The Moravians in Europe


The Hussite movement is often considered to be an early forerunner of the Moravians.  John Hus, Catholic priest and Rector at the University of Prague, studied the works of Wyclif.  He felt that the Church no longer upheld the early tenants of the church.  Hus wanted to make the church more relevant to the lives of the people.  He promoted the concept that Christ, not the Pope, led the church and that the Bible was the source for that leadership.  He also preached liberty of conscience and purity of morals.  When representatives of Pope John XXIII came to sell indulgences, Hus protested.  The indulgences were sold as forgiveness for sins in order to raise money for the war.  Hus felt that only God could forgive man's sins.  At first he gained some support, but after the Pope excommunicated him, it declined.  Because he was preaching reform, he was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake on 06 Jul 1415.  The Pope proclaimed three crusades against the Hussites, which lasted many years.  In 1457 a farmer Peter Chelcicky began writing against the bloodshed which caused a small group to form the present-day Moravian Church.

Out of this movement emerged the Jednota Bratrska, later known as Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren)  The group later became known as the Moravians. Bohemia, now a part of the western Czech Republic, thus became the first Protestant nation in Europe.  In 1495 in Reichenau, they accepted the Bible as their only standard of faith and worship.  They rejected Purgatory, the worship of saints and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  They continued to accept the Apostle's Creed and to practice infant baptism by pouring, which was preferred over sprinkling, and by confirmation.  It was the way of life, however, that the most important element in the emerging church, encoded in the motto of the early Bishop John Amos Comenius:  "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."  The church emphasized salvation through faith and a personal relationship with Christ.  Lay persons were also actively involved in services.

In 1501 they edited the first Protestant hymn book and in 1502 they published a catechism which helped inspire Martin Luther.  This simple way of life gained popularity in Bohemia and nearby Moravia with nearly 200,000 followers by the early 1500's.  The Moravian emphasis on education made Bohemia the best educated country in Europe by the end of the sixteenth century.

During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), church members were persecuted for their beliefs.  On 08 Nov 1620 the Protestants of Bohemia were defeated by Archduke Ferdinand.  On 20 Feb 1621 the Protestant nobles were ordered to meet to hear a message from the emperor.  The meeting was a hoax, with 43 nobles being captured.  On 21 Jun 1621 twenty-seven of the nobles were beheaded, including fifteen Moravians.  This execution became known as The Day of the Blood. 

The executions signaled new violence against Protestants.  Churches were destroyed, Bibles were burned, and suspected Protestants were punished.  Followers fled for their lives to Poland and Moravia, where they were later persecuted.  By the end of the war the Bohemian population had dropped from three million to eight hundred thousand and the country ruined. (Schattschneider 35)  The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 eliminated much of the religious freedom which had existed in Central Europe.  This period became known as "The Hidden Seed" as the church survived in hiding.  Protestants were

arrested and tortured.  They were not allowed to practice a trade, limiting their economic power.  Their children were taken away for re-training in the Catholic faith. 

John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) worked to preserve the weakened church by writing a history and a catechism.  He also encouraged the consecration of bishops to ensure the continuity of the church. 

In 1722 a few religious exiles from Moravia received asylum from Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (1700-1760).  Zinzendorf was a deeply religious man who had been well educated and exposed to a variety of religious thought of the period.  He was a strong supporter of the Lutheran Church.  Zinzendorf had purchased the estate of Bertelsdorf in Upper Lusatia, Saxony, where he offered shelter to all those who were persecuted because of their faith.  Zinzendorf expected that the Moravians would simply become a part of the Lutheran Church in the area.  Therefore, he ignored them, assuming they would soon be assimilated.

However, the Moravians, as they were called for the region Moravia from which they had fled, soon founded the village of Herrnhut (the place God will guard) where they planned to restore their church to its former place.  At a communion service on 13 Aug 1727, Zinzendorf saw their faith as a sign that God wished him to restore the Unitas Fratrum.  Although Zinzendorf was a Lutheran, in 1728, he aided the Moravians defend themselves against a campaign to convert them to the Lutheran faith.  Herrnhut reestablished the church which became a refuge for freedom of thought, activity and worship. It became the model for at least twenty Moravian communities established during the rest of that century as the Moravians were strong proponents of missionary work in Europe, Britain and North America.  After reading the works of Comenius, Zinzendorf was struck by the similarity to the rules he had established for the village of Herrnhut.  

Zinzendorf saw this renewed movement as a part of "little churches within the church."  In 1737 Zinzendorf, who was an ordained Lutheran minister, was consecrated as the second bishop in the renewed church.  This freedom allowed great diversity within the developing church, but was bounded by broad guidelines which encompassed the "simple life."

John Wesley visited the city in 1738, staying for three months.  He wrote to his brother Samuel, "I am with a church whose conversation is in heaven."   Wesley was greatly impressed with all he saw, later taking many of these ideas to England and incorporating them into the Methodist Church.  Wesley declared that he would have been willing "to live and die at Herrnhut . . . [but] My Master called me to serve in another part of the vineyard." 

However, the early 1740s brought a change.  Several missionaries were attacked and nearly killed.  Because of Zinzendorf's efforts to include the Catholic Church as one of the "little churches", some Protestant groups turned against the Moravians.  Because the Moravian Church was a Protestant group, they were often not trusted by the Catholics.  Even John Wesley now described the Moravians as having "guile in almost all their words."

In January 1749, Zinzendorf arrived in London, hoping to have the Parliament enact legislation recognizing the Renewed Unitas Fratrum as a Protestant Church.  With the help of Earl Granville, the church was recognized in June 1749.  Granville, however, was not acting strictly out of the kindness of his heart.  He owned the entire northern half of the Carolina colony, which was nearly empty of colonists.  When the Count of Budingen, one of the church's German protectors and landlords, died in October, the new Count insisted that his tenants swear allegiance to his faith.  The church also faced financial problems caused by years of heavy borrowing.  Granville's desire to sell land and Zinzendorf's desire to find a new safe haven for the brethren led to quick agreement on 29 Nov 1751.

Although the doctrines were not fully defined, several concepts seemed to have been deeply established.  Christ was the central focus of the church.  God was unknowable without revelation from Christ.  His life served as a model for living and his death as a path to salvation.  Salvation itself was viewed as a joyful and certain gift when one acknowledged Christ's sacrifice and followed him.  Unlike many of the fire and brimstone promotions of damnation and doubt of salvation, the Moravians rejoiced in the certainty that they were saved.

The Bible was regarded as the guide to leading a good life.  Piety and ethical conduct was central to a good life rather than following a specific set of beliefs.  Religion was regarded as a social experience in an atmosphere of brotherly love among like-minded believers, but isolated from the outside world which differentiated its beliefs.

Another feature of the church was its missionary work.  Zinzendorf hoped that by awakening the spirits of the people, he might actively create the "little churches within the church."  Two types of missionaries were sent out, but neither type wanted to radically increase the fold of the Moravian church.  The first group were sent to non-Christian lands to preach to those who would listen.  However, only a very few of those who felt that they had been chosen would actually be admitted to the church.  The second group of missionaries were sent to promote spiritual growth among Christian groups, creating ties to the Moravian church while still maintaining their own doctrines.  By the mid-1700's new congregations had been established in Germany, Holland, and Pennsylvania.  Missionaries had been sent to Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, the Baltic area, Greenland, Surinam, Ceylon, the West Indies, and Africa.

Another feature of the early church was the Lot, first used in Herrnhut in 1727.  Although it had a variety of forms, the system involved the random selection of one piece of paper from several placed in a container. The possible choices ranged from yes, no, or a blank (delaying the issue to a later time) up to twelve answers.  Other times, verses were drawn, with the church council trying to apply the verse to the problem at hand.  The Lot was used to select marriage partners, missionaries, ministerial appointments, and later colonists.  It was also used to allow admission of new members and to allow readmission of those who had been disciplined by withholding communion.  Implicit in the process was the belief that God's will was revealed in the draw.  However, the person who selected the wording of the answers certainly had a strong influence on the possible outcomes.  Often the answers could be used to support either alternative.  Sometimes only one affirmative answer and two or more blank papers were included in the Lot. 

Even if a blank were drawn, its meaning could have a variety of interpretations.  In the case of a marriage partner, it could mean 1.) the Brother should be consulted about another choice  2.) the Board could select a new choice right away  3.) the Brother could propose to another (whose was not rejected by the Lot)  4.) the Brother should select a spouse  5.) the Brother could drop the question of marriage for the time being.  The Lot was binding on those who requested its use, but not on those who were indirectly involved.  Thus, if the response was negative, the Brother had to accept the verdict.  However, if the Lot were affirmative, the Sister still could still reject the offer.  With time, the problems of the system became more obvious.  Most wanted God to help them make their own decisions through prayer rather than the Lot helping God make His decisions.  The use of the Lot was limited in 1818 and totally abolished in 1889.

Education was universally important to the Moravian Church.  John Amos Comenius, sometimes known as the father of modern education, supported the belief that universal education was the key to peace.  This concept was incorporated into the Renewed Church.  Almost as soon as a community was founded, resident schools for boys and girls were established.  The universal education of girls was not a common practice of the time, but was common in Moravian communities.

Comenius also started to add illustrations to books for use in education.  His Orbis Pictus included pictures showing various trades.  Each object in the picture was numbered, the labels at the bottom of the illustration in both Latin and the native language.  The simple addition of a picture in a educational book changed the way education was presented to students.

Zinzendorf also promoted the concept of choirs, with the congregation divided into ten groups based on their age, sex, and marital status (infants, little girls, little boys, single sisters, single brothers, married people, widows, and widowers) to promote a greater sense of community and spiritualism.  The goal of the early Moravian Church was to develop a strong personal relationship with the Heiland (the Savior).  The choirs, each with a leader, helped guide members on the journey to religious maturity patterned after the life of Christ.  The end goal was the realization that they were incapable of improving themselves because of man's corruption, with the only hope being total dependence on the Heiland.  Emphasis was also placed on child-like simplicity and feeling the way to salvation rather than trying to understand the complexity of the issues.  Diligence, simplicity, frugality, punctuality, conscientiousness were considered essential qualities of Christian life.

The choir was responsible for providing food, clothing and shelter for all members.  It was also responsible for medical care.  The care of the poor, however, was assumed by the congregation as a whole.

A Moravian Gemeine (congregation) could be one of two types: non-exclusive or exclusive.  Non-exclusive congregations were those where members lived among the other settlers of other (or no) religions.  Non-exclusive congregations could either be a rural (Landgemeine) or urban (Stadtgemeine).  Exclusive congregations were settlements where only Moravians were allowed to settle.  Exclusive congregations could either be Ortsgemeine where families lived in separate units and were responsible for their own livelihood and Pilgergemeine where everyone, even married members, lived with members of their own choir.

According to Zinzendorf, after a women's consecration to Christ, the children in the womb form a choir.  Depending on the type of community, children remained with their parents until they were weaned when they moved to the nursery which housed both boys and girls at the time of their christening.  By age 4 or 5 they were moved to the separate little children's choirs.  In some congregations, parental authority was almost non-existent, with children being more the responsibility of the church than the family.

At about age 13 they moved to the Older Girls' or Older Boys' Choirs at which time they usually began an apprenticeship or domestic training. 

Although this system allowed the production of a group of highly skilled craftsmen and professionals, it made it difficult to fill some of the lower skill jobs in the community because the young men nearly always wanted to learn a skill that would provide adequate financial reward.  In a family situation, the young man would simply learn his father's trade, no matter its social status, because that was the only training available.

The choir was also expected to help the individuals solve the difficult problems of adolescence and guide them to a deeper understanding of their religious beliefs.

By about age 18 they were promoted to the Single Brothers' or Single Sisters' Choir where many adults lived out their lives.  They practiced their trades, which often provided a major sources of income for the congregation itself.  The Single Choirs also provided for quick and effective socialization for new members, especially immigrants. 

The Single Sisters' House sheltered unmarried women, each engaged in different kinds of work, learning the skills necessary to provide a comfortable home after their marriage.

Each of these choir promotions was considered to be an important transition and was celebrated.

The choirs simplified making marital matches.  Every member was considered to be marriageable, but individuals could convince the Elders that marriage was not in the best interests of the congregation.  The elders often arranged marriage or at least had to consent to a marriage which was then confirmed by use of the Lot.  It also helped ensure that members married within the faith.  Although there was no edict against such marriages, Zinzendorf had forbidden intermarriage in the Pennsylvania congregations, making it clear that it was not an acceptable practice.  For nearly 20 years, only one man married outside the church, and he was soon excommunicated and expelled. 

Upon marriage they moved to their own home, to the Married People's Choir where they had a room, or in some cases, each spouse moved to separate buildings that housed the Married Brothers and the Married Sisters.  The last situation varied in acceptance from congregation to congregation.  Each couple was given a time and place to meet privately once a week.

Upon the death of a spouse, the individual moved to the Widows' or Widowers' Choir (if the population warranted a choir).  If they remarried, they returned to the Married Peoples' Choir.  For a moderate price, residents could live comfortably in a respectable manner.  The Moravians were one of the earliest groups to provide for the care of the elderly.

Females worn different colored ribbons on their caps to indicate their position in the choirs.  Small children wore scarlet, girls crimson, single sisters pink, married women light blue, and widows white.

Just as an individual passed through the physical stages, s/he would also pass through the choirs and upon his/her death, be buried in "God's Acre", the Moravian cemetery with a separate section for each choir.  To emphasize the belief that all people are equal before God in death, every grave was marked by a marble slab, set flush with the ground so that all the graves were alike.  In death, as it should be in life, all are equal.  A married woman would be buried with the married women's choir while her husband would be buried with the married men's choir.  Only members of the church were allowed burial in the cemetery.

The choir system encouraged greater freedom and responsibility for women than was generally available at the time.  In order to serve as spiritual guides to the female choirs, women were included in the organizational and governing structures of the community and the church as a whole.

The choir system also allowed some degree of social control over members.  Members were to some degree promoted to the next choir based on their maturity level and behavior.  Those who were not deemed worthy were held back.  If the individual seemed unfit, any request for marriage would be denied.

Segregation of the sexes was also a major point of the agreement.  Members were to devote their energies to the search for personal salvation, which was often distracted by social intercourse with members of the opposite sex.  The sexes were separated as much as possible with separate dwelling houses for each, often at opposite ends of the community.  Males and females often had separate entrances to communal buildings with the males seated on one side of the room and females on the other, usually grouped by their own choir.  In some early towns, unmarried men and unmarried women were seated as much as possible so that they could not see each other. 

At times, this dictum was carried to an extreme.  No unmarried tailor could measure or fit women, a fact that sometimes rushed the marriage of a single tailor in a one-tailor congregation.  Zinzendorf dictated that the sexes should not be able to look into the faces of the other, even on the Irene, the sailing ship on which Joseph F. Bullitschek arrived in America.  That was no small task, considering the number of people on a small craft for such a long trip.

The members of each separate choir slept together in dormitories of their choir house and ate in their dining hall which was served by communal kitchens.

Each choir would meet separately to read, discuss and come to a greater understanding of the Holy Scriptures.  Choirs held religious services appropriate for their level.  Choirs provided a way to supervise and socialize individuals who were often moved from one congregation to another.  The choirs offered benefits to new settlers with immediate entry into the community rather than isolation that many settlers felt in the wilderness. 

Religious services abounded.  The day started with hymns sung to awaken residents at 5 a.m.  The morning benediction (a few minutes) and a light breakfast of tea and biscuits took place in each separate choir at 6 a.m.  Members could attend in their night clothes if they desired.  The day's Loonsung (Watchword, or daily text) was announced.  Members carefully viewed their day in relation to these texts.  The work day began at 7 a.m.  The noon meal, the big meal of the day, began and ended with hymns and work resumed at 12:30.  The light evening meal was served at 6 p.m. which was often followed with a devotional stroll along separate paths for each choir.  At 7 p.m. the whole congregation met for Gemeinstunde (Congregation Hour which usually latest less than 2 hour).  At 8 p.m. each choir met separately in Viertelstunde (Quarter Hour meeting which usually lasted 15 minutes or less).  At 9 p.m. the entire congregation again met in Abendstunde (Evening Hour which usually latest less than 2 hour).  The evening benediction (a few minutes) in each separate choir ended the day at 10 p.m.  Throughout the day and night, different adults took turns in hourly shifts praying the Hourly Intercessions.  This schedule applied for Monday through Saturday.

Sunday started at 8 a.m. with a church litany (45-60 minutes).  Preaching was at 10 a.m. with a children's hour at 2 p.m. and married people's hour at 3 p.m.  Liturgy was at 5 p.m. with Gemeinstunde (Congregation Hour) at 7 p.m.  Evening benediction for the whole community was at 9 p.m.  Reports and biographies of other Moravian settlements were often read. 

On the fourth Saturday of each month, communion was offered.  In many communities, the religious leader of each choir conducted an interview with each member before communion in order to forestall any errant ways.  August 13 was celebrated as a day of the renewal of the church.  Each choir had its own festival once a year and meeting once a week. 

Another feature of the day was Gemeinnachrichten (or a Lovefeast) which was a singing service which included a community meal, usually coffee or tea and a bun eaten in unison and the giving of the Kiss of Peace.  Its resemblance to the Last Supper was not accidental, but it was a joyous occasion, usually held to mark the passing of an important event in the congregation such as the completion of harvest or a building, or the start of a new building.  The love feast linked the external to the religious world in the congregation.

Music was an integral part of Moravian life.  Zinzendorf believed that God spoke to man through the Bible, but that man spoke to God through music.  The Moravians wrote, collected, translated and published thousands of hymns.  The watchmen at Herrnhut sang hymns on the hour rather than calling out the news.  They developed hymn sermons, with the leader selecting and organizing select stanzas which were sometimes combined with readings and prayers, all in order to teach a lesson.

Music was used to accompany congregational singing on Sunday and daily morning prayer.  Musical processions escorted workers to their duties.  The Moravians brought the first trombones to America.  The trombone announced a death and led the singing around the grave.  On December 31 of each year, after the reading of the Memorabilia, music ushered in the New Year.  Music was also played at the Sunrise Easter Service.  At some sites, French horns and trombones were played to speed the reapers and to express thankfulness for the bounty of the harvest.  Music welcomed visitors and new settlers to the colonies.  As the church abhorred idle hands and secular activities, music provided an outlet when members were not working.

Converts to the group were important to the growth of the church.  The prospective member had to first request permission to stay in the settlement, contingent on good behavior.  If the person proved worthy, acceptance into the circle of members was next.  It was given by the Gemeine, not requested by the individual.  This step had to be confirmed by the Lot.  The next step was admission as a communicant.