Lessons I Am Learning from the Moravians

19 September 2022

10.6 MINS

Reading about the startling story of the Moravians is truly inspiring. They have left us a rich legacy and example of prayer-filled faith in action, bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world.

As a boy, growing up in Yorkshire, England, I attended a Moravian school for my high school days. It was a great school. I made some good friends and I have fond memories of many of the teachers. In fact, I think they were very much instrumental in my own journey to become a teacher when I grew up.

But there were some lessons I never learned at that school; here I am now, in my seventies, in Sydney, Australia, starting to learn some very significant lessons from the Moravians!

The Moravians can trace their roots to Jan Hus from Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, who was martyred in 1415, 100 years before Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. The Moravian community was almost wiped out during the Thirty Years War of the 1600s.

But they saw a rebirth under Count von Zinzendorf’s leadership in the 1700s when they became, arguably, the first Protestant missionaries. In this reflection, I argue that Zinzendorf’s faith in God was the foundation for the success of the Protestant faith’s final break with Catholicism.

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was born 26 May 1700 in the city of Dresden, in what was later to become East Germany.

100 kilometres east of Dresden, in the southeastern corner of modern-day Germany, lies the little municipality of Herrnhut. This little place (of only 76 families in 1770) was to become the engine room for the Moravian revival.  To understand the significance of Herrnhut, we need to go back in history before Zinzendorf’s day.

Serious Religious Persecution

The Thirty Years’ War raged from 1618 – 1648. It was a religious conflict fought primarily in central Europe and it remains one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history, with more than eight million casualties from military battles, as well as from the famine and disease caused by the conflict.

The primary provocation for this war was the provocation of Emperor Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, Hungary, and Croatia, in his attempt at forcing the breakaway Protestants back into Catholicism.

The death toll in Bohemia and Moravia cut their population by two-thirds: three million down to one million. As a result of this persecution of Protestants, various groups came together. Notably, the Waldensians, Anabaptists (also called Mennonites), Taborites, and Adamites under the banner of Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren). Fleeing to the forests for cover, the United Brethren moved secretly by night.

They prayed fervently and read their Kraltiz Bible, a translation in their own language which was forbidden by Rome.  This was the first time that ordinary people could read their scriptures for themselves in their own language, as opposed to the Catholic way of having to listen to the priest reading in Latin that no one could understand.

Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670) was the first bishop of the United Brethren. He escaped persecution (death) by fleeing to Holland, but is applauded for his prayer that God would preserve, despite the slaughter all around him, a ‘hidden seed’ that would someday grow and become a great tree again.

This was real religious persecution. Families torn apart. No safety in their own homes. We can hardly imagine the torture and the ever-present threat of being burned alive at the stake. Just imagine how they would read their Bibles. It wouldn’t be a religious ritual, or a habit to make them feel spiritual — it would be a matter of life or death, most frequently death.

Our suffering is light and temporary (2 Corinthians 4:17), in comparison. What can I learn from this? To be deeply thankful for God’s mercies new every morning, to dig deeper and deeper into His Word and to take a long view of my situation rather than being preoccupied with the immediate.

Herrnhut is Established

In the 1720s, one of the leaders in Unitas Fratrum, a carpenter, Christian David, sought out Zinzendorf and told him about the persecution of his Moravian brothers and sisters. He explained that they were looking for a safe place to stay beyond their homelands of Moravia and Bohemia, as they were under Catholic control. Christian David had a heart for his persecuted brothers and sisters to the extent that resulted in action.

Zinzendorf, distressed at the news, invited Christian David and some specific families to come over the border to Bertholdsorf. Zinzendorf’s response was to take Christian into his own employ as a carpenter; while with Zinzendorf, Christian started to make the first of umpteen dangerous trips back into Moravia to return with the families whom Zinzendorf had agreed to take in.

Some land was found near Bertholdsdorf that Zinzendorf offered to the Unitas Fratrum, but it apparently looked like a swamp! Nevertheless, Christian David took an axe, gave a mighty blow into a tree and declared: “Even the sparrow finds a home there and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young” (Psalm 84:4). This was on Wednesday 17th June 1722. There is still a commemorative plaque there to mark the spot where Herrnhut was born.

I am greatly challenged by Christian David’s response to the persecution of his brothers and sisters in Christ. First, seeking out a man he believed would help, felling the first tree and then becoming the first ferryman to bring the oppressed home into safety.

Is my heart moved to action, like Christian David? Am I prepared to put my own life on the line for the needs of others? Or do I simply shrug and say, ‘I’ll pray for you’? I know prayer is important, yes, very important, but what about action that costs? Aren’t we called to action as well? (James 2:14-26)

Fire from Above

In early August 1727, Zinzendorf and fourteen brethren spent a night in discussion and prayer. Following this, a large group assembled on a hill overlooking Herrnhut for an all-night payer meeting.

The following Sunday, the Moravians became deeply convicted of their sins and of disunity, and they asked Jesus for forgiveness. God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of each other brought about a great healing within the Unitas Fratrum, resulting in an intense bond of brotherly love.

Just one week later, Sunday 13th August, during the communion service in Herrnhut, the pastor expounded the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Afterwards, the congregation walked the mile to the little church in Bertheldsdorf. They walked in small groups with joyful bonding love, now that they had a tenderness of heart, one with another.

This second service was crowded. Two girls were confirmed in their faith. Zinzendorf led the service. They sang a number of songs, then they started to sing a hymn written by Zinzendorf:

Now establish by Your grace Your building again.
It is under Your strong watch.
Our walls are crooked, but make them straight.
The pillars need to be touched by Your blood.
Only the wounds of Jesus can heal us.
And the wounds have conquered our hearts again.
For Your healing we come together.  

While singing this, a powerful wave of emotion swept through the people. They became freshly aware of the holiness of God as a purging fire, leading them to even deeper repentance. People began to weep so loudly, they drowned out the singing. The presence of the Lord was so overwhelming, some reeled, and some sank down into the dust before God. As time went by, the sweetness and joy of the Lord was so intoxicating that they did not want to leave the church grounds.

Zinzendorf sent some folks back to Herrnhut to bring back food and they had a love feast right next to the church. Zinzendorf later referred to these events as ‘that glorious summer’ and the ‘Herrnhuter Pentecost’: “There we were baptised by the Holy Spirit Himself in one love.”

John Wesley visited Herrnhut eleven years later in 1738 and wrote in his diary:

‘The inhabitants of Herrnhut are a living proof of the power of faith. The love of God resides in their hearts. They have no doubt or fear, and the abiding witness of the Holy Ghost has been given to them.’

I see this as testimony of two things. Firstly, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not a momentary event — it lasted just as in the book of Acts. Secondly, the love of God was visible in the Moravians’ hearts.

This is a beautiful description of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It was important that this was not just an experience for a few, but it was for the whole community.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit accompanied a deeper understanding of the holiness of God, which opened them up to a purging fire of God in their lives as they began to experience unity in a way they had never known.

So: have I made room for the Holy Spirit in my life? Am I OK for God’s purging fire to come into my life? And can the love of God be seen in my heart?

Beholding the Lamb

Perhaps the most surprising revelation for me has been my discovery of the Moravians’ core value that they express thus:

Our Lamb has conquered: let us follow Him.

Moravians motto

Zinzendorf has been quoted as saying: ‘I have been bought with a price. I will live every moment of this day so that the Great Purchaser of my soul will receive the full reward of His suffering.’

This is not an unhealthy fixation on Christ’s suffering and His crucifixion, but rather a deep reverence, awe and rejoicing in the victory of the cross. It’s as if they see everything in life, both physical and spiritual, in the light of the cross.

Their perspective can be summed up with Paul, who said:

‘For I have resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’ (1 Corinthians 2:2)

In Revelation, Christ is referred to 28 times as the worthy Lamb, symbolising His sacrifice for the sins of mankind and opening the door for God’s children to be restored to right relationship with the Father.

The Moravians also, very powerfully, reference the ‘burying of our hearts in His wounds until our lives are transformed from glory to glory, for indeed, every wound bleeds glory’.

This is remarkable! I have been a Christian now for fifty years, but learning about how the Moravians related with Jesus has been a powerful challenge to me. My conversion is as clear to me now as it was in 1972. I was captured by the love of God through Christ’s death on the cross. It was much more than His death and resurrection for the whole world; He would have done it all for me, if I was the only one alive on earth!

Yet, down through the years have I held the Conquering Lamb as central in my faith? I have to confess, no. It’s a huge mystery, I know, but the door that the Moravians have opened for me is so good, so awe-inspiring! I can’t wait to walk through it daily and to begin to appreciate the Great Purchaser of my soul more and more.

Further, the idea of ‘burying our hearts in His wounds’. It strikes me that when the trials, the pain and persecution get hard, we can grasp this place of rest and peace, knowing that He has it covered.

100-Years Prayer Meeting

After the filling of the Holy Spirit, life with the Moravians and Bohemians was never the same again. Prayer groups were started, called ‘bands’, typically of five to seven people, who came together frequently during the week for prayer and singing.

Then, two weeks after the glorious ‘Moravian Pentecost’, on 26th August, 24 men and 24 women entered into a commitment to pray around the clock. Before long, they had many names on their lists of folks they were praying for. A person would commit to an hour of prayer per day and called it ‘hourly intercession’. This was inspired by Christ’s exhortation to Peter in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with Me one hour?’ (Matthew 26:40)

This prayer chain lasted 100 years and changed the world. They based their commitment on:

‘O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the Lord.’ (Isaiah 62:6)

By 1732, there were 600 settlers in Herrnhut. The elders established a variety of prayer groups, mature Christians, boys and girls, single men, single women, married couples, or widows. I don’t know what proportion of these 600 were part of the committed 24/7 prayer chain, but I surmise, that by the breakdown into prayer groups that covered the entire population, I would conservatively assume it was extremely high.

Prayer, they say, is one of those aspects of our Christian walk that that the Devil least likes and consequently, attacks most vehemently.

I do recall that I was part of a prayer chain, perhaps twice in my life. Once at university in the 1970s and once in our church in England in the 1980s. But not since.

What about it? I remember one prayer meeting, when I was a student in Aberystwyth, Wales, when I ‘discovered’ intercession for the first time. I could not help myself weeping for some situation that was totally beyond my sphere of influence or connection at all. The Lord poured such weight on my heart, it was not just a striving in prayer but rather a release. Lord, do that again. Lord, show me the way forward for prayer, for me personally and for my own church community and network.

Be My Witnesses

“And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be My witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” (Acts 1:8)

It was evident that when the Holy Spirit came on the Moravians and they started their 100-years-long prayer meeting, that they were compelled by the Holy Spirit, to go.

The first two Moravian missionaries were John Dober, a potter, and David Nitschmann, a carpenter. They set sail from Copenhagen, bound for the Danish West Indies. They were called to the Negro slaves working there. Their rite of passage, these two white Europeans, was for them to become slaves, voluntarily; so that they could work alongside the Negroes, that they could witness to them.

By 1742, some 70 missionaries had been sent out from Herrnhut. By 1782, it was reported that 165 missionaries had left Herrnhut reaching the Arctic, the Tropics, the Far East and America. It was estimated that Moravian missionaries established over 5,000 settlements across the globe. One of them was called Fulneck, Pudsey, Yorkshire, England. It was here that I attended high school 1966 — 1971, in Fulneck Boys’ School.

What about a missionary calling? I don’t hear much said about this these days. Why is that? It seems that there are more missionaries coming out of Africa these days than out of the Western world. Why is that?

I emigrated here to Australia in 1995 with my family from England. Was this my missionary journey? It was an unequivocal call; it was a miraculous move. If this was my missionary calling, then Australia is the community the Lord has called me to reach.

As I write this reflection, I am hearing the Lord’s encouragement again. ‘Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him.’

This reflection has been inspired by two books that I have just completed and which I have referenced heavily throughout in these thoughts:

Call to Action

Who is the Holy Spirit? What is He saying to us in these days? Have we been baptised into the Holy Spirit and are we being continually filled with the Holy Spirit? I for one, know that there needs to be some action, or the power of the Holy Spirit will soon run dry. So what action is the Holy Spirit calling me into?

Looking back over the lives of the Moravians under the leadership of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, it seems evident that yes, the Holy Spirit was most assuredly leading them, but so was Ludwig in a remarkable servant-like way. So, let’s encourage our leaders to lead well, and perhaps encourage them with the story of the Moravians.

Then perhaps, we too will be able to quote Leonard Ravenhill (1959), just like Keith Green did:

This generation of preachers is responsible for this generation of sinners.


Photo by Naassom Azevedo.

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  1. Kaylene Emery 20 September 2022 at 11:52 am - Reply

    This article is really comprehensive Jim. It’s so good to openly experience the love of God and especially nourishing to have access to His word. I shudder to think of life without it.
    Thank you.

    • Jim Twelves 20 September 2022 at 6:52 pm - Reply

      Kaylene, thank you so much for reading my reflections. Perhaps my overall ‘take home’ has been the realization of the impact of ‘other’s lives’ on mine. I have always focused on the work of Christ on the cross for us, but the stories of others can be so powerful in directing us deeper into the Lord’s work.

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