And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. Acts 10:42
The history of modern missions almost always comes back to a discussion about William Carey seeing that he influenced men such as Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, and Hudson Taylor.1 However, few realize that Carey was influenced by a revival in Germany and a group that literally changed Protestantism forever. Under the direction of a young German Pietistic Count, refugees from Bohemia and Moravia joined together in a prayer revival that at times led 80 percent of their group to leave the comforts of home to share the love of Jesus to a lost world. Their influence shaped church leaders such as Wesley, Carey, Whitefield, Bonheoffer and they left an impression of godliness that still is felt today. The current 24/7 prayer revival of youth worldwide mirrors the prayer life of these believers.2
The Bohemian Brethren flourished in their home country while following the teachings of the reformer, John Hus, for nearly three centuries under various names. However, waves of persecution and the Thirty Years War eventually began taking a toll on the group.3 Later, following a revival under the direction of Christian David, the Brethren left home for a place in a neighboring protestant land, Germany, where they could be sheltered from the intense hatred they experienced at home. It seems possible that God used the persecution and the loss of their homeland of Moravia and Bohemia as preparation for the hardships of a missionary life they would one day face.
In Germany, a young Count Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf was being prepared by the Lord also as a leader who could assist Christians at enmity with one another. He strongly felt that men needed to focus on the call of Christ. He believed that God wished for us to follow Christ with a simple child like faith and devotion while serving the world around us. A godson of the Lutheran preacher Philip Jacob Spener, Zinzendorf grew close to the Lord under much influence from the Pietistic Movement. It was rare to see nobility who had such a fervent heart for Christ.
While attending the Pietistic school of Halle, he and five friends formed the group known as the Order of the Mustard Seed; although it was originally known as the Confessors of Christ. Among the many tenets of this group was this promise, “This then is the aim of our work in the whole world: that we reach the hearts of all for the sake of the One who gave his life for our souls.”4 Also at Halle in 1715, Zinzendorf had met some early missionaries such as Ziegenbald who had shared Christ overseas in the Indian colony of Tranquebar.5 While God was shaping the Moravians through hardship, he seems to have been grooming Zinzendorf as a leader able to overcome division (some believe he is the first user of the word “ecumenism”) and focus on serving Christ and the preaching of the gospel.5
Through a mutual friend, Christian David and Count Zinzendorf were brought together. David asked if the count would consider allowing a persecuted group of foreign believers to form a monastic style village on his estate. Zinzendorf had actually been considering this idea before this “chance” meeting and had already purchased the Berthelsdorf Estate from his grandmother. Upon arrival, the town named Herrnhut, The Lord’s Watch, was formed. Yet, it was far from being a Christian utopia.6
The village was settled in December 1722 with only ten people. By 1725 the population had grown to ninety and then to as many as three hundred by 1726.7 As the population grew, so did the problems. Doctrinal issues began to cause much strife. It seemed that the same divisions that were causing wars throughout Europe would affect this community. By 1727, this ecumenist community was comprised of Moravians, Catholics, Lutherans, Separatists, Pietists, Reformed and the Gichtelian.8 Doctrinal arguments such as the recurring dispute between Calvinism and Arminianism also began to separate believers. It seemed that the failure of this enterprise was certain. Even the relationship between David and Zinzendorf was tested.
However, on the night of August 13th, 1727 a move of God described as another Pentecost by witnesses occurred during a meeting. David wrote, “From that time on, Herrnhut became a living Congregation of Christ.”9 While Zinzendorf recorded, “it was a day of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Congregation.”10 From that day on the community changed and began to operate a season of prayer for God’s blessing and direction that lasted twenty four hours a day year round until 1827.
Not long after this event, Moravian believers, or the United Brethren as they were also called, began to send witnesses throughout Europe in pairs. On a visit to Copenhagen in 1737, Zinzendorf met a converted slave named Anthony Ulrich. Apparently, Ulrich was looking for Christians who were willing to go to the West Indies and preach the gospel to his fellow slaves. Zinzendorf returned to Herrnhut and looked for volunteers. These volunteers became the first “overseas” missionaries to be sent from United Brethren.
The stories of the success of these missionaries soon led to the sending of more around the world. In the following years over seventy missionaries were sent to regions as far away as Africa, Asia and North America. These missionaries looked on all men as equals and they shared the gospel to many shunned groups such as the black slaves and American Indians. All men would hear God’s message. At times, as much as 80 percent of the groups served in a mission’s capacity and by Zinzendorf’s death in 1760 over 200 missionaries were serving Christ worldwide.11
Their efforts touched the lives of many. On a ship to America in 1735, a group of Moravians quietly worshipped God during a violent storm that could possibly end their lives. A fearful and inquisitive young man named John Wesley was so touched that he began to reassess his relationship with Christ. Many believe that there would never have been an Aldersgate experience were it not for the later friendship of the Moravian, Peter Boehler, and this experience on the ship.
William Carey was so impressed by the efforts of the Moravians that he used their books while serving in Seramapore. He was so admiring of their work that he wrote this to the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, “See what Moravians are daring, and some of them British like ourselves, and many only artisan and poor! Can't we Baptists at least attempt something in fealty to the same Lord?”12
As the Nazi regime began to crumble, the fate of Dietrich Bonheoffer seemed certain—he would die for his preaching. As American soldiers approached the prison where he was being held Heinrich Himmler, himself, issued the execution order. When Bonheoffer’s private possessions were searched after death a copy of a book titled Losung was found in his cell. This very well worn devotion book was written by the Brethren in Herrnhut in 1731. For Bonheoffer this Bible centered devotional was a daily retreat from the pressures of this life.13
Even today, their influence is still felt. Recent men such as Nelson Mandela and others are still being affected by their exploits for Christ. Many worldwide are to this day awestruck at the model of prayer that they left. However, only Christ knows the full impact this humble group has had for His kingdom. May God help us to be so faithful!
1. Editors: Mark Galli, Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know.
(Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000) Pg. 246
2. Phil Anderson. The Lord of the Ring.
(Ventura, CA: Regal, 2007) Pg. 8
3. Bruce L. Shelly. Church History In Plain Language, 2nd Edition.
(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995) Pg. 328
4. Phil Anderson. The Lord of the Ring.
(Ventura, CA: Regal, 2007) Pg. 32
5. Ibid. Pg. 22
6. Editors: Mark Galli, Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know.
(Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000) Pg. 179
7. Ibid. Pg. 179
8. James Reetzke. “Life Among the Moravians”
Internet; available at http://countzinzendorf.ccws.org/moravians/index.html
9. Ibid. Paragraph 2
10. Ibid. Paragraph 2
11. Editors: Mark Galli, Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know.
(Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000) Pg. 180
12. S. Pierce Carey. William Carey.
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1923)
Accessed by internet at http://www.wmcarey.edu/carey/wmward/Misc%20html/moravian.html
13. Phil Anderson. The Lord of the Ring.
(Ventura, CA: Regal, 2007) Pg. 91