As the pleurisy wracked his body, young Charles Wesley was comforted by a group of Christians who ministered to him and read to him from the Bible. During this same period, he and his brother John had been studying under the tutelage of a Moravian minster, Peter Boehler. It was Boehler’s words that rang in his ears as, when he had recovered, Charles took pen in hand and composed what would become one of the church’s most beloved hymns, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. Along with the better-known Count Zinzendorf, an ordained Lutheran clergyman, Boehler would eventually head to America, as did the Wesleys. Ironically, none initially intended to start a new denomination, yet out of their labors would grow the Moravian, Wesleyan and Methodist churches. In this issue, we bring you a brief introduction to the Moravians as told by John Weinlick, one of their own….
Moravians with King George by Johann Valentin Haidt, c. 1753
The Bohemian Brethren
The Moravian Church is one of the two Protestant bodies which antedate the Reformation, the other being the Waldensian Church. When Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg in 1517 the Bohemian Brethren had already been organized for sixty years and numbered four hundred churches and two hundred thousand members.
Moravian roots go back to Jan Hus (1373?-1415) whose fearless preaching against the evils of the church during the late medieval period brought about his condemnation at the Council of Constance. His death at the stake in 1415 plunged Bohemia into bitter civil war which lasted for about twenty years. Finally, in 1457, some of the followers of Hus organized themselves under the name of Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren). In establishing themselves as an independent church, the Brethren were indebted not only to the teachings of Hus, but also to those of Peter Chelcicky (1390-1456). For two centuries, despite severe repression, they played a significant role in the religious life of Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland. They were renowned for their simple, Godly lives, their use of the Scriptures, their hymn singing, their schools. They gave to the world, among others, the renowned educator John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) who was one of their bishops.
The Thirty Years’ War and the Counter-Reformation brought an end to the organized life of the Brethren, their membership being absorbed into the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed churches, the three bodies recognized by the treaty of Westphalia. Nevertheless, the traditions of the church were secretly kept alive by the more loyal adherents. This era of Moravian history has been designated as the time of the “Hidden Seed,” a term coined by Comenius who never lost hope for the resuscitation of his church.
The Renewed Moravian Church
In the meantime Protestantism in general had arisen and flourished, and was old enough to have lost some of the vitality of its beginning. A revival in the form of German Pietism came in the late sixteenth century. Count Nicholaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was a product of Pietism, and it was through him that the church of the Bohemian Brethren became the Renewed Moravian Church. Beginning in 1722, a nucleus of Brethren, nominally Roman Catholic, migrated to the John Amos Cornelius by Rembrandt, c. 1664Count’s estate in eastern Saxony. There they built Herrnhut (Lord’s Watch) which immediately attracted evangelical Christians from all over Germany and beyond. Herrnhut was destined to become within a few years the home community of a world wide program of evangelization.
Two ideals dominated Zinzendorf’s concept of Christian service, the preaching of the Gospel to primitive peoples and the gathering of earnest Christians within the various Protestant state churches into an interdenominational fellowship for the nurture of vital spiritual life. Under the impulse of the former the first missionaries went from Herrnhut in 1732 to work among slaves on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies. The same motive with respect to the American Indians was part of the reason for the Moravians coming to Georgia in 1735. Unsuccessful in Georgia, the Brethren came to Pennsylvania in 1740. Bethlehem, which they founded the following year, became the mother community of the Moravians in America.
The second phase of the Count’s program was likewise pursued with zeal. In much of Protestant Europe, particularly among Lutherans, and to a lesser extent among the Reformed, the Brethren helped to bring vitality into the churches through the pattern of the Pietist society. This has kept the Moravians few in number, for Zinzendorf, a devout Lutheran, tried his best to keep his movement within the state churches as an interchurch society, “congregation of God in the Spirit,” as he called it. Despite him, however, the Moravians became a denomination within about twenty years after the founding of Herrnhut. Yet, along side of the denomination, the societies remained, with the result that Moravianism on the Continent is two things, a church and an interchurch society, the latter known as the Diaspora.
The American Moravian Church
In England and America, Moravian development, like that of other churches, has been along denominational lines. But even in these two countries the society or diaspora ideal has retarded the organization of congregations and numerical growth. Also, the Moravian Church in America was slower than most in emancipating itself from European control and outlook. Administration was centered in Germany until the middle of the nineteenth century, and American Moravians were handicapped by policies laid down by those who failed to appreciate fully the needs and opportunities of an expanding new world.
During the colonial period American Moravian centers, patterned after Herrnhut, were closed communities known as settlement congregations. Such places were Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz in Pennsylvania, and Salem (now Winston-Salem) in North Carolina. These communities were characterized by strictly regulated behavior and by the division of the congregation into “choirs,” that is age and sex groupings. There were the Married Couples, the Single Brethren, the Single Sisters, the Older Boys, the Older Girls, the Younger Boys, and the Younger Girls. Frequent prayer services, song services, love feasts, and the use of instrumental music were conspicuous features of Moravian worship in the early days. For about twenty years in Bethlehem, while the community was establishing itself, a communal economy prevailed. From these centers of intensive religious life missionaries went forth to the Indians, as well as to the heathen across the seas, and Peter Bohler was one of the missionaries sent to the Americas in the early 1800s by the leader of the Moravian movement, Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf.evangelists itinerated among the European settlers, particularly among the Germans. To the settlement came the children of many non-Moravians to be educated in the church’s boarding and parochial schools.
The over-all effect of European control, closed communities, diaspora rather than denominational outlook, and the emphasis upon foreign missions, all of them the result of Zinzendorf’s influence, was to leave the American church on the sidelines as far as growth was concerned. By the end of the colonial period the Moravians had established only about thirty congregations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland, and five or six in North Carolina. Their missionaries had done extensive work among the Indians of the Atlantic seaboard and westward into Ohio, but advancing white civilization crowded this work out of the picture within about a century.
The Moravian Church holds to those evangelical teachings which are the common possession of Protestant Christians. It subscribes to that universally accepted creed of Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed. Because the Brethren have never attempted to formulate a distinctive Moravian creed, and because they emphasize that a life-centered faith is more important than a creed-centered one, some outsiders have the misconception that Moravians disregard doctrine. Though Moravians have never formulated their teachings in a specific creed, they do hold to the necessity of defining theological positions. Besides acknowledging the Apostles’ Creed, as above stated, the Moravian Church recognizes that in the various confessions of Protestant churches the chief articles of the Christian faith are set forth. The Book of Order states the Moravian position in part as follows:
1. We hold every truth revealed by God as a precious treasure, and sincerely believe that such a treasure must not be given up, even though we could thereby save our lives. Luke 9:24. But this holds good especially of the doctrine which the Moravian Church has from the beginning regarded as its chief doctrine, and to which it has, by God’s grace, ever held as a precious jewel: That Jesus Christ “is the propitiation of our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the whole world.” I John 2:2.
2. With this our chief doctrine the following facts and truths, clearly attested by the Holy Scripture, stand in essential connection, and therefore, with that chief doctrine form the main subjects in our knowledge and preaching of salvation:—
a. The doctrine of the Total Depravity of human nature…
b. The doctrine of the Love of God the Father to fallen humanity…
c. The doctrine of the real Godhead and the real Humanity of Jesus Christ…
d. The doctrine of our Reconciliation with God and our Justification before Him through the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ…
e. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the working of His grace…
f. The doctrine of Good Works as the fruit of the Spirit…
g. The doctrine of the Fellowship of Believers with one another…
h. The doctrine of the Second Coming of the Lord in glory, and of the Resurrection of the dead until life or unto judgment….
3. While we do not present these truths and our apprehension of them in a strictly formulated Confession, our understanding of the chief content of Christian doctrine has, in a special way, found expression in what the Church has solemnly professed year by year for more than a century in the “Litany for Easter Morning.”
Moravians have a liturgical form of worship, following to a modified degree the ancient Church Year. Common is the use of a litany for the Sunday morning service and various liturgies for the high points of the year and for special occasions, such as Advent, Christmas, All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving, Missionary, Patriotic, Schools and Colleges, etc. The sacraments are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The absence of an altar indicates a leaning toward the Reformed interpretation of the Holy Communion, though no attempt is made to define the precise meaning of the Scripture with reference to it.
Children are baptized and later admitted to communicant membership by the Rite of Confirmation, after a period of catechetical instruction. Members of other evangelical churches are received by the Right Hand of Fellowship. Adults not previously baptized are admitted to membership by Adult Baptism, after subscribing to a confession of faith. Baptism is administered either by pouring or sprinkling….
When the first Moravian missionaries left Herrnhut in 1732 the only other Protestants in the field were a handful of men sent out by the Danish Halle Mission, beginning in 1705. Not until William Carey left England for India in 1795 did the foreign mission movement get under way among Protestantism in general. Moravians, therefore, rank with the Pietists of Halle as the pioneers in this field of endeavor. They have distinguished themselves for their specialization in service to primitive peoples.
Moravian seal in stained glass.
We extend our gratitude to our friends at the Philosophical Library in New York for kindly granting permission to reprint this abridged account of the “Moravians in America” from The American Church of the Protestant Heritage, edited by Vergilius Ferm.