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Into All the World: Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian Missionary Movement

winfield bevinsWinfield Bevins serves as lead pastor of Church of the Outer Banks, which he founded in 2005. He is the author of dozens of several popular eBooks including Grow: Reproducing through Organic Discipleship. He also recently wrote Creed: Connect to the Basic Essentials of the Christian Faith. He lives in the beautiful beach community of the Outer Banks with his wife Kay and two daughters.

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count zinzendorf“I have but one passion—it is He, it is He alone. The world is the field, and the field is the world; and henceforth that country shall be my home where I can be most used in winning souls for Christ.” – Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf

North America has become the new mission field. There are 120 million unchurched people in the United States, making it the largest mission field in the Western hemisphere and the fifth largest mission field on earth.[1] On top of all of this, nearly 4,000 churches close every year in North America. And nearly 8o% of all evangelical churches in the U.S. have either stopped growing or are in decline![2]

What does this mean for the church in North America? Simple: We are not reproducing disciples. Despite this uncertain future for the church in North America, all is not lost. God is not surprised by these statistics or the spiritual state of our nation. The West can be won again.

All we have to do is look to the pages of church history to find great examples of missionary disciple-making movements that reached the nations for Christ. What we need now is a missionary discipleship movement that will reach the 120 million unchurched people in North America and beyond.

The Rich Young Ruler Who Said Yes

One of the greatest missionary movements of all time began with the rich young ruler who said yes. Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf was born into a wealthy noble family and belonged to one of the most ancient of noble families in Austria. Six weeks after young Ludwig’s birth, his father died of tuberculosis and his mother married again when he was four years old. At this time, he was sent to live with his pietistic Lutheran grandmother who did much to shape his character and faith.

He fell in love with Jesus at the age of six and continued to mature in Christ throughout his school years. He grew up with regular times of prayer, Bible reading, and hymn-singing. His dearest treasure next to the Bible was Luther’s Smaller Catechism. Zinzendorf was a star student, and by the age of 15 he could read the classics and the New Testament in Greek and was fluent in Latin and French.

Zinzendorf eventually pursued his university studies at Wittenberg, which was a strong hold of Lutheran theology. Once he finished his studies at Wittenberg he embarked grand tour of various centers of learning throughout Europe. Then in 1720, he went to Paris where he stayed for six months. He toured Versailles, and even formed a friendship with Roman Catholic Cardinal Noailles Roman.

Despite all the beauty of Europe, nothing could compare to  an encounter that Zinzendorf had in the art museum at Dusseldorf where he encountered the Christ in an amazing way. While viewing Domenico Feti’s painting “Ecce Homo,” a portrait of the suffering thorn-crowned Jesus, and reading the inscription below it, “I have done this for you; what have you done for me?” Zinzendorf said to himself, “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.”

In May 1721, Zinzendorf purchased his grandmother’s estate at Berthelsdorf. He married Countess Erdmuth Dorothea von Reuss, sister of his friend Henry on September 7, 1722. She was a strong believer and devoted to Pietism. For a time, Zinzendorf devoted himself to matters of state in Dresden.

Everything would change one eventful day when a Moravian refuge ended up at his door in Dresden. The man’s name was Christian David. He had heard that Zinzendorf would open his home to oppressed Moravian refuges. Zinzendorf agreed to the request and a group of ten Moravians arrived in December 1722. His manor became known as  “Herrnhut”, meaning “the Lord’s watch” or “on the watch for the Lord.” This was only the beginning. By May 1725, 90 Moravians had settled at Herrnhut. By late 1726, the population had swelled to 300.

Trouble eventually began to enter the group over differences in liturgy, economic pressures, language difficulties, and other issues. Zinzendorf began meeting with different families for prayer and counsel and helped regain a spirit of unity and love.   He drew up a covenant calling upon them ‘to seek out and emphasize the points in which they agreed’ rather than focusing on their differences. This started a process of reconciliation and revival among members of the community. On May 12th, 1727 they all signed an agreement to dedicate their lives to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. At this time, small groups were organized to provide the people with a special spiritual affinity to one another.

100-Year Prayer Watch

1727 was an important year. It marked a spiritual turning point in the Moravian community where a spirit of prayer began to spread among them. They covenanted together to meet often to pour out their hearts in prayer and hymns. On August 5th, the Count spent the whole night in prayer with about 12 to 14 others following a large meeting for prayer at midnight. Then a few days later, on Wednesday, August 13th 1727, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them all. The Moravians experienced a powerful “Pentecost” during a communion service where the Spirit came upon Zinzendorf and the community. This experience radically changed the community and sparked a flame of prayer and missions that would burn for decades to come. Looking back on that day, Zinzendorf later recalled: “The whole place represented truly a visible habitation of God among men.”

This marked the beginning of the Moravians’ commitment to a round-the-clock “prayer watch” that continued nonstop for over a hundred years. On the 26th of August, 24 men and 24 women covenanted together to continue praying in intervals of one hour each, day and night, each hour allocated by lots to different people. The next day, 24 men and 24 women covenanted together to spend at least one hour each day in scheduled prayer. Others joined the intercessors and the number increased to 77. They all carefully observed the hour which had been appointed for them and they had a weekly meeting where prayer needs were given to them.

The spirit of prayer was not just for the adults of the community, but even spread to the children as well. The children were also touched by God and began to pray a similar plan among themselves. The children’s prayers and supplications had a powerful effect on the whole community. Parents and others members of the community were deeply moved by the prayers of the children for revival and missions.

From that time onward the Moravians prayed continuously for revival and the missionary expansion of the gospel. As members of the Moravian church continued nonstop in this “Hourly Intercession” they became known as “God’s Happy People.” Their prayers became the catalyst for one of the world’s greatest missionary movements.

Into All the World

Within a short time, Herrnhut became a missionary launching pad that would send out missionaries throughout the world. They gathered small groups of individuals who gathered for prayer and Bible study and traveled across Europe sharing the gospel with everyone they met, especially the outcasts of society. Out of this grew a network of small groups that eventually became known as the “Diaspora.”

Under Zinzendorf’s leadership, Moravian missionaries went out to into all the world in an unprecedented way that had never been seen before! On Sunday, December 13, 1732, after almost ten weeks at sea, the ship sailed into the harbor of St. Thomas to reach slaves for Christ. This was a difficult time where many of the missionaries died. Twenty-two of the first 29 died, forcing them to retreat from St. Croix for a time. Despite trials and difficulties, missionaries continued to go out from Herrnhut into all the world.

By the time Zinzendorf died in 1760, after 28 years of cross-cultural mission, the Moravians had sent out 226 missionaries and entered 10 different countries. Mission stations had been established in Danish St. Thomas, in the West Indies (1732); Greenland (1733); Georgia, North America (1734); Lapland (1735); Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, on the north coast of South America (1735); Cape Town, South Africa (1737); Elmina, Dutch headquarters in the Gold Coast (1737); Demarara, now known as Guyana, South America (1738); and to the British colonial island of Jamaica (1754), and Antigua (1756). In 1760, there were 49 men and 17 women serving in 13 stations around the world ministering to over 6,000 people.

Moravian passion for mission was grounded one thing, and one thing alone. Zinzendorf said, “I have but one passion—it is He, it is He alone. The world is the field, and the field is the world; and henceforth that country shall be my home where I can be most used in winning souls for Christ.”  Over the years his passion for Jesus grew, as did his passion for the lost. He was determined to evangelize the world through raising up and sending out Moravian missionaries who were equipped only with a  simple love for Jesus and the spirit of prayer.

A seal was designed to express their new found missionary zeal. The seal was composed of a lamb with the cross of resurrection and a banner of triumph with the motto, “Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him.” The Moravians were missionaries of the gospel. They followed the call of the Lamb to go preach the gospel to all nations. In 1791, the Moravians beautifully explain their motivation for missions: “The simple motive of the brethren for sending missionaries to distant nations was and is an ardent desire to promote the salvation of their fellow men, by making known to them the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

Influence on John Wesley

The Moravians had a great impact on John Wesley when became acquainted with a group of Moravians on his way to Georgia, during his stay, and on his return to England. The Moravians demonstrated a simple faith and assurance of salvation through the inner witness of the Spirit. He was impressed with their confidence, piety, and assurance of faith. On February 7, 1736, while in Georgia, a Moravian leader by the name of August Gottlieb Spangenburg began to question Wesley’s faith. Wesley recounts the dialogue:

He said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is Savoir of the world.” “True,” replied he; “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” He only added, “ Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words.”[3]

They were instrumental in leading him to search for an inward Christianity of the heart. On the way back to England, John wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert me? Who, is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief?” This was no doubt written in comparison with the assurance that Wesley witnessed among the Moravians.

When he returned to England, Wesley spent several months in spiritual distress and deep introspection. He was challenged by the example of simple faith in Christ that the Moravians had demonstrated before him. John and his brother Charles met another Moravian by the name of Peter Böhler in England. He convinced John further that conversion happened in an instant and that a real Christian would have an assurance of their salvation.

The Moravian’s impact upon Wesley cannot be overestimated. From the Moravians he learned faith, assurance, and Christian experience, which are rooted in the experiential work of the Holy Spirit. Their lasting influence can be seen in Wesley’s concept of the “witness of the Spirit” which can be found throughout his writings especially in his sermons.

Later Years

Missionary success came with a price to Zinzendorf and his followers. His opponents sought to undermine him and his ministry and in 1736, he was banished from Saxony. He took the family with him west to Wetteravia, near Frankfurt, and found residence in an old castle called the Ronneburg. Here a new settlement, Herrnhaag, would thrive nearby, surpassing Herrnhut in size. Over the following years, the missionaries’ endeavors continued to spread throughout the world. In 1747 alone, 200 missionaries went out to posts of duty as missionaries to the New World among the Diaspora. Zinzendorf spent the remainder of his days leading the growing Moravian movement, traveling, teaching, and encouraging others to follow Christ.

Zinzendorf lived out his last days at Herrnhut. The year 1760 marked 28 years in Moravian missions. In the final days of his life he became weak and feeble. Nearing death on May 8, 1760, he said to Bishop David Nitschmann at his bedside:

“Did you suppose in the beginning that the Savior would do as much as we now really see, in the various Moravian settlements, amongst the children of God of other denominations and amongst the heathen? I only entreated of him a few of the firstfruits of the latter, but there are now thousands of them. Nitschmann, what a formidable caravan from our church already stands around the Lamb!”

 


[1] George Hunter, “The Rationale for a Culturally Relevant Worship Service,” Journal of the American Society of Church Growth, Worship and Growth. 7 (1996): 131).

[2] Win Arn, The Pastor’s Manual for Effective Ministry. Monrovia, Calif.: Church Growth, 1988. 16.

[3] Thomas Jackson, The Works of John Wesley. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1979), 1:23.