A last brief thought on the Moravians (for the moment)
The presence of the Moravians brought both spiritual and economic blessing to the countries where they planted churches. They seemed to be entrepreneurs as well as preachers!
They supplied the needs of the poor and developed businesses, providing employment.
Historian Ruth Tucker writes:
‘In Labrador, Moravian missionaries supported themselves through trade, with enough money left over to provide basic necessities for needy Eskimos.
They owned ships and trading posts, and through their example they interested Eskimos in [economic] pursuits. The effect of their ministry was not only to bring the gospel to the people but also to significantly upgrade the economy.
In Surinam, on the north east coast of South America, the Moravians established a variety of businesses, including tailoring, watch-making, and baking.
As their economic influence grew, so did their spiritual influence, and a thriving Moravian church emerged in that country.’ (Ruth Tucker – From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Zondervan, p. 69)
Willingness in a Day of God’s Power
We have seen how radical the Moravian movement was in terms of their willingness to go to far off places and faithfully serve people with the gospel.
This came about, by their own admission, as a result of the move of the Holy Spirit amongst them in 1727. We shall see in later posts how this same dynamic operated in England and America, a move of God so powerful that it’s been called ‘The Great Awakening’.
Crossing Racial and Cultural Barriers
In this post we’ll look at how this impulse for mission enabled them to cross cultural and racial boundaries (albeit imperfectly) and how they reached out towards the slave communities of the West Indies (then under Danish rule).
Mark Noll, in the slow moving but fact-filled work, ‘The Rise of Evangelicalism’ takes up the story:
‘In the early 1730’s a black servant at the court of the King of Denmark, by the name of Anton, was brought to Herrnhut by Count Zinzendorf so that he could plea for volunteers willing to go to his native St. Thomas (Virgin Islands).
Anton hoped in particular that they could share the gospel message with his enslaved sister Anna.
In response, Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann left Germany for St. Thomas, where the work they began in 1732 produced almost immediate results.’ (Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, IVP, p.161-2)
It was in preparation for this work that the servant-hearted Dober expressed his willingness to give all to reach the slaves with the gospel, even if it meant his own enslavement. The motivation of his heart was expressed with apostolic simplicity: ‘on the island there still are souls who cannot believe because they have not heard.’ (Christian History Magazine, Issue 1)
The Moravian missionaries followed in the footsteps of the Anglicans, who had arrived earlier, but the local people preferred the Moravian message.
Noll writes, ‘Anglican Christianity remained resolutely hierarchical, made much of status and hereditary roles…[and] maintained sharp racial divisions.’
By contrast the Moravians seemed to be offering a far more inclusive style of church life. ‘They encouraged blacks to sing with whites, preached spiritual equality before God and welcomed the expression of religious emotion…’
‘So radical were the Moravians for their time that one of the early workers in St Thomas actually took a bride [of mixed race], a step that brought down the wrath of the island’s white planters…’ (ibid. p.162)
The Moravians also encouraged black preachers (or, ‘exhorters’) to emerge and serve in leadership positions in both small groups and congregations.
When they began planting churches in Jamaica (1754), Barbados (1765) and Antigua (1756) they were permitted to operate by the planters, but under close scrutiny. Noll adds, ‘ On Antigua there was special response, with over 11,000 gathered in Moravian churches by the end of the century.’ (ibid. p.162)
Did Moravian Missionaries really sell themselves into Slavery?
In my research on the Moravians I have yet to find an instance where Moravian missionaries voluntarily sold themselves into slavery, although this is often claimed.
Some assert that Dober and Nitschmann did this but produce no supporting evidence or sources to support the claim. As already noted, Dober expressed a willingness to become a slave if that were necessary, but I would be grateful to anyone who actually has primary or reliable secondary sources for the claim that any Moravian Missionary actually did so.
The Spirit and the Needs of the World
Nevertheless, once again we can see that a move of the Holy Spirit amongst Christians resulted in life long sacrifices for the sake of bringing the gospel to others. These Moravian community didn’t enthusiastically embark on a kind of self-centred quest purely for further experiences of the Spirit (although we must assume they enjoyed many such glorious times in the context of mission).
They certainly had their faults, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, but were determined to bring the gospel to others.
They were filled with the power of the Spirit and set the course of their lives towards connecting with those outside the church, in order to bring them to Jesus Christ.
May God do the same with us in our day, for our generation.
Next time we’ll see how the Moravians’ church planting efforts improved the economy of the host societies. Click here
We’ve been seeing how the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Moravian believers in the early 18th Century led them directly into evangelistic passion.
This passion not only resulted in fervent prayer, but also in actual plans to reach the nations of the world with the gospel message.
These Spirit-baptised believers did not merely revel in their enjoyment of the experience of God’s power but got to work, began to plan and sacrificially left home and country to proclaim the good news to others.
Organised for Mission
For every 60 Moravian believers, one was a missionary! That’s a staggering statistic compared to estimates for the rest of 18th Century Protestantism, which has been put at 1:5000 (See Ruth Tucker – From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Zondervan, p.69).
In 1727 (two weeks after the outpouring) they began a 24 hour a day prayer meeting that lasted all through the Great Awakening and on for over a hundred years!
It was while Peter Boehler was on his way to America that he met John Wesley (in 1738) in the Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London and sparked the Evangelical Revival by gaining Wesley’s conversion!!
Zinzendorf even planted a church in Geneva (in 1741), having moved 50 people from Herrnhut as the core group.
A ‘Missional’ Church
In 1862 Bost wrote:
‘The church of the United Brethren may indeed be called a ‘missionary church’. No other body of professing Christians can lay an equal claim to that appellation;
for the establishment of missions to the heathen is considered by them as part of the business of the church, as such, and one of the main designs of its existence, while every brother and sister stands prepared to go wherever the general voice shall determine, according to the opinion entertained of their qualifications and gifts.’ (A Bost – History of the Moravians, London, 1862, Religious Tract Society, p.400)
Jesus said we would ‘receive power when the Holy Spirit comes’ on us. But He didn’t stop at saying we were to enjoy God’s power. Something would happen. Something would change. And it is this: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)
Are you seeking God for a similar outpouring of God’s ‘power’ on your life, and for similar results of His power?
What results should we expect to see from a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
In Scripture we see a definite link between believers receiving the power of the Spirit and an increased boldness and desire to communicate the faith with others.
This is evident in many places. In Acts 1:8, just prior to His ascension, Jesus tells his followers, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ First the experience of God’s power, Second, an evangelistic community.
We see this again in Acts 4:30-31. Note what they prayed:
‘Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ (v.30)
And see the response of God to their prayer, and their subsequent behaviour:
‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (v.31)
It is therefore, not surprising that we see this Scriptural pattern repeated in church history.
The Moravian community had experienced a ‘Pentecost’, ‘an overwhelming flood of divine grace’, as Zinzendorf had described it. Let’s see what happened next!
Their zeal for unreached peoples
As a result of the grace of God on this amazing group of believers they began sending out church planters long before William Carey (often called ‘the father of modern missions’) went to India in 1793.
Their first conference on world missions was held in 1728. They were already involved in several countries because they had either been driven out of them or had fled into them for safety. Nevertheless on January 4th 1728 (not even five months after their ‘Pentecost’) they began to intentionally plan to reach un-evangelised nations.
Moravian Historian Bost writes,
‘This first missionary meeting was celebrated by meditations on different portions of scripture, and fervent prayers; in the midst of which the church experienced a remarkable enjoyment of the presence of the Spirit.
The Brethren felt themselves urged to attempt something that might redound to the glory of the Lord; several distant countries were mentioned, and particularly Turkey, Northern Africa, Greenland and Lapland…They were thus inspired with great courage and disposed to hold themselves in readiness to engage in the sacred enterprise whenever the Lord should give the signal.’ (A Bost – History of the Moravians, London 1862, Religious Tract Society p.246)
The Moravians then went on to plant churches in the Virgin Islands (1732), Greenland (1733) – they saw a revival there in 1738 when hundreds of Eskimos were converted, North America (1734), Lapland and South America (1735), South Africa (1736), Jamaica (1754) and Labrador (1771).
Before the breakthrough of evangelism and mission which is commonly called The Great Awakening, there were already significant movements of revival. One of the significant influences on Whitefield and the Wesleys was that of the Moravian preachers and teachers.
The roots of the Moravian (from the province of Moravia, modern Czech Republic) church go all the way back to pre-Reformation days to John Huss, the leader and martyr from Prague.
A Pilgrim Community
They were, like Huss before them, considered heretics at that time. But even after the Reformation they had trouble on all sides. They didn’t fit comfortably with state church structures and became a kind of refugee community of faith, seemingly unable to settle peacefully even in Reformation countries.
They were persecuted and driven out of many places as they preached the gospel and built their homes.
Finally, after two hundred long years of wandering, in 1722 these religious refugees gathered at Herrnhut in Saxony (Germany) under the oversight of the godly and gracious Count Nicholas Zinzendorf.
This group were made up from several church backgrounds although some were from The United Brethren (a kind of remnant of the ‘original’ Moravians). They sought to live together in peace after so much persecution. But there were sharp disagreements amongst them. Zinzendorf had laboured to bring the various factions together for a Wednesday morning communion service on August 13 1727.
The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
The squabbles came to an end when, after confessing their sins and seeking to be reconciled to each other, the Holy Spirit unexpectedly and suddenly fell on all of them. This was a tangible experience of power they had not previously known.
Zinzendorf described this day as ‘our Pentecost’. Christian David, one of their greatest evangelists, said:
‘It is truly a miracle of God that out of so many kinds and sects as Catholics, Lutheran, Reformed, Seperatist, Gichtelian and the like, we could have been melted into one.’ (R.E. Davies – I will pour out My Spirit, Monarch, UK p.76)
Various descriptions of these ‘baptisms of the Spirit’ have been recorded:
Zinzendorf wrote, ‘We saw the hand of God and His wonders…
The Holy Ghost came upon us and in those days great signs and wonders took place in our midst.
From that time scarcely a day passed but that we beheld His Almighty workings amongst us.’
An Overwhelming Flood of Grace
‘A great hunger after the Word of God took possession of us so that we had to have three services every day: 5am, 7am and 9pm…an overwhelming flood of grace swept us all out into the great ocean of Divine Love.’ (ibid p.77)
God is able to overcome our limitations. The power of the Holy Spirit fell mightily on a disunited, grumbling and hounded people. And what began as a localised ‘Pentecost’, with manifestations of God’s power and presence in a small community, soon sparked a major church planting movement.
Read the second part of the Moravian story: The Missional Impact of an Outpouring of the Spirit here
To understand the global expansion of the Christian Faith across the world in the 19th and 20th centuries it is necessary to focus on the remarkable events of the 18th century in the relatively smaller area of Europe and America.
In Germany, America and Britain, against an unpromising backdrop of unbelief, there were a series of spiritual ‘explosions’ which occurred almost continuously through the 18th century.
When it seemed as though Christianity was finally outdated and running out of steam, a mighty breakthrough of spiritual life occurred which became almost irresistible.
The result of these numerous ‘revivals’ affected not only the life of the Church but also society as a whole.
Rooted strongly in the theology of the Reformation (16th Century) and the Puritans (17th Century) these young evangelists and church planters proclaimed a Bible-based message with a new passion.
Their experiences of God’s love and their encounters of the power of the Holy Spirit brought them criticism from the religious minority, and a skeptical press, but it gave them an irresistible magnetism amongst ordinary people. Unprecedented numbers attended their meetings.
Soon a formidable army of preachers and leaders had been raised up who overcame both apathy and violent persecution and brought multitudes into the Kingdom, formed thousands of new churches and set the scene for an even greater thrust of the gospel into all the world.
Come! Let us return to an era where spiritual giants walked the land and the great sheaves of the Lord’s Harvest were carried home by rejoicing believers.
We will first enjoy the early sparks of the Awakening and then consider the mighty reforming fire that followed. If you have never read the history of the Christian Church in the 18th Century then you will surely be thrilled by what you are about to read. Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones recommended the 18th Century to any who were feeling discouraged and asking the question, ‘Can God truly break through, in our situation?’