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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Denominational Founders > Nikolaus von Zinzendorf


Nikolaus von Zinzendorf
Christ-centered Moravian "brother"
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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Nikolaus von Zinzendorf
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"There can be no Christianity without community."

Nearly two centuries after Luther posted his 95 Theses, Protestantism had lost some of its soul. Institutions and dogma had, in many people's minds, choked the life out of the Reformation.

Lutheran minister P.J. Spener hoped to revive the church by promoting the "practice of piety," emphasizing prayer and Bible reading over dogma. It worked. Pietism spread quickly, reinvigorating Protestants throughout Europe—including underground Protestants in Moravia and Bohemia (modern Czechoslovakia).

Timeline

1668

Rembrandt paints Return of the Prodigal Son

1675

SpenerÂ’s Pia Desideria advances Pietism

1685

Edict of Potsdam grants asylum to Huguenots

1700

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf born

1760

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf dies

1781

Kant publishes Critique of Pure Reason

The Catholic church cracked down on the dissidents, and many were forced to flee to Protestant areas of neighboring Germany. One group of families fled north to Saxony, where they settled on the lands belonging to a rich young ruler, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

Rich young ruler

Born into Austrian nobility and raised by his grandmother, Zinzendorf showed an early inclination toward theology and religious work. As the godson of P.J. Spener, he was raised in a strong Pietist tradition. But as a count, he was expected to follow his late father's footsteps into government. He did as he was told and in October 1721 became the king's judicial counselor at Dresden.

After less than a year at court, he bought the estate of Berthelsdorf from his grandmother, hoping to form a Christian community for oppressed religious minorities. Almost immediately a Moravian named Christian David showed up at his door and became his first tenant. Ten Moravian Protestants arrived before December and founded a settlement on the count's land. They named it Herrnhut—"the Lord's watch."

By May 1725, 90 Moravians were gathered at Herrnhut. Because of the spirited preaching at the Berthelsdorf parish church, the population of this "small city" had reached 300 by 1726.

The count was still a devout Lutheran and tried to keep the refugees within the parish church. His goal was to form ecclesiolae in ecclesia—"little churches within the church"—to act as a leaven, revitalizing and unifying churches into one communion. But with the diversity at Herrnhut, discord soon arose. When it did, Zinzendorf moved to Herrnhut with his family. He went from house to house counseling those who needed it and created a "Brotherly Agreement" of manorial rules. He also appointed watchmen, almoners, and other caretakers.

"There can be no Christianity without community," he said.

Getting serious

In July 1737 Zinzendorf accidentally discovered a copy of the constitution of the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) of the fifteenth-century Hussite movement in Bohemia and Moravia. He was amazed that the Unitas Fratrum was "a fully established church antedating Lutheranism itself." Even more amazing, the constitution was very similar to his newly adopted "Brotherly Agreement."

He raced back to Herrnhut to share his discovery, and at a powerful Communion service, the Moravians at Herrnhut vowed to restore the older church with Zinzendorf. The Berthelsdorf parish church would continue as a Lutheran parish, but became Herrnhut, a Unity of the Brethren congregation; they would later become known as the Moravian Church.

Like the Pietists, the Moravian Brethren believed that Christianity should be a "religion of the heart"—which went against the grain of the growing acceptance of Enlightenment beliefs. They emphasized experience of faith and love over doctrine, and thus were more accepting of varying denominational differences. In fact, Zinzendorf may have been the first churchman to use the word "ecumenism." The Moravians also placed special importance on community: families' allegiances were superseded by "choirs"—groups delineated by age, sex, and marital status.




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