Moravian Church History

A Story of Persecution, Then Renewal

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Moravian Church history resembles that of the early Christian Church in Jerusalem. Persecution and oppression led not to its extinction, but to its rebirth.

This centuries-old church takes its name from the ancient land of Moravia, located in what is now the Czech Republic, in eastern Europe. The church started there and in neighboring Bohemia about 850 A.D., through the efforts of Eastern Orthodox missionaries Cyril and Methodius.

In a revolutionary move at the time, they translated the Bible from Latin into the region's language, and established a national church ritual. Over the centuries, the area came under the control of the Roman Catholic Church, which eventually led to protests.

John Huss in Moravian Church History

A priest, theology professor, and rector of the Chapel of Holy Innocents of Bethlehem at Prague, John Huss (Jan Hus) spoke out against abuses of the Catholic hierarchy in the early 1400s. He was greatly influenced by the writings of John Wycliff. Huss protested taking the chalice away from communicants, said the office of Pope was unbiblical, and argued that the sale of indulgences was wrong.

Huss was called to a Council of the Catholic Church in Constance, Switzerland, in 1414. After a trial in which he was shouted down every time he tried to speak, the Council declared him a heretic.

John Huss was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.

But his followers would not let his ideals die with him. Refusing to compromise with the Catholic Church, Huss' followers formed the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of Brethren, in 1457. It eventually became the Moravian Church. This was 60 years before Martin Luther began his reforms in Germany.

By the time Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517, the Unity of Brethren in Bohemia and Moravia had 200,000 members in more than 400 parishes.

It also had two printing presses that it used to print the Bible in the local language, a strategy Luther later used in Germany.

Catholic authorities confiscated as many copies of this Kralitz Bible as they could get their hands on and burned them, but clever Moravian women managed to hide their holy book. They concealed their Scriptures in hollowed out loaves of baked bread.

Persecution Figures into Moravian Church History

During the Thirty Years War, the Holy Roman Empire tried to wipe out Protestantism in Bohemia. In 1620, the Protestants were crushed in the battle of White Mountain. It was said when King Ferdinand seized power in Bohemia, there were three million Protestants. At the end of his campaign, about 1628, there were only one million left. They had been killed or driven to Moravia, Silesia, and Poland.

Toward the end of that persecution, the Unity of Brethren was led by John Amos Comenius, a bishop and zealous educator in Bohemia. As his church crumbled and its people were hounded into leaving or joining the Catholic Church, Comenius swore that their faith would not be lost. He planted what he called the "hidden seed," telling his followers to pass on their beliefs and customs from father to son, so the church could sprout again in the future.

Comenius was forced to flee from Bohemia to Poland, then to England. He asked for help for his church from the Archbishop of Canterbury. His last journey was to the Netherlands, where he died.

Moravian Church History: Zinzendorf and America

The "hidden seed" sprouted in 1722, when a Moravian carpenter named Christian David met Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The count allowed David to bring some Moravian families to settle on his land in Saxony, in Germany. The Moravians built the community of Herrenhut, but they were soon joined by refugees from all over Europe. Disagreements and fights broke out.

Zinzendorf, a godly man intent on true Christianity, took over with a firm hand. Under his nurturing, a religious revival took place in 1727. Soon the Moravians were sending out missionaries to the West Indies, Greenland, Lapland, Canada, South America, Ceylon, South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Central America, and Alaska.

A boatload of Moravian missionaries sailed for Georgia in the American colonies in 1736. One of their shipmates was John Wesley, who later founded Methodism. Expanding into Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the Moravians divided their churches in America into northern and southern provinces.

Eventually the church spread into 16 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. An odd legacy of Moravian Church history is that its missionaries made more effort to convert people than to add them to their particular church. For them, it was never about church expansion. It was first about being a minister of Jesus Christ, and leading people to him.

(Sources: The Moravian Church in North America, and Everyday Counselor.)