Zinzendorf, Nikolaus Ludwig von (1700–1760)

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ZINZENDORF, NIKOLAUS LUDWIG VON (17001760), poet, preacher, theologian, and religious leader. Count Zinzendorf was a controversial figure within German Pietism in the first half of the eighteenth century. He advocated a nonrational approach to Christianity that he called "religion of the heart." In addition to being a creative theologian and author, he was the founder of a dynamic religious community known as the Brüdergemeine (Community of Brethren, now commonly called the Moravian Church) that established communities on four continents.

Zinzendorf was the son of George Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a counsellor in the court of the king of Saxony, and Charlotte Justine von Gersdorf. Because of the early death of his father, Zinzendorf was raised primarily by his grandmother, Henrietta Catherine, Baroness von Gersdorf (16481726), who was closely connected to the leaders of the Pietist movement, Philipp Jacob Spener (16351705) and August Hermann Francke (16631727).

When he was ten, Zinzendorf was sent to Francke's school in Halle, where he developed a strong interest in the Pietist program. He was then sent to the University of Wittenberg for advanced education to broaden his perspective, but Zinzendorf devoted himself to theological and religious pursuits rather than to politics and law.

After his marriage to Erdmuth Dorothea von Reuss (17001756) in 1722, Zinzendorf became deeply involved with a group of Protestant refugees from neighboring Moravia who claimed to be a remnant of the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), a pre-Reformation Protestant church with roots in the Hussite movement. In addition to offering the Moravians protection from persecution, Zinzendorf organized their village of Herrnhut as a unique religious community.

The Brotherly Agreement of 1727 subordinated secular activities to a religious mission. Women assumed leadership roles almost equal to those of men. Artisans held leadership posts alongside nobles. Several distinctive Moravian practices originated in Herrnhut, such as the Daily Texts drawn from the Bible, making or confirming decisions through the lot, the Easter dawn confession of faith, foot washing, and love feasts. Through schools, publications, and Herrnhut-style communities, the Moravians established a strong presence throughout Protestant Europe, especially in Germany, Switzerland, the Baltic, the Netherlands, and the British Isles.

In 1735 Zinzendorf was ordained as a Lutheran minister, although he never held an official position in the church. Also in 1735 he arranged for the ordination of one of his Moravian followers as a bishop of the nearly defunct Unitas Fratrum. In 1737 Zinzendorf was consecrated a Moravian bishop.

Inspired by Zinzendorf, the first Moravian missionaries left for Saint Thomas (Virgin Islands) in 1732. Soon mission work was established among the Inuit in Greenland and Labrador, the Khoi Khoi in South Africa, the Delaware in British North America, and many other tribal peoples in the Atlantic world. On his voyage to Georgia, John Wesley (17031791) met Moravian missionaries and became interested in Zinzendorf's theology. Zinzendorf's writings played an important role in the early development of the Methodist movement.

Controversy swirled around Zinzendorf throughout his career. In 1736 he was exiled from Saxony because he sheltered religious refugees from Habsburg lands. Subsequently Zinzendorf traveled extensively, including two trips to North America, where he preached to slaves and tribal people.

During the 1740s Zinzendorf developed some of his most creative and controversial ideas. Among them were the "choir system" that replaced traditional family structures in Moravian communities with groupings according to age and gender. He also promoted a positive attitude toward sexuality. For instance, he argued that the incarnation of Christ made both male and female genitalia holy since Christ was born of a woman and had male organs. He also taught married couples to view sexual intercourse as a sacramental act symbolizing the mystical union of the soul with Christ. In addition, Zinzendorf encouraged his followers to worship the Holy Spirit as "Mother," and he maintained that all churches are expressions of the true, invisible church. Most controversial was his promotion of a Lutheran "theology of the cross" through a highly evocative worship of the wounds of Christ.

In 1747, Zinzendorf's banishment from Saxony was lifted and the following year, the Moravians received official recognition in Saxony because they had proven to be good subjects. In 1749 Zinzendorf persuaded the British Parliament to recognize the Moravian Church as "an ancient and apostolic church," paving the way for further mission work in the British colonies.

Also in 1749 Zinzendorf experienced the greatest blow to his work when Count Ernst Casimir of Ysenburg-Büdingen(ruled 17081749), the secular overlord of the Moravian community of Herrnhaag in the Wetterau, died. His son and successor Gustav Friedrich Casimir (ruled 17491768) ordered the Moravians in his realm to swear their fealty to him and repudiate their allegiance to Zinzendorf. Reports of eroticism connected to the veneration of the wounds of Christ among the Single Brothers in the late 1740s (the so-called Sifting Time) may have contributed to this crisis. Over a thousand Moravians chose to relocate in 1750 rather than reject Zinzendorf. They were forced to abandon Herrnhaag's expensive buildings, and the resulting financial crisis nearly destroyed the church.

In 1755 Zinzendorf returned to Herrnhut, where he edited and republished his works. Following the death of Erdmuth in 1756, he married his lifelong co-worker Anna Nitschmann in 1757. Zinzendorf's death in 1760 was a severe blow to the church. Under the leadership of August Gottlieb Spangenberg (17041792), the church became increasingly conservative in orientation.

Zinzendorf left a multifaceted legacy. He was a forerunner of the modern subjective theology exemplified in Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834), and he was an early Romantic poet. Moreover, his unusual understanding of race, gender, sexuality, and society attracts attention and even admiration. He established important Moravian communities in Bethlehem, Pa., and Salem, N.C., that continue to be centers of Moravian work in America. By the early twenty-first century the bulk of his followers were in eastern Africa, thanks to the Moravian mission effort.

See also Methodism ; Moravian Brethren ; Pietism .


Primary Sources

Zinzendorf, Nikolaus Ludwig von. A Collection of Sermons from Zinzendorf's Pennsylvania Journey 174142. Edited by Craig D. Atwood, translated by Julie Tomberlin Weber. Bethlehem, Pa., 2002.

. Ergänzungsbände zu den Hauptschriften. Edited by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer. Hildesheim, 19651971.

. Hauptschriften in sechs Bänden. Edited by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer. Hildesheim, 19621965.

. Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion, Preached in Fetter Lane Chapel in London in the Year 1746. Edited and translated by George W. Forell. Iowa City, 1973; paperback, 1998.

Secondary Sources

Atwood, Craig D. Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem. University Park, Pa., forthcoming. Includes a discussion of Zinzendorf's theology and its impact on his followers.

Freeman, Arthur J. An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart: The Theology of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Bethlehem, Pa., 1998.

Kinkel, Gary Steven. Our Dear Mother the Spirit: An Investigation of Count Zinzendorf's Theology and Praxis. Lanham, Md., 1990.

Meyer, Dietrich, ed. Bibliographisches Handbuch zur Zinzendorf-Forschung. Düsseldorf, 1987. An invaluable guide to research on Zinzendorf.

Meyer, Dietrich, and Paul Peucker, eds. Graf ohne Grenzen: Leben und Werk von Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf. Herrnhut, 2000. A beautiful and informative text produced in connection with an exhibit for Zinzendorf's three-hundredth birthday.

Weinlick, John R. Count Zinzendorf. New York, 1956; reprint, Bethlehem, Pa., 1989. An English-language biography.

Craig D. Atwood

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Zinzendorf, Nikolaus Ludwig von (1700–1760)

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