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Coffee with Moravian Ancestors: Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf

BCM Spotlight Banner BY WILLIAM NEEDS |

Note: This is part of a multi-month blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill will sit down with important figures in the Moravian church to have a cup of (Moravian) coffee, asking questions about his or her life and how they have impacted the church! Look for Bill’s other blog posts here. To accompany his blog posts, he has drawn the images from his trip to Europe on the Roots of the Moravian Church Tour. For more art, visit Bill’s website at BillNeeds.com.

German aristocrats were entitled at birth to achieve greatness. Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf inherited the title of “Count” of the Estate of Berthelsdorf and, of course, was groomed to serve royalty in Saxony’s governing seat of Dresden. He had all the required qualifications, he came from landed gentry reaching back into Austria. Despite his father’s death while an infant and his mother’s remarrying and departure, his upbringing was left to a capable grandmother. She assured he would be well-groomed, disciplined, educated, articulate in many languages, and “Lutheran.”

In the early 1700’s flames for reformation in Lutheran and Calvinist Europe had cooled and public morals were generally slipping. Lutheran pastor P.J. Spener hoped to revive the church by promoting “piety” which emphasized personal prayer and Bible reading over dogma. Spener was also godfather to young Zinzendorf so he became a father-figure to raise him in a strong pietist tradition. At age 4 Zinzendorf began “home-schooling” by a live-in tutor. At age 10 he was sent to a pietist school at Halle to deepen his spirituality. In his teens, Zinzendorf organized classmates into a club named “The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed”; dedicated to three central vows:

1. be true to Christ,
2. be kind to all people,
3. spread the gospel to the world.

Throughout his lifetime, Zinzendorf continued to recruit members to this unique club from diverse geographical and religious backgrounds; i.e. the Catholic Archbishop of Paris, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, The King of Denmark, the Governor of the US colony of Georgia, the Chief of the Creek Nation of American “Indians” and others. His was a time when the expression of religious belief made a difference. Zinzendorf’s thoughts were radical and strangely ecumenical. He believed that each denomination had a unique perception of Christ and that perception was a unique gift to offer the world. In his eyes, none was better than the other. Upon graduation from college, his inclination toward spiritual matters set him onto a wildly unpredictable path.

 

Coffee with Count Zinzendorf 1700 – 1760

Q. You are a German aristocrat and a Lutheran. How did you happen to become involved with the refugees from Moravia?
 
A. “What are you doing? Are you insane?” I heard these comments from family and other noblemen when I was 22 and had received my law degree from Wittenburg. I was then prepared for royal assignments in the courts of the realm. Instead, I declined, choosing instead to become a “landlord” for a bunch of refugees from foreign lands! What was I thinking? Let me explain.
 
At an early age, I was unusually idealistic about my Christian duty. Born into privilege, my Godfather sent me for pietistic instruction at Halle where the notion took root that I should use my wealth and reputation to further the Christian message. The Mustard Seed Club is an example of my early aspirations. Reading accounts from missionaries stirred my imagination of what I could do.
 
After graduation, I kept my apartment in Dresden while purchasing a piece of land and a village called Berthelsdorf from my grandmother. I was beginning to kick around a loosely conceived idea about proselytizing by printing tracts from my personal writings to support itinerant evangelists. I also considered turning Berthelsdorf into a sanctuary to those fleeing religious persecution where I might then establish a college to provide education based upon Christian principals. It was 1722 when I caught the attention of a wandering preacher named Christian David while he visited Dresden.
 
He seemed to be a unique breed of Lutheran; an accomplished carpenter and a charismatic preacher. He was pious but spoke convincingly about his faith and his search for religious sanctuary for friends hiding in Moravia. Captivated by the fervor of his plea, I granted him conditional approval to bring a few immigrants to Berthelsdorf.
 
Q. Did you have any idea of what would evolve from your invitation?
 
A. Truthfully, I didn’t have a clue. My attention was focused on starting a publishing business. Besides, I had to tend to other duties in both Dresden and Berthelsdorf, typically expected of a nobleman.
 
In the back of my mind, I imagined Berthelsdorf would be a haven for religious fugitives who might willingly become a society under the structure of the Berthelsdorf Lutheran Church similar to the “Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed.” Before I realized it, this energetic carpenter took me at my word, returning to my Saxony property with a number of Czech/German-speaking families mostly in their 20’s. He also promptly issued work assignments to build homes, roads, and businesses linked by inviting footpaths. Thus began Herrnhut.
 
Of course, it was prudent to assure any settlement on my land was proper and orderly so I assigned oversight to Rev. Rothe, pastor of the Lutheran Church in Berthelsdorf. He eagerly assumed duties as property manager in my absence realizing that the increase of immigrants would assure a growing congregation of worshipers.
 
The immigrants from Moravia struck me as a serious lot: hard workers and diligent in their duties. Each arrived in Herrnhut having mastered a hand-craft that fit into the whole. Everyone was courteous but fiercely independent.
 
They came to Herrnhut from different parts of Moravia and Bohemia so I was surprised that everyone displayed the same unusual behavioral trait of cooperation. They willingly assumed job assignments appropriate for their skill as would be found in communal living. Their rules stated that land, buildings, and all equipment belonged to the community, although holding private property was not forbidden. Individuals contributed their talents and labor to the community and received in return whatever they needed. This was probably a survival trait practiced and passed down through generations since the 1500s.
 
There was another curiosity. Each person was extremely pious, committed to living each hour of the day as a continuous praise offering to God. Each task began and ended by acknowledging God’s involvement. Children were taught reading, writing, and spelling, and also good behavior using a common primer called Questions to the Children. An extraordinary sense of unity seemed based upon their mutual love of God.
 
Their manner of worship was also extraordinary. Every family seemed to own and cherish a printed hymnal. Rich harmony and poetic words were often memorized from that hymnal, a testimony to it’s continued use over the generations. Group worship was impressive in that it seemed to require no leader due to familiarity with the harmonic music and litany.
 

Lutheran Church in Berthelsdorf, Germany | Drawing by Bill Needs

 
Q. It seems you took on a huge gamble to gather so many on your estate. How did that work out?
 
A. Herrnhut grew into a commune of 300 refugees in only 5 years. Not all settlers were Brethren from Moravia so interactions were not always smooth. Immigrants from other sects found Moravians strange if not extreme. Some arrivals had developed abrasive personalities to survive in exile and those seemed spoiling for a fight. Others were zealous in defending their religious ideology and wanted to argue their case. Leaders of Unitas Fratrum tradition encourage humility and found rude and disrespectful behavior unacceptable. Strife threatened to divide the community. Rev Rothe was ineffective in his attempts to control. Even Christian David excluded himself from the group as the tension swelled.
 
The community seemed just about ready to come apart when I felt it was my duty to step in to resolve the dilemma. I’ll spare you the details since Christian David already described how my visits to each home stirred a reuniting spirit culminating in writing and signing of the Brotherly Agreement on May 12, 1727.
 
Q. You mention the process which led to creating this agreement was a spiritual event as well. Would you elaborate?
 
A. I found the Moravian settlers tend to be sticklers for details, especially with words. They are fiercely loyal to the idea that each action taken, every word spoken is designed to glorify God. I was warmed by my welcome into each home and the diligence I found to seek resolution. Everyone gave input.
 
When I shared the Brotherly Agreement I was struck by how it was received; not as a casual promise but rather a personal covenant made with each other and with God. Everyone had their say. The Holy Spirit was freed to move around Herrnhut. What followed was significant!
 
Each resident wanted to continue learning more about their neighbor. They decided to continue the process of home visits as a workable forum to discuss issues, share scriptures, and pray. Men and women with common interests and personalities drifted toward each other. They used the German word “Banden” to describe their discussion and prayer groups. For three months Banden meetings became an integral tool to permanently heal divisions that had plagued our community.
 
Q. Your social experiment seemed to be working. Was this simply a rational extension of the truce, or was something else at work?
 
A. I am now convinced there was “something more.” While conducting research for my newspaper in July, I uncovered a document that became a revelation for me personally. I stumbled across a publication of Comenius titled Ratio Disciplinae. Works of Comenius were well known throughout the academic world of Europe but this particular document had recently been found, translated, and published in 1702.
 
What stunned me was that the words found in this publication on discipline were essentially the same words I used in preparing the Brotherly Agreement! I was left breathless.
 
It occurred to me that perhaps providence was at work to bring these refugees, these pious children of the ancient Unitas Fratrum, out of Moravia to my doorstep in Germany. Perhaps they were indeed the “hidden seed” of which Comenius had written. And perhaps the words I used to establish discipline in Herrnhut were inspired by God in order to resonate so among the Moravian settlers.
 
All this was confirmed by spiritual revelation on August 13.
 
Q. Christian David mentioned August 13. I’d like to hear more, please continue.
 
A. When you think about it, this series of events could easily have ended differently. Those Moravian settlers were tradesmen with young families. They had an independent streak hardened by exile. Most were in their 20s, not well educated nor skilled at oratory or debate practiced in universities. But, in other ways, they were unique!
 
Their “bloodline” went back to peasant farmers in the 1400s who capitalized on the end of Feudalism. Literacy opened opportunities and economic growth for them. Many prospered by perfecting trades of their fathers and domestic skills of their mothers. Persistence and perfection was part of their DNA.
 
Their church had also prospered by its unique message, encouraging a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Although persecution had separated them by miles and years of exile, they nevertheless remained united by a slender thread of tradition practiced daily and passed down through perhaps 7 generations.
 
Their traditions were rooted in teachings from cherished documents of the Unitas Fratrum:

– the Kralic Bible and “pocket scriptures” written in Czech and printed during the time of Jan Augusta; – the Unitas Fratrum Hymnal printed by Luke of Prague, and his “primer” Questions to the Children which offered easily memorized and repeated theological lessons; – theological writings of Bishop Comenius had mostly been destroyed, but careful reading of his educational theories revealed the spirituality of ancient Brethren embedded in that material.

It continues to impress me when I consider that, while deprived of religious freedom since the 1500s, each Moravian settler was familiar with the same rituals to keep hope alive and faith intact… for what reason, only God knew.
 
August 13 in Herrnhut began like any other day. A beautiful summer morning, Wednesday worship service was devoted to communion and song, beginning with the traditional message and testimony. As usual, Reverend Rothe shared the sanctuary of Bertheldorf’s Lutheran Church for this service.
 
What occurred that morning simply cannot be described to anyone not present! It was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a congregation of believers who had spent 3 months prayerfully seeking some revelation for their continued existence. The emotions were powerful. The Spirit was far-reaching: Brethren visiting the Sorau orphanage miles away, even Brethren serving a mission in Hungary, were driven to their knees at exactly 10 am, stopping what they were doing to pray and offer praise. Nobody wanted to leave the church in Berthelsdorf or the exhilaration found in this Spirit-fed moment.
 
I sent a message to the manor house asking cooks to bring food and beverage to the church in order to have worshipers linger and share the feast of spiritual joy well into the evening. (This simple ceremony has become an informal custom known as the Moravian “lovefeast.”)
 
The impact of this event has been compared to the Bible’s Pentecost experience. In fact, it was for the Moravian Church! August 13, 1727 has become the date signifying a spiritual rebirth of the “Renewed Unitas Fratrum ”- and, the lovefeast might be regarded it’s “birthday party”.
 
Q. I assume the excitement caused by this event would eventually diminish. Was it maintained and, if so, how?
 
A. Consider the sequence of events: During the winter of 1727 dissension threatened to tear Herrnhut apart. When I began my visits to negotiate a settlement, everyone participated, no exceptions! A truce, of sorts, was made on May 12, following intense prayer and deliberations. The Brotherly Agreement was signed on May 12 but everyone agreed more was needed to make the conditions of the truce stick. Banden prayer meetings were held to unite the community and tamp down any issues of disagreement before they boiled over. Observing all this spontaneous action I noted that Herrnhut was beginning to truly represent “a visible habitation of God among men.” Three months later, on August 13, we were visited by the Holy Spirit. The Moravian lovefeast, first celebrated that day, has come to memorialize that wondrous event.
 
But the Spiritual stirring did not stop there. Two weeks later, on August 27, twenty-four men and twenty women entered into a covenant that each would spend one hour each day, as assigned by lot, in prayer. Word spread throughout Herrnhut and soon men, women, and children volunteered, increasing the number of intercessors to 72. Then more came forth.
 
This intercessory prayer commitment would remain active for 100 years, growing to the point that thousands around the globe would commit to fill their assigned hour in prayer for the church and the world.
 
And finally, there is the Moravian practice of time, allotted daily for personal devotion, centered around reading the Daily Text. This practice began in Herrnhut when I was called to lead, each morning and evening, a community service to give thanks for our blessings. Approaching the first anniversary of the Brotherly Agreement I decided to present, as part of the evening thanksgiving, a “watchword” (“losung” in German) to accompany listeners in their affairs the following day.
 
My watchword was so well received that brothers and sisters volunteered to carry the watchword into each home in the community. It was used as a conversation-starter to engage families in discerning it’s personal meaning for them that day.
 
From this daily oral transmission, “The Moravian Daily Text” grew into a printed form (in 1731) with 365 watchwords for the entire year. By 1737, the printed version of Losungen was being shared on every inhabited continent of the world.
 
These momentous events happened during 1727 and 1728.
 
Remember my plan to shape Herrnhut residents into a service club under the Lutheran parish of Berthelsdorf? Needless to say, all this weighed heavily on me as I came to realize the Lord was nudging me closer to the Moravians and my influence would shape the future of the “renewed Unitas Fratrum.” Although it went against my Lutheran instincts, the next 5 years would prepare us for a shared destiny.

Herrnhut attracted hundreds of religious refugees during the first 5 years. However peaceful coexistence seemed uncertain due to the nature of headstrong settlers. When Count Zinzendorf established strict house rules based upon religious principals in May of 1727 stability returned. When the entire community experienced a mass religious conversion on August 13, Herrnhut leaders began to rethink the purpose of Herrnhut. “What does this phenomenon mean, and what are we to do with it?” During the next five years, attention was directed upon improving the manner in which their strict pietist lifestyle would discern and serve the Lord. Some unusual leaders rose to the task, one a precocious teenager. Our next coffee conversation will be with Anna Nitschman on October 11.

Note: This is part of a multi-month blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill will sit down with important figures in the Moravian church to have a cup of (Moravian) coffee, asking questions about his or her life and how they have impacted the church! Look for Bill’s other blog posts, all titled “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” To accompany his blog posts, he has drawn the images from his trip to Europe on the Roots of the Moravian Church Tour. For more art, visit Bill’s website at BillNeeds.com.
 

About the Author

Photo courtesy of Bill Needs.

Raised in the Moravian Church in Dover Ohio, Bill graduated from Moravian College in 1962. A drop-out of Moravian Theological Seminary, Bill now lives with his wife, Sara in Marietta, Georgia. Bill’s career served disabled individuals and employers in providing realistic vocational choices as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. After retirement in 2004, Bill discovered he had a previously unknown artistic talent for drawing.  Now, when Bill and Sara travel, he supplements his photography record with art inspired by the scenes and experiences. For more art, visit Bill’s website at BillNeeds.com. For discussion about art or blog content, email [email protected].


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