Moravian Church

views updated Jun 11 2018


Also called the Unitas Fratrum, or Renewed Church of the Brethren whose members are called United Brethren or Herrnhuters. The Moravian Church claims direct descent from the Bohemian Brethren who were organized at Kunvald, Bohemia (1457), by the followers of John Hus, the Wyclifite burned at the stake in 1415. The Brethren formally left the Catholic Church, whose form of worship and creedal formulas they felt were a corruption of true Christianity. They accepted Hus's teaching that the Bible is the only norm of faith; that the human race is totally depraved; that Christ, truly God and man, redeemed the human race; and that the Holy Spirit convinces all persons of their sin and inspires faith in him when they become adopted daughters and sons of God. In general the Brethren constituted an association dedicated to strict scriptural teaching and the Apostolic way of life. Living and experiencing faith was for them true Christianity.

History. For two centuries the Brethren flourished in Moravia, Poland, and Bohemia; but after the Reformation, and especially the Thirty Years' War, the majority of them were absorbed into the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reform Churches. The remnant remaining, however, adhered to Hus's doctrine, even continuing the episcopacy. Their last bishop, John A. Comenius, usually considered the link between the ancient Brethren and the modern Moravians, died in 1671, and his few followers were soon scattered. In 1722 Christian David revived the principles of the Brethren and was partially successful in reorganizing them. However, when Ferdinand II suppressed the Brethren in Bohemia and Moravia, they were forced to live their faith secretly and in fear. Thus, in the late 1720s David and his followers left their homeland for Saxony and settled on the estate of Nikolaus Ludwig von zinzen dorf and there set up a communal society called Herrnhut (the Lord's watch). Within a short time Herrnhut grew to several hundred members who were committed to "the fellowship of piety over that of doctrine." They felt they were "a little church within the Church," "a leaven" that would revive the church of the day. Zinzendorf became more and more enthusiastic about the community and hoped to make it a grand society founded on experiential religion and practical piety. Through them he envisioned the promotion of spirituality and brotherhood without regard for doctrine. In time Zinzendorf became their leader and fashioned the community into a distinct sect.

Originally he had no idea of establishing another church, but in order to acquire official recognition from the state, which was Lutheran, Zinzendorf adopted the augsburg confession as a summary of the community's belief. In 1735 the community assumed the official name Unitas Fratrum; about this time the popular name, Moravians, was applied to the sect because of its origin. Zinzendorf's energy and zeal quickly brought into being the community's missionary character that still prevails. The Moravians believed they lived the life of Christ and had to proclaim it. They did evangelistic work with the hope of developing an evangelical alliance among the churches. They worked throughout the German states, in England, where they had a deep influence on John Wesley, and in America.

As early as 1734 Peter Bohler left Germany and established a community in Savannah, Ga. In 1740 a settlement was made in Philadelphia, Pa.; it was so successful that within a short time it was able to send missionaries to establish other Moravian colonies. Salem, N.C., as well as Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz, Pa., were all founded by the Moravians. By 1776 there were more than 2,500 Moravians in Pennsylvania alone. An aggressive missionary program became part of their church life.

Their simplicity of life, as well as their sacrifices and perseverance, contributed to their comparative success. Unlike the Protestant national sects, the Moravians never exerted great influence in any given region, because they never identified their form of Christianity with a limited national group.

Doctrine, Worship, and Government. The basic tenet of the Moravians is true fidelity to Christ in daily Christian life. They officially adhere to the Apostles' Creed and the first 21 articles of the Augsburg Confession "without in the least binding [their] conscience." They are broadly evangelical and believe that the inspired Scripture is the rule for the practice of faith. Their principal belief is in God's love for man manifested in the redemptive life and death of Jesus and in man's ability in Christ to attain mystical union with the Savior. This is their goal in life and the force in Christianity as they understand it.

The Moravians of the mid-20th century believe that they have a special ecumenical mission and they hope to unite Christians of divergent beliefs by a practical system of living the Christian life. "We recognize as true men of Christ's body, the Church, every one who has experienced the new birth. Hence we regard all children of God as our brethren in Christ. We decidedly disclaim all sectarian animosity arising from diversity of views on points of doctrine, discipline, and Church government. We desire to live in cordial fellowship with members of all evangelical Churches."

Infant baptism by sprinkling is practiced by the Moravians, but they see in it only a public sign that the child will be reared in Christ's love. At least six times a year the commemorative rite of the Lord's Supper is held; this affords the Brethren the opportunity for self-examination, for renewing their mystical union with Christ, and for expressing their mutual bonds of fellowship. The Moravian Church is a liturgical Church, with collections of liturgical rites for all important occasions. The use of the liturgy, however, is never compulsory. The usual Sunday service is centered about a litany, with petitions drawn from Scripture, and the sermon, which emphasizes the love of God for man in His Atoning Son. Special emphasis is put on music in all liturgical worship; the Moravian Easter rites at dawn are perhaps among America's better-known Church services.

The Moravian Church is governed by provincial synods, not by its bishops, who hold the office of spiritual leadership and administration only. Every ten years a synod is held that decides doctrine, approves liturgical rites, and nominates bishops. In the U.S., there are three provinces of the Moravian Church: Northern, Southern and Alaska.

Bibliography: w. g. addison, The Renewed Church of the United Brethren, 17221930 (London 1932). j. k. pfohl, The Moravian Church (Raleigh 1926). e. langton, The History of the Moravian Church (London 1956). f. s. mead, s. s. hill and c. d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed (Nashville 2001).

[t. horgan/eds.]

Moravian Church

views updated May 09 2018

Moravian Church

The Moravian Church was one of the first churches in America to admit African Americansboth slave and freeto membership. Originally part of the Protestant Reformation, the church became increasingly active as a missionary church among non-Christians outside Europe, and its members arrived among West Indian slaves early in the 1730s. Moravians came to America in 1735 to escape persecution and to work among Native Americans and African-American slaves. After settling briefly in Georgia, they moved to Pennsylvania, establishing the community of Bethlehem in 1741. In 1753 they settled in central North Carolina, near what later became Salem and then Winston-Salem. Although nineteenth-century congregations emerged in the Ohio Valley, the upper Midwest, and the Southeast, Bethlehem and Winston-Salem still contain the largest Moravian communities in the United States.

Eighteenth-century Moravians counted all races among "the Children of God," but they also practiced chattel slavery. Moravian missionaries welcomed slaves as potential converts while reminding them to accept their divinely ordained servitude. The church also bought slaves to profit from their labor while bringing them the gospel. Conversion was difficult for blacks, though, because they had to adopt the same dress, behavior, music, and family patterns as whites. A handful of slaves living in or near Bethlehem or Salem did join the church, however, in the decades before the American Revolution. These early converts still suffered some cruelties of slavery, fear of sale and the absence of surnames, for example, but they also enjoyed some aspects of racial equality. Black Moravians often worked and lived in the same quarters and conditions as white Moravians. Blacks sat with whites in the meeting house, participated in church synods, were buried in racially integrated cemeteries, and even participated in ceremonies such as foot-washing and the kiss of peace that involved direct physical contact with white members.

After the American Revolution, Pennsylvania enacted a gradual emancipation law in 1780, and the black population of Bethlehem decreased. In North Carolina, at the same time, slavery continued to expand, and in and around Salem, the number of black Moravians continued to rise. But white Moravians in North Carolina grew more restrictive toward slaves and free blacks. Also, younger Moravians began to demand that the church separate black and white members, excluding blacks from footwashing, from the kiss of peace, from the cemetery, and finally from the meeting house itself. In 1822 a segregated Moravian Church established a separate congregation, with a white minister, for its black members.

In the years between their expulsion from white services and their emancipation from slavery, black Moravians maintained their own religious community around Salem. They had a separate meeting house, cemetery, and, briefly, a school. It was hardly an independent community, though; the minister and teachers were white, and both services and lessons followed white models and emphasized white values. As a result, many slaves and free blacks around Salem ignored it, preferring instead to attend Methodist services or sermons preached by nondenominational black preachers. This trend continued after Emancipation.

Yet the black Moravian community survived. Early in the twentieth century it finally gained a formal designation, Saint Philip's Moravian Church, and in 1966 it received its first black minister. In 2000 Saint Philip's was one of the South's oldest black churches in continuous operation and served a small but proud congregation.

See also Christian Denominations, Independent; Protestantism in the Americas


Sensbach, Jon. F. A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 17631840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Thorp, Daniel B. "Chattel with a Soul: The Autobiography of a Moravian Slave." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 112 (1988): 433451.

Thorp, Daniel B. "New Wine in Old Bottles: Cultural Persistence Among Non-White Converts to the Moravian Church." Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 30 (1998): 18.

daniel b. thorp (1996)
Updated bibliography

Moravian Church

views updated May 21 2018

Moravian Church

Moravian Church, or the Church of the United Brethren, a German pietist sect that originated in Saxony and spread to the Americas during the mid-nineteenth century. In Central America, the Moravians are found almost exclusively along Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, where they work with people of Zambo heritage (collectively known as the Miskito Indians). Although based in Bluefields, Nicaragua, the Moravian Church maintains missions as far north as southern Honduras.

The Moravians first came to Nicaragua in 1849, when they established missions and schools for the Miskitos, Afro-Caribbeans, (Costeños) and British Protestants who lived along the coast when the country was a British protectorate. After Britain abandoned its claim to the coast in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the Moravians confined their work to the Miskitos. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Moravians, who advocate "separation from the world" for religious reasons, encouraged the Miskitos to maintain their identity separate from that of the Catholic, Hispanic society of western Nicaragua. This practice has periodically caused friction between the Nicaraguan government and the Moravian Church, as evidenced in 1900, when Nicaragua's president, José Santos Zelaya, temporarily closed Moravian schools for failing to teach the Miskito to be "faithful subjects of the government."

Although the Moravian Church advocates pacifism, Nicaraguan Moravians from the Atlantic coast were instrumental in forming the first popular resistance to the Sandinista government in 1981. This ethnically based movement for Miskito autonomy was known as Misurasata, an acronym for Miskito, Sumo, Rama, and Sandinista. Since 1985, Nicaragua's north and south Atlantic coasts function as self-governing, autonomous regions.

See alsoNicaragua .


Humberto Belli, Nicaragua: Christians Under Fire (1984).

John Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution, 2d ed. (1985).

George Irwin Ferris, Jr., "Protestantism in Nicaragua: Its Historical Roots and Influences Affecting Its Growth" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1981).

Additional Bibliography

Gordon, Edmund T. Disparate Diasporas: Identity and Politics in an African Nicaraguan Community. Austin: University of Texas Press, Austin, Institute of Latin American Studies, 1998.

Hale, Charles. R. Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894–1987. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Robertson, C. Alton. The Moravians, the Miskitu, and the Sandinistas on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast: 1979–1990. Bethlehem, PA: Moravian Church in America, 1998.

Smith, Calvin L. Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua. Boston: Brill, 2007.

                                  Virginia Garrard-Burnett

Moravian Church

views updated Jun 08 2018

Moravian Church Protestant Church that originated in the 15th century in Bohemia and Moravia, among followers of Jan Hus. In the 18th century, Moravians began extensive missionary work. Several groups migrated to North America, where they founded settlements in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Today, there are Moravian communities in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and n India.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Mo·ra·vi·an / məˈrāvēən/ • n. a native of Moravia. ∎  a member of a Protestant Church founded in Saxony by emigrants from Moravia holding views derived from the Hussites and accepting the Bible as the only source of faith.• adj. of or relating to Moravia or its people. ∎  of or relating to the Moravian Church.


views updated May 29 2018

Moravian a member of a Protestant Church founded in Saxony by emigrants from Moravia, and continuing the tradition of the Unitas Fratrum, a body holding Hussite doctrines, which had its chief seat in Moravia and Bohemia.

The virtual founder of the body was Count Zinzendorf (1700–60), who was the patron of the Moravian refugees, and embraced their doctrines. The Moravians early obtained many adherents in England and colonial North America.

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