History of the Moravians
The name Moravian identifies the fact that this historic church had its origin in ancient Bohemia and Moravia (part of present-day Czechoslovakia).
About the middle of the ninth century these two countries were converted to Christianity chiefly through the influence of two Greek Orthodox missionaries named Cyril and Methodius. They translated the Bible into the common language of the people and introduced a national church tradition. In the centuries that followed, Bohemia and Moravia gradually fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church as it spread its influence across Western Europe.
By the early 1400’s the Catholic Church had fallen into spiritual and political corruption. Unified under the Pope, it had become a very powerful political force in partnership with the nobility of that day. Unfortunately, this power led to many forms of abuse. Clergy bought their positions with wealth rather than earn them through spiritual commitment. The communion cup was not shared with the lay people. The Holy Scriptures and the preaching of God’s Word was required to be done in Latin rather than the common language of the people. The word of the Pope, rather than the Bible, had become the rule of faith.
During this time several voices began to rise up and demand that the church return to a Biblical faith. They denounced the selling of indulgences (special pardons) by the church and proclaimed that Christ was the only path to salvation. They demanded that the communion cup be shared with lay people and that the Bible, not the Pope, should be the authority and final word concerning the Christian faith.
One of the strongest of these voices belonged to John Hus (1369-1415). Hus was a priest, professor of philosophy and rector at the University of Prague in Czechoslovakia. The Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where Hus preached, became a rallying place for the Czech reformation. He gained support from students and the common people and led a protest against the questionable doctrines and abusive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. His bold proclamation of faith and efforts to reform the church lead to his death. Hus was falsely accused of heresy, imprisoned, put on trial at the Council of Constance, and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.
The reformation spirit did not die with Hus. In spite of the efforts by the Catholic Church to silence his views, Hus’ followers continued to cling to his teachings and claimed a renewed vision for the church. They rose in armed conflict against the powers in Rome. The Hussite Wars marked the first large-scale opposition to the domination of the Papacy.
In 1457 members of the Hussite movement gathered on the estate of Lititz, about 100 miles east of Prague, and organized a church called the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren). For many years the Unity grew and flourished. By 1517 it numbered more than 200,000 members in over 400 parishes. Using its two printing presses it published some of the first Bibles and hymnals in common languages. It established schools, trained and ordained its own clergy.
As the Lutheran Reformation swept through northern Europe in the early Sixteenth Century, military confrontations decimated the Unity. Bohemia and Moravia became a battleground for the armies of Rome and those of Protestant nations. By the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in 1648, only a small number of Brethren survived. In the agreement which ended the war (The Peace of Westphalia) citizens of each nation assumed the faith of their rulers, and thus Bohemia and Moravia became a Catholic nation. Protestants living there had to either convert to Catholicism, flee the nation or face execution. A small band of Brethren fled into Poland. Others chose to go underground, publicly pretending to be loyal to Rome, but secretly clinging to the Biblical faith and teachings of the Unitas Fratrum.
One of the great leaders of the Unity during its darkest days was John Amos Comenius (1592-1670). Elected Bishop and President of the Unity during the Thirty Years’ War, it was he who led the small band of surviving Brethren into exile in Poland. Under his spiritual leadership they established religious communities which enjoyed rapid growth.
In addition to being a great spiritual leader Comenius was also a pioneer in modern educational methods. He was the first to use pictures in textbooks and believed in what might be called a holisitic concept of education. He taught that education began in the earliest days of childhood and continued throughout life. He advocated the formal education of women, an idea which was unheard of in his day. He believed that learning, spirituality and emotional growth were interconnected and should be pursued together. His educational thought was highly respected in Northern Europe. He was called upon to completely restructure the school system of Sweden and was even asked to become the first President of Harvard, an honor he declined because of his leadership of the troubled Unitas Fratrum.
The Unity of the Brethren and her Risen Lord remained Comenius’ first love throughout his life. He could have easily abandoned the church and lived a life of relative ease spreading his teaching methods throughout the modern world, but he chose not to do so. Instead, proceeds from the sale of his books on education went to support the struggling Unity. He tried to use his influence to secure a place of peace and religious freedom for the church he loved. Time and again he saw plans and possibilities fall through. He died in Holland, a broken man, believing he had failed the church. His prayer was that some day the “hidden seed” of his beloved Unitas Fratrum might once again spring to life.
Comenius’ prayer was answered in the early 1700’s when remnants of the Unity made their way into Germany and onto the estate of a Lutheran Nobleman, Count Nicholas Louis von Zinzendorf. There along with other religious refugees they found safety under his protection. They became known as the Moravians at this time because they traveled from a region of Czechoslovakia known as Moravia.
Zinzendorf had a tremendous impact on the Moravian Church. His pietistic faith (emphasizing a personal relationship with Christ) greatly influenced the Moravians. In 1722 they built the town of Herrnhut (The Lord’s Watch) on his estate. This new community became the haven for many more Moravian refugees.
Following an early period of dissension, the group came to formulate a unique document, known as The Brotherly Agreement, which set forth basic tenets of Christian behavior. The document is known today, in its revised form, as The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living. Residents of Herrnhut were required to sign a pledge to abide by these Biblical principles. August 13, 1727, marked the culmination of a great spiritual renewal for the Moravian church in Herrnhut. The Holy Spirit gave to Zinzendorf and this group of Christian’s a vision to take the gospel to the far reaches of the earth. In 1732 the first missionaries were sent to the West Indies. This marked the beginning of the modern missionary movement.
The Moravian’s felt called by God to preach the Gospel to slaves as well as the native peoples of the North American continent. This mission work sent Moravians out to every corner of the earth proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For many years there were more Moravian missionaries in the field than there were folks in the church back at home supporting them.
After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Moravian settlement near Savannah, Georgia (1735-1740), the Moravians settled in Pennsylvania on the estate of George Whitefield. The Moravian settlers purchased 500 acres to establish the town of Bethlehem in 1741. Soon they bought the 5,000 acres of the Barony of Nazareth from Whitefield’s manager, and the two communities of Bethlehem and Nazareth became closely linked in their agricultural and industrial economies.
Bishop Augustus Spangenberg led a group of men to survey a 100,000 acre tract of land in North Carolina, which came to be known as Wachau after an Austrian estate of Count Zinzendorf. The name was later changed to Wachovia and became the center of growth for the church in that region. Bethabara, Bethania and Salem (now Winston-Salem) were the first Moravian settlements in North Carolina.
Following the Unity Synod of 1848 the Moravian Church in America began to develop as an autonomous church body. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Winston-Salem, North Carolina became the headquarters of the two American Provinces (Northern and Southern). Over the years the church slowly spread out from these two geographical centers.
It wasn’t until after World War II that strong pushes for church extension took the Northern Province to Southern California as well as to some eastern, mid-western and Canadian sites. The Southern Province added numerous churches in the Winston-Salem area, throughout North Carolina and extended its outreach to Florida, Virginia and Georgia. Today, there are approximately 48,000 Moravians in America (28,000 in the 103 congregations of the Northern Province and 20,000 in the 57 congregations of the Southern Province).
The worldwide Moravian Church entered the 21st century with 19 Provinces and over 788,000 members. Over half of all Moravians (more than 410,000) reside in the four Provinces of Tanzania, Africa. Once a mission field these provinces continue to enjoy strong growth as their members faithfully live and proclaim the good news of Jesus in their pluralistic culture.
The history of the Moravian church teaches us a great deal about its vision of ministry today. The Moravian heritage of a Christ centered faith, a reverence for Scripture, a burden for the lost, a commitment to education and willingness to face persecution and even death to take the gospel to all people is compelling. If we are to successfully share the truth and love of God with the people of our complex, modern world we must follow in the footsteps of Moravians who have gone before us. We too must demonstrate in word, attitude and action a radical and passionate devotion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ – putting Him first in all we do.