Interview with a Researcher: Winelle Kirton-Roberts

Posted February 6, 2024 in General

Interview with a Researcher: Winelle Kirton-Roberts

This interview marks the third in a new series where we meet with a user of the Moravian Archives to discuss their unique experience working with our collections in Bethlehem. In January 2024, we sat down with the Rev. Dr. Winelle Kirton-Roberts to discuss her ongoing work as a Moravian pastor and historian, among other topics. Short excerpts from select portions of the audio recording of the interview are embedded for your listening 🔊 alongside the transcription.

Tom McCullough (TM): Welcome, Dr. Winelle Kirton-Roberts. It’s a real pleasure to have you here with us in our longform series “Interview with a Researcher.” Could you tell us a little bit about yourself before we dive in?

Rev. Dr. Winelle Kirton-Roberts (WKR): (Listen 🔊 to audio below) Thank you so much, Thomas, for this opportunity to share a little bit about myself and my research interests and what I do as a Moravian historian. My name is Winelle Kirton-Roberts. I was born on the island of Barbados and spent most of my time in the Caribbean. I’m an ordained minister with the Moravian Church for almost thirty years now. I’m married and we have three grown daughters.


TM: Having been a Moravian historian for some time, can you tell us a little bit about research that you’ve done in Moravian Archives? What has your journey in working with Moravian collections looked like?

WKR: Yes. The first time I experienced the Moravian Archives was in 1995, when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was doing a master’s in ecumenics and mission. We were doing a core subject on women and missions, and somewhere in the readings I came across Edith Kilbuck. And the writer Katherine Faull had done some work there, and she referenced the Moravian Archives. Then it dawned on me that I wasn’t too far from the Moravian Archives. At the time I took up the phone—we didn’t much of emails and cell phones, of course, at that time—but I remember taking up the phone and calling and leaving a message for Vernon Nelson at the time, and he responded and said, “Oh, please come over, and I’ll have the information here for you.” That was in 1995, and I made several trips over there [to the Moravian Archives], because it became my master’s thesis, the work of Edith Kilbuck in Alaska. But prior to that, when I was at UTC [United Theological College, West Indies] I got an interest in history when, for my final-year paper, I decided to look at the Moravian work among the enslaved Africans in Jamaica at what is now called “Old Carmel” but was “Carmel” at the time. At that time I had visited the Archives there in Jamaica I thought that church history was something I really want to pursue.

Now, back to 1995, in that year I spent a lot of time in the Archives. When I got there, the box on Edith Kilbuck was out for me. And after that he [Vernon Nelson] said, “You know, I have to show you some other aspects of Moravian history.” He told me: “I don’t know why you’re researching Edith Kilbuck when you could be researching other aspects of the history of the Moravian Church in the Caribbean, which has not been extensively researched and especially by someone from the Caribbean.” He took me to the vault, and then I saw other material from the Caribbean that was quite intriguing.

Records of the extensive Eastern West Indies Collection (EWI) as they appear in the Moravian Archives, Bethlehem.

TM: Interesting. Vernon Nelson encouraged you to research Caribbean Moravian history?

WKR: Yes, he was surprised that I was focusing elsewhere. And he thought, “Oh, this material [about Edith Kilbuck] is already well-used,” but with us studying Moravian women at the time, the only female missionary I was really familiar with was Edith Kilbuck. But yes, he did say, “I think it’s very important for you to look at the Caribbean history from your perspective.” There had been other persons from the Caribbean doing research, but he wanted me to take it further. When I saw the wealth of material, it inspired me to do my Ph.D. and focus on the Caribbean. I had already thought of it, but having been there in the Moravian Archives confirmed that this is what I needed to do.

TM: You have served decades as a pastor. Were you always tracking to become a pastor or were you thinking of becoming a historian first?

WKR: Yes, when I went into UTC [United Theological College], it’s because I had a call to become a pastor. In our system, the Moravian Church does not send you off to the United Theological College unless you’ve gone through the process to be a pastor. That was always my primary focus, serving as a Moravian pastor, but in coming out of that, in terms of academics, I specialized in and focused on the history, for I loved history. I did history throughout school, and it was always something that was dear to me. It became pretty natural then, when I thought of pursuing my Ph.D. to focus on the literature and data that was coming out of the Caribbean missions.

TM: There aren’t many instances where active Moravian pastors are able to devote so much time to exploring Moravian history. Are there challenges or opportunities that come out of having such a personal connection to the history through active ministry?

WKR: (Listen 🔊 to audio below) It’s been an intriguing ride. I would put it that way. For you are dealing with a present situation, and then you are connecting it with the past. I would have to say that as a Moravian pastor, knowing my history gave me a better understanding of the people before me. And that for me was one of those, I guess, “eureka moments,” where I was able to connect the reality before me with the history.


WKR: I understood why my people have responded in certain ways to certain situations, why persons felt a sense of guilt or shame sometimes, and these kinds of associative actions, because when I looked back in the records, I realized that these were things that were instilled in the people. This is right, this is wrong, this is the punishment, this is the response that the church would give, these are the biblical references, and all these kinds of things. That became a connection. It’s so critical for me; I think it has enriched my ministry as a pastor to know the depth, the profundity of my history.

TM: Fantastic. I hope that wasn’t a leading question on my part to insinuate that there must be challenges with being a pastor of a church but also investigating the history of the same church.

WKR: I don’t think is anything wrong with the word challenge. For me, when I looked at the records, the diaries, the reports, the minutes, letters in general, the exclusion books, and other records, I came to realize: this was not just a story; this was not just somebody’s history; this was my story. And that was a real “aha” moment for me. And at that point I also felt this moral obligation to go deeper into this, for I am able not only to connect the figures and the facts and all that, but I can connect the ancestral legacy of my people. That was really key for me. When I began to see surnames I recognized and names of people and places…oh, I grew up here…or I served here…or I know these places…these people. That was my story. It was a critical moment in my historical research.

TM: You mentioned that you were encouraged to research the Moravians as part of your Ph.D. dissertation. Have other publications come out of your research?

WKR: After finishing my Ph.D., it was revised into a book called Created in their Image. In the book, I was making a comparative between the Moravian and Methodist missionaries in two islands, Antigua and Barbados.

That book came out of my research over the period of working on my Ph.D. You asked earlier about challenges; the thing is that since I was a full-time pastor in ministry at the time, it became quite difficult to keep with significant research for quite a bit of that time. From time to time, I would give really small lectures and presentations and histories of churches as they celebrated anniversaries; several churches said, “Can you write something?” And I’d go into the archives, write something up, no more than five or six pages or so, and make a presentation. Since about 2015 I started to do more public and keynote lectures. I was asked, for example, to do a Founders’ Day lecture at UTC. Following that, I came to Bethlehem and did the Moses Lecture, and that sort of stimulated me to get back into academia and to do more in terms of presenting papers. Subsequent to that, I did a number of lectures here in Europe, because I’m based in Switzerland. I also did some lectures in the Caribbean and in the United States. Recently one of those papers, “Black People, White God,” was published by Brill in the book Becoming American [note: book title was later changed to Moravian Americans and their Neighbors, 1772-1822]. And that was very helpful in terms of going back to African roots. And then I did a presentation for Moravian University, looking at racism, specifically focusing on the plantation where my ancestors were and where the Moravians first came to in Barbados, so that was quite significant. Last year, I did “A Free Wildlife” for the annual meeting of the Moravian Historical Society, looking at an area in the nineteenth century—a new mission really—that had not really been explored in Trinidad. I’ve been doing some ongoing work upgrading parts of my book and offering different presentations, and this has been quite helpful, because now I have much more time. I can do more research; I’m almost at 50/50. So I do 50% pastoral work, 50% academic. And I can have flexible time where I can do a lot more research and writing. It takes a lot of time to do that, so I applaud persons who do that on a regular basis. But now I have the time, and I feel that stronger sense of moral obligation to do that.

Note: those interested in watching Winelle discuss Created in their Image may do so here.

Note: those interested in watching Winelle’s “Black People, White God” lecture may do here.

TM: You mentioned previously having less time to carry out research while serving as a Moravian pastor. Could you tell us a little more about your pastoral background? I recall you having served in St. Thomas.

WKR: Well, I first started out in Trinidad in 1993. Then I was in the States for a bit for graduate studies. I went back to Barbados where I served at Calvary and Gracehill Moravian congregations. Following that I was in the United States Virgin Islands, so I lived on St. Thomas for thirteen years, on the New Herrnhut estate. And I should also add—this is quite important and I’m sorry I didn’t mention it earlier—that the person who was my external examiner [of my dissertation] was Paul [Peucker], and role in helping me to fine-tune and deepen my paper, as an archivist, the accuracy was extremely helpful. I appreciate and value it very much…the meticulous nature in getting all of your information lined up as a historian. That to me was how we get in touch and made that connection. Now I’m also serving as a pastor in the Geneva Moravian Fellowship here in Switzerland.

TM: Is the fellowship much smaller than your congregations in St. Thomas?

WKR: Oh, yes. Significantly smaller. This is a new global community of a small group of people who come together every other Sunday, even afternoons, for an hour of worship and fellowship—it is wonderful. But the congregation I served at Memorial [Moravian Church in St. Thomas] was a large congregation with over 1200 persons on the books. I don’t know that we can even count how many members there are here in Geneva, because there is no membership commitment here. When in Geneva, they might call this church their home, but they might have their own church somewhere else in the world. I would say the experience in serving in Geneva and St. Thomas is incomparable.

TM: You spoke earlier about a chapter “Black People, White God,” that was published in an edited volume by Brill. I was going through our Library Collection, and I saw you had also written for the Provincial Women’s Board in the 1990s, Vision for the Future. Do you recall that publication?

WKR: I recall it, yes. I was at Princeton at the time, and we were looking at the future of missions. I actually came across the letters I would have written to various mission leaders around the globe at the time, and I find it quite intriguing. I am glad I preserved those letters, because it is interesting the responses I would have received from different heads about what they considered to be missions and so on. And I had another presentation I did two years ago for the European Continental Province, and I actually reviewed that book to see what had happened over twenty years. And I am presently revising—should be finishing very shortly…have been spending the past few weeks—going through my “Free Wild Life” article, which I hope to be submitting very shortly. Up to today, I was finishing up my footnotes and getting everything together.

TM: Are you working on anything else right now? I know that you and I have talked about an edited volume about August Gottlieb Spangenberg that was recently proposed.

WKR: I am working on the Spangenberg book, and if you have done anything on the missions you have come across Spangenberg, but I haven’t yet zeroed in on the research. This is an opportunity for me with the perspective I now have as a Caribbean historian specifically how he might have contributed to the formation of the mission work in the Caribbean. I am also upgrading a chapter in my book on theological education, specifically looking at the Buxton Grove experiment, if you want to say, in the West Indies at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, and the foundation it would have laid for theological education and the equipping of Indigenous pastors.

TM: Very cool! I hope it will bring you to the Moravian Archives soon, to look at the Buxton Grove records preserved here.

WKR: Yes, it will bring me to the Archives very soon. I have to say I very much appreciate my relationship with the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem. It has been good to me. I can’t thank you enough, Tom, for sometimes I think that I am asking you a lot of questions, and you are so thorough and helpful in your response. What I like is that you have this keen interest as if you yourself are part of the research. You have this personal interest. That is much appreciated, that you don’t say, “I don’t care,” but you really do care. It’s an embracing approach.

Shortly after this interview was conducted, the Rev. Dr. Winelle Kirton-Roberts indeed visited the Moravian Archives for research, on January 31, 2024.

TM: Thank you.

WKR: Any time I go, everything is already ready for me, even though I’m always rushing. The process of being able to access documents through the digitizing process has been helpful, because it’s not all the time that you can get to travel and be somewhere in person. But that is something that I personally enjoy, even though it’s not always possible. So sometimes you have to sit behind your computer and do your research from virtual documents.

TM: Thank you so much.

WKR: (Listen 🔊 to audio below) Thank you so much for this opportunity, and I really wish you and Paul and all the staff well. This is great work that you’re doing. It is very important for people to know this story. It is very important for people to go and take the time that is needed. It is well worth it in the end. Having the information just there and not known is not doing justice to those who would have taken the time to record. So I think it is a great work, and it well help in improving the quality of life that we have today if we know where we have come from.


TM: That is so well said. It has been a pleasure to talk with you. Take care.

WKR: Thank you very much. Bye bye.

Enjoyed this conversation? Be sure to check out our previous interviews with Dr. Christina Petterson here and Dr. Josef Köstlbauer here!