Rebecca Freundlich Protten (1718-80) is viewed as an anomaly of sorts and a pioneer for her work in evangelizing and caring for enslaved Africans under the Moravian Church in the West Indies during the 18th century.
It is suspected that Protten had been kidnapped as a child from Antigua and sold into slavery on the island of St. Thomas, a Danish colony at the time.
A biracial woman of African and European ancestry, Protten was exposed to Christianity by her Dutch Reformed master. She was later freed at the age of 12, after his death, according to Jon F. Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, the only extended account of Protten’s life and work.
Protten became convinced, after an encounter with God at an early age, that her mission in life was to spread the gospel, particularly to those enslaved on the island. Out of that conviction, and perhaps to have a bit of mobility that was rare for women and Blacks at the time, Protten began preaching as a member of the Moravian Church. Through her work on the island, Protten helped establish one of the earliest African Protestant churches in the Americas.
Protten ministered to those in bondage under the wary eye of Dutch planters who worried about unfiltered Christian messages inspiring rebellion among their slaves. Although enslaved women, further victimized by being raped by their masters, turned to Protten for support, some resented her freedom, according to Sensbach.
Protten, said to be fluent in at least three languages, traveled from St. Thomas to Germany with her husband, a White European missionary, after their unconventional, interracial marriage was called into question by church authorities. Protten, about 24 when she arrived, lived in Germany for nearly two decades. She remained active in the faith community there after her husband’s death. It was during this time that Protten was ordained as a deaconess, becoming one of the earliest Black women church leaders and also one who oversaw White women in ministry.
Having lost two children during their childhood, Protten spent another 17 years teaching children in the Gold Coast, in the West African nation of Ghana. The Gold Coast Dutch city of Christiansborg where Protten and her biracial African-born husband settled, was located in Accra. The Ghanaian capital was a central port city and site of brutality during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Widowed a second time, Protten continued teaching at the school she and her husband founded for biracial children until her death.
“Protten’s eventful life—the recruiting of converts, an interracial marriage, a trial on charges of blasphemy and inciting of slaves, travels to Germany and West Africa—placed her on the cusp of an emerging international Afro-Atlantic evangelicalism,” according to Sensbach.