Zinzendorf, Nikolaus

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ZINZENDORF, NIKOLAUS (17001760), German nobleman, theologian, leader of the Moravian church; born Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf on May 26, 1700, in Dresden, Saxony. At his baptism his parents invited the electress of Saxony to be his godmother and the Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener to be his godfather. These choices represented the influences of noble lineage and pietistic devotion that were to be so decisive in Zinzendorf's later life.

Even as a child Zinzendorf displayed an extraordinary interest in religious matters. At the age of ten, following private tutoring, he was sent to the Halle boarding school run by the Pietist leader August Hermann Francke. In 1716 he transferred to the orthodox Lutheran University of Wittenberg to prepare for a career as a lawyer, but he continued to read theological literature in his free time. His perennially irenic approach to theological disputes showed up in his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to arrange colloquiums for the exchange of views between the Pietists of Halle and the orthodox of Wittenberg.

With his formal training completed, Zinzendorf studied briefly at various universities and developed friendships with leading personalities, including the Jansenist cardinal archbishop of Paris, Louis de Noailles. Although Zinzendorf would have probably preferred ordination as a Lutheran pastor or to work with Francke at Halle, his family did not consider such possibilities appropriate for a nobleman, and he became a legal counselor. In September 1721 he married Countess Erdmuth Dorothea Reuss, also a committed Pietist, with whom he fathered twelve children.

In 1722 Zinzendorf purchased the Berthelsdorf estate from his grandmother and soon found himself with an unexpected opportunity to exercise his religious leadership when a group of religious refugees from neighboring Bohemia settled on his estate. They were heirs of the traditions of the Unity of Brethren, a group that had thrived a century earlier during the Hussite reformation. Persecution had forced them to continue their religious practices underground and sometimes to leave their homeland as refugees. The leadership of these people consumed Zinzendorf's considerable energies for the rest of his life. The newly established town of Herrnhut, with its unique communal organization and economic self-sufficiency, became the center for the developing Moravian church, as it became known in the late 1740s.

In 1735, after examination by the theological faculties of the Universities of Stralsund and Tübingen, Zinzendorf's desire to receive Lutheran ordination was finally realized. With the revival of the Brethren's clerical orders, he was consecrated a Moravian bishop in 1737. These events signaled the emergence of a new denomination and created legal difficulties for Zinzendorf, resulting in banishment from Saxony from 1736 to 1747. During this period he visited Moravian settlements and missions in Europe, England, the West Indies, and America. From the mid-1740s to 1750, Zinzendorf and some of his followers displayed a marked tendency to carry certain of his ideas to emotional excess. This approach was finally rejected and years later came to be regarded as the "sifting time." The Moravians were granted religious freedom in Saxony in 1749, and six years later the count returned to spend his last days in Herrnhut. When the countess died in 1756, Zinzendorf entered into a morganatic marriage with Anna Nitschmann, a leader of the Single Sisters Choir, one of the church's residential groups.

Zinzendorf's extensive involvement in the practical life of the church and his belief that it was not possible to produce a system of theology kept him from producing a comprehensive presentation of his often-original ideas. Throughout his life he worked at new translations of the Bible, incorporating the use of popular language, rearrangements of the books in order of historical origin, harmonization of the Passion accounts, and an abridged Old Testament. He also produced attempts at Lutheran and Reformed catechisms, prepared numerous sermons, and wrote religious poetry and hymns.

In his theology Zinzendorf sought an alternative to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the sterility of Lutheran orthodoxy. His answer was "heart religion." His christocentricity derived from his belief that God is a person, not a system, and can be known only through the Son, who reveals the Father. To experience Christ in the inner senses is the true essence of religion. From this central idea flows Zinzendorf's interest in experiential language, including reference to the Holy Spirit as "Mother." Likewise, "heart religion" knows no creedal or institutional boundaries; hence Zinzendorf's radical ecumenicity. The relationship with Christ produces joy in the believer; Zinzendorf's thought departed from traditional Pietism's emphasis upon struggle and conversion to focus on the results of this relationship. A startlingly creative thinker in his day, Zinzendorf's influences are apparent in the later theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher with his attention to religious feeling and in the Christocentric emphasis of Karl Barth.

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Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer have edited Zinzendorf's Hauptschriften, 6 vols. (Hildesheim, 19621963), along with Ergänzungsbände zu den Hauptschriften, 12 vols. (Hildesheim, 19641972), photographically reproduced original editions. An excellent introduction to Zinzendorf's role within Pietism and a summary of his theology is provided by F. Ernest Stoeffler in his German Pietism during the Eighteenth Century (Leiden, 1973). See also Arthur J. Freeman An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart: the Theology of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1998) and Gary S. Kinkel Our Dear Mother the Spirit: an Investigation of Count Zinzendorf's Theology and Praxis (Lanham, Md., 1990). George W. Forell has translated Zinzendorf's sermons in Nicholaus Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf: Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion (Iowa City, Iowa, 1973). A Collection of Sermons from Zinzendorf's Pennsylvania Journey has been published (Bethlehem, Pa., 2001) by Julie Tomberlin-Weber, translator, and Craig Atwood, editor. Stoeffler and Forell both provide helpful bibliographies. The best modern biography is Count Zinzendorf by John R. Weinlich (Nashville, Tenn., 1956).

David A. Schattschneider (1987 and 2005)

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