The Moravian Motto: An Aphorism or Spiritual Wisdom?

In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love  or charity

What comes to mind when you read these words? Do you routinely turn to this motto as an underpinning for your decisions, interactions, even when facing a faith crisis? When is the last time you have drawn on this common Moravian affirmation?

This article is an invitation to visit and re-visit this motto by self-reflection and prayer; with others in your church or community; or by writing your understanding of the motto for a future article in The Moravian Magazine.

Here is the backstory for this article and to the questions posed for you, the reader. In late 2020, Allen Bergmann, Bill Blickensdefer, John Griffith, Thomas Haupert and Ted Bowman (all graduates of Moravian College and all clergy) began meeting via Zoom. Since then, the group has morphed to be a valuable spiritual resource for each and all.

This has been a surprise because this group of men overlapped only for a brief time in the 1960’s at Moravian College or Moravian Theological Seminary. From those settings we went our separate ways into ministries and community service. All had little to no contact with one another for over 50 years, until 2020.

The early focus of the Zoom gatherings was on introducing ourselves to one another. Each served in ministry at Moravian or other Protestant churches, some for a few years, others until retirement. Initial stories expanded and deepened to life reviews (a range of challenges, losses and joys) that led recently to an extended discussion of our understandings of and use of the Moravian motto for our personal and spiritual lives. Interestingly, we all shared some degree of attachment to the words. The motto intrigued and informed our individual theologies. Here are some of the statements we shared.

When someone asks what’s special about the Moravian Church, I often point to our history, and then affirm that we hold the same core beliefs that other Christian groups do. And I like to point to our motto, “In essentials, unity. . . (and so forth).” When I talk about those essentials, a truly ecumenical moment often occurs, in that I and the other person see that we agree about what’s truly important.

When various issues loom large, often dividing our congregations, I find that these essentials often get pushed to the side, and are even lost sight of. Rather than get involved in these issues, I feel called to keep focused upon these essentials, and to study Scripture in order to listen for these essentials, that I may understand them better, because through the church’s 2,000 years of history, it’s by such listening that needed church renewal has come.

— Tom Haupert

When I was asked if I’d be interested in joining four other Moravian College classmates. I was quickly reminded of Ludolph Schlicht’s hymn, “What brought us together, what joined our hearts?”  My answer was a reminder of the Moravian Church’s motto, “In all things, love.”  How else can one explain this mystical union after six decades of separation that somehow has tethered us together for the last four years on monthly zoom meetings living in different states and country?

Several of my classmates have now affiliated with other denominations. It’s been amazing to see how God has blessed each of us in our life’s journeys, in the good times as well as the difficult times. We have discussed various issues on personal, philosophical and theological level with appreciation and enlightenment. It’s been a joy to share very personal life experiences, support each other as well as having some humor and laughter. Yes, the Moravian church’s motto of unity, liberty and in all things love has kept us together.

­— Al Bergman

I have been engaged in a life-long question to find words – the words of others through conversations, poetry, song lyrics, fiction, non-fiction, scriptures – and/or my own words – to acknowledge and address ambiguous experiences. Many life experiences in my early years revealed more ambiguity than clarity. Students from a nearby college were not served coffee at a Woolworth’s because they were Black. Boys were encouraged to pursue ministry; girls not so. Later, the Vietnam war evoked core questions about my willingness to kill fellow humans because my government told me to do so. The list of ambiguous conundrums seems now to be endless. My present neighbors lean toward “clarity,” some asserting that the United States is a Christian nation. My understanding of God is of a god who loves all peoples, not some more than others.

When I was introduced to the Moravian motto, I found comfort in its ambiguity. Essentials? Extravagant welcome and service seems foremost to Jesus. Essential for me is often singing In Christ There is No East or West or O Master, Let Me Walk with You.

In non-essentials, liberty and in all-things, love. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote with humility that, “Someone might read what I wrote and discover something there that I myself did not see but which might just as valid as my original thought.” My understanding of his assertion is that I need to listen respectfully to the voice of the neighbor, sibling and stranger.

—Ted Bowman

This 11-word statement has been a powerful message guiding my personal and spiritual life. I have always been a curious person, asking questions and wondering about the universe (outer space) and the inner space of heart and belief. Some people go into ministry because they have a strong call to share their faith with others. I went into ministry because I had a strong call to explore my relationship with the divine and be part of a community that is on this same journey of exploration.

To me “In Essentials Unity” is about the unity of all of life—the  blessing of freedom to wonder about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit while also wondering about science, creation, evolution in a wondrous unity. My questions were a positive experience, letting me expand on what I knew while calling forth a faith that believed God is in all things. For centuries Moravians have reached out to people all around the world establishing relationships that introduced them to the love of God. Love, health, education and community development were signs of the unity of the human spirit at work with the Holy Spirit.

Determining what is essential and what is non-essential is the work of love, building bridges, not walls. I remain a Moravian at heart as this motto from my beginning in the Moravian Church allowed me to discover deeper connections and new ways of living faithfully.

— John Griffith

Even as a child, into young adulthood, I have always felt a calling to become a Moravian pastor. As a pastor I served three Moravian churches and as District Youth Minister for the Eastern District. Then, I chose to go into a different direction, still feeling a calling but not limited to those directly related to the church. I was a high school guidance counselor, sales and marketing manager for two companies, and Admission’s Officer at Northampton Community College.  

Throughout that time, I never lost my call to ministry. Our Moravian motto took incredible importance in these different careers.  It always made perfect sense to me how fundamentally true it is regardless of my experiences, religious and secular.

Recently joining the East Hills Moravian Church in Bethlehem, I participate in the Adult Bible Study.  This terrific and diverse group has studied and discussed many different biblical passages, frequently referring to and ending sessions with our Moravian motto.

—­Bill Blickensderfer

We are curious about how other Moravians, even congregations, draw on this motto for guidance or support and for other sorts of reasons.

Send your thoughts about “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, love” to us at [email protected].

This article was compiled and edited  by Ted Bowman of St. Paul, Minn.