wasn’t decided at all, but only started to take place. In the mission field itself the missionaries tried only in the first decade of the 20. Century, to identify ‘Völker’ within the fragmented ‘Wakonde’ in order to be able to evangelise whole peoples at once.

Furthermore, all German missions agreed in the notion, that churches shouldn’t be at the service of politicians or colonialists, which influenced the rather solitary approach in the building of a school system in the early years of the Moravian mission in German East Africa.

As the already active Anglican mission promised to withdraw from the German territories and provided the Moravians with information, accommodation and local contact, the remote mission field seemed promising. With a substantial financial support from a legacy the undertaking could be financed without any troubles. Half of the fund was designated to be used for the liberation of slaves, but as the ‘Kondeland’ was not on one of the slave routes and because of the sporadic fights between Wasangu and Wahehe, it remained rather unexploited.

4. On the Route

The first missionaries, a mixture of Carpenters and Pastors, travelled from Naples to Daressalam and then to the Portuguese areas in the modern Moçambique. From there they continued on a steamboat on the rivers Zambezi and Shire to reach the southern end of lake Nyasa. The reason to make this detour were the belligerent Wahehe which occupied the way between Daressalam and Lake Nyasa. In Karonga on the north end of the lake, the missionaries got in first contact with the Scottish Livingstonia Mission. Weakened by the journey and malaria, they continued by foot or carried by indigenous helpers through swamps and over rivers to Karraamuka close to the present day station of Lutengano some 30 kilometers away from Rungwe. Kararamuka was another Scottish mission field, which would be left some time later in order to fulfill the agreement with the Moravians. In Karamuka the missionaries were advised by director Kerr-Cross to start their work at the slope of mount Rungwe and to search there for a place to settle. As the negotiations with chief Makapalile turned out promising, a group of three missionaries continued to Rungwe.

There are different reports on the journeys of missionaries and some of them found their way to the archive in Rungwe. For example the following one, which has been written by a german in 1893 and describes the whole journey from Rome to Daressalam.

(Link zum Reisebericht)

5. Settling in Rungwe

The place above the village which nowadays is known as Ilolo seemed ideal because of its healthy climate, and the availability of water, wood and clay. On the 21. of August 1891 the decision to choose Rungwe as the first Mission Station was laid before the Lord by lot and appreciated.

The first few years in Rungwe were dedicated to the construction of a mission station. This has been maintained by the help of the carriers and through the conscription of local people. Still, European working methods and handcraft was the aim of most undertakings. Occasionally the missionaries had their first contacts with the different ‘Völker’, as they constated soon: ‘Wahenga’, ‘Wankonde’, Chenge amongst others.

Because of the big work that had to be done, the relatively small number of missionaries depended on this help by indigenous people. The wages were paid in meters of cloth. In the beginning, also a translator was needed in order to communicate with the workers. A former helper of the Anglican missionaries was able to speak some English and was therefore hired. Nevertheless many of the Moravian missionaries became experts in the vernaculars and a comprehensive dictionary from the first mission director Theodor Meyer, which he finished back in Herrnhut in 1928, could be retrieved in the archive in Rungwe.

The here presented conversation dictionary’s author or year of publication remain unknown. In any case, German sentences like: ‘boil the water’, ‘clop the nails’ or ‘ask me before you start doing this’, show the need of the early missionaries to communicate with the workers in order to get things done in and around the house .

(Bsp. Konversationslexikon)

6. First Fruits

The actual evangelisation only started slowly and bore many disappointments and drawbacks. First preachings outside of Rungwe took place in 1892. From 1895 the building of other stations began. Some of them were over a hundred kilometers away and this mirrors the effort to cover a vast area. Only in 1897 were the first indigenous woman baptised on the name ‘Numwagile’ (I’ve found him). Others followed hesitantly.

Despite this difficult beginning the expansion of the Moravian mission was permanently continued in an almost programmatic manner. Until the first decade of the 20th century, the final number of 9 mission stations in the so called ‘Nyasa’ was reached. Until the First World War the number of converted rose to more than 2’000 people. In 150 schools several thousand potential Christians were educated and on several stations there were factories and coffee or tea plantations. The European Moravians counted 16 Missionaries with 29 children. These successes are due to the efforts to convince by adaption through translations, ethnographic studies and integration of the African brothers in the missionary work. In 1913 the first church conference was held as an effort of integrating the indigenous Christians as an active part in the planned church.

(Foto Kirchenkonferenz)

As the First World War broke out, the missionaries waited for further developments, as only little information about friend and enemy reached them. Whether Great Britain was involved at all, missionaries couldn’t tell for some time. Only in the beginnings of 1916 the area was occupied by British troops which at first granted the missionaries the right to stay. Nevertheless all the missionaries were interned in the middle of the same year and brought to Blantyre. On 19. October 1916 they were separated from their families and arrested in Mombasa and later even brought to Egypt. Their families had to wait in South Africa. Only in 1919 were all the missionaries allowed to return to Germany.

7. Scottish Mission, British administration and the effects on the German Mission

In the meantime the Free Church of Scotland took over the Mission and introduced their own understandings of the Christian moral codex as well as a reorientation to the genuine British mission fields in the south-east. One ongoing debate which arose at this time is the so called ‘Bierfrage’ which turned into a de facto restriction of alcohol in the Moravian church, which until today seems to last without being explicitly mentioned in the constitution. The return of the Moravians in 1925 also marks the known starting point of our documentary collection in the archive and the start of a period which is even worse researched than the years of German colonial rule.

It took nine years for the Germans to return to their mission field in Nyasa. The first Brother to return, Oskar Gemuseus, had already worked among the Wanyakyusa and therefore was an important mediator to build the bridge between the Scottish and the Moravian mission for local people. In the letter from the mission direction in Herrnhut, this role was presupposed as a matter of course:

(Quelle: Rückkehr des Gemuseus)

Within the year of common work he was also able to follow the Scottish attitude of letting baptized people decide about the church allocations, the prohibition of alcohol and especially the intense educational work. Besides the medical work, the building of schools even on small community level (bush schools) was one of the primordial undertakings of the Scottish and would determine the work of the Moravians in the period between the wars in a special manner.

As the English government tried to further the English language by granting financial aid to the missionaries it did so in order to provide equal opportunities to the peoples in whole ‘Tanganyika’ to participate in the international institutions of the Commonwealth. Gemuseus stayed loyal to this idea and became opponent during the 30’s to many younger missionary brothers in the ‘Southern Highlands’. This polarity between ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ missionaries – whereby it seems striking that the younger missionaries belonged to the ‘conservative’ group – persisted and affected the work, so that the mission director in Herrnhut started to worry about the ongoing of the evangelisation. In the following letter, he expresses his concern and asks for a report on the human relations between the different missionaries.

(Brief Marx)

8. Gutmann, ‘Volksmission’ and National Socialism

Also in the inter-wartime the approach of ‘Volksmission’ was finally introduced to the ‘Southern Highlands’ with a dedicated impact. Its revival came due to the rise of National Socialism in Germany as well as in the mission stations in the southern highlands. On one hand this happened in terms of ‘Parteiversammlungen’ on different Mission Stations, on the other it was more subtle, with an intense look into the mission-theology of Bruno Gutmann in the ‘Chaggaland’. Gutmann theorized the conservation respectively the return of the evangelised Chagga to their own traditions in order to avoid the forming of ‘European caricatures’. This aim was applicable to the national socialistic notion that every ‘biologically’ determined ‘Volk’ has to defend and preserve its characteristics to avoid ‘Entartung’ (degeneration). Teaching English and even Kiswahili, the language of the coastal tribes, seemed to be endangering the preservation of the different ‘Völker’ (peoples).


Nevertheless, the missionary zeal didn’t diminish, the congregation grew also under the missionaries with national socialistic tendencies and in 1935 the first five indigenous Evangelists were ordained to be pastors – notably by Oskar Gemuseus who by that time had become bishop.

9. Internment and overtaking

The conflicts between old and new missionaries were even worsened by the political developments in the home country. Through it, the whole mission was drawn into opposition to the English administration. Only the beginnings of the Second World War interrupted this development by the second internment of the German missionaries. This time the mission was, however, not overtaken by another society. The Moravians this time rather made use of their own international relations and substituted the up to then exclusively German missionaries with colleagues from Denmark, who were working on a neighbouring mission field near Tabora respectively South Africa. Also, the responsibility went over from the ‘Herrnhuter Missionsdirektion’ to the British Mission Board in London. These measures prevented the English annexation of the lands owned by the church. Nevertheless the evangelisation-work in the first time after the change broke down because of the small mission-staff and the whole situation provided a first challenge to the quite developed structures of the ‘Eingeborenen Kirche’ (indigenous church), which the latter overcame surprisingly well. Much of the later showed self-consciousness by the indigenous church workers and Christians resulted from the experiences made at this time.

(Quelle Hansen and Shaw)

10. Internationalisation

Among the British mission board members, the ‘Nyasamission’ became the Mission in the Southern Highlands Province, out of which the indigenous church of the ‘African Moravian Church’ was founded in 1946. With these nominal corrections the way to independence had been targeted and was taken by bigger steps through developments in the political field.

Furthermore an internationalisation of the mission-crew took place, through which the German workers became a minority. The latter development was welcomed by the British colonial government. Besides of Danish and Swiss people, also Norwegians, Australians and US-Americans could develop the Evangelisation on the background of growing economical investments from companies abroad. Thus the number of Schools, Hospitals, Vocational Training Centers and of course Christians was increasing permanently.

11. Uprising

In 1957 the southern highlands province was promoted to an associated province through the ‘Unity Synod’ in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For many indigenous Christians this step didn’t go far enough and criticism arose that the province wasn’t made a thoroughly independent part of the Moravian Unity. Shortly later complaints rose again, as the superintendent had to resign because of health problems. Instead of the african assistant superintendent the British Mission Board appointed without recurring to the local church board an European successor with the title ‘acting superintendent’.

These conflicts reached their climax when after the synod of ’58, in order to promote financial independence, the church taxes were multiplied. The majority of the, historically so meaningful, Rungwe-congregation refused to accept the minutes of the Synod and therefore was banned from the church life by the church board. Supported by the church elders and the local teacher’s union, the church was threatened to break apart, as a local leader in opposition to the Moravians started to found his own church. This situation took two years to be solved. In 1960 the superintendent resigned and the church ban was relieved. Nevertheless the decision about the raise of church taxes was reconfirmed at the synod of 1960. Also at this synod, the church representatives had for the first time a de facto right to confirm the new superintendent.

12. Church Union

Independence became the imperative aim of the church’s executive because of these recent experiences. Not only the elaboration of a constitution for the future province was drafted, but also a collaboration with the other protestant missions respectively churches in Africa (Anglicans, Lutherans and Moravians from Tanzania, Methodist and Presbyterians mainly from Kenya) was planned to be set on new grounds. This work towards unity had already started in 1933 with the foundation of the Christian Council of Tanganyika (CCT). Also the even older ‘Kirchenbund auf lutherischer Grundlage’ still existed after the Second World War. With view to the politically drafted East African federation a broader union was targeted. In 1965 this project, after many years of negotiating, had to be abandoned, because the different churches couldn’t find enough common ground.

(Quelle Church Union)

13. Independence

The steps towards independence continued ceaselessly though: Already in 1962, the ‘associated province’ became a synodal province with further rights and duties. Since 1958 African brothers were trained in the executive committee and in the church board to administer the church. In 1967 independence was finally reached through a decision of the unity synod in Czechoslovakia and only one year later the first African ‘chairman’ was elected at the church synod. In the 70’s different provinces were founded, as they exist to this day. The Southern Province with its head office in Rungwe, the Southwestern Province with the main offices in Mbeya, the western Province at Tabora and the Rukwa-Province around Sumbawanga. Through further missionary work, districts like Daressalam, Zanzibar, Zambia and Malawi could be founded and will be formed to own provinces in the near future.

(Quelle Antrag für eigene Provinz)

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