Editor’s Note: When you ask Moravians, “what does it mean to be part of the Moravian faith?,” you’ll likely get many different answers about what our church is and what we believe.
While the Moravian Church is known (and respected) for not being overly doctrinal or adhering to strict dogma or rules—thus the many ideas of what it means to be Moravian—at its core, the worldwide Unitas Fratrum/Moravian Church has two important documents that do a good job spelling out who we are and what we believe: The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living and The Ground of the Unity.
Since these two statements are so important to understanding what makes Moravian Christianity unique, we began sharing these two documents in The Moravian Magazine. While both documents are readily available from www.moravian.org—and I encourage you to download them—a constant reminder and review in our denominational publication’s pages should prove helpful in continuing the study of our core faith.
Following the outline established by Jesus Still Lead On, we cover different aspects of these two important documents each month. In 2015, we discussed The Covenant for Christian Living; with this issue and throughout 2016, we’ll continue with the Ground of the Unity.
This month, we’ll discuss the history of the Ground of the Unity. In subsequent months, we will share different aspects of the Ground of the Unity, along with commentary and thought-provoking questions.
Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead On (produced in 2005) for this material. If you are interested in obtaining the entirety of Jesus Still Lead On, please contact the IBOC or visit store.moravian.org.
—Mike Riess, editor The Moravian Magazine
Part I: Introduction
The Ground of the Unity is the official doctrinal statement for the worldwide Moravian Church. The first draft was written in the mid-1950s in Germany, and it was officially adopted as the doctrinal statement of the Moravian Church in 1957 by the Unity Synod. This was the first Unity (or General) Synod to be held in the United States (Bethlehem, Pa.) and in the English language. Although it was first written in German, the official version adopted by the Synod was in English. Much of the discussion of the Unity Synod was about the Ground of the Unity, but very few changes were made by the Synod before it was adopted. Although written as a single document, it was officially adopted paragraph by paragraph so that the Synod could carefully discuss the wording of each section. The title was a translation of the German word Grundsätze, which means “basic principles.” In English, “Ground” also brings to mind the idea of a fertile field. Thus, the Ground means the basis for our spiritual growth.
The Eight Chief Doctrines
The Ground of the Unity replaced the older statement of eight chief doctrines of the Moravian Church. The eight chief doctrines grew from the four chief doctrines that the church identified in 1775 as part of its reorganization following the death of Count Zinzendorf. In the 1700 and 1800s the church accepted the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church as its official confession of faith, but it also highlighted four doctrines that were most important to the Moravian Church.
They were 1) the Atonement of Christ, 2) the Divinity of Christ as Creator, 3) Universal Human Depravity, and 4) the Gracious Work of the Holy Spirit. These were seen as the essential features of Zinzendorf’s preaching, but the language used to express them was taken from Protestant theology. Moravians later became uncomfortable with the idea that Christ rather than the Father is the Creator, and by 1898 that statement was altered. A summary of the four chief doctrines was given in a hymn verse:
That whoe’er believeth in Christ’s
May find free grace, and a complete exemption
From serving sin.
As the Moravians moved away from using the Augsburg Confession of Faith, there was a growing desire to expand the chief doctrines to be more of a creedal statement. In 1818, a statement on the Fruits of Faith (willing obedience and love for Savior) was added. That was followed in 1857, (at the time when the British and American provinces of the Moravian Church were granted independence from German control) by a statement on the love of God the Father because of concerns that the Moravians were not seen as Trinitarian. Finally, in 1879 statements were added on the fellowship of believers with each other and the Second Coming of the Lord, making the chief doctrines correspond better to the Apostles’ Creed.
As an introduction to the Chief Doctrines, a statement on Scripture was added in1825 and revised in 1836. “The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament is and remains the only rule of our faith and life. We revere it as God’s word, which He spoke to humanity in former times through the prophets, and in these last days through the Son and His apostles, to instruct people in the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. We are convinced that all truths which are necessary for a person who desires to be saved to know and believe are fully contained therein.” A portion of this statement appeared in the original Ground of the Unity. It was revised in 1995.
There was growing dissatisfaction with the statement of Chief Doctrines in the 19th century. In the American Provinces, the Easter Litany was increasingly seen as a Moravian Confession of Faith instead of the Augsburg Confession. It is instructive that the Easter Litany rather than the Chief Doctrines was included in Philip Schaff’s Creeds of the Churches in 1877.
In Europe, there was a sense that the Chief Doctrines were not the best expressions of Moravian faith and practice. The language was seen as archaic and there was a sense that the ideas did not capture what was most vital in Christianity. Many theologically educated persons also felt that the older statement was not consistent with modern theological developments. This led to vigorous discussions within the European provinces of the church, but there were no changes to the doctrinal statement at the 1914 General Synod (now called Unity Synod).
Because of war and the economic crisis in Germany, there was not another meeting of the General Synod until 1931. At that time, the British delegation presented a new statement on the faith and order of the Moravian Church which was more narrative than the Chief Doctrines. In light of the economic crisis that was threatening the very existence of the Moravian Church and its mission work, the synod did not adopt any doctrinal changes. However, much of what was presented in the British proposal was later included in the statement Essential Features of a Living Church. Despite the synod’s inaction, there was a growing sense in Europe and America that the older doctrinal statement was no longer adequate. There would not be another General Synod, though, until after the Second World War.
Historical Situation in 1957
In order to understand the Ground of the Unity, it is helpful to have an awareness of the significance of the Unity Synod of 1957 that adopted the Ground of the Unity. This synod marked the greatest changes in the Moravian Church since its renewal in 1727, and it is not accidental that a new doctrinal statement was adopted at that time. Many of the decisions made at the Unity Synod reflected the changes the world experienced as a result of the Nazi era and the world war. Bishop H. G. Steinberg, in The Moravian Messenger (Dec. 1957, p. 3) expressed the situation this way: “The strongly-felt need to attempt to give expression to its basic convictions arose in a large measure from the storm, earthquake, and fire through which some of the Provinces of the Unity, particularly Germany, had passed since 1931.”
Here are just some of the major changes which help explain the nature of the Ground of the Unity and the modern Moravian Unity.
- German Moravians in particular had to deal with the experience of their country having fallen under the sway of Adolph Hitler who had proclaimed himself a savior of the German people. Most Christians in Germany had given at least partial support to Hitler and his program for Germany. Many Christians had even supported his anti-Jewish policies; however, it was only after the war that Germans and the rest of the world were confronted by the true horrors of the Final Solution. The awareness that Christians could be seduced into following Hitler had a profound effect on all German churches and theology in Germany. The “banality of evil” seen in the Nazi era profoundly affected our understanding of good and evil.
- Because of Hitler’s war, much of Germany had been destroyed and many of its citizens, especially young men, were dead. One of the actions of Unity Synod was to approve the ordination of women in the Moravian Church, in part as a response to the shortage of ministers. The Ground of the Unity was written in the awareness of great human suffering, but also as part of the larger task of rebuilding a devastated Germany.
- Germany and England both lost their leading roles in world affairs and the balance of power shifted to the United States. It was clear to the delegates of the Unity Synod that North American Moravians were going to have to assume greater responsibility for the world-wide Moravian work. This is why it was decided to hold the synod in the United States and make English, rather than German, the official language for the first time.
- Moravians also experienced the Cold War that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union immediately after WWII. Germany itself was divided between the two superpowers, and the historic center of the church, Herrnhut, was behind the Iron Curtain. Communication and the flow of currency were restricted. Christians in East Germany had to learn to live under a Communist regime that was at times hostile to religion. It was not clear in 1957 that the Moravian Church could remain a single institution.
- In 1947 India’s independence from British colonial authority was recognized by Parliament. This was the most dramatic episode in the rapid dismantling of the European colonial system. Nation after nation achieved independence from the colonial powers and assumed their places on the world stage, sometimes in the midst of turmoil and violence. The delegates at Unity Synod recognized that this would affect Moravian missions in a number of ways. One, as countries gained independence, the church would need to be flexible in dealing with new political and social realities. Two, church members in former colonies would naturally share the desire for more self-determination. Three, foreign missionaries may not be welcomed in the newly independent nations. Four, the new model for the world was the United Nations: a cooperative body of independent states.
- In 1945 the United States became the only nation to use nuclear weapons in war. In the 1950s, other nations joined in the race to produce more and larger nuclear bombs. By 1957 it was evident that the United States and the Soviet Union had the capacity to destroy all life on the planet. This was the first time in world history that humans had such awesome and terrible ability. It was clear to most people that old standards of war and peace would need to be rethought if the world were to survive. The threat of nuclear holocaust fueled apocalyptic speculations for many Christians, but the Moravians’ response was the Ground of the Unity.
- The Ecumenical Movement was at its peak in the two decades following WWII in Europe and America. The first assembly of the World Council of Churches was held in 1947, and Moravians were involved in its work. In many countries, there were important church mergers that produced new national churches, such as the United Church of Canada and the Church of South India. In the United States there were several mergers or reunions of Protestant churches, such as the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.
Unity Synod 1957
1957 marked the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Moravian Church. Despite the turmoil of recent world history, there was a feeling of optimism and pride in the church. Moravians took a new look at their history and resolved to continue the mission of their forebears in faith. By examining Moravian history, many of the church’s leaders recognized that the church had gone through periods of trial and emerged stronger. At various points the church had boldly re-organized itself in order to pursue its calling. Certainly the church had suffered tribulation in World War II and was facing unprecedented challenges. Drawing courage from the past, the church’s leaders made the decision to reorganize the Moravian Church completely in 1957.
Previously there had been four provinces in Europe and America with numerous mission fields governed by the Mission Board. Following World War I, the Americans and British had taken over greater responsibility for the work of the Mission Board, but it was clear that the post-WWII church would need a different structure. There was a strong desire for the mission areas to become financially self-sufficient. The number of missionaries would have to be reduced as well. It was also unclear whether the mission fields would be able to remain a part of the Moravian Church when the former colonies gained independence. Some of the new nations adopted Marxist governments or nationalized many businesses. Some restricted the flow of currency in and out the country. The highly profitable Kirsten Co. in Surinam, which was owned by the church, was threatened with nationalization.
Moreover, there was a drive for independence and self-determination in the various mission areas that corresponded with the anti-colonial sentiment. There was a real danger that the Moravian Church would splinter into a dozen or more independent national churches. There was also the possibility that local Moravian churches might unite with other churches in that country.
Unity Synod made the bold move of granting independence to many of the mission areas, giving them the same status in the Unity as the American, British and Continental Provinces. A procedure was established so that any former mission area could achieve status as an independent province of the Unity in the future. The northern hemisphere provinces assumed responsibility for financial and administrative assistance during the transitional period, but the goal was eventual equality among the provinces. Those provinces that chose to stay in the Unity would have equal representation at Unity Synod which would establish the constitution for the world-wide Moravian Church.
Later changes in the Ground of the Unity
The Ground of the Unity was written as the doctrinal statement for the reorganized Moravian Church. It was intended to provide the foundation for the various provinces to build their own churches as well as a common statement that united Moravians in many countries. Changes in the Ground of the Unity must be approved by Unity Synod. Other than some updating of language, there have been two significant changes in the Ground of the Unity since it was adopted. One was the inclusion of a paragraph discussing personal faith in 1981. The other was a rewording of the statement on Scripture in 1995. The Unity Synod of 2002 reaffirmed the Ground of the Unity as the doctrinal statement for the entire Moravian Church.
Think for a moment about the situation in the world in 1957 when the Unity Synod met. What is your understanding of that time? Since Americans tend to view the 1950s as a time of peace and prosperity, consider the reality in the rest of the world in the wake of World War II using the section Historical Situation in 1957.
- What challenges did these events present to Christians around the world?
- In what ways might churches have responded to such major social changes?
- Is it important to have a statement that is common to all provinces of the world-wide Moravian church?
- Re-read the summary of the Eight Chief Doctrines.
- Does this sound like traditional Moravian theology?
- Why do you think that so many people wanted to change it?
From the January/February 2016 Moravian Magazine