Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

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Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), a German-born clergyman of the Moravian denomination, tried to unite the German religious groups in Pennsylvania into one spiritual community.

Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was born in Dresden on May 26, 1700. He was a godson of Philipp Jacob Spener, the founder of German Pietism. Zinzendorf was brought up under strong Pietistic influences. As a student at the University of Halle, he joined in organizing the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, whose members were pledged to the Pietistic ideal of a life of religious devotion and Christian service instead of belief in a creed.

In loyalty to this pledge, in 1722 Zinzendorf opened his estate at Berthelsdorf to a company of Moravian and Lutheran exiles who became the nucleus of the community of Herrnhut, which was one of the most active centers of missionary activity in the world in its time. After a period of harmony, Zinzendorf was accused of harboring views contrary to those of the Lutheran Church and in 1736 was exiled for ten years. Henceforth he identified himself with the Moravians.

In 1741 Zinzendorf went to America. He arrived in disguise under the name Domine de Thurstein at the Moravian settlement in Bethlehem, Pa. This settlement had formerly been located in Georgia but, through the courtesy of William Penn, had moved into the territory close to settlements of other Pietistic groups: Lutherans, Reformed, Dunkers, Ephrataites, Quakers, Mennonites, and Schwenkfelders. It was Zinzendorf's hope that all these groups could be united in what he called the "Church of God in the Spirit."

Zinzendorf labored diligently and in 1741 called a series of seven synods, in which ministers and representative laymen from each of the sects met to find the fundamental agreements as to the nature of God and the ideals of the Christian life they all shared. This was a noble conception which might have had a chance 2 centuries later, but in 1741 sectarian differences were still too important to these groups for any general basis of unity to be possible. Ardent sectarians in several groups misunderstood Zinzendorf to be attempting an organic union which would have authority over the various sects. Though his ideal was spiritual only, it was too early for such an ideal to be understood, and he finally gave up the project.

Subsequently Zinzendorf explored Indian territory and established Indian missions, several of which were notable among America's earliest attempts to Christianize the Indians. In 1749 he returned to Herrnhut, Germany, and continued to direct the affairs of Nazareth and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. He died on May 6, 1760.

Further Reading

John Rudolph Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf (1956), is a biography. Studies of Zinzendorf are Henry Herman Meyer, Child Nature and Nurture according to Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1928), and Arthur James Lewis, Zinzendorf: The Ecumenical Pioneer (1962). See also Jacob John Sessler, Communal Pietism among Early American Moravians (1933), and Ruth Rouse and Stephen Charles Neill, A History of the Ecumenical Movement (1954; 2d ed. 1967), for background. □