Unitas Fratrum

by Cyril Goodyear


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




In Newfoundland we have an old saying about things we don't understand: 'It might be good enough to eat!' Well, for years I might have said the same thing about Unitas Fratrum had I heard the phrase.

Imagine my surprise when I landed at Nain in Northern Labrador at the end of World War II to discover that it meant a missionary society: the United Brothers. There were Sisters in this society too, but they had no place in the official title. The wives of the missionaries were also Sisters; a contradiction in terms.

Since few in Newfoundland knew Latin, and probably none in Labrador, the group was known as the Moravians and they had mission stations stretching from Makkovik in the south to Hebron in the north. Their headquarters was at Nain.


Formation of the sect

The Reformation began at Worms in Germany after Martin Luther nailed his 'thesis' to a door. It really gathered momentum in 1529, after the second diet at Spires, and became one of the many 'times of troubles' in the long history of Christianity. During the periods of mutually disadvantaged persecution, some of the 'Protestants' were granted asylum by Count Zinzendorf on his estates in Moravia. Successor Counts continued to offer protection and the Christian refugees organized themselves as Unitas Fratrum, with their headquarters at Herrnhut. Over time they became a missionary society with branches in England, the West Indies, Africa, Greenland, Labrador and the United States where they have a following to this day. For centuries they have been called 'Moravians', after their birthplace.

The year 2002 saw the 250th anniversary of the permanent settlement of the Moravians in Labrador. There had been four prior journeys made there, either to explore or establish mission stations, beginning in 1752. On that voyage in the Hope, Johann Christian Ehrhardt and his group set up a wooden hut at or near what is now Hopedale on 31st July. In September they sailed farther north seeking natives and hoping to barter for furs and other items. On the l3th Ehrhardt and five members of the crew went ashore, but never returned. Seven days later the rest of the group returned to England, apparently without even going ashore to determine what had happened to Ehrhardt and his five companions.

You may wonder what brought about the connection between the German 'Unitas Fratrum' and England. I would suggest there were three basic reasons:

· the fact that England was officially a Protestant State, from the time of Henry VIII;
· European royalty was interconnected, with strong German ties to British royalty at that time, including the direct intervention of Count Zinzendorf who appears to have been the real influence in the sect; and
· Newfoundland and Labrador were part of the British Empire, and travel there had to be sanctioned by the government of the day.

The school in Nain is called 'Jens Haven' after the founder of the mission station there. He was also a missionary, having served in Greenland, and was selected to make further voyages to Labrador. Unlike the others, he had the advantage of speaking the Eskimo language to some extent since he had served in Greenland for two years; except for some variations in local dialect, the same language is spoken from Greenland to Alaska.

I must digress here for a few moments to explain the use of the name 'Eskimo'. That was the original racial label placed on this particular group. The origin of the word is unclear, but it is said to mean 'eaters of raw meat'. These people are now called 'Inuit', which means 'the people'; in fact, many ethnic groups refer to themselves as 'the people'. For our purposes I will refer to the natives of Labrador as 'Eskimos'. No stigma attaches to that title, as far as I am concerned.

Jens Haven was determined to continue the work begun by Ehrhardt and was given approval to go to London by Zinzendorf, where he thought he might hire on as a crew member aboard one of the Hudson's Bay Company ships and travel to Labrador. That attempt was unsuccessful as the Company jealously guarded their turf. Everything works on personalities, and through connections in England he travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador as a guest of the Royal Navy. He made it to Chateau Bay in southern Labrador in 1764 and again in 1765, accompanied by Christian Lawrence Drachart amongst others, but had to return to England each autumn. Drachart had lived for years in Greenland and was fluent in the Eskimo language; he was a great asset.

Haven and Drachart spent the period between their return in 1765 and 1769 trying to organize another expedition. They lived at the Moravian settlement at Fulneck, Yorkshire and lobbied everyone connected with the Government. Now it is no secret that expansionist regimes have actively supported missionary work as an instrument of public policy. But there seems to have been some misgivings about supporting a German dominated organization. While it has not been adequately explained, it appears the Unitas Fratrum had to put together an English partner, the Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel amongst the Heathen.

On 3 May 1769, King George III granted 100,000 acres of land in what is now the Nain area jointly to the Unitas Fratrum and the Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel amongst the Heathen. Zeal and persistence paid off and, after considerable organizational efforts, the Jersey Packet sailed to Labrador in 1770 and surveyed several sites before choosing Nain. They returned to England to prepare for the establishment of a permanent mission there the following year.

On the good ship Amity they returned, on 8 August 1771, laden with supplies and prefabricated buildings. They officially named the place 'Nain' in a moving religious ceremony. The group was made up of German and English personnel and one of their objectives, aside from saving souls, was to carry on trade with the natives; a sort of self-sufficient operation. This trading project was carried on and jealously guarded until they finally sold out to the Hudson's Bay Company. They in turn sold their stores to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1942.


Governing status

Now I hate to bore you with too much historical data, but it is important to know that only since 1949 has Newfoundland and Labrador been part of Canada. Some would even go so far as to argue that union with Canada was a fatal mistake. There is room for doubt, despite the passing years, since only 51 percent voted in favour of the union.

Prior to that we had been a British colony, with all the problems that term includes. In 1854 Newfoundland was granted Responsible Government. Dominion status followed and Newfoundland remained independent, within the Empire, until the worldwide depression began in 1932-33. During that period Newfoundland sought assistance, and a Royal Commission under Lord Amulree came to explore and recommend options.

Following the report of the Amulree Commission and because, like many countries, we were insolvent, the Legislature voted to suspend the constitution. A Commission governed Newfoundland and Labrador from 1934 until one minute before midnight on 31 March 1949. We enjoyed independent Dominion status again for one minute, and became the tenth Province of Canada on 1 April. Some would argue that it is significant that we joined Canada on 'All Fools Day'.

The Commissioners were all appointed and were under the supervision of the British Colonial Office. They were half-and-half Brits and Newfs, three of each with a British Governor, usually a retired Rear Admiral of the Royal Navy. Actually, absent democracy, they did a pretty good job. They listened to their advisors and, generally speaking, ran their departments well. Innovative civil servants often implemented progressive programs in the colonies that they could never get away with in the entrenched societal systems of their home countries.

One of the many recommendations made by the Amulree Commission was the establishment of an organization that would have a multitude of duties, including police work. They were to be stationed around Newfoundland and Labrador and would report regularly to a Commissioner, through their Headquarters in St. John's. That recommendation was implemented and the Newfoundland Ranger Force was born.


Personal encounters

At 17 I left home in early 1944 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. After the war I joined the Newfoundland Ranger Force, eventually being posted to Nain. It was there that I learned of the Moravian Mission for the first time.

There were no roads anywhere in Labrador, and few in Newfoundland. All travel was by ship, small boat, or dog team in winter. From the middle of October until about the end of June the following year we never saw anyone from the outside world, except Dr Tony Paddon from the Grenfell Mission at Northwest River. He made one trip each winter by dog team. The only communication system we had, except for boat mail, was Morse Code equipment at the trading posts. Nain had only seven permanent families. The population of my district lived principally in the bays or fishing places, and visited Nain for trading and religious purposes. It was isolation that few can comprehend today.

Reverend Bill Peacock and his wife Doris and baby daughter lived in the fenced mission compound, as well as Reverend Paul and Mrs Hettesch. Their daughter, Kate, lived with them and ran the mission boarding school. Kate was a confirmed spinster, a free spirit, very artistic, and a good teacher. Like her parents she was educated in Germany and had lived most of her life in Northern Labrador. All were fluent in the Eskimo language.

Reverend Peacock had served in Nain for a time and went back to England. At the outbreak of World War II he came back as Superintendent of Moravian Missions in Labrador, replacing Hettesch who now was summarily retired. Between the two wars the headquarters of the Unitas Fratrum had been moved to London. The Hettesches, who were now about seventy, were German and their son, Siegfried, was the Missionary at Hebron, the most northerly post.

Here I was in alien surroundings, young and inexperienced. I used all the diplomatic skills I could muster to scrounge coffee, snacks and meals from the missionaries and the Trading Post manager and his wife, Hayward and Selma Haynes. All were very good to me, but the Hettesches were especially kind. They taught me much, as did everyone I met, and I learned a lot of the history of the Mission, Germany and Europe in general.

For my birthday one year I was given a Liturgy and Hymn Book by Reverend Peacock. It is in the Eskimo language, compiled, translated and published in Germany in 1912. Some of the words have as many as 22 letters - a complete sentence in German or English.

The Reverend Paul was a very versatile man, with a bit of training and experience in everything. One winter Joe Rich, the son of the Chief of the Davis Inlet band of Naskopi Indians, accidentally shot himself in the little finger. Old Shinapeo brought him to Nain for treatment. Reverend Hettesch called on me to help him with the operation. He issued all the instructions and I administered the anaesthetic. His bag of surgical tools and the chloroform mask were impressive. He did that operation in his study. Peeling back the flesh from the shattered bone, he removed the finger at the last joint and sutured the flesh. Joe stayed with me for a few days until it was certain he was going to be all right. I saw him many times after and you could hardly tell he ever had a little finger on that hand. I learned to like and admire the Hettesches, especially the old man.

How cultures merge! Always, art and music intermingle, and the Eskimo people had no difficulty in adopting and excelling in playing musical instruments. For example, the first church organ was presented to the Nain congregation by the people of Herrnhut around 1824 and was played with great skill by a local person. When I was there Nain had a brass band, as did Hopedale. Except when the instruments froze up during outdoor ceremonies, the music was quite good. I remember well going to the Easter services and hearing the choir sing Handel's Messiah in their own language. While at the time I was not the best judge of musical performances, it was most impressive.


Nain's development - good or bad?

When I returned to Nain in 1967 I was amazed at the changes. Since 1771 Nain had grown from a nomadic meeting place to an incorporated town of over 1,000 people. This had happened through a combination of many things. The administrators of church and state always believe that it is better to have people within hearing of the church bell, and within sight of the bureaucracy. In Newfoundland and Labrador we have gone through several periods of 'resettlement'. It was a smaller version of 'the great leap forward' and the result has been disastrous. Resettlement should be a personal choice, based on opportunity of whatever kind. Motivation is a very complicated thing in human beings.

While roads and airports were still lacking, there was a regular 'bushline' air service. The coastal boat service had improved with new boats and docks, and the mail service was year round. Dial telephones were everywhere, and not long after there followed satellite television. The Labrador Inuit Association had been formed and had become a power on the coast, as they should be.

© Cyril Goodyear 2003. Former Newfoundland Ranger and an officer with the RCMP, Cyril Goodyear has also served as Provincial Court Judge, Chief Judge of the Provincial Court, Associate Deputy Minister of Justice, and Deputy Minister of Rural, Agricultural & Northern Development (RAND). He retired in 1989 and recently published his memoirs in Nunatsuak: Stories of the Big Land. He now lives in Deer Lake, Newfoundland, where he served a term as Mayor.

For more details about the Moravians, see 'Periodical Accounts' at http://www.mun.ca/rels/morav/texts/ship.html and http://www.mun.ca/rels/morav/texts/brethren.html.
See also
History of the Newfoundland Ranger Force by Harold Horwood.




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