By the middle of the 17th century, German Protestantism had long ceased to be a burning torch. Accepted by the nobility and the populace, it had become an ecclesiastical, secular, and politicised institution like all the others. In the night of alienation, God brought from the ashes the light of a new dawn.

With his head in his hands, Phillip Jakob Spener (1635-1705) was bent over his dining room table, deep in meditation. It had been five years since he had been appointed pastor in Frankfurt in 1670, and he had decided to do something to shake Lutheranism out of its lethargy. He had started a study and prayer group in his living room, the Collegium Pietatis, for a few interested people. Since then, the group had grown so much that he had to move it into the church. But something more was needed…

A singular passion

Awakened from his reverie, Spener took up his quill and began to write Pia Desideria, or Heartfelt Desire for God-pleasing Reform (1675). The book was an immediate success. Its call for a felt and lived Christianity penetrated German society. This was the birth of Pietism.

Among Spener’s early followers was the Dresden magistrate August Hermann Francke. Enthusiastically, he initiated Bible study meetings in the vernacular, attended by both townspeople and intellectuals. Spurned by the envy of the clergy, Francke moved to Halle. There he founded the Pietist University, Paedagogium (1692), where he encouraged the translation of the Bible into Eastern languages. Then, with the support of the King of Prussia (1695), he founded the famous orphanage, which by the time of his death had taken in more than 3,000 orphans.

The little count

In 1710, the name of a 10-year-old boy of noble birth, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was inscribed in Francke’s University. Highly gifted, the boy shone with eagerness and intelligence. On the side, he founded the Order of the Mustard Seed, which pledged boys to love Jesus and dedicate their lives to doing good.

At 21, Zinzendorf was called to take over his inheritance. No sooner had he arrived than a group of Moravian Brethren[1] appeared at the castle gate asking for asylum. Gradually, news of the Count’s kindness began to attract other refugees of different faiths. For them, Zinzendorf organised the settlement of Herrnhut (“the Lord’s Watchful care”). Seeing that theological tensions were tearing the community apart, Zinzendorf decided in 1727 to challenge them to practical Christianity by entering into a “brotherly covenant.”

Every day at dawn, all were to join in worshipping God through song and prayer. He composed over 2,000 hymns for this purpose. He then began a round-the-clock “prayer watch” that continued day and night: each believer was given an hour for vigil prayer. The revival had such a happy effect that the “chain” of prayer continued unbroken for more than 100 years![2] Life at Herrnhut was uplifting, but something else was missing.

The spark

In 1731 Zinzendorf was invited to the court of Christian VI of Denmark. There he met a converted slave from the Caribbean island of St Thomas, Anthony Ulrich. Anthony told him about the inhumane conditions of the black slaves on the island and the fact that no one was allowed to share the Gospel with them. Dismayed by what he heard, Zinzendorf raced back to Herrnhut to find people to go there with him. Arriving in the middle of the night, he found the group of young people on their knees. He unburdened his heart to them. But he also told them the price: no one could be a missionary to St Thomas without first becoming a slave. “We shall work as slaves among the slaves.”

A new morning

On 21 August 1732, the Moravians Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann set off into the unknown with only 30 shillings in their pockets and no preparation other than inspiration from above. Defying the ridicule and opposition of the organised church, the two landed on the island of St Thomas, sold themselves into slavery and preached the gospel to the black people. Within three years the number of converts had reached 13,000. Unbeknownst to both of them, this was the beginning of the age of world mission, and more specifically, the age of mission to slaves.

In 1733, the Moravians arrived in Greenland, where they not only baptised, but also taught farming, reading, and even the violin. In 1734, they arrived in Suriname. In 1735, they were among the American Indians. In 1737, they reached South Africa and the island of Sri Lanka. In a single year, 1740, 68 missionaries left for Constantinople, Wallachia, Persia, Palestine, Baghdad, Ethiopia, Cairo, Estonia, Lithuania, and Russia. By the time of Zinzendorf’s death (1760), 226 men and women had gone on mission, many paying the price with their lives. “I only asked for first-fruits among the heathen,” said Zinzendorf on his deathbed “and thousands have been given me… I am ready…”[3]

Light from light

On 14 October 1735, the Englishman John Wesley sailed from England to Georgia to take up the pastorate. During the journey, a violent storm broken out at sea; at one point, the strength of the hurricane broke the mast. The horror of impending death overtook everyone except a group of men and women. They huddled in a corner, singing hymns and praying. Struck by their calm, and sensing an inner strength he did not possess, Wesley began to ask them questions. There, under the whip of the storm, he learned of the piety of the Moravian Brethren. The event profoundly changed his theology, transforming the Anglican John Wesley into the apostle of a new movement, Methodism, that would once again move the world through the coming revivals.

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Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

[1]“‘Moravian Brethren’, another name for the Hussite Church, which was relentlessly persecuted after the burning at the stake of Jan Hus (1415).”
[2]“T. Hamilton and K. G. Hamilton, ‘The History of the Moravian Church’, Winston-Salem, 1967, pp. 206-207.”
[3]“J. E. Hutton, ‘A History of the Moravian Church’, London, 1909, p. 321.”

“‘Moravian Brethren’, another name for the Hussite Church, which was relentlessly persecuted after the burning at the stake of Jan Hus (1415).”
“T. Hamilton and K. G. Hamilton, ‘The History of the Moravian Church’, Winston-Salem, 1967, pp. 206-207.”
“J. E. Hutton, ‘A History of the Moravian Church’, London, 1909, p. 321.”