CCD Spotlight Blog

Coffee with Moravian Ancestors: Reverend Hans Egede

BCM Spotlight Banner BY WILLIAM NEEDS |

Note: This is part of a monthly blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill sits 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


“Missionaries” were by no means a new concept in the 18th Century. The 1st Century saw missionaries spread a reformed version of the Jewish faith as taught by Jesus from Palestine into the Mediterranean world. A missionary named Paul took the good news (Gospel) to Gentile cultures. Then St. Barnabas and local networks of lay-workers, many of who were women, evangelized Asia minor, southern Greece, and Rome. By 250 AD Christian-Jews living in Egypt translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek and missionaries carried it to the people of EASTERN Europe.

Roman rulers were suspicious of Christian missionaries because they promoted monotheism and refused to worship the Emperor. They encountered persecution by Roman authorities until Constantine emerged in 313 AD. His conversion to Christianity ended persecutions, the Bible was translated into Latin, and the Christian message was carried by missionaries throughout the Roman Empire of WESTERN Europe.

So continued the tradition of evangelism through missionaries; i.e. the commitment or act of publicly preaching the Gospel to unknowing people and cultures with the intent to share the message and teachings of Jesus Christ.

By the 16th century, Rennaisance Europe was bursting with new energy and achievement. Despite pockets of geographical and political persecution, Christianity spread across Europe and along trade routes into ASIA and AFRICA. In the 17th century, Iberian monks accompanied explorers to claim new lands and people “for God and King.” The 18th century introduced the Protestant version of “missionary service.”

It took ten years for Hans Egede, an ordained Lutheran minister from Norway, to secure royal approval for his mission to Greenland. For practical reasons it was linked to business development, an enterprise called The Bergen Greenland Company, and funded by Danish King Frederick IV and by the Royal Mission College.

Merchants hoped to find mineral wealth or at least fertile lands to expand agriculture. The Mission College hoped Egede would find and introduce the long-lost Norse explorers to the reformation message, as well as to the Inuit population. The Crown of Denmark hoped to press its geographical footprint onto the map of the new world.

Pastor Egede was given broad powers to govern the country; to raise its own army and navy, to collect taxes, and to administer justice. Egede departed on his “mission” in 1721, a year before Moravians began arriving at Herrnhut.


Zinzendorf meeting converts at Danish King coronation. | Drawing by Bill Needs


Coffee with Reverend Hans Egede, 1686 – 1758

Q. Reverend Egede, how did you know Count Zinzendorf?

A. I had heard about the reputation of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf well before meeting him at the coronation of Christian VI. He was known for his pious nature and generosity. Although he was a Lutheran, he had an ecumenical sense of Christianity which was known by the “diaspora” of Moravian representatives he sent from Herrnhut into diverse communities and churches throughout Europe. In 1728, Zinzendorf had even sent Moravian representatives to Christian’s father, King Frederick IV, offering to help my struggling effort in Greenland. I guess King Frederick declined that generous offer.

At the death of King Frederick his son, Christian VI, was crowned in the chapel of Fredericksborg Castle, near Copenhagen, in June 1731. Count Zinzendorf, a personal friend of the new king, was invited to represent nobility from the Saxony region of Germany at the coronation. This event provided me an opportunity to meet this eccentric nobleman.

Q. Why were you there?

A. At this time, Denmark and Norway were one country and the state church was Lutheran. I was a missionary for the Norwegian Lutheran Church in Greenland (a territory of Denmark) and had been invited to represent the Danish Mission College.

I also represented the Bergen Greenland Company as an emissary for its exploration and wealth development in Greenland. Thus you see my representation was both ecclesiastical and commercial.

At a coronation, it is important for the King to impress guests with Denmark’s international breadth of influence. I was asked to bring with me recent converts, two Inuit boys, to represent Denmark’s contribution to my struggling mission in Greenland. Also in attendance was an African named Anthony, a freed slave, now a man-servant of Count Laurvig. Count Laurvig consented to have Anthony represent Denmark’s colonial reach into the Caribbean Islands.

Scores of Europe’s elite, dressed in their finest, attended the coronation in the royal chapel. A reception followed the coronation in the castle’s Audience Room where the three “mission-guests” were conspicuous by wearing indigenous clothing from their country. They were to be seen, not to be engaged. I was responsible for enforcing the required protocol.

Q. It sounds like an awkward assignment. How did that work out?

A. Everyone in attendance knew and respected these social rules. Everyone, but Zinzendorf.

Count Zinzendorf had already established the reputation of a maverick, even mocked as a “kook” for his eccentricity. It was well known that at 22 years of age he had declined the traditional comforts of a nobleman. His religious devotion to establish a successful religious community on his estate was unorthodox, contrary to social norms, and seemed unbalanced. ‘Word was that he was even being threatened to be kicked out of Saxony and his own estate.

I was 45, familiar with the customs of the court, and felt a little uncomfortable when he approached me to discuss my missionary work. He was 31 and carried an air of confidence when he entered the room. His conversation with me was friendly although direct and rather intense. Then he turned his attention to the living exhibits standing beside me.

Q. What did he say?

A. He was cordial and did not make a scene. No one paid much attention to us in the back corner of the Audience Room. He asked some questions of the Inuit boys, sweating in their fur and mukluks as it was June. The conversation was difficult due to the language difference.

When he turned his attention to Count Laurvig’s servant, the conversation turned to respectful information gathering. He seemed interested in his conversion experience and the hope it held for other slave laborers. He was also curious about health, education, and humane treatment.

I couldn’t hear their discussion but later read about his impression where it is noted “the enslaved laborers in the West Indies had a miserable life and lacked knowledge of Christianity.” I think he took this report as an invitation to mount a response to that situation.

Q. What happened next?

A. The conversation ended and Zinzendorf went on his way to mingle with other dignitaries while I remained to oversee my charges. But I suspected something was developing out of the dialogue I had witnessed.

Q. Do you think Zinzendorf’s meeting these converts at the coronation stimulated his idea for Moravian missions?

A. I know nothing about future conversations held in Herrnhut, nor in Copenhagen. Later I was told Zinzendorf had arranged for the man-servant Anthony to travel to Herrnhut to tell his story in person. If that is true, it was a clever move to prepare the Elders of the Moravian Brethren for his proposal. By introducing Anthony to Elders, Count Zinzendorf had a convincing spokesman to plant the seed for establishing foreign missions using his international connections.

Zinzendorf had been a good friend of the young Danish king for years. They were about the same age, idealistic, and both strong advocates for piety and literacy. The Lutheran mission in Greenland had never found lost Norsemen, nor had it ever gained the appeal of the Inuit population. Besides, the Bergen Greenland Company was going bankrupt. It is likely that this time King Christian was open to Zinzendorf’s deal-making where his father was not.

Q. It does seem like some deal-making was going on. What happened next?

A. Nothing happened immediately. Zinzendorf was known as a man with grand ideas but lacked details on implementation. He did have international connections, but they were limited. He was rich, but not overly so. He was charismatic and idealistic to the point of childish naivety, but he brought an infectious enthusiasm to all of his ambitions.

I knew he had living on his estate a regiment of nearly 600 zealous Moravian Brethren who were hardened by their years in exile and practiced by their recent diaspora activities. They were dreamers, too. Somehow it seems the combined promise of these dreamers was influenced by God’s direction.

A full year later, word reached me that Moravian missionaries had arrived on the soil of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies. The Danish Lutheran Church had clergy there to serve the Danish settlers and it seems the Moravians had received King Christian’s approval to minister to the African slaves. It seems reasonable, doesn’t it, that Zinzendorf had made a deal with the King of Denmark to take the gospel to the islands, provided they did not interfere with Danish business ventures there? I was also informed that Zinzendorf’s offer to help the Greenland mission, previously made to King Christian’s father, was being seriously reconsidered.

In 1733, a supply ship brought three Moravian missionaries. King Christian had given his permission to establish a mission station in Greenland to be called Neu-Herrnhut. This community would eventually be known as Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk. The three missionaries were led by a carpenter, Christian David – an odd choice, I thought, in a climate where no trees grow.

Another ironic thought occurred to me. The first Moravian mission was to a population of slaves in the Caribbean Sea, 20 degrees north of the Equator. The second Moravian mission was to the free and fiercely independent Inuit population located 20 degrees south of the North Pole. Both climates offered health risks. Both populations posed extreme cultural challenges. And more missions were being planned by this little community of 600, supported not by a treasury nor by an army, but by a prayer-structure that dutifully continues day and night. It boggles the mind!

The same supply ship returned one of my convert children from Europe, infected with smallpox. Sadly, within a year, an epidemic was raging among the Inuit. When my wife succumbed to smallpox in 1735, I took her body back to Norway, leaving my son to oversee the end of my work. I would not return.


In Greenland no grain grows. The Lord’s prayer is modified; “Give us this day our daily seal…” | Drawing by Bill Needs


Q. This seems to be a sad ending to your hard work. How do you feel about being replaced by the Moravians?

A. Considering all, it was a sad farewell. So much did not go as I had hoped, neither commercially nor spiritually. But the Moravians arrived without competing interests. They were not sent to establish a colony, nor to establish a profitable business. They were sent with the sole purpose to save souls by introducing the love of Christ to those who lived in this cold and barren land.

They asked nothing of me except to teach them the language of the Inuit. I was well prepared to do this since I had spent my years in Greenland and developed the first book in an Eskimo language using the Roman alphabet.

I must tell you, my son and I were impressed with the joy, energy, and creativity the Moravians brought to this effort. Of course, this was not Germany. The lack of fertile soil and short summer meant no grains or fruits could be grown. They would be unaccustomed to a new diet consisting primarily of fish and seal. With my departure, I knew that if any soul was to be led to Christ, the Moravians were uniquely qualified to pull this off.

Beginning in 1732, Brethren were selected to begin training for foreign missions, conducted by Zinzendorf himself. He directed studies in writing, language, geography, and medicine, as well as the Bible. Besides studies, he established a rigorous “boot camp” experience testing each volunteer for signs of uncertainty, impatience, melancholy. There would be no room for faintheartedness or disloyalty to hinder their work.

Each mission candidate was required to pass an “oral exam” by responding to Zinzendorf’s questions before the whole congregation. An example is found in the 1738 record of Dr. Requier, applying to work as a medical missionary in Surinam:

Zinzendorf: What makes you think you are called to this work?
Requier: I have long felt an inward call to preach the Gospel and serve others.
Z: What do you intend to do in Surinam?
R: I will do my best to earn my living and to bring others to Christ.
Z: How do you intend to get there?
R: I shall simply trust Christ to shew me the way.
Z: How long do you intend to stay?
R: I shall stay there either til I die or til the Elders call me to another field. Z: How do you propose to treat your wife?
R: I will love her with all my heart, but not allow my love for her to interfere with my work.
Z: How will you treat the Congregation you are leaving?
R: I will honor and obey Herrnhut as my spiritual mother.
Z: How will you behave if you have to wait a long time before you leave?
R: If I have to wait for a ship, I shall simply regard the delay as the will of the Lord.

Zinzendorf demanded missionaries strictly obey both civil and ecclesiastical laws of the country where they were sent. He insisted they abstain from political activity or in controversial social issues such as employer-employee relations. He required that they possess an occupational skill upon which they would rely to make a living.

Three additional guidelines were issued to Moravian missionaries:

  1. live humbly among the heathens, never lording it over them;
  2. preach the crucified Christ first and foremost, leaving subjects such as “the creation” and “the fall” for later instruction;
  3. control ambitious goals, i.e. avoid trying to convert an entire nation. Rather watch for and engage individuals seeking the truth.

Finally, Zinzendorf imparted to his trainees a spirit of self-effacement. He told them “You must never lord it over the heathens but humble yourself among them and earn their esteem through the power of the Spirit.” He explained the missionary must seek nothing for himself: no seat of honor, no report of fame. “Like the cab-horses in London,” the Count said, “the missionary must wear blinders and ignore every danger to the right or left, every snare and conceit. He must be content to suffer, to die and to be forgotten.”

In Zinzendorf’s lifetime, no missionary biographies were published. Letters from missionaries in distant lands were often hand-copied for reading in meetings but were never printed for general use.

(This daring dream to carry the Christian Gospel throughout the world became an epic of selfless devotion. Twenty out of twenty-nine Moravian missionaries died during the first year.)


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

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 For discussion about art or blog content, email [email protected].

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