The Radical Example of Moravian Missions
by Denny Kenaston
A large part of Moravian history took place in 1727 when the original Moravian Church received a visitation of God’s Spirit. The Moravian Church today is very different than the one I found in the history books. Most of them have lost what they had in their beginning. Oh, the challenge this is to us, lest we also go the same way and lose the testimony of our sanctified name. God encourages us in Psalm 48 to keep looking at Zion, the church. “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof” (v.12). That word tell means, “get a good long look at them.” “Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces.” Why? “That ye may tell it to the generation following” (v.13). Why? “For this God is our God for ever and ever. He will be our guide even unto death” (v.14). As I understand God’s heart in these verses, God is telling us that we should be looking back to see what Zion was like, to remember what God did in days gone by. As we bring that before our children, we recognize that the God of the Moravians is also our God today. We then can spur the next generation on to grow up dreaming dreams and seeing visions of beautiful things that God can do
Sixty years before William Carey set out for India and one hundred fifty years before Hudson Taylor landed in China, God took a group of believers with very diverse backgrounds and fast-forwarded them out of the Dark Ages. God did that as an example to all of us of what He will do with one local church that sells out to Him, trusts Him, obeys Him, and is willing to do what He says—even though they can’t see their way through it all. The Moravian Church is a good example of that. By the time Hudson Taylor was ready to sail to China, this one church in Herrenhut, Germany, had expanded, had evangelized their own local area, and had sent out over two hundred of its members all over the world. The church had grown to tens of thousands in their local area, and they were tithing one tenth of their people to foreign missions.
Constrained by Love
The Moravians lived in communities, sharing with one another. They believed in suffering love and wouldn’t bear arms. They would not serve in the government because they were too wrapped up in another kingdom—a glorious one! They would not swear an oath. They washed one another’s feet. They believed in a double-layered garment, simplicity, and modesty; the women wore a white covering. They were against slavery. It seemed to me, as I studied them, they were a bit more Anabaptist than they were Protestant, but that’s where the history books put them. Their roots reached back to John Huss, who was one of the first martyrs of the Reformation, and then, beyond even him, to the Waldensians. But they did baptize infants, and I think that was because of the Lutheran influence among them in their beginnings.
Two things stood out to me, far above all these other things: 1) they loved the Lord Jesus extravagantly, and 2) they had a consuming passion for lost souls. Many of us know those famous words shouted out by those first two missionaries who were sent out by the Moravian Church. Those were the two young men who sold themselves into slavery to go to the island of St. Thomas to win the slaves to the Lord Jesus Christ. As their boat moved away, the last words that those two young men cried out to their fellow believers who were staying at home were beautiful words: “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering!” It was the bare theology of missions that they were crying out of their hearts as they waved good-bye to people they never saw again. (See Revelation 5:5-10, 7:9,10.)
The Word of God gave them their mission’s theology. Through the outpouring of the Spirit of God upon them, God opened the eyes of their understanding and revealed to them the burden of His heart. As they moved on that burden, they became a beautiful, challenging example that renews our vision to keep going forward. It is like signposts along the road saying, “This is the way; keep walking in it.”
The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed
When Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was a young man he struggled with the conflicting desire to study for the ministry and the expectations that he would fulfill his hereditary role as a Count. When he was just ten years old, Nikolaus began to meet with other students in a group they called “The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed.” The boys met to encourage each other, evangelize others, and to pray for and go to the “heathen beyond the seas.”
As a young man, the count visited an art museum in Dusseldorf where he saw the Domenico Feti painting titled “Behold the Man.” The painting was of the crucified Christ with the legend “This have I done for you. Now what will you do for me?” He felt as if Christ were speaking those words directly into his own heart and Nikolaus vowed that day to dedicate his life to service to Christ.
Count Zinzendorf continued with “The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed” in his adult life. Many influential leaders joined him, including Archbishops and the King of Denmark. Their stated purpose was to use their position and influence to spread the Gospel.
In 1732, Count Zinzendorf founded the Moravian Missionary Society. When the first missionaries were sent to the West Indies, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong vision and answered prayers for this man and his friends who carried the call of the Gospel on their hearts from boyhood.
Unity in Diversity
Where did this theology and reality of missions come from? In 1722, persecuted brethren began to gather on an estate owned by Count Zinzendorf, a wealthy governor in Germany. They were part of the remnant of their day, fleeing persecution. They were Lutheran, Anabaptist, Moravians, and even converted Catholics. They all converged together at Herrenhut because the Count was willing to give them a place of refuge where they could live peacefully and serve the God of heaven. This little group quickly grew to several hundred people, but those first five years were very shaky. Several times it seemed the whole community would be totally destroyed as the strong opinions of this diverse group continually clashed with one another. Many of them had martyrs in their family heritage. They were a people of strong convictions. They had strong “stand-alone muscles.” But the “blend-together muscles” were not very strong among them.
In May 1727, after much prayer, fasting, admonition, and teaching from the Word of God, Zinzendorf persuaded them to lay down their theological guns, to look to Christ, the Head of the body, and to love one another just the way they were. They became convinced that they would never be able to stay together if they kept fussing about all these things. From that point, the Holy Spirit began to brood over their meetings in a new way. Unified prayers began to rise up out of the hearts of this theologically-divided people. In August 1727, a visitation from God came, and they were never the same after that. The whole church was baptized in the fullness of Christ. The whole community was lifted into heavenly realms, and they began to walk there continuously. That day, in the midst of that unified communion service, they saw the slain Lamb by revelation of the Spirit of God. They saw Jesus. They saw the beautiful Gospel as they had never seen it before. They saw the wounds in His side. They saw the blood that flowed out of His side. They saw the power of that blood. They saw the victory that was in that blood.
Convictions in Action
By 1732, their missionary theology and their passion for souls constrained them. They sent out their first two missionaries. In the following twenty years, over two hundred missionaries were sent out to the West Indies, Greenland, Georgia and Pennsylvania (to North American Indians), Suriname in South America, South Africa, the Arctic, Algiers, Sri Lanka, China, Persia, Ethiopia, and Labrador.
Pastor Zinzendorf had a burden for the lost, and he continued to motivate the church that stayed home to carry the burden of those who had gone and to prepare to go themselves. Some went; then more went. Some died; others rose up joyfully to take their place. Because they continued to walk in this fullness, they kept on going. The church was filled with evangelists. Local evangelism overflowed into world evangelism. They tithed their people as well as money to overseas missions. The local work came out of their pockets above the ten percent. The whole church was under the burden of missions: giving, praying, writing letters, and listening to letters. They even owned their own boat that was run by a captain one of the Moravian missionaries had led to the Lord. They used it to deliver supplies and replacements to the missionary stations.
Since they believed that all of them were called, all of them prepared and longed to go. They dreamed of the privilege. When it was time to send more missionaries because a dozen had died on the island of St. Thomas, they cast lots to choose who would go. They all had to be ready to go because one never knew when it would fall their turn.
A good number of the youth did not marry—all for the missionary call—and it was an honorable thing among them. They recognized in those days that some of the places where they needed to send missionaries were not places for a man and his wife and a bunch of little children. It was done willingly for the sake of the call, and they were honored because of that.
They raised their children for missions. They sent them out mature and stable in their early twenties. They knew when they left they could be dead in six months. In one of their missions in the country of Guyana, they lost seventy-five missionaries from disease and corruption—one-third of the missionaries they sent there. But it was “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering” motivating their hearts and lives. What a beautiful and radical example!
They trained in many skills with the motivation of being able to do those things on the mission field, e.g., carpentry, basket making, and pottery. Most of them were self-supporting missionaries, working right alongside the nationals and preaching to them while they worked. Their motivation to support themselves was so that they could send more missionaries. Those at home also lived a simple life for the sake of the cause. They worked and sacrificed and lived on lower levels so that they could give for the cause of missions.
They went to the hard places where you wouldn’t want to go. I’m sure they recoiled just as we do when we look at hard places. But something compelled them. They were persuaded that the Lamb is worthy to have gathered around His throne some of the people from those hard places. They suffered tremendous losses, but just patiently bore and kept on going. One missionary was so delirious with fever that he couldn’t remember what he had done five minutes ago. When the boat landed to give help, he wouldn’t go home: “Just let me die here—that’s fine!” The Gospel was glorious, and it moved them beyond what we could even imagine could be moved.
They had a 24-hour-a-day prayer watch that lasted for one hundred years. This wasn’t just at Herrenhut, but wherever a church was established, that church picked up the same burdens and began to pray the same kind of prayers 24 hours a day. So in a hundred years, there were literally thousands of Moravian Christians who were praying that God would prosper the missionaries, save souls, and bind the hands of the evil one who was blinding their eyes.
Each mission church became a sending church, and the work expanded quickly. That’s the New Testament pattern and a good challenge to every one of us. Long before they put up a Bible school to train missionaries, they just sent them—full of the Holy Ghost, full of the Word of God, full of the character of Christ, full of the passion for souls, and full of a love for Jesus. Some of their critics said they sent people out who were not trained. But the answer is not the training; the answer is the Holy Ghost. God can take a fisherman, fill him with the Holy Ghost, and turn the world upside down. That’s what God did in the Book of Acts, and He’s still the same God; He hasn’t changed.
Lastly, they didn’t believe in missionary heroes. It was a conviction among them that there was nothing special about the one who went; they were all ready to go too. (This is not to say that missionaries don’t need encouragement—they do.) It was only their reasonable service. It was the norm to be a missionary. That’s the way it should be in our homes and with leaders in the church. It ought not to be some high and mighty wonderful thing that there’s a man who can preach the Word of God in the power of the Holy Ghost. There ought to be so many of them that it’s normal.
Learning From History
What can we learn from their example? These people knew that the centrality of Jesus Christ, the fullness of the Holy Ghost, and missions were the lifeblood of the church, even as it is today. A body of people who do not get a hold of this will soon dry up on the vine. Dead religion takes its place. The all-consuming passion of God before the foundation of the world has always been to gather around Himself a people who love Him out of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. This whole Book speaks about one thing: the Lord Jesus Christ and what He can do for you. God so loved the world that He gave the most precious thing He had—His only begotten Son, who “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” Do you know what the joy was? Nations and peoples and tongues gathered around the throne some day, worshipping God. God the Spirit was sent to draw men to His Son. What else can a healthy body do that is in vital union with this Godhead? When the Body and the Head get together, it starts winning souls.
This happened at Pentecost, and that Body went to work. Nobody had to motivate them. They went everywhere preaching and teaching the Word of God. They believed, and therefore they spoke. In fact, they believed so much that they were threatened that if they didn’t stop speaking, they were going to be in trouble. But they said, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye, for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19,20). The Body was in vital union with the Head; the Holy Ghost was the glue that kept them together. Together they, Jesus and His Church, turned the world upside down.
Brothers, and sisters, God has not changed—not one bit. God wants to do that in our hearts and our lives. One day we are going to stand before the throne of God, and He’s going to judge us out of this Book. What have we done about all those sermons we have heard? It is not going to be an easy day if as the months turn into years, we don’t win anybody to Jesus Christ, and there’s no burden for souls. We need to let our barrenness grip us till it puts a burden on our hearts. We need to let that burden settle down deeply until it creates a poverty of spirit, and that poverty of spirit creates a seeking, yielded heart. This brings the anointing of God upon our lives, and the result of that is fruitfulness. May we learn these lessons from history and trust God to do it again.