Moravians often quote “In Essentials Unity, In Non-essentials Liberty, in all Things Love” as a motto of the church even though it has never officially been adopted as such by the church. Recently I was asked about the origin of this phrase, and it proved to be a fun search via the Internet. Mike Riess of the Interprovincial Board of Communication helped track down some of the following information. The most useful site on the phrase is http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/quote.html
The “In Essentials” phrase was originally in Latin and appears in two slightly different forms: “In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis (or, dubiis) libertas, in utrisque (or, omnibus) caritas.” The difference is whether there is liberty in non-essential things or in things that are doubtful, meaning that they are still open to debate and interpretation. The idea of “doubtful” things reflects the perspective of the Catholic Church more than that of Protestants. The Latin phrase has often been attributed to Augustine, and many people apparently believe that. However, no Augustine scholar has found the phrase in the great saint’s writings and it is doubtful that he would have even approved of it. Incidentally, one of the most famous applications of the “In Essentials” quote was by Pope John XXIII before the calling of the Second Vatican Council.
The Moravian Brethren in the 15th and 16th centuries made it a point of doctrine that there are some things that are essential to salvation (Creation, Redemption, Sanctification, Faith, Hope, and Love); some things that minister to salvation (Word, sacraments, priesthood, doctrine, worship); and other things that are incidental to salvation (forms of rituals, language of worship, local traditions, saints days, etc.). This distinction between Essential Things, Ministerial Things, and Incidental or Nonessential Things was central to the Brethren’s famed ecumenism. But the church did not use the famous “In Essentials quote” no doubt because Love was always an essential alongside Faith and Hope.
So, when did the quotation first appear? The earliest known use is by Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624)in 1617. He had been a Catholic bishop in Italy, but he sided with the Archbishop of Venice in a fight against the pope and was forced to flee for his life to England. The Anglican Church received him with open arms, and he wrote a bitter polemic against the papacy in which he argued that the church should be a republic not a monarchy. In book 4, chapter 8 of De Republica Ecclesiastica he summed up his proposal for ending church conflict by saying “And we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity. This I feel, this I desire, this I do indeed hope for, in him who is our hope and we are not confounded.”
Interestingly, the author of this irenic statement was personally quite hard to deal with and was unpopular in England. When the opportunity presented itself, he reconciled with the papacy and returned to Rome where he wrote a book against the Church of England. Unfortunately for De Dominis his new papal protector died, and the next pope imprisoned him in Castle San Angelo where he eventually died. But his works remained in use in England, and soon the English pastor Richard Baxter, a Puritan, adopted the phrase about liberty in nonessential things.
Around this same time in Germany there was a group of scholars who were greatly concerned about the way that theological and liturgical conflict had led Europe into the Thirty Years War. They hoped that by returning to the essence of Christian piety and devotion, the church could turn away from conflict and divisions. Johannes Arndt, David Pareus, John Andreas Valentin, John Drury, and John Amos Comenius were among them. As the American church historian Phillip Schaff put it in History of the Christian Church, vol. 7, pp. 650-653 (repr. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965): “It was during the fiercest dogmatic controversies and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, that a prophetic voice whispered to future generations the watchword of Christian peacemakers, which was unheeded in a century of intolerance, and forgotten in a century of indifference, but resounds with increased force in a century of revival and re-union: IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.”
This phrase next appeared in a tract by a Lutheran pastor identified as Rupertus Meldenius, which may have been a pseudonym. He listed some of those who were seeking peace in the church in the aftermath of the invasion of Bohemia by the Habsburg armies in 1621. After that the phrase starts to appear in other works by Protestants in Germany and England. Of course, whenever we think of public intellectuals who labored for peace during the terrible years of the 17th century we think of John Amos Comenius, that “incomparable Moravian.” Though he is most famous for his pedagogical works, Comenius offered many proposals for peace in the church, drawing heavily on the theology of the Moravian Church, also known as the Unitas Fratrum. In one of his last writings Comenius proposed that there was One Thing Necessary for individuals, churches, and nations: return to simple faith in Christ. In chapter 8, paragraph 6 he wrote:
“However, what is most necessary for the body of believers, the Christian Church? UNIVERSAL CONCORD, which Christ called love, and he gave this for a watchword to his own or for a sign of his church (John 13:35). And the apostles commended mutual love as the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14), and urged that unity of spirit be maintained in the bond of peace, as if all were one body and one spirit, and all were called into the same hope under one Lord, one faith, one baptism, etc., with the diversity of the gifts of Christ not standing in the way (Eph. 4:3,7). The prime law of Christian concord is threefold: in absolutely necessary things to maintain unity, in less necessary things (which they call adiaphora) liberty, in all things, toward all, love.”
Translation of Unum Necessarium by Vernon Nelson, found a http://www.moravianarchives.org/images/pdfs/Unum%20Necessarium.pdf
This is not precisely the same as the so-called motto of the Moravian Church, but the sentiment is the similar. After the death of Comenius it was the German Pietists, led by Jacob Philip Spener and August Hermann Francke, who took up the cause of union among Christians based on piety rather than doctrinal and liturgical uniformity. The most significant figure in the Pietist movement in terms of ecumenical work was Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. While it does not appear that he used the precise phrase about essentials and non-essentials, he certainly operated on this principle as one can see in the Brotherly Agreement signed in Herrnhut.
More research is needed to show when the phrase began to be used as an unofficial motto of the Moravian Church, but it is clear that by 1902 it was viewed as such among the leaders of the Moravian Church in America. Augustus Schultze, the professor of theology at the Moravian Theological Seminary, preached at a Moravian synod in 1902 on the theme Essentials…of the Christian Faith. This was considered authoritative enough to be published by the church following the synod. Professor Schultze claimed: “We Moravians, at least, have always proclaimed it as our motto in matters of religion: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” We therefore take it for granted that there are many things generally conceded to be non-essential, while there are certain facts and truths so essential as to command a general acceptance.”
Schultze’s sermon indicates, though, that by 1902 there was no agreement on just what things were essential and which were non-essential within the Moravian Church let alone in the wider church. Despite the fact that the “Moravian motto” does not clarify what are essential things, the call for a type of unity that allows liberty of expression in some things clearly resonates with many people. Other denominations today claim this same phrase as a motto, especially churches that emerged out of the Campbellite movement in 19th century America.
Moravians should be cautious in claiming it as uniquely their own since it was coined by a Catholic bishop, popularized by Puritans and Lutherans, and has been meaningful to Disciples of Christ and other churches. However, if this motto leads Moravians and other Christians read the writings of Comenius himself, they will discover substantial proposals for how to put this principle into effect. Personally, I think the old Moravian essentials of Faith, Love, and Hope are a good starting place for greater unity and enriching diversity in the church.