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What One Church Did for Missions - The Story of Hermannsburg

Mary S. Daniels, B. A.

It was an obscure church in an obscure parish. Worse than obscure, it was lifeless and indifferent. A seemingly more unpromising soil in which to cast the seed of missionary zeal could scarcely have been found than this of Hermannsburg.

Where is Hermannsburg, does anyone ask? Among the lowlying lands of the German Empire, north and a little to the east of Hanover, stretches, in undulating lines of glorious purple bloom, the Luneburger Heath. Its sparse population of peasants and humble yeomen is scattered among the small hamlets and occasional picturesque villages, which, with little hills and clustering woods, relieve here and there the monotony of unbroken heath. One of these villages is Hermannsburg. Like many another, it consists of scarcely more than one rambling street of roomy, homely cottages, each surmounted at the gables by the old Saxon horse, fashioned in wood. A little river divides it into two parts, and it is surrounded by stately trees. The most conspicuous object in the village is the wooden spire of the church.

As the Luneburger Heath, glowing with rich effects of colour, light and shade, has a certain, picturesque beauty distinguishing it from the dull uniformity of the surrounding country, so its inhabitants possess a distinct character, differing somewhat from that of the neighbouring German peoples. The Rev. W. F. Stevenson, who has been at some pains to acquaint himself with the history of Hermannsburg, writes: "They have a sturdy, independent, self-reliant spirit; a very marked family, as distinguished from the common continental social, life; much of the primitive English strength and honesty; and a local attachment as powerful as that of a Highlander or a Swiss."

Yet Hermannsburg was not a place in which to look for missionary enthusiasm. The people of Hanover have never been characterized by much spiritual vitality, and though not swallowed up by the rationalism so prevalent in Germany, they became dominated by a frigid and formal orthodoxy scarcely less deadly in its effects. The conditions in the church itself were such as are most discouraging to an earnest evangelical pastor.

But what conditions are hopeless while God is God? Within the short space of twelve years, beginning in 1848, Hermannsburg,—little, lifeless, unpromising Hermannsburg,—was completely regenerated and had become a radiant centre of spiritual energy. So great was the change in the village itself that at the end of that time its inhabitants had become almost as one Christian family. In all Hermannsburg there was not a house without daily morning and evening prayers; absence from church on Sunday or at week-day services, except in case of illness, was unknown; drunkenness and poverty did not exist; the very labourers had prayer about their work, and hymns of the church rang from the fields and gardens instead of the popular ballads in vogue elsewhere.

Every such reformation, whether great or small, is to be traced to the efforts of some single earnest soul, and the name which is forever associated with all that is bright in the career of Hermannsburg is that of the village pastor, Louis Harms. Of his life and personality some slight knowledge is essential to an understanding of our subject. Son of a former pastor, and thus endeared to the people by all those ties of respect and affection which are cemented when, as not seldom occurs in Germany, a pastorate continues in a family from generation to generation, he came first to assist his father in the parish in 1846. On the father's death, two years later, he became his successor.

A man of uncommon endowments, as well as of exceptional energy and activity, was Louis Harms. With the temperament that makes a scholar he combined the strength, independence and profound local attachment so characteristic of his fellow Luneburger. Even in boyhood, when his delight was to wander over the heath with the "Germania" of Tacitus as his favourite companion, localizing the ancient descriptions and uniting past and present in his eager mind, this combination was manifest. It was the same which in later years led him to employ all his powers, developed by the university career, so congenial to one of his tastes and intellectuality, in work among the peasantry of his own native heath.

But what inspired his best endeavour, brought him his supreme success, and made him the power that he became, was neither his intellectual gifts nor his natural temperament, valuable aids though these were. It was rather his close relation to God, his absolute and earnest faith, the intensity and reality of his spiritual life, and his undivided consecration. These led the man of culture and scholarly tastes to identify himself with the ignorant and stolid peasants, to devote his life to the uplifting and betterment of theirs, to lead them out of a careless and formal religious life into a rich and joyous spirituality which transformed not only their individual lives but the very character of the community.

This in itself was a wondrous achievement, but it was not, could not be, all. The little church at Hermannsburg, quickened and vivified, growing in spirituality and Christian experience, had become indeed fertile soil. When a mission among the heathen was suggested the seed germinated with singular rapidity. But these were simple, uninstructed people. They knew little or nothing of organizations, nor had they money out of which to contribute to the funds of a missionary society. They would go themselves to the heathen, “Wherever it might please God to show them the greatest need." As early as 1849 twelve persons offered themselves as missionaries.

But “he that believeth shall not make haste." Pastor Harms would not check their zeal, but he knew better than themselves that these untaught peasants with all their earnestness were not then fitted to enter upon the work toward which their hearts yearned. He procured a house in which they might receive the needed training, and laid out a four years' course of study. This course included Introduction to the Old and New Testaments, Exposition and Doctrine, History of the Church, History of Missions, Sermonizing and Teaching. With it was combined a certain amount of daily labour, thought necessary for maintaining good health and making the candidates in part self-supporting, as well as for keeping them truly humble in spirit. What wonder if such requirements had discouraged these simple peasant men? So they would have done, had their conviction been less real, their devotion less complete. But as Stevenson remarks, “Men who came forward out of living faith, and were met by a spirit as devout and practical as this, were likely to make good missionaries."

Their inexperience and their enthusiasm are alike shown in their choice of a mission field. This was among the Gallas on the east coast of Africa, north of the Zanzibar. An odd choice, surely, but they would go where no mission had ever before been attempted. The Gallas are described as a fierce, strong race, difficult of access, robbers and murderers by profession. One of themselves is quoted as saying, “We Gallas are men, it is true, but we are not human."

After the candidates for service had been a year or two in training, their number was increased by the addition of some recent converts in the German navy. They were eager to throw their influence against the slave-trade, and, having heard of the project of the Hermannsburg church, applied to Pastor Harms for permission to join his little body. The accession of these young sailors, at a time when plans were not yet crystallized, determined the character of the mission, namely, colonization. This also greatly enlarged the scope of the work, for sixty men and women without special missionary gifts now offered themselves as settlers. Of these, however, only eight were at first chosen. But the preparation was tedious, and gradually all of the sailors save two relinquished the scheme. Yet some good results of their connection with it continued, for Harms, so far from being discouraged by their loss, wrote: "Without these sailors we never would have been colonists; for we honest but somewhat stupid heath people would never have dreamed of sending any but real missionaries."

As the time of probation and training came to an end, a new difficulty arose. Money would be required for sending all these persons to Africa. Whence was it to come? But the inflexible purpose and unwavering faith of Harms were not to be baffled. "Then," said he, "I knocked diligently on the dear God in prayer." And as, to quote his own words again, “the man of prayer dare not sit with his hands in his lap," he applied here and there to shipping agents, bishops and missionary bodies for aid and transport. All was without success.

Finally one of the remaining sailors suggested that they build their own ship—a suggestion which Harms after a great spiritual conflict accepted. Every energy was now strained that money might be raised to pay for the ship, which was immediately begun at Harburg. At Hermannsburg, also, work went on unceasingly for the ship—their ship. So busy were the carpenters, smiths, tailors and shoemakers, that no one could get any work done for any other purpose. "A water-butt or a suit of clothes were not to be had at any price," we are told; “while the women and girls knitted with a rapidity that was marvelous. The farmers came in with loads of buckwheat and rye. The orchards were stripped. Pigs and hens accumulated to the proportions of an agricultural show. The very heath was bared for besoms. Nor did a Christmas tree fail, but one was carefully planted in a huge tub to be in readiness against crossing the line."

At last all was ready. The ship was completed, captain and crew chosen, cargo stored. The mission pupils, of whom eight now remained, had honourably passed their examination and been ordained by the Consistory of Hanover. The colonists, among whom were two smiths, a tailor, a butcher, a dyer, and three labourers, had been gotten ready, and Hermannburg's day of triumph had come. A farewell service was held in the church, thronged within and without by people of the neighbourhood. On the next day Pastor Harms, with several hundreds of his parishioners, went by special train to Harburg, and by a simple religious service on board the Candace dedicated it to the service of God.

There is a pretty description of "the long train of wagons winding through the pleasant street of Hermannsburg in the early morning, and bearing off all the good things the good people have packed up, while the villagers keep pace for a little over the heath, singing their favourite hymns."

At Harburg, “the service on board was a novelty that took the irreligious folk of that city by surprise when they first marked the line of country folk filing through their streets and making for the harbor, the pastor at their head." Last of all the faithful pastor preached a sermon to all on board, which is said, in the affectionateness and plainness of its exhortations and warnings, in the practical turn of every doctrine, and in the solemnity of its charge, to have carried it hearers back to apostolic times. Such was the departure of the Candace. All through the voyage regular religious services were held on board, study was continued, and the crafts of the colonists were diligently plied.

It was on the 28th .of October, 1853, that the Candace weighed anchor. Eighty days later she rounded Cape Horn and, sailing to Natal, began the quest of the Gallas. From the time of leaving Port Natal disappointments and discouragements followed one another in quick succession. Storms, contrary winds, treachery, suspicion, were some of the obstacles they encountered, until at last, reluctantly and with heavy hearts, they returned to Natal, having failed in every attempt to obtain admission to African territory, or to penetrate to a place where they could make a settlement. At Natal they were again disappointed. The Governor, to whom they confidently applied for permission to settle upon government lands in that district, refused to allow them an inch of ground. Their letters of recommendation from the English Government, with which they had had the prudence to provide themselves, availed them nothing, and they were warned that the sooner they left the country the better for themselves. Only long afterward, when it was learned that the captain of the Candace had played them false and told the Governor that they were a party of dangerous revolutionists, was this incomprehensible conduct explained.

Two courses only were now left open to them —either to place themselves under the Bishop of Natal, which they had sufficient reasons for being unwilling to do, or to purchase land upon which to found their colony. Though hard-pressed they were still strong in faith and unwilling to give up their cherished scheme. At length they bought for £630 a tract of 6,018 acres. The colony was not, as they had hoped it would be, among the Gallas, but it was well situated for a mission centre, and there was the possibility that they might yet win their way northward to that fierce people. Within the Natal Colony were 100,000 or more Zulu Kaffirs. Around them were the most important tribes of South Africa, including Zulus, Matabele and Bechuanas. Close at hand were more than a score of Germans who had been sent out to grow sugar cane and cotton, and who, though a missionary from Berlin was stationed among them, were in almost as benighted a condition as the savages themselves.

But difficulties in the way of these devoted peasant missionaries scarcely seemed to lessen, even after the purchase of their territory. Dwellings had to be built and rebuilt; land was to be cleared and cultivated; shelter and food must be provided for twenty-one persons. The resources and energies of every man were taxed to the utmost. But though money was scarce, and two or more trades had to be combined in the practice of several of the colonists, their efforts met with striking success. The most formidable undertaking of all was the mastering of the Kaffir language. For they never lost sight of the original purpose of the colony and were eager for direct work among the natives. Their teacher, when they had any, was Posselt, the Berlin missionary before mentioned. He, writing to the pastor at Hermannsburg, says: "I have seen them struggling with these clicks and clacks till their eyes turned round in their heads. It is a hard nut for them to crack! but they are indefatigable, and they never flinch; real martyrs in the cause."

Is not this zeal heroic in the simple heath peasants, many of them no longer young, and more used, as one says, to a spade than a grammar? Would it have been surprising had they given up their endeavour and turned to the seemingly easier work of converting and uplifting those of their own nationality around them?

We can barely outline the work which they successfully carried on. A range of substantial buildings, 120 feet long by forty wide, named affectionately New Hermannsburg, became the mission centre; land was cleared and tilled around it; other houses and Kaffir huts rose here and there near by; and a school was organized which the Kaffir children were urged to attend. The influence of the colony on the white families near was as marked as on the blacks, and the change in them such as to recall the blessed days in old Hermannsburg. The excellent character of the mission became so apparent that additional grants of English government land were made to the settlement.

The Luneburger retained ever much of their simplicity of mind and spirit. Their astonishment and horror at the customs of the heathen were inexpressible and scarcely grew less. “We are often," said one of them, "filled with such nausea and loathing that we could run away if it were not that love and pity withhold us." But they did not run away nor shrink from challenging any evil. New stations were formed, and the purpose to reach the Gallas in God's good time was kept ever before them.

Observe what the faith and consecrated effort of a few German rustics accomplished within eight short years. In the colony at Natal were three mission stations and fifty baptized converts; among the Bechuanas three stations with forty-five baptized; and among the Zulus two stations and fifteen baptized. These stations embraced 40,000 acres of land. Dwellings and workshops had been erected at each.

From this statement it will be inferred that the work at Hermannsburg did not end with the launching of the Candace in 1853. Hardly was the excitement of that departure past when twelve new candidates presented themselves for admission to the training-house, and the work was recommenced. A new department was added by the starting of the Hermannsburger Missionblatt, a monthly magazine, edited and published by Pastor Harms, after much solicitation and by a great exercise of faith. The decided individuality which Harms infused into this sheet made it to differ widely from all other missionary periodicals. The same had perhaps much to do also with its remarkable circulation, which within five years had increased until it equaled that of the most important newspaper of North Germany, the Kidnische Zeitung.

This journal not only kept Hermannsburg and its mission in warm touch, as it was designed to do, but soon became a very considerable source of income. Such was its success that it suggested the desirability of a Hermannsburg printing press, which was thereupon set up. Not only was greater convenience secured, but also the missionaries were thus enabled to learn typesetting, and the printer's art was added to the crafts practiced by them. Its value in their labours among the heathen cannot be questioned.

In 1855 the Candace returned, and in the spring of the following year a second voyage was undertaken, when a tailor, a smith, a shoemaker, a wheelwright and a tanner went out as colonists, accompanied by brides of four of the missionaries. The next year, 1857, forty-four persons left their native village for the New Hermannsburg. Among these were the twelve new missionaries who bad now been ordained by the Consistory. At the ordination of these were present the King and Queen of Hanover, who showed the deepest interest in the missionaries, sent for them to the palace, conversed with them individually, and promised to remember them in prayer.

Immediately after the departure of the twelve missionaries twenty-one young men entered upon the next course of training. By this time additions had to be made to the house, which was proving far too small for the increasing missionary family.

In the meantime a new burden had begun to press upon the soul of the pastor. Foreign and home missionary work cannot be separated. The attention of Harms had been drawn to the awful and peculiar dangers surrounding convicts on their release from the prisons—dangers both to their own souls and thus inevitably to society. He now decided to connect with the mission a refuge for discharged convicts. The people entered into his plans, and a farm was purchased where these men could be received and provided with employment, removed alike from the repulses of respectable society and from their old evil associations. Harms, with his peculiar insight, perceived the mutual advantage that would result from this relation between the ex-convicts and the future missionaries.

Thus, gradually, the parish and mission-work of Hermannsburg began and grew. As the years went by larger and larger detachments of missionaries and colonists were carried to Africa, and these, almost without exception, from among the peasantry and yeomanry of the Heath. One important addition was made, in the person of Hardeland, the Bornese missionary, who joined the Hermannsburg band at a time when an experienced and able man was imperatively needed to superintend the African missions. To meet this need Hardeland seemed to have been specially sent, and he accepted the responsibility which he afterward most successfully bore.

The Luneburger have always had a way of their own of doing everything. Early in the history of their mission they established the Missionary Festival, to be held for two days each year, in the month of June, an occasion when Hermannsburg was crowded to overflowing with people from all the country round. Stevenson,, who has already been so freely quoted, says of this Feisty:

"It is a middle point for the Misson interest; the point of attraction for strangers, the ecclesiastical date for the country round. The children divide their affections between it and Christmas. It represents the picturesque side of Heath life, and the joyousness of Christian feeling. . . The day before is marked by a not unnatural commotion in the village, for along every road and bridle path, and over the moor where there is no path at all, the strangers are dropping in, in wagons or carts, or on horseback, or most of them on foot. Every corner is full; the haylofts are crowded with guests; a barn, an out-house, a lobby, anywhere that there is shelter, there is room and content. The majority are peasants. Students drop in from Gottingon; perhaps there is a famous preacher from Berlin; a hot Lutheran finds that his next bedfellow in the hayloft is a leader of the Reformed; a genial pietist from Wurtemberg is sitting beside a dry orthodox divine from Pomerania. They cannot help it. Harms attracts them all; and they have literally no room to display their differences. The next morning all is hushed till the bell rings for prayer. Then forth from every house there bursts a peal of morning psalms, and up on the hill before their doors the mission students blow chorals on their long trumpets."

Service is held at ten o'clock in the church, and again in the afternoon. This is on the first day; on the second occurs the “march of the pilgrims." A procession is formed in the morning, and moves over the heath to a spot chosen in some neighbouring parish. Some go in waggons, many more on foot; all are in holiday dress and holiday spirits. When their destination is reached an open-air service is held, with a sermon from some rock serving as pulpit, much singing, and the reading of extracts from missionary letters. Some time is given for picnicking, and in the summer twilight the weary, happy multitude returns to Hermannsburg.

We have told the beginning, only the beginning, of what one church did for missions. It is almost, if not quite, a unique history, this of what one little German congregation accomplished. The very simplicity and directness of its methods, which the wiser minds of our generation would call chimerical and unpractical, tended to success. And when success is achieved we must honour and admire.

Louis Harms, with his remarkable personality, his vital faith, his constant and conscious communion with God, and his strong self-reliance, was without doubt the moving spirit in all. But back of all was the Divine power, working alike in pastor and people, as it will do in any who yield themselves in whole-hearted consecration as did these. So near did the Hermannsburger live to God that their simple minds were untroubled by many of the considerations so grievous to those who know the world better than they know Him who made it. About money, the lack of which seems inevitably to cripple so many good enterprises, they concerned themselves only so far as to seek the assurance that their purpose was a right one, to work diligently, and to place their need in God's hands. We are slow to accept and believe in such special providences, but explain it as we will, the fact is, that without solicitation or begging of any kind, which was never tolerated by Harms, the income of the Hermannsburg Mission was each year greater than its expenditure, and that it came often from most unexpected sources by what, if not direct answers to prayer, were most striking coincidences. Further, these coincidences, if such they were, with absolute and invariable regularity followed special petitions for aid.

But the present paper is not a homily, a defense, an exposition, or an exhortation. It is simply the story of “What One Church Did For Missions."

Moulton College, 

Toronto, Canada


Taken from the Methodist Magazine, Vol. 40, 1890, p. 350


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