If someone were to ask you to name one of the oldest Lutheran churches in the Western Hemisphere, would you know it is Frederick Lutheran Church on St. Thomas Island? Would you believe them if they told you it is a Black Lutheran church in the New World that was founded less than 150 years after Martin Luther wrote the 95 Theses?
The ELCA has an intriguing history, but a huge grip of it is the undiscussed stories found in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Members of the ELCA’s African Descent Ministries team spent a week on the islands on a pilgrimage and to film an episode for the next season of “Talks at the Desk,” a Black History Month visual storytelling project airing this month on the ELCA’s social media channels.
The team landed at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport in September 2022, named after the St. Croix-born Tuskegee Airman. A few days later, the crew sat down with his widow, Joyce Rohlsen, a member of Lord God of Sabaoth Lutheran Church (LGOS), Christiansted, St. Croix. The two married at Lutheran Church of the Epiphany in Hempstead, N.Y., only to relocate to the islands after serving in the military.
This bit of modern history is only a taste of the rich legacy that lingers across the Caribbean Synod.
The legacy begins
The islands house seven historic Lutheran churches once colonized by several countries, though most are associated with the Danes. Although originally stewarded land of the Tainos and Arawak Indigenous communities, the Danish Kingdom later occupied the stolen islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John for their own desires.
These lucrative agricultural communities soon became the cash cows of the empire through the labor of enslaved Africans who produced sugar cane, cotton and tobacco. After a six-month slave rebellion on St. John in 1733, it was clear that the production of the islands was fragile. St. Thomas, though, differed from the other islands because it became a trading community early on rather than a plantation economy. This made its success less dependent on the subjection of enslaved Africans.
The slavery context may feel out of place when exploring the historic Lutheran church until one realizes that the founding of Frederick in 1666 was only a few years before the Danes officially acquired the island of St. Thomas in 1671 and LGOS was established in 1734, the year after St. Croix was purchased from France. The Lutheran church was embedded into the culture and politics of the islands since their inception.
Both churches named so happen to be the political congregations of the time. Both settled on slightly elevated landscapes, a walking distance from the ports of trade, and previously housed in the nearby forts that protected the islands.
It was common practice that when the governor was not on St. Thomas, the Lutheran pastor acted in his place.
Frederick and LGOS both share similar architectural styles, though the latter is much smaller. The two have dynamic steps leading to the oversized front doors of the church. Inside the entrance are parallel staircases that lead to the balcony where enslaved Africans were forced to sit. One service was in Danish and the second in Dutch Creole. When Africans and Europeans worshiped together, Africans weren’t permitted to stand on the main floor, reserved for the European church families. The 18th-century boxed pews had their own rankings, with particular pews reserved for Danish government officials.
The pews weren’t the only place where church and state aligned. Frederick’s parsonage was intentionally built right next to the governor’s house on St. Thomas. The two homes sit even higher up on the hills that look out to the bay.
It was common practice that when the governor was not on St. Thomas, the Lutheran pastor acted in his place. This was in addition to the labor of Frederick’s pastor also serving Nazareth Lutheran Church on St. John’s at least once a month.
All people on the islands were expected to attend church on Sundays. The authority of the church was so substantial it had the power to incarcerate those who didn’t attend Sunday service. That narrative is present to this day: “Frederick Church? The one that threw people in jail!” The parsonage also had particular rooms on the top floor that operated as a jail for enslaved Africans rebuking slavery.
Journey to emancipation
St. Thomas had a huge amount of political influence and was deeply tied to the oppression of an entire baptized community of Black Lutherans, but it was the island of St. Croix that contained some of the most significant rebellions in Virgin Islands history. Being a more densely populated island filled with plantations and slave labor, St. Croix’s enslaved Africans faced more of the physically demanding and inhumane aspects of slavery.
LGOS resided on the eastern Christiansted region of the island, but a majority of farms were on the western Frederiksted region, home of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.
On July 3, 1848, as Africans began to rebel and call for a mass revolution across the plantations, Gov. Peter von Scholten proclaimed emancipation from LGOS’ steps, got into his carriage, and rode over 16 miles to the Fredriksted pier and declared the same, nearly two decades before the United States would abolish the practice itself.
The Lutheran church not only played into the oppression but also the liberation of a people within a 150-year span. It leads to the question: What was stopping the church from liberating people in the first place?
Emancipation brought wide celebrations on the islands, but the struggle for equality and equity didn’t end there.
St. John, also a plantation economy, suffered similarly before emancipation. As the British Virgin Islands ended slavery in 1838, enslaved Africans were so desperate for their freedom that they found themselves on the now-infamous Mary’s Point overlooking the Tortola shore. There, they jumped into the ocean in an attempt to swim to freedom. Stories continue today about sharks lingering by that cliff where people claim to see red in the water.
But the culture of St. John looks wildly different from that of St. Croix and St. Thomas. The intimately sized city of love has an even smaller population of residents, with less public resources than the other islands but a significant European and upper-class presence. Though this doesn’t change the struggles of poverty across the island, it does suggest a unique post-emancipation (integration) story that differs from its sibling islands.
Emancipation brought wide celebrations on the islands, but the struggle for equality and equity didn’t end there. The St. Croix Labor Riot in 1878 erupted after farmers tried to prevent Africans from pursuing an education. There’s an irony to the fact that the Moravian Church and sometimes even Lutherans were adamant about educating Black youth, except in areas dependent on cheap or free labor, often by the same people in the church pews.
After several days of burning and looting, on top of the hurricane and subsequent earthquake and tsunami in 1867, the Virgin Islands’ economic strength weakened enough to reduce the Danish desires to continue exploitation. The United States would spend the next several decades trying to purchase the islands, further expanding the American occupation of the West Indies.
A long legacy
This history has put the Lutheran church of the Virgin Islands in a very particular place. The Danish interpretation of slavery still demanded all people to maintain morally good standing among the community. Being a baptized Christian and a weekly worshiping member, regardless of race, has led to a long legacy of Black Lutherans on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, including Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ delegate in the House of Representatives.
Some elders have documented themselves as fourth- and fifth-generation Lutherans, dating their affiliation to the pre-emancipation church. Others in the community who may not be worshiping members have shared stories of being brought from the countryside on a trucklike vehicle across the island simply to attend a Lutheran church because that is what was important to their families.
But the value of the Lutheran church is not universally felt in younger generations. As church workers continue to deconstruct history and comprehend how slavery influenced colorism, internalized racism, the disenfranchisement of Black communities and the mental colonization of elders, younger generations struggle to relate to a faith that was used to validate slavery.
When talking about the ELCA to faithful young adults at Frederick, a woman asked, “How does the ELCA talk about colonialism?”
Black mainland Lutherans today have had to toil with this question of their faith and racism forever. Being on the mainland means African Americans have a different slavery story. Black institutions were formed differently, and faith is not based solely with Luther. Rather, African Americans have leaned into the theology of the ancestors, those who coined the term Black Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology. Black mainlanders have the deep influence of other African American-founded traditions that impact their communities because of the interfaith relationships and ecumenism that is more commonly found in Black Zip codes.
This history has put the Lutheran church of the Virgin Islands in a very particular place.
While Black and Brown communities challenge the ELCA to address racism and colonialism, African Americans have sought their own understandings of Christian faith and resistance invoked in the ancestors, as they come from generations of survivors. What does one say to a community of churches that are just starting to see young generations asking how elders reconcile being part of the incarcerated church while Black?
The other reality is that American faith is as much theology as it is buildings and locations. Church workers can’t preach about being a decolonized Lutheran church if the pulpits are in the buildings that sit on top of the hills that looked at the slave ships entering port. The same way people can’t claim to decolonize while being in a 1950s church in the inner ring suburbs after a fleet of Bohemian Lutherans left a downtown area because the neighborhoods were “changing.”
One can find liberation in Luther’s teaching of grace while still refuting the opportunity for youth to be educated or maintaining a form of economy that is dependent on people’s labor being exploited. This question is not for Black mainlanders to answer to Black siblings in the U.S. Virgin Islands but rather to be in accompaniment with them as they discern how collective organizing can move the church with the next generation.
This is a witness that is not shared widely enough and why it was important for the “Talks at the Desk” team to highlight the islands. The ELCA dreams of a future church model that is new, young and diverse. But the same areas of interest are those that are already thriving in their own silos. “Talks at the Desk” gives the church an opportunity to share in this witness and reimagine our commitments to already established new, young and or diverse communities. Perhaps this is also an invitation for the church to be better stewards to the historical ministries that make the church both holy and whole.