State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 71 Autumn 2003


John Astley (1730?-1787). Portrait of Benjamin La Trobe. Oil. Collection: John Henry de La Trobe, Hamburg.


John Mason
Benjamin and Christian Ignatius La Trobe in the Moravian Church

Benjamin And Christian Ignatius La Trobe, the grandfather and father of Charles Joseph, were prominent ministers in the British province of the Moravian Church. Known also as the Unitas Fratrum, the Moravian Church was — and is — an international Evangelical-Protestant Church, which nearly was extinguished during the wars and religious persecutions that followed the Reformation. However, a glimmer of life survived. The revival in Germany during the 1720s of this ancient Church, the members of which became known in the English-speaking world as Moravians, inspired a prolonged period of vigorous, evangelistic endeavour under the leadership of Count von Zinzendorf, a man of extraordinary religious insight. Despite their name, the majority of Moravians were in fact German, like the Count himself, and they attracted followers from among Christians in other nations. Settlements (Christian communities) were founded, in the British Isles, for instance, and missions launched in some colonies. By the end of the eighteenth century, Moravians, though few in number, were renowned for both their settlements and their missionary zeal among the heathen overseas. After Zinzendorf's death in 1760 the Church worldwide was directed from Germany by Elders. With the expanding British world assuming ever-greater importance, the Church needed to be well represented in Britain.
In due course, Benjamin and later Christian Ignatius represented the Church in Britain, where it gained an influential reputation as the missionary church. They both dedicated their lives to its service, but, being personable and capable men, they moved easily among Christians in other denominations and within the corridors of power. This is relevant background to the official positions that Charles Joseph finally achieved; and his family and the Moravian brethren, amongst whom he was raised, are highly germane to the making of the man. It is for this reason that this short biographical essay concentrates on his two immediate male forebears and, through them, the Church.
Benjamin and Christian Ignatius (hereinafter Ignatius for the sake of simplicity) signed their surname at different times in different ways, quite frequently making it into one word. The form used in this essay is that adopted later by the British branch of the family.,

Benjamin La Trobe (1728-86)

‘The great opinion he has of himself made us doubtful about him. His name is La Throbe’, Moravians in London cautiously noted in July 1746, when they first heard from Benjamin La Trobe. He had written from Dublin. He was eighteen years old,
anxious to come to England in order to learn from them and finally to return to Ireland, where he was ‘persuaded my Master [the Lord Jesus] has work for me … but not yet.’ Benjamin was to find his life's work in a wider field. By the time of his death in 1786 he had become the much loved and widely respected leader of Moravians in Britain. He was the first, but by no means the last, La Trobe to join the Moravian Church.
Born in April 1728, Benjamin was the son of a sailcloth-maker and merchant in Dublin. The family were pious Baptists, he was brought up ‘intended for the Ministry’, and in 1743 matriculated at Glasgow University. On his return to Ireland, a ‘rationalist spirit’ emanating from Scotland and doctrinal disputes between Protestants caused him ‘much uneasiness'. He found ideas more in keeping with his own spiritual development when he met John Cennick, the great evangelistic preacher, and they spent three tumultuous months together evangelising. Cennick, in a letter of commendation to the Moravians, noted in particular the young man's precocious ability to attract and hold large crowds. Eventually, Benjamin was invited by the ever-cautious Moravians to visit them in London; and in 1748 he went on to Germany where he was received into the Church and ordained.
Years of almost constant travel throughout the British Isles, visits to the Elders of the Church in Germany, and increasing responsibility lay ahead. From 1750 until 1768 Benjamin held a series of positions mainly at Fulneck, the great Moravian settlement in Yorkshire. In 1756 he was called ‘into the married state his office … requiring it.’ The choice of Anna Margaretta Antes for Benjamin (Benny to his intimates) would have been weighed carefully by the Elders. Choice of partner was of crucial importance for ministers of the Church whose wives, like Anna, usually were working partners with their husbands. She came from a distinguished family: the establishment of the Moravian Church in North America owes much to her influential father in Pennsylvania; and she, herself, seems to have been an able person. This arranged marriage took place in Germany.
On 12 February 1758 the first of the couple's five children, a son, was born at Fulneck and christened Christian Ignatius. To a great extent, the future of the Church depended on succeeding generations, so children were brought up and educated as Moravians. The settlement included a school where Benjamin took steps to ensure that the standard of education was improved: the scope or the curriculum was enlarged and masters recruited from Germany. In his own case, all three of his sons began their schooling at Fulneck, but from their early teens received further education in Germany. Benjamin hoped that they would enter the ministry.
There can be no doubt that these exceptionally bright and lively children did receive a fine education, but they saw very little indeed of their parents, and only Ignatius remained a member of the Church. Children born of Moravians could not all reasonably be expected to share, as a matter of course, their parents’ faith and dedication; moreover, the Church controlled the life of its members. These problems for succeeding generations are illustrated, further, by the fact that, of Ignatius's four sons, only one, Peter (also the eldest), remained as an adult in the Church.
In 1768 when Benjamin was appointed leader of the British province he and Anna moved to London, where the provincial headquarters were situated. The first 10 years were to be the most arduous and his powers of leadership were tested to the full. A notable achievement was the establishment of a new settlement, that expression of the Moravian ideal of a Christian community and fellowship. This settlement, known as Fairfield, is in Lancashire, near to where John Astley, the fashionable painter, was living. In Astley's portrait of Benjamin the Moravian has the appearance of being tall and broad shouldered. The books before him are not only symbols relevant to his calling: Benjamin was studious and he introduced Moravian publications to the British. There is much evidence, also, that he was a man of some presence, naturally able to take control of events. For instance, the manner in which he once calmly pacified a drunken mob at the gates of Fulneck seems typical of him.
Benjamin was responsible for representing the Church and its missions to the British. He was assisted in this by a warm personality and his manifest abilities — as preacher most especially. He also made friends for the Moravians with other Christians and from all walks of life. That Dr Samuel Johnson, who greatly feared death, sought him out is but an example of those many people who turned to him for assistance.
By the time of Benjamin's own death the attitude of the British establishment towards the Moravians, which earlier had been so negative and even hostile, was becoming positive and benign. His contribution to this important change for the better was acknowledged in the obituary (placed not by a Moravian) published in a leading London newspaper. This stated that he had been ‘indefatigable … in promoting the laudable purpose’ of his Church ‘at home and abroad’, and that he had ‘firmly’ restored its reputation; also: ‘The goodness of his heart and the affability of his disposition, endeared him to all his connexions.’ However much all this was justified, Benjamin, himself, would not have allowed any testimonial whatsoever to appear, ‘for he thought it wrong to give praise to any man, when the whole was due to God'.
He was a persuasive preacher, receiving many invitations to preach in chapels of other denominations. His natural eloquence, it was said, which had been ‘improved by study … flowed with ease … full of fine imagery'. The Reverend John Newton, the Anglican clergyman who befriended the poet Cowper and wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, was amongst Benjamin's more intimate acquaintances. His connections with the great and good — with, for example, Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, and with Captain Sir Charles Middleton, later Lord Barham, the great naval reformer — proved to be of immense significance for Ignatius and the Moravians. The Bishop never lost his admiration for their missions; and the pious Middleton and his lady were at the centre of an evangelical circle which later included William Wilberforce.
In the summer of 1786 Benjamin was taken mortally ill while on a visit to Middleton in the country, but it was not until November that he could be moved to
his house adjoining the Moravian chapel in the city of London. Later that month he died, aged 57. A large crowd attended the funeral, and after the ceremony his instructions ‘Touching my burial’ were read. This revealing document, written many years earlier, is in fact a testament of faith which, in the same context, explains why the family did not appear in mourning. The document reads:
I earnestly request my executors, that my corpse may be interred in as simple a manner as possible, without any parade or any thing that is contrary to our old [Moravian] Congregation rule & order.
I trust in the faithfulness of my dearest Redeemer, that poor & worthless as I am, whenever I shall leave this my mortal body, with which I write these lines according to the dictates of a heart sensible of his love, I shall join in the Songs of the blessed to the praise of redeeming love & blood & this my poor body will be raised like my Saviour's body. Therefore I request, that there may be none of the Signs of dismal & dark mourning at my burial. Nor let my family go into mourning, but tho’ they may weep for a friend, let them rejoice that that friend is promoted to the highest pitch of honor & happiness.
O that all my Brn. [Brethren] & Srs. [Sisters] were wise & above a Conformity to the world.
B La Trobe
Chelsea, June 13th 1775.
But let John Newton, in a letter to an intimate friend, have the last word:
Mr. La Trobe dead! Surely not. Why he was a great man, a useful man, Oh! how he will be missed.

Christian Ignatius La Trobe (1758-1836)

Christian Ignatius La Trobe was first and foremost a Christian who was to serve his Saviour mainly by promoting the interests in Britain of the Moravian Church and, above all, the cause of its foreign missions. However, that this would become his vocation was by no means certain until after he reached the age of 30. Acting largely on his own initiative, he created what proved to be an invaluable position and one in which he, himself, was comfortable.
Ignatius was a Moravian by upbringing and by training. Music was to play a large part in his life and it was a cause of his religious awakening. This began at school in Fulneck when, as a child of six, he became enchanted by the choir's singing of hymns. At thirteen, he entered the Moravian high school in Germany, going on to complete his education at the Church's seminary, also in that country. He did not return to England until he was 27.
The quality of education in Germany was of the first order, and individual talents were encouraged. Ignatius received ‘excellent musical instruction’ and he was introduced to ‘works of some great masters'. His understanding of Christian doctrine and his own spiritual growth developed partly through the training that he received
as an organist, learning to accompany the words of hymns. When, in 1775, he took communion for the first time he was affected so greatly by the singing of some three-to-four-hundred voices in the warm candlelight glow of the chapel that he felt as though he were ‘transported among the saints'. Thus began ‘a new period in my spiritual life’, he wrote.
Nevertheless, after he had entered the seminary, Ignatius found himself for a time growing ‘indifferent and worldly'. One reason for this, perhaps, was that ‘pride & vanity’, for which he later berated himself. Being a veritable orchestra himself, he could hardly have escaped a frisson of pride at being able to fill at concerts almost any desk that was wanting. These performances were one of the young man's greatest delights. Gifted and with a friendly disposition, Ignatius was surely the envy of students less well endowed. Evidently very capable, he was commissioned to prepare a treatise on the role of music in the church's liturgy. He looked back on that experience as one which produced ‘more abiding benefit than most of the elaborate dissertations upon counterpoint have ever done.'
In 1779 Ignatius became a tutor at the high school in Germany — ‘that dear Place to which my heart is so much attached’, he later recalled. When Ignatius surrendered his teaching post in 1784 he faced a considerable change in coming to London to assist his father. Also he was elected to the Moravian missionary society in the City, the Brethren's Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel (the SFG). Rather than the ministry, he was to find his life's work chiefly through the SFG; but not yet.
Ignatius enjoyed a vigorous social life in London, living for the first time beyond the confines of a Moravian community, where his every move would have been known. He sometimes shared lodgings with his brother, Benjamin Henry, who had left the Church, or with a German friend who was not a Moravian. This is not to suggest that he neglected his duties, or that he led a frivolous life, for he regularly was in the company of serious-minded men and women: the Charles Middletons and leading luminaries among the Evangelical clergy, for example, who had known his father. Ignatius, being a most companionable and lively man, seldom needed to dine alone — a most barbarous practice in his opinion. Most probably it was the German, with whom he had lodged, who said of him:
that ever since he had become acquainted with me, he had wondered, how a man of so lively disposition, could belong to a community so recluse and religious, as that of the Church of the Brethren, in which there were so many checks, by particular regulations, against the world, and its pleasures and amusements.
Most of Ignatius's friends were noted for their piety, but one exception was Dr Charles Burney, the musicologist, whom he assisted with translations from the German and matters musical. Their affectionate and fruitful collaboration continued until Burney's death in 1814. Ignatius's three piano sonatas of 1787, dedicated to Burney, are among his very few secular pieces that he had published and did not destroy.

Engraving of a painting by Thomas Barber. Christian Ignatius La Trobe 1758-1836. National Portrait Gallery, London. Original oil painting: La Trobe Cottage, National Trust of Austalia (Victoria).

This illustration is unavailable for copyright reasons.
The British provincial leaders, and indeed apparently Ignatius too, became so concerned by his social life outside of the Church that the proposal was made for him to be rusticated, on account of his numerous acquaintances. But the Elders in Germany thought otherwise and this proved just as well: for it was by remaining in London that he found his vocation.
In January 1786 William Wilberforce called upon Ignatius to discuss abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce considered abolition a ‘noble Cause’, but Ignatius left him in no doubt that Moravians would not associate themselves with it. The great public debate, that was to be pursued so ferociously, was about to take fire, and the Church had its largest missions to slaves in the West Indies. Prudence, therefore, and a rule against members meddling in politics meant that Ignatius could not under any circumstances ally himself with the cause of abolition. Moravians had learnt in a hard school to avoid controversy. However, during the government's enquiry into the
Slave Trade, that summer of 1788, the Moravian missions were brought to its and the public's attention. Although Ignatius was obliged to prepare an authoritative paper for the enquiry on the missions, no Moravian was called before the committee. The Church was indeed fortunate that he enjoyed the confidence of men in the establishment; and that he was on hand to deal with a delicate and perilous issue for Moravians at home and in the West Indies.
Ignatius had emerged as a spirited but diplomatic representative of the Church's interests and he now was close to finding his vocation. In the winter of 1788 he was ordained in Germany. His many acquaintances in London had been a cause for concern, but he returned secure in the knowledge that he was authorised to develop his contacts with the pious in other denominations. One reason for this was that the Church urgently needed to raise funds in Britain from other Christians for its missions. Ignatius called on Wilberforce, a man well known for his charity, who immediately made a substantial donation. Although Ignatius was not comfortable in the role of fund-raiser, he recorded that
My success with Mr Wilberforce kindled up the flame of zeal for the furtherance of the affairs of our missions within me & I resolved to leave no stone within my reach unturned.
Ideally qualified to be their editor, Ignatius also revived an earlier proposal to have printed regular accounts of the missions. These became the Moravians’ Periodical Accounts. First published in 1790, the journal was a pioneering piece of work and it proved to be very influential. It can be noted in passing that copies reached ‘Australia's first chaplain’, Richard Johnson at Sydney, who had consulted the Moravians several times in London before he sailed with the First Fleet.
Although Ignatius was ordained, it surely should by then have been known that he lacked, as one of his sons wrote later, a ‘predilection for the Christian ministry'. At last in 1792, Ignatius's true place within the Church was recognised. Ministerial responsibilities, which had been so unwelcome to him, were annulled, and he was made secretary of the Moravian Church in Britain. This important position gave him the necessary legal standing and status to represent the Church to government, and it complemented his work on behalf of the missions overseas. He now could commit himself without reserve to this increasingly demanding task. The missionaries’ appreciation of his endeavours on their behalf was well expressed by one of their number, who wrote from the West Indies on learning of his appointment:
My dear friend & Brother, I am greatly rejoiced to find in all your letters, both your good will & your Activity in the cause … of our Missions. I am the more glad to see you in that office to which you have been appointed.
With the Elders isolated in central Germany by the Napoleonic wars, Ignatius's correspondence overseas, which was to extend from Greenland to the Cape of Good Hope and to the continents and islands across the Atlantic, partly filled the vacuum. This alone was a vital task: ‘truly a labour of love’ reflected in the letters and diaries
he received in return. Extended extracts made up the substance of the Periodical Accounts and Ignatius continued to edit this journal. It therefore hardly is surprising that in 1815, as the war drew to a close, Wilberforce, in a letter of commendation, described him as ‘the head & hand, as I may truly term him of the Moravian missions in England, who manages much of their correspondence all over the world'. Ignatius also was ‘a man of education, gentlemanly manner, good sense & piety'. A note in his hand on this letter is typical of the man: ‘if there were not better heads & hands employed in the missions, woe betide us'.
A hint of what his own and the Moravians’ reputation with government and men of goodwill meant for the missionaries comes from that period of anarchy which broke out when the Dutch surrendered their colony at the Cape of Good Hope to the British. Moravians at the Cape appealed to the British for protection, and a postscript to the favourable reply also was most reassuring. The general's secretary had added ‘My friend is La Trobe'. The secretary was a young Charles Grant, later Lord Glenelg, through whom Charles Joseph obtained in 1837 his entry into government service.
It is not necessary to discuss Ignatius's visit of 1815-16 to South Africa, which he described so well in his Journal of a Visit to that country. This event, surely, was one of the most completely satisfying in his life; also his recommendations paved the way for the establishment of the Moravian Church in South Africa.
This Journal, with its affectionate dedication to his children, leaves no room for doubt that family, friendship and music were all matters about which he cared very much indeed. Ignatius had been ‘in no hurry’ to marry but, early in 1790, Hannah Syms had emerged as a suitable candidate for him. Hannah's father was a minister of the Moravian Church, and she was an assistant among Moravian women at Fulneck. Very little more is known about her, but this marriage seems to have worked out quite as well as most others arranged by the Church. Shortly after his marriage, Ignatius wrote to Charles Burney to announce the news and to explain that he had left the choice of bride to his mother and sister, telling them:
I wished for a sensible house wife (if I must have one at all) who could love a quiz like me and be beloved by such a fellow — & make home agreeable to me … the longer I know my wife, the more … I consider myself rich in possessing her.
Judged by their six children, theirs was a rewarding partnership; it lasted all but 35 years.
The children were raised as Moravians, of course, but Ignatius cared more for their souls than the denomination to which they belonged. Of his four sons, only Peter followed him into the Moravian ministry. However, they all seem to have grown into devout men and he would not have been dismayed when John Antes, his second son, became a clergyman in the Church of England — he for long had respected the Anglican liturgy. Charles Joseph never entirely broke his connection with the Moravian Church, and the youngest boy, Frederic Benjamin, who became a doctor of medicine, married into a family with Moravian connections.

Top: Christian Ignatius La Trobe. ‘Interior of Missionaries’ Premises at Genadendal'. Aquatint. Source: C. I. La Trobe, Journal of a Visit to South Africa in 1815, and 1816. 1818. Rare Books Collection SF916.8004 L35.

Bottom: The Moravian Settlement at Lambs Hill, Fulneck, c. 1750. Black-and-white print from original artwork. Image kindly loaned by Ronald Southern and reproduced by permission of the Fulneck Archives.

Ignatius took an intense interest in his children's education which, for the boys, began from an early age at Fulneck where a seminary, by now, had been established. He was thankful that it no longer was necessary for them to be sent to Germany, far from home, to complete their education. Ministers’ children (and those of missionaries) were educated by the Church gratis; also an important consideration — the La Trobes were poor. A hint of what all this meant for him appears in a letter by Ignatius of 1813. Peter was eighteen, completing his studies at Fulneck: ‘better versed in classical, literature, mathematics, even the higher branches of it … than any young men I have known at our schools'. Peter also was ‘a very good performer on the Organ & Pianoforte’, and his father was thankful that ‘all my children have musical souls.'
In a further letter to his brother Frederick Joseph, also a musician, Ignatius explained that ‘My Acquaintance are of the most respectable kind’, and that he received ‘a great deal more friendship, & honor’ than was his due. In fact, he seems to have been a most welcome visitor wherever he called. For instance, he regularly stayed with friends at the University of Cambridge where he was welcomed indeed, it was said, on account of his ‘extraordinary conversational powers, his benevolent and lively temperament’, and last but not least his ‘musical talents'.
Ignatius attributed his publication of choral music, which he adapted for family use with piano accompaniment, partly to friends in London. This innovative and successful venture was launched in 1806 with the appearance of his first Selection of Sacred Music from the works of the most eminent Composers of Germany and Italy. By 1826, when the last of the six volumes in the Selection appeared, the public had been introduced, mostly for the first time, to a total of 250 works from 50 composers. It is on this achievement that Ignatius's reputation for ‘a quiet influence on music’ in Britain rests. It only remains to be noted that he was catholic in his selection and that he made his great library of music available to Vincent Novello, founder of the eponymous music publishers.
During the 1820s Ignatius certainly lost the use of at least his right arm, and most probably more. Peter, who was his assistant, eventually filled his place. His disability meant that he could no longer devote, as he always intended, ‘all those talents, which God has been pleased to bestow upon me, to his service'. He had only two more years to live when he withdrew in 1834 to Fairfield, the Moravian settlement in Lancashire, and where he had the comfort of seeing all his children. He died 6 May 1836. An entry that day in the settlement's diary reads:
He was indeed one of the few, whether viewed as a private man; or as a public character. The Lord raised him up among us as an eminent instrument for his work, particularly the spreading of the gospel among the Heathen.
[This essay is based on two of the author's contributions to John Mason and Lucy Torode, Three Generations of the La Trobe Family in the Moravian Church, published by the Moravian History Magazine in 1997. All rights reserved. This essay should not be copied or recorded without the author's permission.]

Select Bibliography

Especial thanks are due to Edna Cooper and Margaret Connor of the Moravian Church and Dr Rachel Cowgill who shared their research with me; also to the late Dr Henry de La Trobe of Hamburg for his kind permission to quote from his collection of family papers.


Moravian Church:
Church Archives at Fulneck, Yorkshire; Herrnhut, Germany; London
Collection of the late Dr Henry de La Trobe, Hamburg:
Letters from C.I. La Trobe
Lambeth Palace Library, London:
William Bull Papers, MS. 3U95
John Rylands University Library of Manchester:
C.I. La Trobe, Journal 1788-1789, English MS 1244

Published works

‘Historical sketch of the connection of the La Trobe family with the missionary work of the Church of the Brethren…’, Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the Brethren, XXV [London, 1864], pp. 79-84.
Krüger, Bernhard, The Pear Tree Blossoms: A History of the Moravian Mission in South Africa, 1737-1869, Genadendal, SA, 1966.
La Trobe, C.I., Journal of a Visit to South Africa and 1816 with Some Account of the Mission Settlement of the United Brethren near the Cape of Good Hope, London, 1818; facsimile edn., Cape Town, Struik, 1969.
La Trobe, C.I., Letters to My Children: Written at Sea during a Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope in 1815, London, 1851.
Mason, John and Torode, Lucy, Three generations of the La Trobe family in the Moravian Church’, Moravian History Magazine, Newtonabbey; 1997.
Mason, J.C.S., The Moravian Church and the Missionary Awakening in England 1760-1800, a Royal Historical Society publication, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2001.
Milner, Mary, The Life of Isaac Milner … Comprising a Portion of His Correspondence, London and Cambridge, 1842.
Podmore, C.J., The Moravian Church in England, 1728-60, Oxford, 1998.