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.
Although the church of the Unitas Fratrum had officially existed in Bohemia as a Protestant Church since 1457, the Church of Rome through political allies refused to recognize it’s legitimacy. For 200 years, the Brethren encountered persecution in various forms; from bullying to banishment; from prison to death. Twice they were forced to flee Bohemia: in 1548 (for 30 years) and again in 1620 (for over 80 years).
Whether in hiding or in flight, generations of Brethren developed unique survival skills: daily social engagement required a humble demeanor with minimal eye contact; remain constant vigilance of threats around you; don’t talk about your past; wear no clothing that will set you apart; blend in; become invisible.
Although the faith continued to be practiced in the privacy of their homes using traditional Bibles, Hymnals, and Catechism lessons, the “Unity” of the ancient Brethren seemed likely to dim with the passing of each generation.
Coffee with Christian David (1690-1751)
Q. I understand you were raised a Roman Catholic near Fulneck, Moravia, where some Brethren were hiding. What do you recall of your early impressions about the Brethren?
A. I knew little about their history. I was told the Brethren had been hiding here since well before my birth. Living among us in our little village of Senftleben, their children were my playmates. I enjoyed their cheerfulness and admired stories of their bravery although was uncertain about how much was true. My parents usually didn’t talk about them. We were Catholic – they were, well, different.
Rumor was they were once a powerful religious and educational force in all Bohemia, even greater than the Catholic Church. But their sizable numbers and practical teachings did not translate into political strength or savvy. Perhaps they were never destined to become a large church.
Q. How then did you happen to become involved with them?
A. It’s a long story. In adolescence, I seemed filled with unspent physical and mental energy. I often wondered about the reason for my own existence. When apprenticing to become a carpenter, I came to realize my restless mind might interfere with a vocation focused on physical accomplishment.
My questions to adults about religion were met by rolling eyes and puzzling replies. “Why does this precocious young man ask such questions?” Catholics described Protestants with hostility. Lutherans and Calvinists described Catholics the same way. I didn’t understand why both sides harbored such intense desire to demean the other. I had been baptized a Catholic but found myself struggling to commit my heart to any religion.
In 1710 when I turned 20, I turned to the Bible for answers. Intense study lifted the fog slightly. For example, I concluded for myself that Jesus was indeed the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Reading the New Testament I concluded that the Bible was indeed the Word of God. What seemed missing for me was a community of conviction for me to join and fully practice my faith.
I left Moravia to travel, mostly to test my capacity to make a living as an itinerant carpenter but also to search for a compatible faith. In Berlin, I renounced my Catholic faith to join the Lutheran Church, but Lutherans seemed stiff and cold. I did not find their members godly and true. To make matters worse they mocked me for my overt pious behavior.
I left Berlin in disgust, enlisted in the Prussian Army, and served in the 1715 war against Sweden, but found the brotherhood among soldiers no better than among civilians. Upon discharge I wandered from town to town like the fabled philosopher seeking an honest man, picking up carpentry jobs as I wandered. Then I arrived in the town of Gorlitz, SiIesia in 1717 where I found a pious Lutheran clergyman who embodied characteristics I was seeking.
Years of searching must have weakened me. I contracted a deadly disease that lasted 3 months during which time I had to rely totally upon daily treatment provided by this kind pastor. As restless and independent as I had been for years, being confined to my bed at the door of death taught a huge lesson in humility. Fellowship of the pastor and that of his church brought me contentment I sought.
I remained in Gorlitz from 1717 to 1722. Contented, yes, but my restless nature welled up inside me. I felt enlightened by this pious group and wanted to shout about the joy and fulfillment I had found. I was 32 when I decided to travel again, this time back into Moravia, inspired to spread the news about my newfound piety
In the back of my mind, I had a vague childhood impression of the reserved Bohemian Brethren who struck me as so unusual in their joyful approach to life, despite the uncertainty of their future. Was it their joy, their bravery, and conviction that impressed me? Was it their “piety?” I did not plan to seek them out in my return visits to Moravia. It just happened.
Q. Is this memory what led you to the Brethren?
A. You must realize I was just a carpenter. I was not trained to be an orator like an educated clergyman. But, I’m not shy to speak my mind and describe events of my life that energize me for the cause of Christ. So every trip to my homeland became an opportunity to share my message in a rather homey-style not typical of a trained clergyman. My plain speech earned me the title “The Bush Preacher.” My reputation spread from village to village and seemed to appeal especially to descendants of the Bohemian Brethren who were also known for their craftsmanship.
For them, my message seemed to resonate with something from their past. One evening, a group of Brethren from Fulneck, approached me to describe their life living in constant fear. They said their only desire was to find a place where they might be free to exercise the faith of their pious ancestors. Where might I recommend they look?
I was touched by their simple wish for something I took for granted – freedom of worship. My freedom to travel with my “Lutheran passport” gave me the opportunity to search for opportunities not available to them. I gladly made their search my own.
Q. How did you happen to hear about Zinzendorf and his offering of refuge to those persecuted for their faith?
A. There were always rumors. I was told Waldensians would offer refuge, as would Monks in some remote monasteries. An “Edict of Potsdam” established legal access for Huguenots to properties abandoned in Prussia. Some wealthy protestants were making plans to flee to the American frontier.
Friends in Germany told me about a devout Lutheran nobleman living just across the border of Bohemia and Poland. Rumor was that he, against the advice of his family and friends, was considering a preposterous notion of offering sanctuary to religious refugees.
When traveling around Moravia, Selesia, and Germany on my preaching journeys, I found opportunity to meet this eccentric aristocrat from Saxony called Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.
We met in Dresden and immediately seemed to hit it off. Both of us were devout Lutherans but not inclined to practicalities – dreamers, actually.
We didn’t talk long. He described his idea of creating a sanctuary on his estate in Germany for fugitives seeking religious freedom. Upon hearing this, I told him about the plight of the Brethren in Moravia. He said something might be worked out … or I think that is what he said.
I hurried back to Fulneck and suggested to a few German-speaking Brethren the idea of migrating to the generous Count’s property in East Germany. In June 1722, two families consisting of 9 people joined me for a 12-day walk over the mountain border into Saxony.
Q. From this migration came the formation of Herrnhut and renewal of the Unitas Fratrum?
A. Yes, shortly after we arrived we began building homes that would ultimately form a community able to support a communal way of living. I’m not sure if this is what the Count had envisioned. He was not home when we arrived. He returned in a few weeks to find the building effort we had started.
Upon receiving his approval to continue, I returned to Moravia to collect more emigrants, then more. Ten journeys went by virtually unnoticed, unchallenged by authorities. It was as though God was watching over us (commonly described in German with one word – “herrnhut”).
Every migrant brought with him or her a particular skill to share with all. Our landlord, Count Zinzendorf, marveled at the industriousness of “those Moravians” he called us, and our ability to build each house and street according to plan. The woods were filled with the sound of trees being felled, stones being shaped, and planks joined amidst spontaneous laughing, joking, singing, and prayer.
All agreed our new German home should be named Herrnhut. For five years, the population of Herrnhut swelled with mostly Moravians, but also Bohemians, Hungarians, Germans, Swiss, and others until it numbered nearly 300.
Welcome to Herrnhut – over which “the Lord Watches” | Drawing by Bill Needs
Q. I understand that Herrnhut was also occupied by others, not from Moravia. How did that work out?
A. Mixing cultures did strain our little village. Although all settlers professed to be Christian there was not always a desire to assimilate, or to be assimilated. On the surface, everyone was cordial but underneath the difference of protestant doctrines and cultural traditions simmered, resulted in heated arguments. Communal life was threatened to break into factions. I got so annoyed by the tension that I moved away to be alone, not wishing to associate with such hostility.
Count Zinzendorf watched these developments until he finally decided to step in. He moved from his palace home in Berthelsdorf into the Herrnhut orphanage. From there he dedicated time to stroll from home to home each day, meeting all in an impromptu manner to pray and negotiate a healing of divisions.
In the end, Zinzendorf was the only one who could objectively compose and implement a set of “house rules” by which every settler must abide. After writing, these were signed like a declaration of a truce among leaders of the factions. That document, “The Brotherly Agreement,” continues to be used to this day in Moravian Churches, worldwide.
Poignant today as it was in 1727, agreement number 2 reads as follows:
“Herrnhut, and its original old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all Children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions—they must judge none, enter into no disputes with any, nor behave themselves unseemly towards any, but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity and grace.”
Q. So a truce of sorts was established in Herrnhut. How was that enforced?
A. It is not easy to swallow one’s pride. All settlers in Herrnhut were called “protestants” for a reason. Recognizing this, it was decided enforcement would require equal shared commitment among leaders from both secular and religious communities. But there emerged another informal enforcement method that proved more effective than anything from elected “officials.”
Remember how Zinzendorf arbitrated issues of contention by “visits” to every home? I had excluded myself from the community, so I didn’t witness this. I was told later that his technique was seen as a stroke of pure genius. It was so well accepted in fact that everyone wanted to continue his example for fellowship and prayer. Groups were voluntarily formed to encourage discussion and prayer. They were called by the German name “banden”. Banden meetings produced such a sense of mutual respect that everyone willingly assumed responsibility to enforce the terms of the Brotherly Agreement.
Zinzendorf will give you more detail but I can tell you it seemed to work. I moved back into the community, was forgiven for my absence. I was even granted a position as Chief Elder. A spirit of cooperation grew throughout the community. It was tangible Everyone felt it until reaching a glorious climax on August 13. I’ll also leave that wonder-filled part of the story to be told by Brother Zinzendorf.
Q. How did you and Zinzendorf get along during these all developments?
A. We are obviously quite different. He was a learned attorney and nobleman, comfortable in the presence of royalty and affluence. I was a carpenter, skilled to assemble pieces of wood into furniture, a carriage, even a home, and qualified to gather craftsmen for a project. He desired to focus on the big picture. I was never inclined to remain in one place, feeling my talents were better used starting projects wherever I was led. We were both dreamers, not unlike most everyone living in Herrnhut. But we knew each other’s strengths and flaws.
Zinzendorf directed my travels according to where he discerned my talents were needed. We trusted each other immensely and endorsed each other’s instincts. We didn’t always agree but we made a good team, along with other immigrants who would emerge as leaders for Herrnhut.
Q. Was the evolution of Herrnhut the end of your work?
A. On the contrary, during the next 20 years, the renewed Unitas Fratrum sent me to remote parts of Europe and the world. I was sent to preach, but also to answer inquiries, often accompanied by other Brethren as needed.
When I think about it, I wonder what would have happened to the remnants of the ancient Unitas Fratrum had we not been led to each other. I wonder what would have happened to me. The devotion of descendants to the faith of the ancient Brethren had surprisingly lasted long after the 30 Years War and banishment. It is conceivable that the descendants of Bohemian Brethren would have dried up in only another generation or two. And I would likely have continued my “bush preaching.” It seems God had determined the work of the Unitas Fratrum was not done, nor was mine.
I remained a “Bush Preacher,” telling the story of our Lord from my heart. I also talked about the unlikely blessings laid upon me and the community of Herrnhut. Even John Wesley heard my message and decided to visit Herrnhut to see for himself. I traveled to Greenland by way of New York and Pennsylvania. My carpentry projects remained in each of these locations long after my departure. Can you, in your wildest dreams, imagine what a full life I lived?
I still believe my simple message was inspired by God and was used to inspire others who might regard themselves as simply “Sunday School teachers.” Each of us are led by the Holy Spirit to view our lives full of unique opportunities. We must choose to apply our talents to these opportunities, regardless of how grand or how small. What an honor!
Life in hiding was hardly fulfilling and, as the 30 Years’ War faded into memory, intimidation continued in Bohemia and Moravia. Christian David offered the grown grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Brethren an appealing option to leave their fatherland for a distant land. Despite obvious uncertainty, migration offered greater promise than remaining.
The flight of these refugees was largely unnoticed by authorities. Authorities were likely also grandsons of ancient persecutors but no longer driven to punish the tattered remnants of the Unitas Fratrum.
This was a time when migrations were occurring throughout Europe; some voluntary and some forced. Jews driven out of Portugal and Spain under the Inquisition found acceptance in Scandinavia. Pilgrims and Puritans ostracized from the Church of England found refuge as settlers in the New World. Anabaptist sects of Christianity now known as Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite had similar destinies.
Europe’s discovery of the new worlds introduced the Age of Colonialism. Land across the ocean was basically “free” for colonists! That man could “own“ the Creator’s land by simply claiming so was beyond comprehension to “savages” inhabiting the American continent. They were caught completely off guard when European colonists began arriving for this enticing opportunity.
Forced migration was less enticing. Slaves from Africa’s west coast were treated like livestock, purchased by Europeans, and shipped across the Atlantic to become cheap labor for agriculture and mining ventures. Sugar and rum, an island product, was shipped to Europe. Textiles and guns were shipped to Africa, traded for slaves; then ships re-supplied with a human cargo sailed west again to perpetuate the segment of the maritime triangle now known as the “Middle Passage.”
While these migrations were converging far from Europe, a young German Count, Ludwig Nicholas von Zinzendorf, was being molded to play a role in this convergence. He joins us for coffee on September 12.
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].