Article | Newfoundland and Labrador

When the Lord Came to Labrador: A Little History of the Moravians in Nunatsiavut

The first Arctic missionaries came to Labrador in 1771, where they built churches, formalized education, recorded the Inuktitut language in writing, and created a lasting cultural legacy that carries onward into today. Learn more in this article by Adventure Canada political scientist, historian, and journalist Aaron Spitzer.
Hopedale Moravian mission

© Dennis Minty

Hopedale Moravian Mission, Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador

The Arctic has long been a crossroads of Indigenous peoples and Europeans. Before Columbus even arrived in the New World, people living on Baffin Island possessed Viking goods brought over from Norse settlements in Greenland. Four hundred years ago, Inuit in Labrador fought the Basque whalers who came each summer to the Strait of Belle Isle. And three hundred years ago, English and French traders did business with Cree and Inuit trappers on Hudson Bay.

But these interactions were mostly fleeting. The white men were in the Arctic yet almost never of it. They lived aboard their ships or in their forts, a universe apart from the Indigenous groups who visited briefly and then decamped back into the countryside.

That all changed in 1771, when devotees of an obscure Protestant sect from Germany and the Czech Republic arrived on the Labrador coast. They did not come to hunt, trade, and then race home. Rather, they sought to immerse themselves in the Inuit world—while immersing Inuit in theirs. These were the first Arctic missionaries: the Moravians.

Mikak and her son Tutauk painting by John Russell 1769

© The Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Georg-August University of Göttingen

Mikak and her son Tutauk, painting by John Russel, 1769

At this time in North American history, England had just defeated France for control of what would become Canada. Farther south, the American Revolution was underway. Meanwhile, in Labrador, hostilities lingered between Inuit and Europeans. A first Moravian attempt at proselytizing, in 1752, had ended with seven missionaries killed. It took the intervention of Mikak, a charismatic Inuk woman who’d spent time in England, to broker peace on the coast and make Moravians welcome.

Thus came fourteen brethren, led by Jens Haven, to establish the first ever mission to Inuit in what would become Canada. The Moravians named their first station Nain—to this day, the main population centre in Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region of Labrador. Over the next 133 years, seven more Moravian mission stations were built, at Okak (1776), Hopedale (1782), Hebron (1830), Zoar (1865), Ramah (1871), Makkovik (1896), and Killinek (1904).

Church nain inuit culture

© Jen Derbach

Community hosts Joan Dicker and Abele Ikkusek showcase traditional clothing at the Moravian Church in Nain

Every mission station was similar, featuring an unadorned Germanic church, as well as a communal house, school, trading post, cemetery, and gardens. Each station was home to as many as a dozen missionaries. They would remain in Labrador for years, or even for life. All learned the local dialect of Inuttut, to better preach and tend to their congregations. Once or twice a year, the Moravian ship Harmony would visit, providing a link to the outside world. Otherwise, the missions were self-sufficient.

Inside Hopedale Moravian mission

© Dennis Minty

Inside the Hopedale Moravian Mission, Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador

As for the locals, they converted to Moravianism slowly but steadily. By 1820, around 600 Inuit were considered to be Christian. For the most part, they continued their traditional seasonal rounds of hunting, fishing, and trapping, but would camp near the missions between Christmas and Easter, participating in church services, receiving rudimentary medical care, and trading sealskins, dried fish, and handicrafts for flour, tea, cloth, or guns. Also during these times, Inuit children would attend school, which was conducted in Inuttut. Indeed, the Labrador Inuktitut dialect was the first in Canada to be written down.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the missions began to close. Zoar was shuttered in 1894. Okak closed in 1919 when the local population was tragically decimated by the Spanish flu. In 1926, the Moravians transferred their trading operations to the Hudson Bay Company. After Newfoundland entered confederation with Canada in 1949, the province took over schooling in Labrador, now conducting it in English.

Hebron

© Dennis Minty

Hebron, Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador

In 1959, due to the expense of operating an outpost as remote as Hebron, the mission was closed and its residents were forcibly relocated south, to detrimental effect. In 2005, after 234 years in Labrador, the Moravian Church recalled its last missionary.

However, Moravianism remains strong in Nunatsiavut, carried on by Inuit lay ministers, church elders, chapel servants, and the like. Moreover, local culture bears notable Moravian influences. Labradorimiut music merges Inuit and Germanic influences; to this day, visiting ships are often greeted by brass bands playing Bach and Haydn.

Nain brass band

© Dennis Minty

The Nain brass band greets arriving guests.

Likewise, the modern Inuttut dialect is inflected with German, including the days of the week and numbers, such as suvai (zwei) and tarai (drei). Many Inuit, too, bear Germanic names, not least of whom being the current president of the Nunatsiavut government, Johannes Lampe.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.