Nicholas Louis, Count and Lord of Zinzendorf and Pottendorf (to give him his full title), was born at Dresden on 26 May 1700. His father, Count George Louis, was one of the chief ministers in the court of Saxony. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis only six weeks after Nicholas’ birth, so Nicholas never knew his father.
Nicholas’ widowed mother (the count’s second wife) moved with her infant son to her parents’ home. When she married again – a field-marshal in the Prussian army – four years later, young Nicholas was placed in the care of his grandmother, Baroness Henrietta Catherine von Gersdorf.
From then until he was ten years of age young Nicholas seldom saw his mother, although she did keep in touch with him by letters.
His grandmother was a remarkable woman. She wrote poetry in German and Latin, and painted in oils. She read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek and was well versed in Latin dogmatic theology.
Her spiritual sympathy lay with the Pietist movement, founded by Philipp Jakob Spener (1653-1705). This movement was a reaction against Lutheran scholasticism which emphasised doctrine at the expense of Christian experience. Its chief aim was to promote inner renewal of the individual Christian and reinvigoration of Lutheran churches that had become increasingly formal and arid.
Zinzendorf’s grandmother gave him a deeply spiritual upbringing. As one of her early biographers puts it, she ‘early instilled into his tender mind the doctrines and precepts of the gospel with much kindness and wisdom’.
In later years Zinzendorf testified how profound the influence of his godly upbringing was: ‘Up to my tenth year there was more care bestowed upon me by shielding me from evil influences, and fostering in my heart the work of God’s grace than would have been possible anywhere except in a well ordered church of Jesus Christ.
‘I can say with truth that my heart was religiously inclined as far back as I can recollect, and even at such times when refractory, proud and peevish humours seized upon me, and vain and foolish pride of rank beset me, my heart’s affections never departed from my Saviour, and there always remained within me a deep and tender interest in his cause on earth’.
So vivid was Zinzendorf’s sense of the presence of Christ that he would sometimes write a note to his Saviour telling him how he felt about him. He would then throw it out of one of the castle’s windows in the hope that Christ would find it. From this time until he died Zinzendorf would hold conversations with his Saviour.
Zinzendorf’s education reflected his membership of the German aristocracy. Those who rule, his grandmother believed, must early learn self-discipline. So his tutors taught him the dos and don’ts of court circles – manners, appropriate dress, proper conversation.
Between the ages of eight and ten he studied history and languages. In 1710 he entered the Pedagogium at Halle. Founded by the leading Pietist of the second generation, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), its emphasis on missionary work profoundly influenced the young Zinzendorf.
Daily meetings were held in Francke’s house at which he heard of the work of missions and met missionaries such as Ziegenbalg, home on furlough from his labours in Tranquebar, a Danish colony in India. Links were forged that would ultimately lead to the launching of the Moravian missions in 1732.
Zinzendorf then moved on to Wittenberg where he studied law between 1716 and 1719. There the spiritual atmosphere was very different. The scholastic theology of academic Lutheranism prevailed and the Pietist emphasis on vital Christian experience was viewed with much suspicion.
In reaction, Zinzendorf adopted a somewhat rigid pattern of private devotions. In addition to his daily programme of prayer and Bible study he would sometimes spend whole nights in prayer. For some time, he set aside Friday as a fast day, later changing it to a Sunday.
During his second year at Wittenberg, what later became known as the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed came into being, with Zinzendorf fully involved. This was a compact of like-minded individuals who pledged themselves to remain true to the teaching of Jesus and conduct themselves in accordance with its demands. They also committed themselves to love their fellowmen and avoid worldly pursuits such as dancing and gambling.
Members wore a ring with the inscription in Greek: ‘No one liveth to himself’. At all times they were to seek the welfare of others, and labour especially for the conversion of the Jews and heathen. Through the following years Zinzendorf corresponded with its members, who included John Potter, Archbishop of Canterbury; Thomas Wilson, Bishop of Sodor and Man; and General Oglethorpe, Governor of Georgia.
While at Wittenberg, Zinzendorf spent many hours in the study and composition of hymns. Many of these were later included in the Moravian hymnbook. John Wesley and others translated some into English, the best known being ‘Jesus, thy blood and righteousness’ and ‘Jesus, still lead on’.
During his last year at Wittenberg the young count attempted to act as mediator in a theological dispute between Halle and Wittenberg. Having studied at both institutions he appreciated the merits of both schools. Though his two attempts to bring them together were not successful, the unity of Christian believers became an abiding passion for the rest of his life.
When Zinzendorf finished his studies, he went on a gentleman’s ‘grand tour’ of the Netherlands and on to Paris. There he became a close friend of Cardinal Antoine de Noailles (the cardinal regarded the count as a schismatic needing to be reconciled to Rome).
On his travels Zinzendorf ended up in Switzerland. In the magnificent art gallery at Düsseldorf he had a profound spiritual experience. For hours he stood before the picture of the thorn-crowned Christ, Ecce homo, by Domenico Feti. Beneath it was a Latin inscription: ‘This I have suffered for you, but what have you done for me?’
His travels ended, Zinzendorf became a civil servant in the electoral government of Saxony, at Dresden, in late October 1721. There he served, somewhat reluctantly, until he resigned in 1727.
When he turned 21, Zinzendorf had entered into control of a considerable estate that his grandmother agreed to sell him; it had been neglected for over 100 years. Included in the property was the old village of Berthelsdorf, which had been a parish since 1346. When the parish incumbent suddenly died Zinzendorf replaced him with a Pietist friend, John Andrew Rothe (1688-1758).
On 7 September 1722, Zinzendorf married Countess Erdmuthe Dorothea von Reuss-Ebersdorf. She came from a family even more Pietist than his; there met in her home at Ebersdorf an ecclesiola – ‘a little church’ that nurtured the spiritual life of Lutheran state church members.
Their marriage rested upon a deeply shared devotion to Christ and his service. In later years Zinzendorf credited Ebersdorf with the basic idea that led to the establishment of the Christian community at Herrnhut.
Over the doorway of their home, which he called Bethel, the count inscribed these words in golden letters: ‘Here we spend the night as guests. Therefore this house is neither beautiful nor permanent. Quite right: we also have another house in heaven where things are different’.
At the very beginning of their marriage the count put the financial management of their affairs into the hands of his wife. He was not good at handling money. On his numerous journeys, he would often give money to the needy; sometimes he would not have enough money left to pay for a night’s lodging. In 1732 Erdmuthe was given legal title to her husband’s property, a move that saved the estate from confiscation when he was expelled from Saxony in 1736.
In 1722 a group of German-speaking Moravian refugees arrived at Berthelsdorf. They were members of the Unitas Fratrum (band of brothers), a movement of believers who traced their origins to John Huss (c. 1369-1415).
Zinzendorf allowed them to stay on his land as a temporary measure, but the arrangement became permanent. The community which was named ‘Herrnhut’, meaning ‘under the Lord’s watch’, had by 1726 grown to 300 persons. With characteristic energy Zinzendorf set about developing a bookshop and apothecary shop, and an academy for the sons of noblemen.
At one point the young community experienced discord which was only resolved on the initiative of the count. So, on 12 May 1727, Herrnhut’s new constitution was adopted. It allowed for differing opinions and placed emphasis on practical Christian living. Twelve elders were elected, none of whom was to be a nobleman.
The Herrnhut community with its shared resources became a model that others adopted – as at Serampore, during the time of Carey, Marshman and Ward. Under Zinzendorf’s leadership its spiritual life deepened. The high point came during a communion service held on Wednesday 13 August 1727, when Herrnhut experienced a profound sense of the presence of Christ.
This visitation of the Holy Spirit was crucially important to the Moravian movement. From it flowed the sending of ‘missionaries’ to make contact with Christians of all denominations. Missionaries in the more usual sense of the word were sent in 1732 to Greenland and to St Thomas in the West Indies.
Moravian missions spread to many other lands also – the British colonies in North America, South Africa, Greenland and Lapland. This all occurred before Zinzendorf’s death, exactly 250 years ago in 1760.
Zinzendorf became a kind of roving ambassador, visiting St Thomas in 1738 and North America in 1741. From 1749-1755 he stayed mainly in London, influencing the publisher James Hutton and evangelist and hymn-writer John Cennick. The labours of Cennick and others led to an increase in the number of Moravian communities in England, Wales and Ireland.
Under Zinzendorf’s inspired leadership, mission was placed at the centre of the life of the Moravian Church. The great historian of missions, Kenneth Scott Latourette, wrote, ‘Here was a new phenomenon in the expansion of Christianity, an entire community, of families as well of unmarried, devoted to the propagation of the faith.
‘In its singleness of aim it resembled some of the monastic orders of earlier centuries … a fellowship of Christians, of laity and clergy, of men and women, marrying and rearing families … but with the spread of the Christian message as a major objective, not of a minority of the membership, but the group as a whole’.
The evangelical world owes a great debt to Zinzendorf, a debt it doesn’t always recognise. First, there was his emphasis on the importance of Christian experience. This arose largely in reaction to the often sterile Lutheran theology of the German universities.
Against this, he emphasised deep Christian experience expressed in a life of real piety, which was manifested in daily study of Scripture, prayer, joyful worship, singing of hymns, and, above all, abundant good works.
Though ordained as a Lutheran minister and consecrated a Moravian bishop Zinzendorf did not really feel called to expound Scripture. He preferred to make devotional comments on Bible passages. In consequence, he tended to ramble – if the evidence of his published works is anything to go by.
One can readily sympathise with Zinzendorf in his reaction against the academic theology of his day, but his theology was essentially one of reaction, and that does not of itself lead to a full-orbed biblicism.
The history of evangelicalism is littered with episodes of reaction theology. Anti-legalism can issue in antinomianism; the rejection of superficial Arminian evangelism in no evangelism at all; and the rejection of anti-intellectualism in an overly cerebral approach to Christian living.
There is another danger, and that is to so emphasise Christian experience as only feeling that one ends up with Schleiermacher’s definition of religion, as a feeling of dependence.
In his emphasis on experience Zinzendorf did open the way to Schleiermacher and the later problem of the so-called ‘Christ of history’ as opposed to the ‘Christ of faith’.
Zinzendorf’s placing of mission at the centre of the church’s life is his second major contribution to evangelicalism. His influence on William Carey and a host of others has been profound.
But where are whole evangelical churches mobilised for mission as the community at Herrnhut was? Mission is a minority interest in the great majority of our churches, if the frequent low attendance at missionary meetings is anything to go by.
Finally, Zinzendorf’s deep concern for the unity of believers is a profound challenge to us. We may be strongly opposed to the ecumenical movement, yet have no real concern for the unity of believers outside our particular circle.
‘All one in Christ Jesus’ needs to be more than a slogan for us. It needs to describe fact, not fiction!