The Moravian connection – Moravians and the Evangelical Awakening (1)
In spring 1727 the small Moravian group on Count Nicholas Zinzendorf’s estate in Berthelsdorf, Saxony, was deeply divided. Controversies had arisen over such issues as predestination, holiness and baptism.
The Lutheran count had allowed the refugees to settle on his land five years earlier. They came from one of many Moravian communities scattered across northern Europe, spiritual descendants of a movement that went back 300 years, to John Hus.
Hus was a proto-Protestant a century before Luther. He had objected, among other things, to indulgences and called for Scripture to be authoritative in the church. The medieval church’s answer was to burn him as a heretic (1415).
By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the Moravian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum) were still experiencing oppression. This is why in 1722 two Moravian families left Fulneck, Bohemia, for Zinzendorf’s settlement, led by a man called Christian David.
The Lord’s watch
As Christian David felled a tree at Berthelsdorf to start building the new settlement, he remembered the psalmist’s words, ‘Even the sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest for herself, even your altars, O Lord of hosts’. The plot of land was called Watch Hill, so the place was renamed Herrnhut (‘The Lord’s Watch’). Johann Andreas Rothe had already been installed by Zinzendorf as pastor of the local Lutheran church.
During the next few years about 300 Protestant refugees made their way to Herrnhut from Germany and Bohemia. So by 1727 the community was a mixed company, comprising Moravian Brethren, German Lutherans and other dissenters. This was why the congregation was experiencing divisions that even Pastor Rothe was unable to resolve. Seeing this sorry state of affairs, Zinzendorf felt he must intervene and effectively threw in his lot with them.
He visited the community and pleaded for unity and love. He drew up a covenant of brotherly agreement and urged them to emphasise the points on which they agreed rather than their differences. On 12 May 1727, they all signed this covenant. Zinzendorf also organised them into praying ‘bands’ or groups of 4-8 people.
There followed an increasing sense of prayerfulness within the Herrnhut community, until three months later, on the morning of Wednesday 13 August 1727, a divine visitation occurred during communion at the Berthelsdorf church.
A powerful sense of Christ’s nearness was felt by the whole congregation. A contemporary Moravian historian wrote of the occasion, ‘The Holy Ghost came upon us and in those days great signs and wonders took place in our midst. From that time scarcely a day passed but what we beheld his almighty workings amongst us.
‘A great hunger after the Word of God took possession of us so that we had to have three services every day, viz. 5.00am and 7.30am and 9.00pm. Every one desired above everything else that the Holy Spirit might have full control. Self-love and self-will, as well as all disobedience, disappeared and an overwhelming flood of grace swept us all out into the great ocean of divine love’.
By 27 August, 24 men and 24 women had covenanted to pray together in relays of an hour at a time, day and night, for God’s blessing on their congregation. The children began a prayer plan also.
This hourly intercession went on for 100 years, and became the driving force behind the missionary vision that soon took hold of the Moravians. This vision was evidenced when on 11 February 1728 a group of single men covenanted that they would respond to God’s call to the mission field when it came.
From this time too, Zinzendorf was deepening in his theological understanding. He had been converted as a boy and nurtured in his grandmother’s pietism. Pietism’s aim was the spiritual renewal of a Lutheranism that had become arid and scholastic; it focussed on Bible reading, preaching, prayer and good works.
However, through disputing with a freethinker called Johann Dippel, who denied the wrath of God, Zinzendorf acquired new insights into the centrality of the atoning and reconciling death of Christ.
Thus it was that Zinzendorf was able to state later of the Herrnhut community that ‘since 1734, the reconciling sacrifice of Jesus has openly become our material basis against all evil in life and sorrows’.
Herrnhut’s ethos became one of fellowship with Christ, through those blessings that flow from his sufferings and death. This emphasis was to prove of immense significance when Moravianism impacted Holy Club methodism in the mid-1730s.
Over the next generation, hundreds of missionaries would be sent out from Herrnhut. The first two went in 1732; they were the potter Leonard Dober and the carpenter David Nitschmann, who both went to the Caribbean island of St Thomas to minister to the slaves. Other Moravian missionaries followed, to the Americas, Arctic, Africa, Far East and various European countries.
And this is how it was that a couple of years later, in 1734, twenty-six Moravian missionaries, including David Nitschmann (1696-1772), their new-made bishop, were aboard the ship Simmonds bound for the new English colony at Savannah, Georgia, in New England.
Also on board, but quite independently, were two young Anglican clergymen. These were missionaries commissioned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and blood brothers. Their names were John and Charles Wesley, and their travelling companions were Benjamin Ingham and Charles Delamotte. The party had embarked at Gravesend on 14 October, but did not really start the voyage until December.
Wesley records that soon after (17 October) he began to learn German; he could already speak French. He was a keen observer of all that took place around him, and soon noted two things of significance.
The first was the conduct of the Moravians. He wrote: ‘I had … observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility, they had given a continual proof by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired and would receive no pay, saying, “It was good for their proud hearts”, and “their loving Saviour had done more for them”.
‘And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness, which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth’.
The second thing that struck him was their courageous bearing during a severe Atlantic storm. The storm was so bad that the ship’s company faced a real prospect of shipwreck, with death by drowning.
But John Wesley describes the Moravians’ behaviour during this crisis: ‘At seven, I went to the Germans … Here was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger and revenge.
‘In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.
‘A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no”. I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied mildly, “No, our women and children are not afraid to die”.’
But John Wesley was afraid to die. For all his intense religiosity, he had no knowledge of Christ as his personal Saviour.
Two years later, after he had left Georgia for England, under a cloud through his mismanagement of relationships (particularly concerning Sophia Hopkey), he recorded in his journal, ‘I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert me?
‘I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and I believe myself, when no danger is near. But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, “to die is gain”.’
He continued: ‘I have learned … that I who went to America to convert others was not converted myself’. John was also to say of these years, ‘For ten years [1728-1738; his 26th-36th years] I was a papist, and knew it not’.
By ‘papist’ John Wesley did not mean that he had belonged to the Catholic Church. Rather, he mistakenly thought and taught that good works and sanctification lead to justification before God. What was to shake him to the core and completely revolutionise his thinking would come from his further encounters with the Moravians.
To be continued