Zebras at a Waterhole in Okaukejo, Etosha Pan, Namibia . PHOTO : J . Rieck

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Moravian Revival


Nicholaus von Zinsendorf preaching to many nations

The Moravian  Revival  was born in a Prayer Meeting

(I have shared  the  story of this remarkable  revival  which began in the 14th century , in what is known today as the Czech republic   with our congregation  as a  part  of   our preparation for  prayer week )

The movement that was to become the Moravian Church was started by  Jan Hus  (John Hus)  a Czech Reformer   in the late 14th century (i.e.  the 1300’s). Hus objected to some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church  and wanted to return the church in the provinces of Bohemia  and Moravia its original  Eastern Orthodox influences.   He wanted the  liturgy  read in the  language of the people (i.e. in Czech); he wanted the  common man  to receive the communion elements of the bread and wine; he wanted  to see married priests in the ministry; he wanted  to see the practice of the sale of indulgences   and the  idea of purgatory  eliminated. 
In that sense  we can see that Jan Hus preceded the Reformation  in Germany   (which began in October 1517) by more than a 100 years!

Jan  Hus   was tried by the Council of Constance  and declared  to  be an heretic by the Roman Catholic church. He was  burned at the stake on 6 July 1415. Today  that  day is  a national holiday in the Czech Republic.
Within  50  years of  the death of Jan Hus,   some of his followers  organised themselves as the "Bohemian Brethren" in the province of   Bohemia  in 1457.

By the middle of 16th century as many as 90% of the people   and the nobility   had become Protestants.   In the mean time  in 1573 the  Jesuits    began to start  the Counter Reformation. The Bohemian brethren feared  that they were once again losing  their religious freedom, and therefore started the Bohemian revolt.  They were  defeated in 1621 in the  Battle of White mountain. As  a consequence the local Protestant noblemen were either executed or expelled from the country.
The Habsburg dynasty  substituted  Catholic and mostly German speaking nobility into their place.  Together  with    the bubonic  plague , the Counter Reformation   reduced  the  Protestant population from over 3 million to some 800 000 people.

The  Herrnhuter Brüdergemeinde

In 1722, a small group of Bohemian Brethren who had been living as an  underground remnant in the Catholic Habsburg Empire in eastern Moravia  for nearly 100 years arrived at the Berthelsdorf  estate of  count  Nikolaus von Zinsendorf . He  allowed them  to settle on his lands  in present-day Saxony.

Von Zinsendorf  (b.May 26, 1700 in Dresden, Germany) had been brought up in the Pietistic stream  of the Protestant Reformation.   He  later trained at Halle  University under the Pietist  leader August Francke.   The story is told that when he was 20 years old  he had  visited an art gallery  and saw a painting  of the crucified Christ. Below  the painting there was an inscription which  said:  "I have done this for you; what have you done for me?"
Zinzendorf responded that day saying,  "I have loved him for a long time, but I have never actually done anything for him. From now on I will do whatever he leads me to do."

At  that moment he had no idea that within two years he would have his estate swarming with homeless people from Moravia. He  could never have imagined the role that would be his in bringing the message of Christ to the whole world.

The refugees established a new village called " Herrnhut"  (The Lord's  Watch), about 3 km from Berthelsdorf. The town grew as more and more Moravian refugees joined, but major religious disagreements emerged and by 1727 the community was  deeply divided.  
Count Zinzendorf sought to bring about unity in the town and the "Brotherly Agreement"  was adopted by the community on 12 May 1727. This is considered the beginning of the renewal. On the  13th of  August 1727 the community  experienced  a dramatic transformation when the inhabitants of Herrnhut "learned to love one another".   
Arnold Dallimore writes: “They experienced a great enduement of spiritual power , as a result of which their past differences were obliterated and an abounding new joy filled their souls.“ [2]
It all actually began on  the 5th  of August. Von  Zinzendorf and fourteen men  had spent the entire night in conversation and prayer. On August 10th one of the men, Pastor Rothe was so overcome by God's nearness during an afternoon service at Herrnhut, that he threw himself on the ground during prayer and called to God with words of repentance as he had never done before. They were all moved to tears and continued until midnight, praising God and singing.

The next morning, Pastor Rothe invited the Herrnhut community to a joint communion with his nearby congregation at Berthelsdorf on Wednesday evening, August 13.  At this service  they all came under  the  conviction of their own sinfulness, need, and helplessness.  Count Zinzendorf made a penitential confession in the name of the congregation. The community  was  thus united in fellowship. Count  Von Zinzendorf looked upon that August 13th as "a day of the outpourings of the Holy Spirit upon the congregation; it was its Pentecost."

This event  radically transformed  the community  and as such  it  became the center  of a major movement for Christian renewal and missionary expansion  during the 18th century.

What happened as a result of this Revival:
  • They instituted  a system called “The hourly Intercession”, in which   one of their members  was at prayer, an hour  at a time, day and night. This lasted without a break for over a 100 years! 
  • Many international settlements based  on the Herrnhut model were established ,  all  emphasizing  prayer and worship, and a form of communal living in which simplicity of lifestyle and generosity  were considered to be  important spiritual attributes. As a result, although personal property was allowed, divisions between social groups and extremes of wealth and poverty were largely eliminated. 
  • Establishing many mission stations:  The Moravian missionaries were the first large-scale  Protestant missionary  movement. They sent out the first missionaries when there were only 300 inhabitants in Herrnhut. Within 30 years, the church sent hundreds of  missionaries to many  continents of the world.  They were the first  Protestant denomination to minister to slaves, and the first Protestant presence in many countries.   Their first  mission station in Southern Africa was founded by Georg Schmidt,  who settled on 23 April 1738 in the  Baviaans Kloof  in the Riviersonderend Valley,  evangelizing  the  Khoi people.  It was called Genadendal  (Gnadenthal)  and it may be visited today.

  • Further remarkable stories  include that of a man called Anthony, a former slave,  who came to speak at Herrnhut  outlining  the deplorable conditions of the slaves in the West Indies. The night he spoke, two of their young Moravians could not sleep as they struggled with a sense that God was moving their hearts to offer themselves to go and minister to those slaves. When they were told that perhaps the only way they could do this was to become slaves themselves, they said they were willing to become slaves  if that is what it would take. And so  their  first two missionaries, Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, left Herrnhut on August 25, 1732 to sail for St. Thomas in the West Indies .
  • Thereafter, other  countries  were  identified  and more missionaries were sent. They went to the toughest places and often laboured under  the most severe conditions. Many of them died soon upon  arrival. Of the  18 who went to St. Thomas as reinforcements for the work begun by Dober and Nitschmann, half died within the first nine months. But, the more  that died, the more that volunteered to go to replace them. Within 25 years more than 200 had gone out as missionaries from this small community to every continent of the world!
  • Their influence spread far beyond their own efforts. Consider two notable examples. The Moravians played a leading role in the  conversion  of John Wesley through one of their missionaries, Peter Böhler. Peter Böhler   had been a lecturer at the University of Jena (Germany), but left  there at the prompting of von Zinsendorf,  to  establish a  Moravian settlement in Georgia (USA). In order to  learn the English language, he first went  to  London.  Despite his poor English he was a capable teacher  and  a remarkable  work of grace was wrought in many souls in response to his teaching.  Wesley wrote of Böhler, "Oh what a work hath God begun since his coming to England! Such a one as shall never come to an end, till heaven and earth pass away!"  Wesley went on to lead the Methodist movement.
  •  The other person influenced was the Baptist   William Carey, who is  commonly named  the "Father of Modern Protestant Missions." We must however remember  that  William Carey sailed 60 years after the first Moravian missionaries had gone to the  West Indies. Carey would probably have  insisted that the real father of modern missions was von Zinzendorf and the Moravians.
  • The Moravian  influence also  extended to North America. The Moravians founded two communities in Eastern Pennsylvania -Bethlehem and Nazareth. Zinzendorf  visited  these colonies personally.  Whilst in America, Zinzendorf  legally renounced his titles because he found them to be an impediment among the colonists. Benjamin Franklin was present at the ceremony, which was conducted in Latin in front of the Governor of Pennsylvania. Zinzendorf was said to be the only European nobleman who went among the Indians, visiting their leaders as equals. Although Zinzendorf did not promote the abolition of slavery, inside the Moravian Church slaves were truly equal. In Bethlehem (Pennsylvania)  at the Single Sisters' House  for instance, you could find a German noblewoman, a Delaware Indian, and an African slave sleeping side by side in the same dormitory room!
This was truly  a most remarkable time  of  Revival in the  more recent  history of the church. This was nothing  but  the finger of  God. 


[1] The Jesuits were chiefly   responsible for the Counter Reformation
[2] Arnold Dallimore : George Whitfield , Vol 1 , p 171

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