An obscure book about Greenland and Missions Historiography

cranz image 2
Illustration from Cranz’s German edition

I doubt you’ve heard of David Cranz’s two volume History of Greenland, first published in German in 1765. But its obscurity may be masking its significant for understanding early 19th century interest in Protestant missions. Cranz was an important Moravian historian who traveled to Greenland to chronicle the story of the Moravian mission, which had been started there in 1733 He kept notes and records and upon his return to Germany, published it in two volumes. More than a story of Protestant missions, it is one of the first ethnographic studies of Greenland and the Inuit people. Several historians, including myself, are writing chapters for a forthcoming book about the reception and importance of Cranz’s history. One of the editors is Felecity Jensz, who has already written quite a bit on this subject and is responsible for this small revival in interest about Cranz. In a nutshell, Cranz’s history was translated into multiple languages, reprinted several times, and entered the corpus of source materials for studying native cultures. It helped to inspire poems and romanticized notions of Greenland’s icy wilderness as well as arctic exploration. Captain Cook carried a copy of it on his sailing expeditions and Henry David Thoreau opined about the Inuit after reading Cranz.

My interest in Cranz is part of my ongoing research on how Moravians were received in North America and how missionary accounts served to influence American opinions about the Moravians. The early decades of the 19th century were formative for the development of missionary literature. (I also wrote about this here.) Comprised of stories and news accounts of the “progress” of Protestant missions throughout the world, this genre became a staple part of evangelical reading habits. Such literature offered American evangelicals an expansive view of what exotic places across the globe were like, inspirational devotional material based on the heroic and sacrificial lives of missionaries, and educational stories about geography and world religions, albeit it through a particular lens.

I argue that this literature was crucial for shaping evangelical perceptions of the Moravians. Channeled through Cranz’s account, the Moravian mission to Greenland became a stock link in missions history as told by American Protestants. It also catapulted the Moravians into the pantheon of missionaries venerated by evangelicals.

(We must remember that Moravians were regarded as dangerous heretics in the 18th century during the Great Awakening. Famous Presbyterian revivalists such as Gilbert Tennent preached against the Moravians and a cottage industry of anti-Moravian pamphlets churned through colonial presses.)

Interestingly, one of the first publishing houses to carry stories about the Greenland

Greenland mission ss union title page
Title page from one of four Sunday School books about Moravian missions

mission (based on Cranz), was the American Sunday Sunday School Union. In the 1820s and 1830s the Union published four little children’s books designed to teach American children about the exotic land of Greenland, prod them to consider the heroics of Moravian missions, and challenge them to serve God with similar devotion. Even the Presbyterians forgot about Moravian heresies and began publishing books extolling the glories of the Moravian movement! The irony here is profound.

If this interests you, be watching for this new book, which should be out in the coming months. It is provisionally titled, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains: David Cranz’s 1765 “Historie von Grönland” and the construction of Knowledge about Greenland.”

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