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I Understand
Volume 1.2 / Moravian Missionary Piety and the Influence of Count Zinzendorf


Moravian Missionary Piety and the Influence of Count Zinzendorf

E.D. Burns
Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was an influential pietistic leader, and he left a legacy of piety that combined mind, heart, and missionary activism. His piety was a spark for the labors of Pietist missionaries, such as the Moravian Brethren, an eighteenth-century renewal movement that emerged from German Pietism. In order to fundamentally understand the strengths and weaknesses of Moravian missionary piety, it is necessary to understand Zinzendorf’s distinguishing piety. The unique features of Moravian spirituality were rooted in Zinzendorf’s unique expression of evangelical missionary spirituality. In order to understand such distinctives, a survey of the historical background and evangelical context of the Moravians is necessary. The implications of the missionary spirituality of the Moravians are numerous: some are worthy of our imitation, such as their commitment to personal holiness and their endurance in suffering; and some should caution us against error, such as their misuse of Scripture and unbiblical fanaticism.

The Great Awakening in the American colonies of the mid-eighteenth century was an earthquake of activistic fervor. Spiritual leaders, such as George Whitefield (1714-1770), John Wesley (1703-1791), and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), fashioned the theological and activistic tenor of that revival. Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was a contemporary of these great pietistic leaders, and he left a legacy of piety that combined mind, heart, and missionary activism. His piety was a spark for the labors of Pietist missionaries, such as the Moravian Brethren,[1] an eighteenth-century renewal movement that emerged from German Pietism. In order to fundamentally understand the strengths and weaknesses of Moravian piety, it is neces- sary to understand Zinzendorf’s distinguishing piety. What are the unique features of Moravian spirituality and in what ways are they rooted in Zinzendorf’s unique expression of evangelical missionary spirituality? In order to understand such distinctives, a survey of the historical background of the Moravians is necessary.

1. Historical Context of Zinzendorf’s Moravian Piety

One of the influential movements of Zinzendorf ’s era was Pietism, founded by Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705). Its epicenter of development was under August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) at the University of Halle in Germany. Pietism was a spiritual renewal that arose within German Lutheranism in the late seventeenth century. Pietism emphasized experience in worship as opposed to mastering creeds and outer conformity—a reaction against the doctrinaire attitude of Scholastic theology.[2] Moravian spirituality was fundamentally another phase of Pietism.[3] According to Gillian Gollin, former professor of religion at Columbia College, Moravian piety embraced “a pietistic mode of life in which purity of morals and conduct was stressed over doctrinal uniqueness, [with the] Bible as the sole standard of religious doctrine and practice.”[4] As late Moravian scholar, John Weinlick, noted that Moravian piety possessed “a deeply Christocentric faith expressed in personal obedient devotion to the Saviour.”[5]

1.1. Zinzendorf’s Social Development

Zinzendorf cherished Lutheran doctrine even as a young boy. Partaking of the Sacraments and meditating upon Christ’s sacrifice were especially sweet to him. Zinzendorf was impressed with Philipp Jakob Spener’s piety, and Spener prayed over him at a young age that he would further the kingdom of Christ. The Count chose his life-motto, the now famous confession: “I have one passion: it is Jesus, Jesus only.”[6] The young Count drew near to Jesus as a brotherly companion. He wrote, “For many years I associated with him [Jesus] in a childlike manner [and] conversed with him as friends for hours.”[7] Zinzendorf’s predilection to relate to Christ as a companion and as an elder brother largely affected the trajectory of Moravian piety.

1.2. The Roots of Moravian Spirituality

In addition to his early social development, Zinzendorf’s experience at the University of Halle powerfully shaped his piety. While in school at Halle in his teenage years, he organized a group of students to worship and work together as Christian leaders. Under the influence of Francke, Zinzendorf began small groups of prayer for boys.[8] Before the Count left Halle, he reported to Francke a list of seven organized prayer meetings. Among these prayer groups, Zinzendorf made lifelong friends who together created a fraternity society called the “Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed.” Upon leaving Halle, Zinzendorf and his close friends made a vow to labor for the conversion of the heathen. The essence of this vow was a three-part summary of the Great Command and the Great Commission: be true to Christ, be kind to people, take the gospel to the nations. Due to their prestigious status as nobility, they knew they could not become missionaries because of their obligations to lands, titles, and familial inheritance. Nevertheless, they felt called to raise up an army of prayerful missionaries.[9]

Indisputably, the greatest experience of Zinzendorf’s life came during the summer of 1727. Prior to this summer, Zinzendorf created a community house in Herrnhut, which means “The Lord’s Watch.” Herrnhut saw rapid growth due to Moravian refugees. During the influx of immigration, German Pietists, Lutherans, Reformed, Separatists, Anabaptists, and other religious enthusi- asts were attracted to the growing Christian community. And great discord arose due to diversity of opinion and diverse religious enthusiasm. May 12, 1727, became a milestone for the Moravian Church. They confessed their sorrow for past division and pledged to live together in mutual love. This constitution birthed the revival in Herrnhut, from which Moravian spirituality grew. The apex of this revival occurred the following August. Concerted, extraordinary praying preceded it. On Wednesday, August 13, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit visited the community in a remarkable way. This corporate renewal was the impetus for the hundred-year Moravian prayer movement where they prayed without stopping.

1.3. Zinzendorf’s Influential Piety

During Zinzendorf ’s travels to North America, he labored to unite the divided churches within the colonies. Though incomplete, his Pennsylvania sermons exemplify some of his theological convictions, which bled into the culture of Moravian piety. The main themes of these sermons are evident: “heart-religion” and “theology of the cross.” Five observations can be made about his theology. First, his Pennsylvania sermons are strongly evangelical in tenor, highlighting justification by faith, the need for an authentic relationship with Jesus, and the centrality of Scripture, among others. Second, he did not preach to persuade people into his movement. He was concerned more for unity rather than uniformity. Third, he robustly defended the doctrine of justification by faith from the temp- tation of falling into a Protestant works-righteousness. He emphasized that salvation is entirely in the hands of Christ. Fourth, in these sermons he encouraged encountering the blood and wounds of Christ, which to his discredit became grossly abused. Fifth, Zinzendorf referred to the Holy Spirit as “Mother” in order to describe how Christians experience the Spirit. He said, “The metaphor of motherhood was intended to bring the awakened Christian into a more intimate relationship with the Triune God.”[10] Normative for thirty years, the Moravian Te Matrum was a prayer to the Holy Spirit: “‘O Mother! Whoever knows you and the Saviour glorifies you because you bring the gospel to all the world.’”[11] Such is an example of the eccentricities and unbiblical liberties in his teaching. Overall, his Pennsylvania sermons prove neither intellectually profound, nor exegetically precise. But, they weave together words of tender concern for the church.

2. Evangelical Context of Moravian Missionary Piety

David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland, has argued that since 1734 the English-speaking world has seen the unparalleled rise of evangelicalism, influenced by European Continental Pietism, the Great Awakening in America, and the Evangelical Revival in Britain in eighteenth century. Bebbington demonstrates that eighteenth-century evangelicalism contained four components: Biblicism (the centrality of the Scripture), Crucicentrism (the centrality off the cross of Christ), Activism (the centrality of active service and mission), and Conversionism (the centrality of making Christian converts).[12] The “Bebbington quadrilateral”[13] provides valuable descriptions of historical evangelical spirituality; it has become the standard grid through which to understand the evangelical spirituality of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[14]

Moravian missionary spirituality weaves well into these four strands, and crucicentrism and activism remain the dominant two strands in Moravian spirituality. On the one hand, Moravian piety is most negatively remembered for its eccentric crucicentrism, and on the other hand, it is most positively renowned for its global activism.

Moravian spirituality is essentially a missionary spirituality, manifesting itself in a sacrificial ac- tivism for the conversion of the heathen, rising out of its enthusiasm for the slain Lamb as revealed in type and shadow throughout the pages of Scripture. Count Zinzendorf spiritually influenced the Moravians in a warm-hearted religion that persisted in night-and-day prayer and was ultimately manifested in unrivaled missionary zeal. Moravian piety is sometimes seen as extremist and though Zinzendorf might not have consciously intended to foster extreme practices, his eccentric person- ality attracted followers who would exploit the uniqueness of his piety to the detriment of sound biblical doctrine and practice.

2.1. Biblicism

Though spontaneous at times, Count Zinzendorf’s ministry was very practical and thorough in its application of biblical truth. Robert Gallagher, professor of missions at Wheaton College, suggests that Zinzendorf believed that “theology simply needed to be presented in such a way that biblical revelation would result in a genuine experience of God’s love. The question paramount in his mind was ‘How does the Bible work in the daily life of the Christian?’”[15] Though the Moravian com- munity grew large, Zinzendorf encouraged fellowship by dividing up the congregation into small groups called, “choirs” or “bands,” each based upon age, sex, and marital status. They met daily for discussion and worship whether in a room, under a tree, or at work. They met informally when they felt that the Holy Spirit prompted them. They placed unique emphasis on Christ’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. The Moravians’ practice of abiding with Christ through biblical meditation revealed their conviction that they were adopted into the Father’s family and united to their Brother Jesus. Ian Randall observes that the Bible was the ground, root, and sap of Moravian piety, propelling their missional fuel:

The need for a practical living out of the teaching of the Bible continued to mark the Brethren.... The Moravians encouraged all their people to come together in small groups or ‘bands’ to study and apply the Bible.... It was this pragmatic application of the Bible that enabled the Moravians to engage in pioneering missional enterprises.[16]

These bands owed much to the influence of Spener’s collegia pietatis, or devotional meetings, in which small groups of believers would meet to earnestly study and teach the Bible. Influenced by Spener’s small group Bible study methods outlined in Pia Desideria, Francke in Halle, and the many missionaries who were furloughing in Halle, Randall claims that Zinzendorf “was led to his own commitment to mission. The Bible and mission belonged together in his thinking.”[17] Moreover, Gallagher explains how religious education of Moravian children became foundational for missions:

The Moravian choirs became training schools for missionary candidates, each characterized by severe simplicity. By 1730, more than 50 members of the Moravians had been imprisoned for the cause of Christ, and seven years later, the household of the Single Brethren had provided 56 recruits for foreign missions. Over the years, the choirs placed the training and education of the children in the hands of the church. Those children became the property of the Brethren since they believed that the church had first claim on the lives of its members. The choir houses conditioned the youth for the mission field since the lack of parental and family bonds made it easier to travel to distant places. This was one of the key reasons for their widespread mission work.[18]

Wherever mission communities were around the world, the Moravians sought first to root them in Bible meditation along with ecstatic hymn singing and prayer. The Bible was a book about a missionary Father with a missionary Son who was wedded to a missionary Bride.

Within these small groups, two primary ministries were practiced: The Night-Watch and the Hourly Intercession. The Night-Watch was an assigned night each week where the small group would meet during the sleeping hours and sing Scripture antiphonally. During the Hourly Intercession a band would be assigned certain hours in the day or week to pray and intercede for their community and the salvation of the nations. These both imitated the instructions from the Tabernacle of David.[19] James Weingarth, bishop of the Moravian church, says, “As in the days of the Old Covenant, the sacred fire was never permitted to go out on the altar (Lev 6:13-14), so in a congregation which is a temple of the living God wherein He has His altar and His fire, the intercession of His saints should incessantly rise up to Him like incense.”[20] The purpose of these groups was primarily to encourage persevering prayer for the global missions effort. Every week the intercessors would meet for a conference. An important part of this was the reading of letters from their missionaries in foreign lands, and they were directed to pray for specific missionaries. This helped maintain the focus on intercession for the nations.

Every day they would participate in a song service, which commonly opened with the singing of entire hymns and continued with the singing of single stanzas regarding a unified theme. Zinzendorf would preach on a short text, and then the following night, the intercessors would pray and sing out that Scripture until morning came. He regularly preached on confession and repentance, which he saw as necessary for preserving humility and holiness.

2.2. Crucicentrism

The Moravians were not ashamed of the cross of Christ; nevertheless, an unhealthy fascination with “wounds theology” occurred, in which the wounds of Christ’s body became the objects of a bizarre and sickly adoration. This was mainly due to overindulgence among the Moravian leadership. This spiritually sick period was appropriately called the “Sifting Period” since it was later viewed as a time when Satan sought to undermine the spiritual maturity of the Moravian communities.

A growing segment of the Moravian community was comprised of religious dilettantes, sensation-seekers, and many from all over Europe wishing to indulge their sensationalist curiosity. Zinzendorf’s oldest son, Christian Renatus (1727-1752), was a major culprit in leading the group into this fanaticism. He bore a large hole in the side wall of a Lutheran church in Berthelsdorf, and he instructed the congregation to march through it to experience the Savior’s suffering as if it were Jesus’ “side wound.” Gallagher explains, “They spoke of Christ as ‘Brother Lambkin’ and themselves as ‘little wound-parsons,’ or ‘worms in the wounds of his side’ and ‘cross-wood little splinters.’”[21] Going into the side hole became synonymous with being united with Christ. Paul M. Peucker, the Moravian historian, clarifies,

From being a part of the body of Christ, the sidehole [sic] becomes a pars pro toto for Christ—the sidehole is Christ. In many of the hymns Jesus is addressed as “sidehole,” in many variations little hole (Holchen, LI5, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40), dearest little side (liebstes Seitelein, LI7), divine side (göttliches Seitelein, LI2, or göttliches Seitenholchen, L23), or charming hole (charmantes Holchen, LI7). The sidehole is at once Christ as well as the entrance to His body.[22]

Obsessing with Christ’s blood and side wound became the unifying theme of this unfortunate sea- son. Regrettably, Moravian spirituality is often associated solely with such excessiveness.[23]

Wishing to ground everything in Scripture, the Moravians employed an imaginative typological interpretation of Scripture in promoting side-wound spirituality. They cited the following passages as side-wound types: John 19:33-34; 20:20, 24-27; Zechariah 12:10; Revelation 1:7; Exodus 17:6 (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4); Song of Songs 2:14; and Isaiah 51:1.

However, Zinzendorf later confessed this error and realigned the movement back to the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church. Yet Moravian missionaries persisted in the eccentricities of the Sifting Period. The damage had been done, and it was outside of Zinzendorf’s control to reform every mission station. The leaders in Herrnhut lamentably exercised deficient discernment in these extravagant practices. The Litany of the Wounds of the Husband was introduced in 1744 to the Moravian community of Bethlehem, PA.[24] The diary of the community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania reported that the singing of this litany led the congregation into “heartfelt discussion and [realization of] the importance of bloody grace,”[25] and they swooned with “very bloody and heart-warming”[26] emotion.

Zinzendorf was not a masochist obsessed with suffering. Rather, he exulted in the offense of the slaughtered Lamb of God, thus shattering the Deistic composure of eighteenth-century Christi-anity and Europe’s pompous civility. Moreover, Zinzendorf’s practice of meditating on the slain Lamb catapulted the Moravian missions movement and fueled ongoing importunity in prayer. They gloried in the promise that they would conquer under this blood. Moravian scholar, A. J. Lewis, aptly observes,

It was with the “Lamb and Blood” that deliverance was brought to the poor, and refuge to the outcast, and the Evangelical Revival set aflame. It was a “Blood and Wounds” theology that carried the fellowship of all men in Christ to the Negro, the Eskimo, the Indian, the Hottentot, and to the ‘separated’ Christians in Europe and America.[27]

The slaughtered Lamb became the seal and watchword of the Moravians and their mission—“vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur.”[28] Revelation 12:11 was one of their favorite texts—“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” Though they could overemphasize the bloodiness of the cross, they none- theless applied the victory of the cross to their lives and their mission. The cross was not merely a symbol; it was a call to radical discipleship.

2.3. Activism

Zinzendorf’s words either emblazoned or soothed the heart. In preaching, he believed that the preacher’s heart must be filled with God in order to speak out of its abundance. Weinlick states, “It was this kind of preaching and personal religious conversation on the part of the Count, on every conceivable occasion, which infused vitality into the Brotherhood.”[29] The Moravians developed a unique sense of charitable community. Zinzendorf traveled tirelessly to check on the spiritual growth of his people. Not only was he active in missions and missions mobilization, he also was active in shepherding his followers. In Zinzendorf’s love for his brethren and concern for missions, he would even travel overseas to refresh suffering Moravian missionaries. 

Because of Zinzendorf’s indomitable endeavor to build unity and his unique love for Jesus, the Moravians were known as the “the Easter People.”[30] Winfred Kirkland noted, “It was this sheer happiness which set them singing at all times, and never has a band of Christians sung so much, at their work and in their worship, as these Moravians.”[31] Their emphasis on fellowship and holiness was crucial for maintaining the momentum of the prayer and missions movement.

Zinzendorf was also remarkably used by God to birth a pre-modern missions movement. He aspired to send “Diaspora Societies” all over the world, wherever there were Christians and non-Christians alike. These groups of Moravians would promote unified, unceasing worship of the Lamb among all the respective Christian groups wherever they went in the world. The enthusiasm of the Moravian believers seemed to ignite widespread hunger for God, which could only be satisfied by an encounter with the living God. Kirkland said that they went to awaken sleeping Christians “and they had plans in the making for the mutual discovery, enrichment and service of all the denominations.”[32] Moreover, they sought to convert the heathen and the slaves.

Zinzendorf cast a vision of the cross of Christ so great that the Moravians found indisputable joy in sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. Twenty out of twenty-nine missionaries died in the first year. They longed to exhibit the likeness of the sufferings of Christ through their sufferings, filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions.[33] Lewis claims, “This daring dream of carrying the Christian Gospel throughout the world became an epic of selfless devotion and unbreakable courage and at its very heartbeat the pulse of Zinzendorf’s ecumenical vision—all men of every land are one in Christ the Redeemer.”[34]

The Moravians first engaged in missions in a dramatic demonstration of reckless abandon and activistic piety. On August 21, 1732, a potter and a carpenter from the Moravian community set sail for St. Thomas in the West Indies to reach the slaves, but in order to gain permission among the slaveholders to minister to the slaves, they had to agree to sell themselves into slavery as well.[35] As they were leaving, they raised their hands and declared: “May the Lamb who was slain receive the reward of his suffering.”[36] Thus Moravian missions were born. They were following their Savior to the slaughter—160 missionaries died in the first 50 years.

2.4. Conversionism

Emerging out of Zinzendorf’s crucicentrism and activism was an impassioned cross-centered and missionary-mobilizing conversionism. Zinzendorf was not worried about the number of deaths as mentioned above; rather, he was anxious for the state of the 300 slaves who had become Christians in the first six years of the mission. Jon Hinkson explains that “the source of anxiety for the Count was that mass conversion, as had been the pattern in Europe, made not Christians, only Christendom.”[37] Also, Zinzendorf did not believe that a mass number of the heathen would be converted till after the salvation of the Jews, which reflected his post-millennial eschatology. But he did see these conversions as the first-fruits of that great eschatological harvest.[38] Moravian scholar, David Schattschneider explains that at the heart of Moravian conversionist spirituality was the belief that it is,

The Holy Spirit who both sends out missionaries and stirs up seekers. The Moravians believed the Spirit went out in advance of them to find single souls chosen by God to be the Bride of the Lamb.... Accordingly the missionary goes out to discover where the Spirit has done His prior drawing work and simply explains that work to the seeker.... If the Spirit does not turn resistance to responsiveness, the missionary may... withdraw and move on.[39]

The missionaries traversed the world in search of truth-seeking converts. Zinzendorf instructed them not to spend time debating gospel truth if it appeared that a veil were still covering their eyes. Speaking of the arrival of William Carey (1761-1834) in Serampore and discovering that Moravian missionaries had already left after seeing no fruit, Schattschneider notes,

If there was no response after a few years, the [Moravian mission] effort was closed out.... This was the practical result of Zinzendorf ’s view of the Holy Spirit as the only real missionary. If there was no response, it meant the Spirit had not yet prepared the people to hear the message of the human missionaries, and so they were free to move on.[40]

Zinzendorf taught that those prepared by the Spirit would be converted by just the simple reading of the Passion narrative. Zinzendorf promoted what might seem to be a juxtaposition of contemporary friendship evangelism and the eighteenth-century hyper-Calvinist notion of a warrant of faith. Indicative of friendship evangelism style, Zinzendorf told the missionaries: “Do not begin with public preaching, but with a conversation with individual souls who deserve it, who indicate the Saviour to you.... If it is desired of you, then also witness to each man the Gospel publically.”[41]

The evangelism style of hyper-Calvinism would say that sinners should not be offered the gospel unless they indicate a warrant of faith assuring them that they were among the elect. Though his language of selective evangelism may sound like a foreshadowing of functional hyper-Calvinism, he unashamedly promoted an indiscriminate gospel call. Schattschneider says, “Zinzendorf wanted what he called ‘the Saviour’s own teaching method’ to be remembered and followed. This ‘method’ was direct and unconditional.”[42] The doctrine of election grounded the Moravians’ confidence that the Spirit would regenerate all the chosen heathen to be among Christ’s Bride. Convinced that the Bible prophesied an eschatalogical multiethnic Bride, they liberally spread the gospel knowing that indiscriminate seed sowing must precede the harvest.

They saw foreign cultures and languages as uniquely purchased by the Bridegroom to be part of the Bride. For example, when Zinzendorf was ministering among the Iroquois Indians, he told them his method was different than those the Puritans who came before; instead of preaching long sermons, he informed the Indians that he was going to simply visit with them until he and they had mutually learned to value each other’s idiosyncrasies. They were allowed to remain Indians, and the Moravians did not seek to Europeanize their culture. Schattschneider says,

Missionaries were encouraged to learn the languages of the people whom they served. Many did and soon began translating Scripture and hymns for local use. When it came to relations with local customs and traditions, and even to colonial authorities, the workers were encouraged to maintain a low profile. Zinzendorf hoped that the traditional denominations would simply not be transplanted in new areas of the Christian world. These structures played their historical role in Europe where he viewed them as expressions of the diverse way in which God works. But for the world of the missions he hoped for something new and he was involved in several ecumenical experiments. Under no circumstances were the missionaries to proselytize from other Christian groups. “It pains me very much,” the count wrote, “that I must see that the heathen become sectarians again, that people polish up their churches and ask them of what Christian religion they are.” The goal was, rather, an indigenous church, fully and completely in the hands of the local people. As the count warned, “Do not measure souls according to the Herrnhut yardstick”—according to the way things are done back home at headquarters.[43]

Missionaries from other mission societies observed that the Moravians had “the best mode of Chris- tianizing the Indians,”[44] for they were confident in the Spirit’s power to convert those chosen to be Christ’s Bride. And the Spirit could transform the peculiarities of heathen culture.

3. The Good Fruit of Zinzendorf’s Influence on Moravian Piety

God used Zinzendorf’s tenderness and the Moravians’ piety to warm the heart of the great Methodist leader, John Wesley (1703-1791). In a near-death experience at sea, Wesley was astonished at the unwavering peace and unconquerable joy of the Moravians. Having encountered the Spirit of God through the worship of the Moravians, Wesley set out to discover the source of their joy, which led him to meet Zinzendorf. Impressed with the Moravian’s stirring affection for Christ and their authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, Wesley and his brother, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), came to salvation. John Wesley discussed personal holiness and piety with the Moravian leader and theologian, August Spangenberg (1704-1792), who served as Zinzendorf’s assistant. Indicative of Moravian missionary spirituality, “Spangenberg asked Wesley: ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’ It was a strange question to ask a Church of England priest. Wesley replied with hesitation: ‘I know he is the Saviour of the World’. True, said Spangenberg, but then he insisted ‘do you know he has saved you?’”[45] From this penetrating conversation, Wesley was primed to embrace the Moravian belief in assurance of salvation, which ignited the Methodist Revival.

Fifty years before the beginning of modern missions by William Carey and the Baptist Missionary Society, the Moravian Church had pioneered the way into pagan countries both by principle and example. Their English missionary magazine Periodical Accounts inspired Carey. In a meeting of his Baptist brethren, Carey threw a copy of the paper on a table and proclaimed, “See what the Moravians have done! Cannot we follow their example and in obedience to our Heavenly Master go out into the world, and preach the Gospel to the heathen?”[46]

3.1. The Bad Fruit of Zinzendorf’s Influence on Moravian Piety

Zinzendorf reaped what he sowed in his lack of discernment, letting the “blood and wounds” theology become excessive. As he advanced toward middle age, Weinlick says that the Count became “more domineering in tone, more noble in his dreams, and more foolish in his conduct.”[47] For a season, there was a distortion upon the atonement. Weinlick goes on to say that “its outward manifestation was a morbid concentration and wordplay upon the blood and wounds of the crucified Christ and a simulated irresponsibility of behavior supposed to be a demonstration of childlike faith.”[48] Zinzendorf’s powerful imagination and lavish imagery were a dangerous mixture, inviting foolish fanaticism. He rejected anyone who challenged his excess, and he was not teachable during this period. The longer the overindulgence continued, the more sensual it became. Weinlick observes, “The expression of love for Christ took on strong sexual connotations. There was an undue exaltation of marriage as the symbol of the marriage between Christ and the souls of the believer, and in this exaltation sexual terminology was freely employed.”[49] Peucker also notes, “When during the festival of the single brothers in Herrnhaag in May of 1748 the assembled men sang the line ‘Now thou be kissed by the entire brethren’s choir,’ each man kissed his neighbor, representing Christ.”[50]

In the final analysis, though their mystical practices presumed to be Bible-centered and even cross-centered, it did not mean they accorded with established sound doctrine. Under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf, the Moravians sought to ground everything in the Bible, and some of them used the most outlandish allegorical interpretations of OT passages to support their graphic “blood and wounds” theology. They claimed mystical experiences of blood appearing on their hands, of swimming as little fish in the blood of Christ, and of even enjoying sensual relations with their “wounded Lover.” They believed that everything they did had a Bible verse behind it—that is, a misquoted, misapplied, and misinterpreted one. It was not until they reformed and realigned themselves under the Augsburg Confession that they came back to center. Nevertheless, because of Zinzendorf’s profound disdain for organized religious instruction, akin to what he had witnessed in Lutheran scholasticism, the Moravians continued to devalue rigorous theological training. In spite of their reaffirmation of the Augsburg Confession, without actively pursuing theological education and submitting to the sufficiency of Scripture, the Moravians were prone to wander from evangelical Biblicism. Their misuse of Scripture and adherence to extra-biblical revelation disclosed a defective view of the Holy Spirit’s illumination of Scripture and sanctifying work. Though for a season they quoted texts in defense of their spiritual experiences, their spiritual practices went beyond the bounds of biblical spirituality; they did not always accord with the pattern of sound words, the witness of church history, and established doctrinal teaching.[51]

4. Concluding Implications

Though Zinzendorf and the Moravians claimed devotion to the Bible, they misused and misapplied it. Without a joyful devotion to a confessional and doctrinal center, the Moravians could quote verses out of context and argue for the validity of their enthusiasm. This propensity to quote the Bible out of historical, grammatical, literary, and theological context and thus appear to be Bible-centered on the surface should be a warning to Christians leaders lest they use Scripture to support their own fancies. If the Bible is not rightly divided, its misuse can cause confusion, misdirection, and even abuse. Moreover, in relation to the centrality of Scripture, the gospel must be heralded rightly in a way that does not confuse the message of the gospel with its implications. The gospel message is a summons from the King that sinners proudly defy; it is not good advice, but rather, it is good news. The gospel must never become socially acceptable advice for living.

The Moravian vision for renewal and mission is certainly something missionaries can learn from today. Throughout the history of the church, often times corporate mission impetus emerges out of extraordinary concerted prayer. The Moravian missions movement demonstrated this historical phenomenon, and the Moravians also showed how ongoing prayer is life-giving for missionaries on the field. To be sure, they employed some extra-biblical practices in their praying, but their devotion to God in prayer was commendable. Furthermore, their relentless devotion to unite mission and prayer is worthy of imitation. Too often prayer ministries err on the side of inaction, and similarly, mission agencies can err on the side of emphasizing strategy and methods over against prayerfulness. Mission agencies and churches should be aware of the modern tendency to elevate pragmatism over piety.

Another implication of the Moravian missionary movement that deserves consideration but not wholesale imitation is their emphasis on Christian unity. The Moravians were renowned for working across denominational lines in order to demonstrate Christian love to a watching world. This emphasis on ecumenism over the years slipped into doctrinal tolerance and liberalism because they did not hold fast to a confessional center, but their initial intentions were noteworthy. On the mission field and in non-Christianized areas of the world, kindhearted charity and practical support among various evangelical groups is not only a witness to unbelievers, it is also a source of encouragement and strength for weary and persecuted believers.

The role of suffering in Moravian piety is an implication that should be considered for mission- aries and global leaders today. The Moravians viewed suffering in missions as a way to identify with Christ and demonstrate the power of the resurrection in a cruciform lifestyle. In an era of vaccinations, modern medicine, jet travel, and a love for ease, any call to self-denial and suffering is often met with derision. Though their Crucicentrism was misapplied at times, it is no coincidence that Moravian missionaries often chose paths of hardship because of their vision of the slain Lamb who has conquered death. A renewed consecration to follow Christ as the conquering Lamb is needed in contemporary Christianity.

Count Zinzendorf and his Moravian missionary host burned with passion for the Lamb and his renown among the heathen. Their organization of Bible study groups for the sake of practical holiness was innovative and still proves to be useful today. Moravian spiritual formation was charitable and heart-felt. A joyful spirit among the Moravians influenced their passionate prayers for over one hundred years. Regularly emphasizing confession and repentance became vital for the continual purity of the community. Because of their devotion to the slain Lamb, the Moravians were actively committed to reaching the heathen, even at the cost of martyrdom. This cross-centered missionary spirituality kept their prayer gatherings alive as they urgently interceded for fellow missionaries.

Affected by Zinzendorf’s pervasive “romance of religion,”[52] Moravian piety was the amalgamation of Pietism’s small group Bible study and missions activism. The Moravians never stopped praying for over one hundred years, and so pervasive were their missionary stations that the sun never set on them. Therefore, let us consider what the Moravians have done; our Lamb has conquered, let us follow him. 


1 The Moravian missionaries came from Moravia in present-day Germany. Moravia was essentially a refugee region for persecuted non-Catholics. On August 13, 1727, the Moravian refugees experienced a tremendous revival, from which emerged a great evangelical missionary movement. For a helpful discussion of the Moravians’ historical roots in the Czech reformer, John Hus (1369-1415), see Kenneth B. Mulholland, “Moravians, Puritans, and the Modern Missionary Movement,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (April 1, 1999):222-23. 

2 Three general characteristics as outlined in Spener’s Pia Desideria were common to Pietism’s manifestations: First, a mystical element that emphasized emotional experience and heartfelt expression existed especially in the context of personal Bible study. Second, the practice of holy living and active compassion developed out of this emphasis on ex- perience. Third, emerging from this active compassion, Pietists concerned themselves with the unevangelized heathen. See Philipp Jakob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1964). For a helpful discussion of the six themes outlined in Pia Desideria, see Kenneth B. Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (January 1, 1999):90-92. See also Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed., The Penguin History of the Church (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986), 6:224.

3 The Moravians’ own version of Pietism included a five-point mission statement: “(1) The plain, simple, believ- ing, and consolatory preaching of the gospel; (2) To neglect no opportunity of bearing testimony in other places concern- ing Jesus as the only way to life; (3) An object of primary concern to promote the printing of... useful and edifying works; (4) They considered how they might be useful to...those of other persuasions. (5) They deliberated also upon providing schools for the education of children in a christian-like [sic] manner.” August Gottlieb Spangenberg, The Life of Count Zinzendorf, trans. Samuel Jackson. (London: Holdsworth, 1838), 445. This is a reproduction of a set of principles drawn up in 1723 by Zinzendorf himself.

4 Gillian Lindt Gollin, Moravians in Two Worlds: A Study of Changing Communities (New York: Columbia Uni- versity Press, 1967), 4.

5 John R. Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf (Bethlehem, PA: The Moravian Church in America, 2001), 45. 

6  John Greenfield, Power from on High (London: Marshall and Morgan, 1927), 24.

7  August Gottlieb Spangenberg, Leben des Herrn Nikolaus Ludwig, in vol.4 of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,Materialien und Dokumente: Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf, Leben und Werk in Quellen und Darstellungen, ed. August Gottlieb Spangenberg and Gerhard Meyer (New York: G. Olms, 1971), 27, quoted in Craig D. Atwood, Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 45.

8  See Gollin, Moravians in Two Worlds: A Study of Changing Communities, 15.

9  After leaving Halle, Zinzendorf’s aunt presented him with a gold medallion. On one side was inscribed, vulnera Christi (“the wounds of Christ”), and on the other side were symbols of martyrdom and the inscription, nostra medela (“our healing”). This emblem influenced his spirituality as he designed plans for a praying missionary society. See Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf, 29. 

10 Julie Tomberlin Weber, A Collection of Sermons from Zinzendorf’s Pennsylvania Journey, trans. Craig D. Atwood (Bethlehem, PA: The Moravian Church of America, 1999), xviii.

11 Ian M. Randall, “A Missional Spirituality: Moravian Brethren and Eighteenth-Century English Evangelicalism,” Transformation 23, no. 4 (October 2006): 208. 

12 D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1995), 20. David Gillett also supplements assurance, prayer, and holiness to Bebbington’s fourfold filter; see David Gillett, Trust and Obey: Explorations in Evangelical Spirituality, (London: DLT, 1993), 34-39. Philip Sheldrake also contends that evangelical spirituality has been historically comprised of communion with God, practical Christianity, and theology; see Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History (London: SPCK, 1991), 52, quoted also in Ian Randall, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 20. Alister McGrath proposes, more broadly, four features of Christian spirituality: “[First,] knowing God and not just knowing about God; [Second,] experiencing God to the full; [Third,] a transformation of existence based on the Christian faith; and [fourth,] attaining Christian authenticity in life and thought.” Alister E. McGrath, Christian Spirituality (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999), 4.

13 Timothy Larsen, “The Reception Given Evangelicalism in Modern Britain Since its Publication in 1989,” in The Advent of Evangelicalism, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 25.

14 Timothy Larsen claims that Bebbington’s quadrilateral “is now receiving the ultimate compliment of being cited without acknowledgement, as if it is not one scholar’s opinion but simply the truth we all know.” See Larsen, “The Reception Given Evangelicalism in Modern Britain,” 29. 

15 Robert L. Gallagher, “Zinzendorf and the Early Moravians: Pioneers in Leadership Selection and Training,” Missiology 36, no. 2 (April 2008): 238.

16  Randall, “A Missional Spirituality,” 207.

17  Ibid, 207.
18  Gallagher, “Zinzendorf and the Early Moravians,” 239. 

19  See 1 Chronicles 25.

20  James Weingarth, You are My Witness: A Story Study Celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Moravian Missions—1732-1982 (Bethlehem, PA: The Inter-Provincial Women’s Board of the Moravian Church, 1981), 12. 

21 Robert L. Gallagher, “The Integration of Mission Theology and Practice: Zinzendorf and the Early Moravians,” Mission Studies 25, no. 2 (January 2008): 189.

22 P.M. Peucker, “The Songs of the Sifting: Understanding the Role of Bridal Mysticism in Moravian Piety During the Late 1740s,” Journal Of Moravian History no. 3 (September 2007): 61.

23 Peter Vogt observes that “Zinzendorf describes the side wound sometimes as the central point and nexus of his theology: ‘The holy side of Jesus is a central point, out of which all spiritual matters can be obtained. There we can find, so to speak, the squaring of the circle of all things spiritual, biblical, and heavenly, there we can always obtain an integrated whole, because there we have a point.” Peter Vogt, “Honor to the Side: The Adoration of the Side Wound of Jesus in Eighteenth-Century Moravian Piety,” Journal of Moravian History no. 7 (September 2009): 96.

24 Here is a sample from the Litany: “Powerful wounds of Jesus, So moist, so gory, bleed on my heart so that I may remain brave and like the wounds.... Purple wounds of Jesus, You are so succulent, whatever comes near becomes like wounds and flows with blood. Juicy wounds of Jesus, Whoever sharpens the pen and with it pierces you just a little, licks and tastes it.” See Craig D. Atwood, Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1. 

25 The Bethlehem Diary, Vol. 2, 1744-1745, ed. Vernon Nelson, Otto Dreydoppel Jr., and Doris Rohland Yob, trans. Kenneth G. Hamilton and Lothar Madeheim (Bethlehem, PA: Moravian Archives, 2001), 168.

26  The Bethlehem Diary, 2:154.

27  A.J. Lewis, Zinzendorf: The Ecumenical Pioneer (Bethlehem, PA: The Moravian Church in America, 1962), 70.

28  Translation: “Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow him.”

29  Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf, 91.

30  See Winfred Kirkland, The Easter People (New York: Flemming H. Revell Company, 1923), 1.

31  Kirkland, The Easter People, 73.

32  Ibid, 73.

33  See Colossians 1:24.

34  Lewis, Zinzendorf: The Ecumenical Pioneer, 81.

35  The potter’s name was John Leonard Dober (1706-1766), and the carpenter’s name was David Nitschman (1695-1772). 

36 See David Smithers, “Zinzendorf and the Moravians,” Awake and Go, http://www.watchword.org/index. php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48&Itemid=48 (accessed October 1, 2012).

37 Jon N. Hinkson, “Missions Among Puritans and Pietists”, The Great Commission, ed. Martin I. Klauber and Scott M. Manetsch, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 40.

38 David A. Schattschneider helpfully explains the Moravian theology of evangelization: he says, first, souls first often seek “truth on their own;” second, the Holy Spirit sends missionaries “to those who needed them;” third, the new converts are baptized based upon their joyful answer to simple questions about Christ, sin, and redemption. See David A. Schattschneider, “Pioneers in Mission: Zinzendorf and the Moravians,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 8, no. 2 (April 1984): 65.

39 Schattschneider, “Pioneers in Mission,” 40-41. 

40 David A. Schattschneider, “William Carey, Modern Missions, and the Moravian Influence,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22, no. 1 (January 1998): 12. Also, regarding the positive influence of the Moravians on Carey and the Serampore missionaries, see Schattschneider, “William Carey, Modern Missions, and the Moravian Influence,” 12.

41 David A. Schattschneider, “‘Souls of the Lamb’: A Theology for the Christian Mission According to Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf and Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1975): 77, quoted in Hinkson, “Missions Among Puritans and Pietists”, The Great Commission, ed. Martin I. Klauber and Scott M. Manetsch, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 42.

42 Schattschneider, “Pioneers in Mission,” 65. 

43  Ibid, 66.

44  Hinkson, “Missions Among Puritans and Pietists”, The Great Commission, 43.

45  Randall, “A Missional Spirituality,” 206.

46  Greenfield, Power from on High, 19.

47  Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf, 198.

48  Ibid, 199.

49  Ibid, 200.

50  Peucker, “The Songs of the Sifting,” 67. 

51 See 1 Timothy 4:6-7. 

52 Winfred Kirkland, The Easter People, 33. 


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