Who are the Moravians?

Who are the Moravians? Their official name is the Unitas Fratrum, or the Unity of the Brethren. They were Protestant before Luther, forerunners of modern evangelicalism, pioneers of the Christian missionary movement and teachers and role models for John Wesley. Read on for the whole story.


moravian-sealWho are the Moravians? The Moravian Church is formally known as the Unitas Fratrum, or in English, the Unity of the Brethren. I came to know the Moravians as a student in Winston-Salem which is rich in Moravian history. The Moravians were protestant before Luther, forerunners of modern evangelicalism, pioneers of the Christian missionary movement and teachers of John Wesley.

Protestant before Luther

In its earliest form, the Moravian Church predates the Lutheran Reformation. Jan Hus was a Catholic priest from Bohemia who tried to reform the Church in the early 15th century.

Many of Hus’ ideas presaged those of the Lutheran Reformation, and in 1415 he was burned at the stake for heresy. Following Hus’ death, some of his followers began a rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire. The rebels were defeated, but Hus’ ideas continued to inspire Christians in Bohemia.

In 1457, some of Hus’ followers decided to try a different approach. They founded the Unitas Fratrum as an autonomous church, seeking to return Christianity to a more primitive form. The Brethren church existed as a confessional community apart from the dominant culture and the apparatus of state support. The Brethren were a voluntary association, not a state church.

From their 15th century origins through the American Revolution, the Unitas Fratrum was also largely a pacifist church, with the communities living either in tension with or under the protection of the broader state government. Members typically accepted neither military service nor service on juries (so as not to impose judgments on those found guilty by the court).

When Luther started his own reform movement in neighboring Germany, the Brethren looked upon Lutherans as natural allies and kindred spirits. The 1535 Confession of the Unity of the Bohemian Brethren demonstrates the similarities between 16th century Lutheran thought and that of the Brethren. Lutheranism’s political success paved the way for Brethren’s growth in Bohemia and Moravia. By the mid 16th century, a large portion of the Bohemian population identified with the Brethren.

The Kingdom of Bohemia was located in what is now the Czech Republic and it included the territory of Moravia. Bohemia was an independent kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire, but in 1620 the Hapsburg dynasty imposed foreign rule, suppressed the Czech language and attacked the Brethren with great ferocity. The surviving Brethren either fled or went into hiding, practicing their communal faith only in secret.

Pietist Forerunners of Evangelicalism

In 1722, a group of the survivors – the “hidden seed” – made their way from Moravia into Saxony to ask Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf for protection and support. A Lutheran, Zinzendorf held what came to be known as pietist beliefs. By the late 1600s, the German churches had become increasingly focused on doctrinal precision and theological disputes occupied the clergy. Pietists believed that inward Christian experience, Christ-like living and faithfulness to the communal covenant were more important than agreement about every theological doctrine. The quintessential experience was the inward assurance of salvation through faith by the work the Holy Spirit.Those who were truly saved by their faith would show it through faithful living in the Christian community.

Pietist emphases included studying the the Bible in small groups (ecclesiolae in ecclesia or “little churches within the church”), using lay leadership in church governance and ministry, emphasizing the Christian’s private devotional life and the practical application of Christian teachings, preaching sermons to engender inward faith and Christian living and taking an irenic approach toward those with differing opinions (even unbelievers and heretics).

The historic Moravian church was a perfect fit with the burgeoning pietist movement.  SInce the 15th century, the Brethren had seen themselves as an incarnation of primitive Christianity and a church separated from the power of the state.  Like the pietists, the early Unitas Brethren distinguished between essentials and non-essentials.

Utopian Failure and Renewal

Zinzendorf took the Moravians under his wing and established the village of Herrnhut as a venue for them to practice this “new” form of religious community. Zinzendorf also welcomed other Christian dissenters of various sorts into the community.

As idealistic, experimental communes often do, the new community eventually fell into chaos and rancor. Fanatics wrangled for power and simple disagreements exploded into conflict. To address the problem, Zinzendorf resigned from his administrative duties in Dresden to devote himself to the full-time leadership of Herrnhut.

In May of 1727, Zinzendorf led the group to come together in prayer and to subscribe to a Brotherly Agreement describing how the group would live together in  Christian peace. Zinzendorf also organized the community into “bands,” small groups that met together to encourage spiritual growth and mutual accountability.

The Origins of the Love Feast

In August of that year, the community  experienced a remarkable outpouring of the spirit that led to joyful unity. Following communion in the morning, the people did not want part company to return home for the noon time meal. Zinzendorf provided food – a love feast or an agape meal – for the various groups, who then were able to continue in prayer, song and religious conversation.

With the events of 1727, the love feast became a regular feature of Moravian life. Its observance both celebrates the contemporary experience of brotherly love and the power of God, and recalls God’s deliverance of the Moravian community from itself in 1727.

Pioneers of the Missionary Movement

In the 1730s, the Moravians began to send missionaries into the the Americas and other parts of the world. The Moravians brought their message of God’s love to all, including slaves and indigenous peoples In their zeal for world missions, the Moravians became pioneers in what would become the Protestant missionary movement.

Moravian missionaries came to Savannah in 1735, but the mission work did not go well. Within a few years the Moravian community disappeared. Several other colonies also had a Moravian presence, but the strange Germans were not always welcome. Morvians, for example, were expelled from New York in 1744.

In 1741 the Moravians established a permanent presence in religiosly-tolerant Pennsylvania with the initial assistance of George Whitfield. (Whitfield and the Moravians had an up and down relationship over the years.) In Pennsylvania, Bethlehem and Nazareth were the centers of Moravian life. In the 1750s and 60s, the Moravians also established the North Carolina settlements of Bethabara, Bethania and Salem (all now incorporated into Winston-Salem). Today, the contemporary Moravian church’s northern province in the United States is anchored in Bethlehem and the southern province in Winston-Salem.

The missionary communities were all built on the Herrnhut model. Prayer and worship were central elements of communal life. Generosity and simplicity were important community values. The community sought to be a loving place of welcome for people from different backgrounds. Everything in the community was designed to further its constituents’ sanctification.

Herrnhut also sent Moravians out in pairs to various seek like-minded believers among the existing communities and churches of Europe. In labeling these dispersed Moravians as the “diaspora,” Herrnhut identified itself as somethiling like a new Israel. The diaspora Moravians met with those who hungered for Moravian-like assurance and community, regardless of their confessional affiliation. These simple, informal gatherings were warm and joyful, eschewing divisive theological arguments.. “The people should only sing, pray and talk with one another,” Zinzendorf said. “What goes beyond the discussion of Christian experience is offensive.”

Teachers of Wesley

In its mission to Savannah, the Moravians first encountered a young John Wesley in 1736. Wesley would continue his conversations with Moravian leadership even after he returned to London in 1738. Wesley experienced his heart “strangely warmed” within the context of his relationship with Moravian missionary Peter Boehler. Wesley also visited Zinzendorf in Herrnhut.

Wesely not only borrowed specific practices like bands and love feasts, those familiar with the Wesleyan revival will see traces of the Unitas Fratrum throughout early Methodist history. Wesley’s General Rules for his societies and Zinzendorf’s Brotherly Agreement for the Herrnhut community are cut from the same cloth even though the social contexts differed somewhat. Early Methodism’s experiential orientation and high-demand Christianity echoed Moravian themes. Methodist doctrine, ethics, mores, attitudes, communal life and catholic spirit all show evidence of Moravian influence. In their impact on Wesley’s life and thought, the Moravians’ contribution to Christian history belies their relatively small numbers in the world today.