Moravian Missions in Labrador

The first permanent mission in Labrador was founded in 1771 at Nain, on the northern coast, by the Moravian Brethren, a protestant sect from Saxony.

Moravian Church
Moravian Church, Nain, NL (2012). This is a cultural heritage site in Canada, number 15662 in the Canadian Register of Historic Places.\r\n
Moravian MIssion
The mission at Hebron, Labrador, around 1860. Drawing by Moravian Bishop Levin Theodor Reichel (1812-1878).\r\n\r\n

The first permanent mission in Labrador was founded in 1771 at Nain, on the northern coast, by the Moravian Brethren, a protestant sect from Saxony. Additional settlements to the north and south soon were established and by the early 19th century the conversion of the local Inuit was essentially complete.

As in other Moravian missions, (the first North American ones arrived in Savannah, Georgia 1735), music was central to both worship and community life. The Inuit were taught in their own language, and instruction included the singing of chorales (of which some 200, in the original German, have been preserved in manuscript at Nain). Chorale texts were used for practice in reading and writing. At weekly 'singing meetings,' an Inuit equivalent of Zinzendorf's Singstunde, a Bible lesson was contemplated solely through the singing of related hymn verses. A harmonium was brought to Nain in 1828 and string and brass instruments soon followed.

The Inuit eventually began teaching each other and, with the reduction of missionary influence in the 20th century, have taken control of the musical tradition. In the mid-1970s the musical establishment at Nain consisted of six string players, two organists, a five-piece brass band (which appeared in the 1973 NFB film Labrador North), and a mixed choir of 10 to 15 voices. The choir has performed in St John's, Nfld, and in 1971 it issued a recording (Marathon MS 2104) to commemorate the bicentenary of the Moravian missions. A seven-inch LP - Nain Eskimo Choir (Condor C 97191) - was inserted in the Winter 1977 issue of the periodical Inuttituut.

On important liturgical occasions the band parades outdoors, its instruments wrapped in cotton duffle. At church services the choir leads in the singing of chorales and performs a liturgically prescribed repertoire of anthems drawn from Inuit translations of 18th- and 19th- century German church music, including Mozart's Ave Verum and Haydn's The Heaven's Are Telling. Pöschelib's 1872 text of German folksongs with Inuit language translations may have been compiled for the these missions. The string players sit behind the choir, usually doubling the voices but in some anthems playing independent parts. As there is no conductor and no formal rehearsal the organist simply begins and the others join in spontaneously. This unique ritual has been passed orally from one generation to the next and in 1990 continued in Nain and neighbouring Hopedale and Makkovik.

Further Reading

  • The Moravians in Labrador (Edinburgh 1833)

    History of the Mission of the Church of the United Brethren in Labrador for the Past Hundred Years (London 1871)

    Pöschelib, E. Imgerutsit nôtiggit. Hundert eskimoische Lieder. freie übersetzungen und nachbildungen deutscher volksgesänge (Leipzig 1872)

    Hamilton, J.T., and Hamilton, K.G. History of the Moravian Church: the Renewed Unitas Fratrum: 1722-1957 (Winston-Salem 1967)

    'Eskimoes using 100-year-old manuscripts,' University Affairs, May 1974