The Thirteenth of August is a special day in the Moravian calendar. On this date, exactly 275 years ago this year, the members of the Herrnhut community experienced a pentecostal outpouring in the small Lutheran church in the nearby village of Berthelsdorf, Germany. On that Wednesday in 1727, their leader and patron, Count von Zinzendorf, had accepted an invitation from the Lutheran Pastor Rothe to gather the Herrnhutters around the Lord’s Table.
Disunity had plagued the community as a rag-tag bunch of religious refugees had assembled on Zinzendorf’s property in Saxony, close to where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic meet today. The initial settlers, arriving just five years prior, were descendents of Hussites, followers of John Hus, from Prague and environs. Their roots were in the Ancient Moravian Church, the Unitas Fratrum, dating back to 1457. After Catholic forces gained control of Prague in the Thirty Years War, the remaining believers went underground, eventually escaping over the border into Saxony. There they got the Count’s permission to build their new community of Herrnhut, the Lord’s Watch. But over the next few years, other persecuted believers from different religious backgrounds, hearing of Zinzendorf’s “safe haven”, joined the original Moravians, bringing with them their own contentious doctrines.
The 27-year-old Zinzendorf stepped in himself to quell the disputes and to give leadership to Herrnhut, the township forming about one kilometre across the fields from his family mansion, which still can be visited (in dilapidated condition) today. He visited the community members family by family, restoring a spirit of unity, and eventually bringing them to sign a Brotherly Agreement. The spirit of this covenant was expressed in a favourite saying among the Moravians, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Such was the background to the communion service on Wednesday, August 13, 1727. Zinzendorf had visited each community member the day before to ensure everyone was ready in their heart to join the Lord’s Supper. They had entered the steepled, wooden church building with a sense of shame at the memory of their quarrels and disputes, as this was the first communion in the community since before the months of discord.
During the ceremony led by Pastor Rothe, the Holy Spirit began to move among the communicants, who responded in loud praise and weeping, and perhaps what we might today call ‘Toronto’ manifestations. God the Holy Spirit was clearly present in a way none of them had experienced before. When the service officially ended, clusters of communicants continued to pray and weep together, asking and extending forgiveness of each other, and just enjoying God’s presence.
Zinzendorf sent word back to the kitchen at Herrnhut, some two kilometres away, ordering baskets of food to be prepared so that the cells of community members could continue in small group fellowship. And so began the Moravian tradition of love feasts.
“From this day on”, wrote one historian, “Herrnhut became a living congregation of Jesus Christ.” The Moravians today date the rebirth of the Unitas Fratrum into the Modern Moravian Church from August 13, 1727.
Five years later, this small community of a couple of hundred refugees began to send out missionaries to the Caribbean and Surinam, to Lapland and Greenland, to Morocco and South Africa, to Russia and Turkey, and to Georgia in America. They greatly influenced and inspired others, including John Wesley and William Carey, thus catalysing the worldwide modern missionary movement.
Two years ago, I was invited by a Moravian pastor friend to contribute to a symposium celebrating the 300th anniversary of Zinzendorf’s birth. This was held in Zeist, Holland, where the Moravian settlement stands in its original state. The large meeting hall, where walls, pews, curtains and pipe organ blend in pristine white, is a carbon copy of the hall in Herrnhut. The Zusterplein and the Broederplein flank Slot Zeist, the castle where Zinzendorf himself sojourned. In those first decades of missions, many Herrnhutters walked overland to Holland and stayed in Zeist, awaiting a ship from either the Dutch East India Company or the Dutch West India Company, to carry them to their chosen field.
So I shared at the symposium about how the Moravian story had inspired our own movement – the love feasts, the centrality of worship, servanthood leadership, community lifestyle, cell groups, the place of women and youth in God’s purposes, intercession, unity with diversity, and world missions. But it was sadly clear from other contributions that the rich spiritual heritage had given way to tradition, its pioneering passion dissipated by liberalism. The powerfully inspiring story of a faithful minority who had made such a disproportionate contribution to the spread of the Kingdom carried also a warning for our own movement today.
Time for a new pentecost?
Till next week,