Notable Christians: Count Zinzendorf

This piece is as much about the Moravian church as it is about Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, its founder. Both have secured a place not only in church history but secular history as well. Surprisingly, however, there has been little written about Zinzendorf in English for quite some time. The main biography to appear in English during the past half century is Phil Anderson’s The Lord of the Ring (Regal, 2007).

Zinzendorf (1700-1760) is most noted for founding the Moravian renewal movement in the eighteenth century, and igniting the fire for world missions. His impact is still felt today, and all believers need to know something about this amazing figure.

He was born into an aristocratic family in Austria, and eventually followed his father in engaging in government work, including providing legal counsel to the king at Dresden. But he was spiritually nurtured early on by the Lutheran Pietists, and his concerns for Christ and the Kingdom soon took priority.

While a student at Halle he formed an accountability group with five others called the “Slaves of Virtue”. Around 1716 he formed a religious order, the “Confessors of Christ” which eventually was called the “Order of the Mustard Seed”. Members wore a gold ring with the words “None of us lives for himself” inscribed in Greek.

At a time when most Christian groups had little mission focus, Zinzendorf and his friends greatly highlighted the importance and necessity of missions. And he also discovered that true followers of Jesus were not confined to Protestant circles. He was willing to work with anyone who had a deep and passionate love for Jesus, and zeal to reach the lost.

In 1722 he bought an estate to house oppressed religious believers. Soon a number of Moravians, fleeing persecution in their homeland, came there for protection. The place established to shelter them was called Herrnhut (“the Lord’s watch”).

Zinzendorf sought to make this shelter a “church within the church”. Community life was deeply religious, with regular prayer times, worship, and teaching. In 1727 he came upon an old manual of spiritual discipline. He read extracts of it to the community and a powerful spiritual revival broke out.

Deep times of repentance, forgiveness and restitution was experienced, and God’s Spirit was poured out in a powerful way. Thus began the “Moravian Pentecost”. One of the most important outcomes of this powerful renewal was the establishment just two weeks later of an around-the-clock prayer chain which lasted for 100 years.

The main focus was intercession and asking God to help them reach the lost with the Gospel. It led to a world-wide missionary movement that impacted the entire globe for the cause of Christ. An account from “Christian History” reports on this important missionary outcome:

“Visiting Copenhagen in 1731 to attend the coronation of King Christian VI, Zinzendorf met a converted slave from the West Indies, Anthony Ulrich. The man was looking for someone to go back to his homeland to preach the gospel to black slaves, including his sister and brother. Zinzendorf raced back to Herrnhut to find men to go; two immediately volunteered, becoming the first Moravian missionaries – and the first Protestant missionaries of the modern era, antedating William Carey (often called ‘the father of modern missions’) by 60-some years.

“Within two decades, Zinzendorf sent missionaries around the globe: to Greenland, Lapland, Georgia, Surinam, Africa’s Guinea Coast, South Africa, Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, Algeria, the native North Americans, Ceylon, Romania, and Constantinople. In short order, more than 70 missionaries from a community of fewer than 600 answered the call. By the time Zinzendorf died in 1760 in Herrnhut, the Moravians had sent out at least 226 missionaries.”

All this grew out of the spiritual hothouse known as Herrnhut. Community, accountability, confession, radical discipleship, intercession, worship and a missions mindset were hallmarks of the group. Zinzendorf himself wrote hundreds of hymns, and worship was one of the distinguishing features of the community.

Soon people were coming from all over Europe to see what genuine Christian community and discipleship was like. It became a magnet for the religiously disenfranchised and spiritually hungry. Of course like all Christian movements, there is always the possibility of slipping into error and fanaticism.

And for a while Herrnhut really did start going off the deep end, becoming almost cult-like in a number of respects, including the suspension of family relations. But thankfully these extremes were eventually discerned and corrected.

Zinzendorf himself was far from perfect as well, and there were areas about his life and teaching which we may not wish to endorse. For example, he had an unhealthy and unbiblical fixation on the physical wounds of Christ which went well beyond any Scriptural warrant.

But this was nonetheless a remarkable group of dedicated disciples of Christ who not only revived a sleeping church, and demonstrated genuine Christian community, but unleashed a serious and long-term commitment to global missions.

It is worth concluding this portrait of Zinzendorf and the Moravians by recounting a familiar and moving story of Moravian passion for Christ and the lost. Mention has already been made of the slave colony in the West Indies. Many have told the tale of two brave young Moravian missionaries who dedicated their lives to reaching these poor souls. Let me here draw upon the account given by Paris Reidhead:

The Lamb Who Was Slain

Two young Moravians heard of an island in the West Indies where an atheist British owner had 2000 to 3000 slaves. And the owner had said, “No preacher, no clergyman, will ever stay on this island. If he’s ship wrecked we’ll keep him in a separate house until he has to leave, but he’s never going to talk to any of us about God, I’m through with all that nonsense.” Three thousand slaves from the jungles of Africa brought to an island in the Atlantic and there to live and die without hearing of Christ.

Two young Germans in their 20’s from the Moravians sect heard about their plight. They sold themselves to the British planter for the standard price for a male slave and used the money they received for their sale to purchase passage to the West Indies. The miserly atheist planter would not even transport them.

The Moravian community from Herrnhut came to see the two lads off, who would never return again, having freely sold themselves into a lifetime of slavery. As a member of the slave community they would witness as Christians to the love of God.

Family members were emotional, weeping. Was their extreme sacrifice wise? Was it necessary? As the ship slipped away with the tide and the gap widened. The housings had been cast off and were curled up on the pier. The young men saw the widening gap. They linked arms, raised their hands and shouted across the spreading gap “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.”

This became the call of Moravian missions. And this is our only reason for being…that the Lamb that was slain may receive the reward of His suffering! Amen.

In fairness I must report that the slave owner would not accept these two men as slaves because they were white. But their arrival in 1732 was soon supplemented by other Moravians. Most did pay the price for their commitment. In 1734 there were 18 Moravians working at St Thomas, and within a year, 13 of them, including one of the original two, had died of various diseases.

In 1735 eleven more arrived, but within two months seven more were dead. But they kept on coming. Thus they really did pay the ultimate price to serve Jesus and make known the gospel. Anderson notes their influence:

“They reached Ceylon, South America, the Far East, and the Russian and Arab worlds. By the end of the century, this tiny village of around 300 people was responsible for sending out over 1,000 missionaries to virtually every part of the known world.”

In sum, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.”

[1346 words]