Popular missionary literature often cites William Carey as the father of the modern Protestant missionary movement. However, the actual story of Protestant missions begins long before William Carey. In fact, many people do not even know that an entire Protestant missionary movement occurred before William Carey. So, I have decided to tell you a little bit about the life of Count Nicolaus Von Zinzendorf, who sparked the Moravian missionary movement.
The Moravian missionary movement arose out of a seventeenth-and eighteenth-century movement known as Pietism. Pietism was a renewal movement that emphasized personal devotion, Bible study, sermons, and the role of the laity. Many of the key themes of Pietism are found in Philip Jacob Spener’s classic work Pia Desideria (Pious Desires), published in 1675. The full scope and farranging influences of Pietism on Christianity are too many to recount here. However, it is important for you to know that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation did not produce any missionaries. It was the advent of Pietism two centuries later that produced the first Protestant missionaries, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Henry Plütschau, who went to India in 1705 through the Danish-Halle mission. However, the Moravians and the mobilization efforts of Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf will be the focus of this historical spotlight because the Moravians represent the first major Protestant missionary movement.
Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) grew up under the influence of Pietism. Much of his early years were spent in Halle, Germany, under the influence of Auguste Francke, one of the great figures of early Pietism. In 1722, Zinzendorf, a wealthy German nobleman, purchased a large estate in Berthelsdorf (eastern Germany), which he allowed to be used as a refuge for Christians from Bohemia and Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) who were fleeing persecution from the established church.
Although the Moravian church did not become a separate denomination until the 1740s, it has roots in the fourteenth century Hussite movement associated with the dissenter John Hus. Often cited as a pre-Reformation Protestant, John Hus was one of the earliest critics of abuses that were present in Roman Catholicism at that time. Hus’s followers eventually formed a movement known as the Unity of the Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), which continued as an early “Protestant” movement. However, the movement was often persecuted and existed primarily as an underground movement. In 1722 the Brethren took refuge at Zinzendorf ’s estate. The number of refugees eventually grew to more than three hundred, including some dissenting German Pietists who also joined the Brethren. They named the place where this community formed Herrnhut, meaning, “The Lord’s Watch.”
On August 13, 1727, the community received a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit, causing a dramatic revival among the Brethren. Many who were there described it as a Pentecost-like event that brought a powerful sense of unity, prayerfulness, spiritual fervor, and renewed dedication to Jesus Christ. Under the guidance, itinerancy, and mobilization of Zinzendorf—who in 1737 was consecrated as the bishop of the church—the Unitas Fratum, now known as the Moravians, become a major force for world evangelization. They eventually sent hundreds of missionaries all over the world, including the Caribbean, North and South America, the Arctic, Africa, the Middle East, and India. There are several vital lessons that we can learn from this first Protestant missionary movement.
First, the Moravians were deeply committed to pray for the evangelization of the world. The dramatic move of God in their midst on August 13, 1727, was so profound that they continued taking turns in maintaining a prayer vigil. The Moravians focused their “Prayer Wall” on the evangelization of the world. This prayer vigil was maintained twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for more than one hundred years! The entire “great century” of Protestant missions is birthed out of the fervent prayers of the Moravians at Herrnhut!
Second, the Moravians were the first modern group of Christians to fully recognize that the missionary enterprise was the primary work of all Christians, not just a few selected specialists. Because of their history of persecution and displacement as refugees, the Moravians were accustomed to adversity and travel. Therefore, they made excellent missionaries. They mobilized the laity in big numbers and refused to accept the idea that ministry should only be done by ordained clergy.
Third, the Moravians were self-supporting missionaries. The Moravians understood that a professionalized missionary force would require extensive financial and logistical support to maintain. To support full-time professional missionaries would require up to 90 percent of the church to remain home in order to generate sufficient disposable income to support the missionaries. Instead, the Moravians opted for a lay mission force that would be completely self-supporting through the practice of their own trade.
The first Moravian missionary to be sent out from Herrnhut is representative of many who followed. Leonhard Dober (1706–1766) had traveled 315 miles on foot to get to Herrnhut, arriving in 1725. He was, by trade, a potter, as his father had been before him. While at Herrnhut he experienced the spiritual awakening that took place in 1727. Like many of the Brethren, he loved music and served the community by directing the choir and composing hymns, revealing the ongoing influence of Pietism in the community. Later, Zinzendorf introduced to the community a former African slave known as Anton, who had become a Christian. The slave challenged the community to send missionaries to work with African slaves. After a sleepless night in prayer, Dober committed himself to become a missionary to African slaves. On August 21, 1732, Dober was sent from Herrnhut to the malaria infested island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, where he ministered to African slaves. He was sent out (along with a carpenter named David Nitschmann) and charged to support himself by his own hands. Dober went on to have a long and distinguished career as a missionary, general elder, and later, bishop of the Moravian church.
Finally, the Moravians were known to send missionaries to difficult places to work among marginalized peoples. The work among slaves on St. Thomas is, once again, representative of the Moravian commitment to the margins of society. Precisely because the Moravians were themselves a marginalized and persecuted community, they had a special burden for other displaced and suffering peoples. This commitment often came at great sacrifice. For example, of the eighteen missionaries who were eventually sent from Herrnhut to work with the slaves on St. Thomas, half died within the first six months.
While the Moravian church has never been large, it has exerted an influence well beyond its size. Influential Christian leaders such as John Wesley and William Carey have all paid tribute to the formative role the Moravians played in their spiritual formation.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll enjoy the new book, How God Saves the World: A Short History of Global Christianity by Timothy Tennent. Rather than exploring the history of global Christianity through a long series of countless names and events, Timothy Tennent presents this remarkable journey in the three-act model of a true epic play. This is the perfect succinct, storied history of the global christian movement that honors and illuminates indigenous churches and their lasting impact on the kingdom of God. You can order your copy from our store here.