The Moravians and Their Hymns
“The congregation made of the evening song service on Aug. 18, 1732 a farewell occasion for these pioneers (Rober and Nitschmann). Perhaps as many as a hundred hymns were sung in that epoch-making service.”
Such a simple statement by Zinzendorf’s biographer John Weinlick speaks volumes about the Moravians and their music which became for them as much a part of their adoration of the Lamb as did preaching or communion or obedience to Christ’s Great Commission.
Who knows? Perhaps the gift of song was the one thing that sustained the Brethren through the long night of their suffering. Like Paul and Silas, they sanctified their sufferings in song. They can be forgiven if, after bursting from the prison of 100 years of oppression in Bohemia and Moravia, they got a little carried away in song. With good reason it has been said, “The Moravian Church gave to hymn singing a prominence in worship not to be met within traditions of other communions.”
The first Protestant hymnal can be traced to these Brethren. The year was 1501, even before the Lutheran Reformation. In that year the Hussites, who in 1457 had formed the Unitas Fratrum, published a collection of 89 hymns.
“Some were Bohemian versions of ancient Latin hymns,” says Allen Schattschneider. “In the Catholic Church only the priests sang or chanted, usually in Latin. In the Brethren’s Church the people were encouraged to sing their faith in their own language.”
When God saw fit to give the Moravian Church a rebirth two centuries later the man he chose to be the catalyst was a man gifted in poetry, a lover of song. Count Zinzendorf wrote hymns all of his life, at night and at daybreak, on the sea or even in the midst of a service of worship. Indeed, during his stay in New York he was so engrossed in composing verses that he offended the local justice of peace with his industry and was fined 18 shillings for violating the Sabbath!
At Herrnhut he “actively cultivated … an appreciation of the spiritual power of hymnody,” says the History of the Moravian Church. To Zinzendorf is attributed the origin of a unique service, the Singstunde “This became in time his favorite form of public worship. In it the brother in charge selected with care individual stanzas from various hymns in such a manner that they would develop some Christian truth as the singing progressed. The congregation, which possessed an unusual command of the hymnal, would fall in with the leader before he reached the end of the first line of each stanza, singing by heart. No address was given on such occasions; none was needed.”
Commenting on the central part singing had at Herrnhut, Weinlick notes that although the Moravians produced several hymnbooks, these were not usually used in services— “the count was of the conviction that a hymn must be memorized in order to express adequately the individual’s Christian experience.”
Of Zinzendorf’s numerous songs, the hymn, “Jesus, Still Lead On”, has enjoyed the widest use. It is sung in 90 languages; eight translations have been made of it in English. A gifted Moravian musician and bishop, Christian Gregor, recast two 1l-stanza hymns by Zinzendorf to form the hymn as it appears today. Zinzendorf wrote the original stanzas when he was 21 and it seems likely that they were inspired by the tune published in 1697 by a Lutheran Pietist, Adam Drese.
Although it has not enjoyed nearly as wide a circulation as “Jesus, Still Lead On,” his “The Savior’s Blood and Righteousness” is perhaps “the one hymn most representative of his theology.” The count wrote the 33 stanzas of this hymn in 1739 on his voyage home after visiting Moravian mission work in the West Indies. The first stanza reads:
The Savior’s blood and righteous
My beauty is, my glorious dress;
Thus well arrayed, I need not fear,
When in His presence I appear.
Zinzendorf lived, not to make a name for the Moravians, but to increase the love of the whole church for the Lamb of God. Though not many of his hymns have found their way into the hymnals of other churches, one need look no farther than the influence of Zinzendorf and the Moravians on the Wesleys to see what a great contribution the Moravians have made to church music.
“The Moravian Church’s contribution began with the new emphasis on congregational singing through John Hus,” says the Preface to The Hymnal of the Moravian Church. “The renewed Moravian Church added its emphasis on the Christian’s living relationship to his crucified and risen Lord, the joy of salvation and of Christian fellowship. When we sing the great hymns of our heritage of Christian faith, we come near to fulfilling our Lord’s prayer for unity.”
Copyright © 1982 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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