Moravian Brethren

views updated Jun 08 2018


MORAVIAN BRETHREN. The Moravian Brethren, also known as the Renewed Unity of the Brethren, developed out of the combined forces of Lutheranism, the German Pietist movement, and the drive to re-Catholicize the Habsburg holdings. The impact of the Moravian Brethren outstripped their numbers, largely due to their ecumenism, influential aristocratic members, and leadership in the Protestant missionary movement. Those influenced by their piety and social organization include the theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, the poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), and the social reformer Benjamin Owen.


The Brethren trace their heritage to the "Ancient" Unity of the Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), a Hussite group that went underground after the resounding Catholic victory at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. A little over a century later, the last effort to unify religious practice in the hereditary Habsburg territories sent some groups of Protestants into exile just over the Czech border, where they sought refuge on the estate of the Pietist Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (17001760). These groups formed the nucleus of what became the Moravian Brethren.

Initially the Protestant exiles, including Christian David, David Nitschmann, and Johann and David Zeisberger, who later held leadership roles within the Brethren, settled among the tenants of the village of Berthelsdorf. Soon, however, tensions between the new arrivals and the villagers led to the founding of a separate settlement that was given the name Herrnhut. Zinzendorf had little to do with the settlement until 1727, when religious dissension among the ever-growing number of refugees attracted his attention. The diversity of religious roots within the community, including some of a more radical bent, led to bitter disputes. Zinzendorf, as lord of the manor, crafted two sets of regulations, one dealing with basic economic and social matters, and one dealing with spiritual issues. At the insistence of members of the Nitschmann family, the latter was based on the traditions of the original Unity, most notably the right to refuse to take oaths and bear arms, and the right to impose spiritual discipline. An emotional religious awakening on 13 August 1727 set the spiritual flavor of the newly ordered community, in which devotion to Christ overrode doctrinal disputes.

Herrnhut provided the initial model for the unique communities, called Ortsgemeinen, 'congregation places', which the Brethren founded throughout Europe and North America in subsequent years. When Zinzendorf revised the regulations governing Herrnhut in 1728, he combined both spiritual and mundane matters in a single document. These regulations reflected a blending of particular Pietist interests, such as the regulation of moral conduct and provisions for economic, educational, and social welfare, with governmental structures common to European villages and towns. The expectation underlying all aspects of the community was that the inhabitants shared a common love of Christ and a desire to act for the good of the whole. The combination of Herrnhut's continued growth as a center for religious refugees, and Zinzendorf's alienation from the influential Pietist center at Halle, led to his banishment from Saxony in 1736 on suspicion of heresy. As a result, the count and a central group of the Brethren, defined as a Pilgergemeine, 'pilgrim congregation', traveled across Europe and grew in numbers and influence.


The period from 1736 to Zinzendorf's death in 1760 saw the founding of several communities. In addition, during the 1730s and 1740s the practice of drawing lots to make decisions and the social/spiritual division of the congregations into "choirs" came into regular use. These years also saw the height of the Brethrens' popularity along with a firestorm of criticism.

Zinzendorf's banishment from Saxony caused him to move quickly to ensure that Protestant refugees no longer allowed to settle in Herrnhut would have an alternative. This provided the initial impetus for the founding of other Ortsgemeinen, first in Wetteravia, then in America. Herrnhut's economic success led King Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia to invite the Brethren to set up communities in his territory in the early 1740s. The presence of noble members and patrons with ties to European courts opened more doors, and by 1770 congregation communities existed in several German states, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands, England, America, and Russia. In many cases, the founding of communities went hand in hand with support for their missionary endeavors, initially focused in the Caribbean and Greenland.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their ability to open doors at the courts of Europe, the Brethren faced hostility on both sides of the Atlantic. This hostility was largely generated by their popularity with people from all ranks and religious backgrounds, and by their clash with "orthodox" Pietism, which emphasized repentance and moral reform. The Brethren shared the Pietist concern with behavior but laced it with an often intensely emotional experience of connection with Christ. This found its most unusual expression in their designation of Christ as literal chief elder, whose will was revealed by the use of the lot. The records of the lot's use illustrate the mindset of the Brethren regarding their view of it as Christ's word; the decisions were always recorded as "The Savior approves" or "The Savior does not approve." During the height of its use, from the 1740s through the 1760s, the lot served as the final determiner of all decisions including business issues and marriage proposals.

The emotional bond between the individual member and Christ spilled over into a bond with fellow members. This bond was underscored by the official division of the membership into choirs, or groups defined by sex, age, and marital status. In most communities the Choirs of Single Brothers, Single Sisters, Widows, and Widowers each shared common housekeeping. Thus they formed a second type of family unit that rivaled the biological unit. The intense devotion to Christ and to community that characterized the Brethren reached extreme expression in the 1740s "Sifting Period." During this decade, and rippling beyond it, the devotional language of the Brethren strongly resembled Catholic mysticism in its sexual overtones and close identity with the suffering and death of Christ.


After Zinzendorf's death in 1760, the leadership of the Brethren faced the consequences of their expansion and a decade of controversy in the form of a rather large debt and a tarnished reputation. As a result, with the exception of their missionary out-reach, the last decades of the eighteenth century saw them turn inward in an ultimately successful effort to ensure their survival. In the process, they made the final transition from a movement to an established church. This transition manifested itself in several ways. As early as the 1750s, the primary leadership had begun to shift from charismatic individuals to a series of elected and appointed committees. After Zinzendorf's death in 1760, most of the more "unconventional" aspects of the Brethrens' organization began to disappear, at least partially in response to outside criticism. The role of women became increasingly restricted, and more attention focused on the nuclear family unit. The role of the lot in decision making was gradually reduced, and unconventional imagery was removed from hymns and liturgies. Finally, the leadership directed much of their energy at educating, cultivating, and retaining those born within the circle of the church. By 1800, much of what had made the Brethren distinctive was disappearing from practice. The core of the vision survived, however, in the modern Moravian Church, the worldwide membership of which is largely non-Western and from a variety of traditions.

See also Lutheranism ; Pietism ; Zinzendorf, Nikolaus Ludwig von .


Cranz, David. The Ancient and Modern History of the Brethren. Translated by Benjamin LaTrobe. London, 1780.

Hahn, Hans-Christoph, and Helmut Reichel, eds. Zinzendorf und die Herrnhuter Brüder. Hamburg, 1977.

Hamilton, J. Taylor, and Kenneth Gardiner Hamilton. History of the Moravian Church: The Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 17221957. Rev. ed. Bethlehem, Pa., 1967.

Sommer, Elisabeth. Serving Two Masters: Moravians in Germany and North America, 17271801. Lexington, Ky., 2000.

Elisabeth Sommer

Moravian Brethren

views updated May 18 2018


MORAVIAN BRETHREN. The Moravian Church (Unity of Brethren) originated in a Bible-centered group that formed in Bohemia and Moravia in 1457 and later became known as the Unitas Fratum (Unity of Brethren). Exiled to Poland at the time of the Thirty Years War, the Brethren were reborn in Saxony in 1722 under the leadership of Count Nicholas Zinzendorf. Moravians stressed the humanity of Jesus Christ, the power of divine grace in effecting a change of heart, mind, and disposition, and the love of God in Christ, rather than his sovereignty or justice. They refrained from authoritative definitions of doctrine and tried to avoid approaching Scripture in a dogmatic way, stressing religious tolerance and an evangelical vision rather than theological conformity.

The first Moravians settled in Georgia in 1735, although within five years they had relocated to Pennsylvania, where they ministered to German Protestant exiles. Under Bishop August Spangenberg, they made a major

contribution to the Great Awakening during the 1740s. The Moravian Church operated a communal system known as the "Economy," whereby it controlled all enterprises and real estate and assigned duties to its members. In 1766, the Moravians settled Salem, North Carolina, and in 1771, the Northern and Southern congregations were administratively separated. During the Revolution, the Brethren adopted a neutral stance, refusing to bear arms, but paying taxation and ministering to the wounded.

The Church's evangelistic effectiveness was limited by a 1779 decision of the United Brethren General Synod in Europe to adopt strict standards of admission. Congregations were required to conform to regulations demanding a quietist form of piety. American Moravians, however, soon challenged the General Synod's positions on military service and pastoral control of the temporal affairs of a congregation and demanded a democratic election structure for church offices. In the 1840s, restrictions on exclusive Church ownership of land and business in Moravian communities were lifted, and in 1848, the General Synod sanctioned provincial synods for the Northern and Southern Provinces. A provincial Home Missions Board was created in 1855 and the Church expanded its mission work to the Midwest.

During the twentieth century, Moravians in the North, most notably Paul de Schweinitz, expressed strong support for religious cooperation and church union. There has been some decline of Moravian religious traditions and the adoption of main-line church practices such as vacation Bible school. During the 1910s, the Church established commissions to conduct work in rural areas and to focus evangelistic effort. Authority in the Church was decentralized in 1930, and bishops became subject to election by ballot in 1936. In the South, the Moravians grew rapidly and have been much involved in the religious culture of Winston-Salem, winning much approval for their support for women's education.

Cooperation between the Northern and Southern Provinces has been fostered by Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and by the Interprovincial Board of Education, created in 1936. In 1946, the Moravian World Peace Committee was established to encourage overseas relief and secure the banning of atomic weapons. The Moravian Church in America has remained comparatively small, with only 26,103 members in 1999, and most Moravian congregations are found in Tanzania and the Caribbean.


Hamilton, John Taylor, and Kenneth G. Hamilton. History of the Moravian Church: The Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 1722–1957. Bethlehem, Pa: Interprovincial Board of Christian Education, Moravian Church in America, 1967.

Sawyer, Edwin A. All About the Moravians: History, Beliefs, and Practices of a Worldwide Church. Bethlehem, Pa: Moravian Church in America, 1990.


See alsoReligion and Religious Affiliation .

Moravian Brethren

views updated Jun 11 2018

Moravian Brethren. The Church of the United Brethren, a Christian body which renewed the declining Bohemian Brethren, after refugees from the Thirty Years' War took refuge on the estates of Count Zinzendorf (1700–60), who presided over a great spiritual revival. As a ‘unity of brethren’ (Unitas Fratrum), they did not seek to become a separate church, but saw themselves as a leaven in existing churches. Nevertheless, survival dictated organization (it was recognized as a church, e.g. in Britain in 1749), and it was vigorously missionary throughout the world. It is strongly evangelical, regarding the Bible as the sole rule of faith and conduct.