FROM THE OLD WOODEN PRAYER TOWER OVERLOOKING THE GRAVEYARD ‘GOTTES AKKER’, we looked out over the treetops to the brown-tiled roofs of the eighteenth-century town of Herrnhut. Green and golden fields rolled eastwards towards distant steamclouds rising from a Polish power station, and southwards to pale blue mountains in the Czech Republic. In the near distance on our left rose the church steeple in Berthelsdorf, where one August Wednesday in 1727, the Herrnhut community experienced a spiritual visitation.
This little town tucked away in the corner of German Saxony, often unmarked on the maps, played a pivotal role in the unfolding story of the world Christian movement. On our Share the Heritage tour, it was a key link between Hus and Comenius in the 16th and 17th centuries on the one hand, and Wesley and Carey in the 18th.
On August 13, 278 years ago, the Herrnhutters gathered around the Lord’s Table in the small Lutheran church with their leader and patron, Count von Zinzendorf, at the invitation of Pastor Rothe.
Disunity had plagued the community as a rag-tag bunch of religious refugees had settled on Zinzendorf’s property close to where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic meet today. The initial settlers, arriving just five years earlier, 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 just over one kilometre across the fields from his family mansion, (which from the prayer tower we could also see, now being renovated). He visited the community members family by family, restoring a spirit of unity. Eventually they all agreed 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.
SPIRIT OF PRAYER
Such was the background to the communion service on this particular Wednesday, 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 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, nearly 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.”
Soon after the signing of the Brotherly Agreement, even before the August communion service, a new spirit of prayer had developed in the community. This later matured into a 24-hour prayer chain held under these very brown tiled-roofs before us, and continued on unbroken for over one hundred years! (Even today, the worldwide community of Moravian fellowships continues to take turns to keep the prayer-chain going.)
Prayer soon became focussed on taking the gospel to the world’s unreached. 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. By the time Zinzendorf died in 1760, it is said that the this small Moravian community had done for for world missions than all the protestant churches combined.
‘Gottes Akker’, right in front of us as we gazed out from the tower, testified to the ingathering of the ‘First Fruits’ of the harvest. Zinzendorf had understood God wanted a harvest from all peoples globally, despite the fact that after 17 centuries, the church was still primarily a European phenomenon. Their task was to go to the unreached and make disciples. Some of these first disciples were buried in this cemetery: a young boy from St Thomas in the Caribbean, an Eskimo woman from Greenland, a Lapplander, and so on. A celebrated painting called “First Fruits”, showing Zinzendorf surrounded with new disciples from various ethnic groups, captured the faith and vision of the Moravians, contrary to contemporary evidence, that one day the church would indeed be a global, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic movement.
As they began spreading out across the world, they greatly influenced and inspired others. A young English clergyman, en route to the colony of Georgia hoping to ‘discover true religion’ among the North American Indians, was deeply impressed by the faith and serenity of his fellow Moravian passengers during a mid-Atlantic storm. This was a first step towards the subsequent conversion of John Wesley during a Moravian Bible study in London. He then visited Herrnhut months prior to the outbreak of the Evangelical Revival in 1739. Later that century, Baptist cobbler William Carey brandished Moravian mission reports as he challenged his fellow pastors to follow the Moravian missionary example, and thus catalysed the worldwide modern Protestant missionary movement.
The Moravian movement has been a great inspiration also in the YWAM story. Five 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 briefly 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, unity with diversity, intercession and world missions.
To tap into this rich heritage, Jan Schlegel of YWAM Germany began to sense a call to establish a centre close to Herrnhut. Last year Jan his wife Ute were able to purchase for YWAM a small castle just outside of the town, debt-free. A former Red Cross children’s home, the Wasserschloss (Water-castle) used to be surrounded by a moat. Here DTS students now learn first-hand about the rich Herrnhut heritage as they also pray for and prepare to go to the world’s unreached.
Our tour group also stayed in the 5-storey Wasserschloss here. Exactly one month later, I happen to be sending this w e e k l y w o r d from the wireless facilities on the top floor of the building, having returned at short notic
e for a day to give input in
a leadership training programme – on the YWAM heritage.
Till next week,