According to historians Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood, the rise of Protestantism among blacks in the American South and West Indies, “was a, perhaps the, defining moment in African-American history” because it “created a community of faith and . . . provided Afro-Atlantic peoples with an ideology of resistance.” On the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in the 1700s, one of the earliest African Protestant churches was founded with the help of an unlikely person: Rebecca Protten, a young free black woman.
Born a slave in 1718 and kidnapped at an early age from the Caribbean nation of Antigua, Protten was converted to Christianity by her master. She eventually gained her freedom, and she wanted to use it to bring others to Jesus. She sought out Freidrich Martin, a German Moravian missionary who arrived in St. Thomas in 1736, to learn more about the faith. Martin was greatly impressed with her and said she was “very accomplished in the teaching of God.” Rebecca worked with the Moravians and together they converted hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
Missionary to Slaves
Protten specifically reached out to slaves. “She has done the work of the Savior by teaching the Negro women and speaking about that which the Holy Spirit himself has shown her,” Martin wrote. “I have found nothing in her other and than a love of God and his servants.”
Protten took her message directly to the people. She would trudge “daily along rugged roads through the hills in the sultry evenings after the slaves had returned from the fields,” according to her biographer Jon F. Sensbach. She was “a prophet, determined to take what she regarded as the Bible’s liberating grace to people of African descent.” Her travels “took her to the slave quarters deep in the island’s plantation heartland, where she proclaimed salvation to the domestic servants, cane boilers, weavers, and cotton pickers whose bodies and spirits were strip-mined every day by slavery.”
But Protten didn’t just go to the people; the people also came to her. She taught at a church that held popular nightly meetings at the end of a rugged road through the hills of St. Thomas known to the enslaved as “The Path.” Though kept from the meetings by violent animosity, black men and women would press their way along these roads to hear the gospel.
Protten eventually married one of the Moravian missionaries and traveled with the Moravians back to Germany. Her husband and daughter died there. In Germany she oversaw women in ministry, and later she moved with her second husband to Africa to found a school. Near the end of her life, missionaries sought Protten’s return to St. Thomas, but she wasn’t able to make the trip. Her course was finished.
Mother of Modern Missions
Rebecca Protten left a lasting legacy. Her life was a catalyst for African-American Christianity and a model for Christian mission. As she and others took the gospel from plantation to plantation, St. Thomas “suddenly became the Americas’ new axis of Afro-Protestant conversion.” Fueled by the message of liberating grace, they put themselves “at the forefront of an indigenous black movement that was birthed in the slave quarters.”
Sensbach writes, “Much that we associate with the black church in subsequent centuries—the anchor of community life, advocate for social justice, midwife to spirituals and gospel music—in some measure derives . . . from those early origins.” He concludes, “Though hardly anyone knows her name today, Rebecca helped ignite fires of a new kind of religion that in subsequent centuries has given spiritual sustenance to millions.” We could well call Rebecca Protten the “mother of modern missions.”
Her missionary efforts bridged different worlds. She lived a complicated and faithful life, forging a “distinctively international persona—obedient to a calling, yet adept at negotiating life’s possibilities, resourceful in any setting or language.” But in the end there was “nothing in her other and than a love of God and his servants.”
May the same be said of us.