Records of baptisms, marriages and deaths of free and enslaved congregational members have been compiled since the Eighteenth Century by the officially sanctioned churches in the Danish West Indies, specifically the Lutheran Church, the Moravian Church, the Anglican Church, the Dutch Reform Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. The surviving records are essential documents for family history researchers, historians, demographers, and those seeking to understand Virgin Islands culture. The Moravian Church records, which focused almost exclusively on the Black population, are particularly valuable because, as shown by this image, they identify by name African members and specify their ethnic origins. Such information makes it possible for living Virgin Islanders to reliably trace their ancestry to a particular African ancestor, ethnic group, and homeland. The surviving church records are archived either in local rectories or mainland repositories. Because of their intrinsic value, several have been copied and can be found online. This image is from the Friedensthal Moravian Church Book 1734-1832, which catered primarily to enslaved people of the eastern half of St. Croix.
In this activity, students will examine baptism records from the Friedensthal Moravian Church Book 1734-1832 and observe the names of the people listed, paying close attention to where they are from. They will research some of the African ethnic groups listed and consider the role of adaption in religion amongst Africans in the Danish West Indies.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This primary source activity includes the topics: slavery and religion. Viewed as sensitive topics for classroom lessons, teachers should consider their students ability to engage with the topics, give background information, create a safe environment for discussion, and be prepared to support their students’ questions and responses to the subject matter.
Before beginning this activity ask students if they are familiar with the Moravian Church. Allow some time for students to share what they know about the church. Specifically ask if students know that Moravian missionaries worked with the Black population, free and enslaved, in the Danish West Indies.
The teacher can provide information from the About section to inform students of the significance of the record they will examine in this activity.
Load the baptism registry onto an interactive smart board and have students make observations together. If there is not a smart board, students can work in small groups at computers. The registry is a digitized book. Use the thumbnail image of the book’s cover to access the book and then use the arrows to navigate the pages of the registry. The ability to zoom into the document is important, and that feature is available by clicking on ‘zoomable’.
Analyze the Primary Source
You may load the Analyze a Written Document worksheet on the smart board or on computers so that you can lead students through answering the questions, print the worksheet and distribute to your students, or adapt the questions from the worksheet to create your own. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
What is it?
Who wrote it?
When is it from?
Where is it from?
Write one sentence summarizing the document?
Why did the author write it?
What was happening in the Danish West Indies when it was created?
What did you find out from this document that you might not learn anywhere else?
What other documents or historical evidence could you use to help you understand this document?
Ask for students to volunteer to read the information from the pages of the baptism record. Have students take turns reading a row or two of information from the table. The record is written in Danish. Translations of the table column headings are provided below for reference.
Note: Table Columns
Column 1 = Baptism Number. Cross= date of death
Column 2 = Church Baptismal Name
Column 3 = Common Name
Column 4 = Nationality (Cri = Creole and nation/island) (otherwise African nationality/ethnic group)
Column 5 = Owner or plantation name or parish on St. Croix
Column 6 = Date of Baptism
Column 7 = Baptizer
Column 8 = Date Received into Church
After reading multiple rows, have students focus on Column 4. The students can read out loud the African ethic groups listed, the teacher can write them on the board. The teacher can use the arrows to advance to other pages if students would like to see other pages.
Individually or in small groups, have students choose 2-3 ethnic groups to research. They will research each ethnic group that they select, and try to identify if the group still exist today. Are they still called by that name or another name, what country within Africa is home for that ethic group, and any other information they can uncover. Availability of information online about the various ethnic groups varies. Students should take notes of what they find. This activity can be done in class for 10-15 minutes followed by a discussion of what was found, or as a homework assignment with discussion the following day.
Exploring Cultural Adaption related to Religion:
Ask students what they know about African religions in the past? Do students think the Africans and the Creoles listed in the baptism book all had the same beliefs related to religion and the spiritual world? Have students explain their opinion. Do students think that the African beliefs, would be similar or different from European religious beliefs?
Ask students to define adaptation? Have them consider whether there were benefits for enslaved Africans to actively participate within a religious congregation in the Danish West Indies? Do students think enslaved Africans were more likely to embrace the new religions introduced to them completely, leaving old beliefs behind; or to maintain their own beliefs while adopting or pretending to adopt some of the new religious beliefs. Have students explain their ideas. The teacher should help students to consider resources where the students might research their ideas further.
Have students research indigenous African religions, choosing one to focus on. They will also research the beliefs of the Moravian Church, and then create a Venn Diagram comparing the indigenous African religion they selected to the beliefs of the Moravian Church.