S. John Life: Religious Tolerance on St. John & the Virgin Islands

The world today seems full of  tension. People of different religion, skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and even ideas and philosophies just can’t seem to get along. Violence in the Middle East has begun to spill over to Europe and so it goes.

Although people don’t get along perfectly here either, I’d venture to guess that it’s a lot better on St. John than in 99% of the places where people live together on the planet, offering some sort of evidence that the toleration of differences among human beings is at least possible.

For example, here on St. John, we have Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in peace, utilizing one another’s businesses and services. Blacks and white also seem to get along reasonably well as do those of all the various religious persuasions, ethnic groups and various nationalities who have made St. John their home.

In fact, the Virgin Islands has a history of religious tolerance as well as a history of a certain degree of racial acceptance.

In order to attract settlers to what was then called the Danish West Indies, religious freedom was granted to newcomers to the islands. Over the years there have been Jewish, mixed race and black governors. Citizens of mixed race and freed slaves have been allowed to advance socially, economically and politically, and the Danish West Indies was one of the first Caribbean Islands to mandate compulsory education for all children, both free and enslaved.

A Short History of Religious Tolerance in the Virgin Islands
Excerpted from the book St. Thomas USVI

European style religion arrived on St. Thomas with the first settlers. In 1666, the Lutheran Pastor, Kjeld Jensen Slagelse, who had run afoul of church authorities in Denmark, left with the first expedition to St. Thomas. He ministered to a congregation of some 100 parishioners approximately half of which were Danish Lutherans. He also served as governor of the settlement when the original governor died.

This first expedition ended in failure due to high mortality from disease, hunger and raids by buccaneers who stole a ship and much of the settlers supplies and  Pastor Slagelse along with other survivors sailed back to Denmark.

Pastor Slagelse joined the next expedition to St. Thomas in 1671, but died aboard the ship before reaching the island. He was succeeded by another minister who also died shortly after taking over the position. The third minister had to be sent back to Denmark for drunkenness. (The matter was turned over to the Danish courts where the minister argued that his drunken states were the result of the poor quality of rum, a white, unrefined, high alcohol content concoction known a “kill devil,” produced on the island.)

In fact the life expectancy of Lutheran ministers, as well as for many of the other colonists, was quite short. During the first 100 years that the Lutheran Church conducted services on St. Thomas, there were 31 different ministers.

The settlers, who well aware of the necessity to protect themselves from pirate attacks, quickly began construction of a fort. Church services were held in the courtyard of the fort and all colonists were required to attend services regardless of religious affiliation.

This condition of religious intolerance was short lived on St. Thomas. Early explorers and settlers sent back tales of extreme hardship and rampant disease, and the Danes, who were generally comfortable at home, showed little interest in settling the new territories. Even an attempt to bring prisoners, promising freedom after six years labor, was met with riots, mutinies and other forms of resistance. As a result, the Danish government and its representative in the colonies, the Danish West India Company, resorted to inviting foreigners to settle the islands.

One of these incentives used to lure foreigners to St. Thomas was the prospect of freedom of religion.

The majority of these foreign settlers were Dutch. The African slaves working on the plantations were taught to speak a Dutch Creole, called Creolsk, and this became the common language of St. Thomas and St. John.

Cooperation and religious tolerance began early with the Dutch being able to use the Lutheran Church inside the fort to conduct services until they were able to build their own church. The Lutherans held services in the mornings and the Dutch in the afternoons. (In 1806-1812 the Dutch Reformed Church was permitted to hold services on alternate Sunday’s and again between 1827 and 1846 during the construction of the Reformed Church.)

By 1675 the Dutch and French Reformed Churches had built churches just to the east of the fort. In 1685, Jews and  Catholics were granted freedom of religion and in the early 1700s Anglican Church was set up to serve English settlers. And in 1736, the Moravian Church established a slave mission on the island.

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