Monthly Archives: April 2011

Great Sabbath

Today is Great Sabbath in the Moravian tradition. Some churches call it holy Saturday. In the 18th century Moravians took the notion of the Jewish sabbath seriously as a day of rest. The fact that Jesus was buried shortly before sundown meant that he spent the sabbath in the tomb before being resurrected sometime before sunrise on Sunday. So the Moravians called the day between Good Friday and Easter the great sabbath because Jesus rested in the grave. It was part of the general observation of Holy Week and Easter. Each day of Holy Week Moravians read the account of Jesus’s final days and last teachings from the gospels, but there are no readings for Great Sabbath. The Good Friday reading ends with the sealing of the tomb and the placing of the guards.

Some Moravian churches have a special lovefeast for Great Sabbath, others have special musical services. Some have no special gatherings at all, but it is a time to remember all those who are asleep in the Lord. Typically Moravians take this day to visit God’s Acre and place flowers on the graves. Cemeteries are not places of dread in the Moravian tradition because we believe that the Lord himself sanctified the grave through his death and resurrection. Moravians also hold to the ancient Christian belief that Christ’s soul went to the place of departed spirits where his work of redemption continued. Great Sabbath is a time to reflect on God’s defeat of hell, sin, and the power of evil prior to the glorious resurrection.

On Easter, many Moravians gather in God’s Acre to proclaim their faith in the resurrected Lord and celebrate newness of life as the sun rises. The quiet vigil of Great Sabbath leads into the joyous hallelujahs of Easter morning.

Adoring the Wounded Savior

Adoring the Wounded Savior Slideshow

Moravian Theology and Iconography in the 18th century

Lecture given at the Art in Clay Symposium at Old Salem Museum, April 16, 2011

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:             Good morning. It is always a pleasure to be here in Old Salem and talk about the Moravians. I’ve been so impressed by the presentations, and I have to warn you that I know next to nothing about working clay, but I hope what I have to say this morning will enrich your experience and give you a deeper insight into the art of the Moravians. I can tell you that Moravians were aware that the prophet Jeremiah compared God to a potter, and they held potters in high esteem. The first Moravian missionary, Leonard Dober, was a potter by trade. Unlike other churches at the time, the Moravians believed that potters and other craftsmen could bring the good news of salvation to distant shores. I think we should take a fresh look at Moravian decorative arts. [Slide 2]

Here is an example of a devotional miniature prepared by a Moravian in Europe in the middle of the 18th century. The artist was probably a teen-age girl who was closely associated with the Zinzendorf family. If you did not know for sure that it was by a Moravian artist, you might assume that this was prepared by a Catholic nun during the middle ages. Of course, it you knew nothing about Christian doctrine and symbolism, you might think this was some kind of avante garde shock art of the 1960s. If you look carefully you can see that there is a girl, perhaps the artist herself, in a cave that resembles an open wound. Blood is pouring over her as she prays, but on the hill above beautiful flowers are blooming. I think they are roses, which symbolize the Virgin Mary and the atonement of Jesus. Even though the central focus is on blood and a wound, all in all this is a very sweet miniature that anticipates Victorian floral art. Clearly this is not intended to be realistic. Either the flowers are enormous or the worshiper is tiny. In fact, she looks almost like a fetus in the womb. By the end of the lecture I hope you will be able to make sense of this curious bit of art as an expression of the Moravians devotion to the wounded Savior.

Well into the 19th century Moravians theology centered on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross as the atonement for human sins. This, of course, is fairly traditional Christian teaching, but the Moravians were unusual in the intensity of their devotion to the crucified Son of God. From the mid-1730s until the 1800s they focused much of their religious devotions on the wounds that Jesus suffered during his passion. [Slide 3] Here is an excerpt from one of the most popular liturgical prayers in the Moravian Church in the 18th century. It is called the Litany of the Wounds of the Husband and portions of it were prayed almost every Friday evening in Moravian communities, including the communities in North Carolina. The stated goal of this litany was to “paint” the crucifixion in the mind of the worshiper.

Iconophiles:               The idea of painting an image of Christ in the mind of the worshiper reminds us that one of the things that distinguished Moravians from most Protestant churches in colonial America was how much they employed the visual arts, especially painting, in their religious life. They did not share the Calvinists’ fear that beautiful music and painting were too sensual and might distract the worshiper from proper concentration on God. Over three hundred Moravian paintings have been preserved in Moravian archives in Europe and America.[1] Many were lost or destroyed over the years. Even in the mission fields and backwoods of America, Moravians used art to communicate the gospel to people, especially to native peoples who had never heard of Christ. It was easier for them to see the salvation that God prepared for the Gentiles (Luke 2:30) when it was painted. [Slide 4] This is a small drawing, probably for a child, depicts Christ as both the shepherd and the Lamb of God. There is a lot of theological argument in this simple picture, but the overall affect is one of charming childlikeness.

If the purpose of preaching and liturgy is to paint the Savior in the minds of listeners, to direct their minds, hearts, and souls to their creator and redeemer, why not paint on canvas and other media? What better way to make doctrine come alive for people than to make visual images of Christian teaching? The most famous Moravian painter was the Englishman John Valentine Haidt who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1740s, but he was not the only artist. At least for a while the Moravians had a workshop where they taught painting in Herrnhut.  [Slide 5] Here is a collection of miniatures drawn by different Moravians in the 18th century, perhaps school children. They were presumably as devotional cards for children. The frame in these pictures is shaped like the wound in Jesus’s side between his ribs. We’ll look at some of them closer as we go along. The Moravians also liked to make beautiful calligraphy, especially to educate children. [Slide 6] Notice the preference for the colors red and green, which you see in Moravian calligraphy and pottery. Red is symbolic blood and green for health.

People are often misled by the simplicity of the Moravian worship space, or Saal, with its white walls and white benches. [Slide 7] We forget that white is a festive color, which is why we use white at weddings. Moravian Saals are painted white so that they reflect and amplify the light of the sun, the candles, and the presence of the God. White walls have another purpose, though. They allow you to display art. Rather than having permanent art built into the walls and windows, the 18th century Moravians brought art into worship according to the liturgical season. [Slide 8] In this way, artwork, like music, enhanced the meaning of the festival. We have many descriptions of Moravian worship spaces richly decorated with greenery, flowers, and paintings for festivals, especially Christmas and Easter. Often they illuminated paintings to make beautiful tableau. [Slide 9] Thousands of people in Europe and America flocked to Moravian festivals in the 18th century to be inspired by the beauty of the liturgy, the music, the art, and the sermon.

Zinzendorf and Herrnhut                So, who were these Moravians? The leader of the Moravian Church until 1760 was Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, a German aristocrat from a devout family in Saxony. [Slide 10] He was not only the patron and protector of the church; he was their major theologian and liturgist. In 1722 Zinzendorf allowed a group of Protestant refugees from neighboring Moravia to settle on his estate in Saxony. They claimed to be descendants of the Unity of the Brethren, a Protestant church in Moravia and Bohemia that was destroyed during the Counter Reformation. The refugees built a village called Herrnhut, [Slide 11] and when word went out that the Count was sheltering religious dissidents, the village grew, along with controversy. After a period of intense internal conflict, the residents of Herrnhut signed a Brotherly Agreement in May 1727 that set forth rules that established Herrnhut as a religious community. Herrnhut was the model for all subsequent Moravian settlements like Salem. There was no real distinction between secular things, including the economy, and spiritual things. [Slide 12] On August 13, 1727 they experienced a revival during a communion service, and so that date is often used as the founding of the modern or Renewed Moravian Church.

The Herrnhuters quickly became the most dynamic and controversial religious group in Europe. They created new forms of worship and revived practices from the New Testament, like the kiss of peace and footwashing. [Slide 13] They sent out teachers and evangelists throughout eastern and northern Europe, and they sent hundreds of missionaries to African peoples enslaved in the New World and to native peoples in the Americas. Unlike other churches at the time, the Moravians preferred to sent potters and other skilled artisans as missionaries because they could earn a living and have a ready entre into the lives of the people. They had remarkable success. [Slide 14] If you were a Moravian Brother or Sister in the 18th century, you were part of the most socially egalitarian, and gender inclusive organization in the world. This is illustrated in a famous painting by the Moravian artist John Valentin Haidt called first fruits.

The Moravians did not create a perfect society by any means, but judged by the standards of the 18th century, but they had a remarkably cosmopolitan yet inter-racial and multi-cultural community. Their attempt to bring all people into the body of Christ as brothers and sisters challenged many of the norms of Western society. It was a community in which European aristocrats washed the feet of peasants and Africans; a church where Cherokee women studied alongside the daughters of white planters here in Salem. [Slide 15] And it was church that highly valued the leadership of women and included women even on the governing boards, at least while Zinzendorf was alive. Here is a picture of a Moravian synod and you can see that many of the voting delegates are women. This is a picture of Anna Nitschmann who was elected as an eldress when she was only fifteen. [Slide 16] She founded the Single Sisters Choir and was one of the most prominent leaders of the church until her death. Many of the settlers here in Wachovia simply called her “Mother.” Notice that in this portrait she is shown like Christ opening his side wound, and notice that the wound is on the left over her heart. [Slide 17]

The Body of Christ:              Christians used the term “the body of Christ” in many ways. It can refer to the physical body of Jesus, the institutional church, the mystical body of believers, or the eucharistic body of Christ in Holy Communion. [Slide 18] For the Moravians, it meant all of these and more. Herrnhut, Bethlehem, Bethabara, Salem, and the other Moravian settlements on four continents were created to be living, visible expressions of the body of Christ, and each member of those communities was supposed to understand his or her human existence as a sharing in the humanity and divinity of Christ. [Slide 19] Here we see each Moravian congregation as a leaf on the vine of Christ. According to Zinzendorf, the Christian church was born on the cross when the body of Christ was pierced by the centurion’s spear and blood and water poured out. The church must remain grafted into Christ in order to remain a living church. [Slide 20]

The Moravians used the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Augsburg Confession, which all affirm the humanity and divinity of Jesus, but Zinzendorf believed that theologians in his day had missed the significance of the ancient creeds. Modern philosophers and theologians who focused primarily on God the Father were obscuring the most important teaching of the New Testament: that Christ is the Savior and head of the church.[2] Zinzendorf perceived that God the Father is an eternal mystery that no mortal mind can comprehend. This God is too awesome for mortals to know, much less love. Humans have no direct access to the Father, but Jesus Christ is a different matter. He was God veiled in human flesh.[3]            [Slide 21]

People saw Jesus, touched him, and recorded his words even after the resurrection.  Those who want to know God merely have to look at Christ and they will see the human face of God. The human, physical reality of Jesus was as important as his divinity to Zinzendorf. The Single Brothers were reminded in one their hymns: “So his brow sweated; So he stood up, So lay down upon a wretched bed; So he was tired, So he was hungry. That everything he did on earth in human fashion is an immeasurably praise-worthy blessing to us.”[4] [Slide 22] Zinzendorf spoke of a union of the divine and human in Jesus that was so complete that one can say that God was born in a stable to a virgin.  God sweated in agony in Gethsemane.  God died on the cross.[5] The story of the salvation is that God took on human form and willingly suffering for the sake of his creation. [Slide 23] Humans were enslaved to sin, death, and the devil, but Christ redeemed them from their misery. Christ came to reconcile the world to God, and the crucifixion stands as the assurance of forgiveness and makes it possible for the creature to become the bride of the creator. The blood streaming from the cross impresses the believer with the reality of his or her ransom from sin. [Slide 24]  “[W]e are purchased from wrath, from judgment, from the curse, from the Fall and all ruin, from sin, death, the devil and hell through a true, legal and complete payment, namely, through the blood of the one who tasted death for us all through the grace of God.”[6] This is what John meant when he said that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is also why lambs figure so prominently in Moravian iconography. [Slide 25]

The blood of Jesus has the power to cool lusts and cauterize sin. The bleeding side of Jesus is symbolic of salvation and healing; it is a vision of God’s love. [Slide 26]  Seen in the light of salvation, blood becomes a very concrete symbol of health and wellbeing in Moravian theology and iconography. It is symbolic of the healing of the soul and the release from sin and death. The blood and wounds of the Lamb are reminders of Christ’s triumph over death. [Slide 27] The blood of lamb of God pours divine life into the dying bodies of the children of God; thus it is “the proper principle of life.”[7] Christ’s blood becomes the lasting connection between the heart of the Christian and the heart of the Savior.  Therefore “we have indeed the great blessing that we are bathed in and swim in Jesus’ blood.”[8]

Swimming in the blood of Christ is not a morbid image for Zinzendorf, it is an expression of the soul’s desire for eternal life in Christ; a life that is purchased only by the spilling of his blood. [Slide 28]  He goes even further to say that this spilled blood was the conduit of the Holy Spirit and the means of re-creating the entire world. Blood is thus a symbol of immersion in the divine life; it is a fountain in which the believer swims and from which she drinks. [Slide 29] It is a fluid symbol of vitality and strength.

The Wounds of Christ         In December of 1743 one of the old Moravian brothers, John Nitsche died in Herrnhut. [Slide 30] As he died he continually prayed to the wounds of Jesus, and those around him were so impressed by his faith and his death that they made his prayers the basis of the Litany of the Wounds.[9] When August Gottlieb Spangenberg [Slide 31] arrived in Bethlehemon October 30, 1744, he brought with him the Litany of the Wounds, and an observer wrote that when it was first read, “An aura of blood prevailed, refreshing our hearts.”[10] When the Single Brothers built their choir house in 1748 they dedicated it to the side wound of Jesus with the words Gloria Pleuriae carved in stone. [Slide 32] At least once a week for decades the Moravians prayed portions of the wounds litany. The Moravians believed that the Litany of the Wounds was what made their mission to tribal peoples so successful. We cannot go into all of the details of the cult of the wounds, but a few words are necessary to make sense of Moravian theology and iconography. [Slide 33]

The wounds of Jesus provide nourishment for the soul. [Slide 34] The wounds are described as a warm and soft bed in which to lie.  The worshiper says, “I like lying calm, gentle, and quiet and warm.  What shall I do?  I crawl to you.”  The believer longs to return to the womb, to crawl inside the “deep wounds of Jesus” and lie there safe and protected. The brothers and sisters joined the “many thousand kinds of sinners” who sat in the “treasure hoard” of the “cavernous wounds of Jesus.” As shocking as such language appears to us, the Moravians claimed that it would be better for those who have questions about their beliefs to read this litany than any theology book.[11]

The Side Wound of the Savior       In Moravian art and liturgy salvation, sanctification, community life, and divine protection were all brought together into a single striking symbol: Jesus with his heart pierced and opened to the believer. [Slide 35] This side wound becomes the organ of spiritual birth in Zinzendorf’s theology, the passage from death into eternal life. Zinzendorf saw a parallel between the rebirth of the soul and the creation of Eve from the side of Adam.  When Jesus fell asleep on the cross, his side was opened, and God took human souls from the side, just as God in Genesis opened the side of the sleeping Adam and “took out his future wife from his side.”[12] This idea is expressed in the Pleurody, which was a hymn of praise the side wound of Jesus. [Slide 36]

In a series of sermons on the Augsburg Confession, Zinzendorf spoke of the desire that Christians have to be born into a new life.  “I will see whether you are a divine child.  That I will see in your longing for your Mother’s womb, in whether you have entered into the new world through the right door, through which the pleroma of the new Spirit exited, namely through the side of Jesus.”[13] Christians are thus portrayed as being doubly united with Christ; not only did he become human, the church was born from his side.

[Slide 37] Zinzendorf drew on the imagery of the biblical book Song of Songs in his wounds mysticism. The lover in that book is like a dove hid in the cleft of a rock (2:14).[14] Those who have been redeemed experience being “led with body and soul into the side hole,” which is the place of healing and salvation. [15]  [Slide 38] The popular Isaac Watts hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for me” uses this same imagery, but most people are not aware that they are singing about the side wound of Christ when they sing “let me hide myself in thee.” According to the Moravians in the 18th century, the side wound opens directly into the heart of the Savior and invites the believer in. [Slide 39] In this picture a young Moravian sister is looking out from the heart of Jesus through the spear cut. And to make clear that this is an image of life and growth, the heart is sprouting flowers like a tulip bulb.

Daily Union with Christ                  One of the cardinal tenets of Moravian teaching was that believer’s entire life should be a liturgy to Christ. The most trivial aspects of human life, such as eating and sleeping, were blessed by the Incarnation of the creator in the person of Jesus. Christ ate and slept; therefore communal eating and sleeping connects one to Christ. Every task can be an act of worship and identification with the Savior. The church tried to overcome the temptation to divide life into sacred and secular realms. In short, for the disciple of Christ, life is liturgy. [Slide 40] Here we have a little drawing of a home placed in the side wound of Jesus. Your home, your job, your marriage, everything should be lived in the wounds of Christ.

Every hour, waking or sleeping, was sacred time because God himself labored, slept, and died on this earth. Around the time Wachovia was settled, a preacher reminded the residents of Bethlehem “that everything that we do can be done in the name of Jesus, small or large, and thus in this way the most insignificant act becomes for us a liturgy.”[16] Spangenberg wrote to Zinzendorf that the brothers and sisters “mix the Savior and his blood in their rail-splitting, land-clearing, fence-making, plowing, harrowing, sowing, mowing, washing, spinning, in short, in everything.”[17] [Slide 41] At night the children were tucked into bed with prayers about being tucked into the side of the Savior, and when Moravians buried their dead, they prayed that they would rest in his wounds.

[Slide 42]  This is an interesting little picture of flowers within the side wound. The verse describes the believer like a bee taking nectar from the flowers. Moravians used this as analogy for Holy Communion. Like many Christians, the Moravians taught that the bread and wine in communion were the body and blood of Christ. Zinzendorf called Communion the most “palpable” way for Christians to experience union with Christ.[18] “Then we experience that through the tormented body of Christ we are united with the divine nature and come into a condition which foreshadows something of the resurrection.”[19] This union with the divine occurs when the worshiper sets his mouth to his side and drinks of the blood from the wound that ever opens anew.[20] Zinzendorf compares Christ to a nursing mother who provides nourishment for her children. Believers rest tenderly in the arms of their Savior. [Slide 43] During Communion, the Moravians sang “Draw us to thee, and we will come/ Into thy Wounds’ deep Places,/ Where hidden is the Honey-comb/ Of thy sweet Love’s Embraces.”[21] At the point of partaking of the bread, the communicants sang “Pale lips, kiss us on the Heart! Open arms, take us!” When they drank from the cup they sang “To thy Heart now put us, on thy Wounds press us, In these blest Sacrament-Hours so precious, Lamb, Lamb, O Lamb!”[22] [Slide 44]

Multiple emotions were expressed through the adoration of the wounds. For the Moravians the death of Jesus was both horrifying and beautiful because his voluntary sacrifice was the source of salvation and healing. [Slide 45] Notice the flowers growing around the cross in this silk embroidery from the 1800s. Flowers, in Moravian iconography, especially roses, express the great mystery of faith that the Son of God was the ransom for sin. [Slide 46] The rose is beautiful, but it also draws blood when you pluck it. Rather than writing complex books of theology, Moravians sang about the wounded Savior and painted images of his wounds like this one. [Slide 46] I’m sure you have some questions.


[1] Paul Peucker, “Kreuzbilder und Wundenmalerei: Form und Funktion der Malkunst in der Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine um 1750,” Unitas Fratrum 55/56 (2005):125-174. For examples of this artwork see Paul Peucker, ed. Graf ohne Grenzen: Leben und Werk von Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf (Herrnhut: Comeniusbuchhandlung, 2000).

[2] He is particularly critical of the Apostles’ Creed, which he recognized was not by the Apostles themselves. Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 2, p. 61.

[3]Von allen diesen drey Sachen, von der Unbekanntschaft mit GOtt; von der gefährlichen Bekanntschaft mit den unergründlichen Tiefen, darüber man in die Finsterniß gefahren wäre, in loca horrida & lurida, in die entsetzlichen Ewigkeiten, davor sich auch sterbende Philosphen erschüttert haben; und endlich von derselben kindischen Gottesdienstlichkeit, darüber sich die gescheute Leute, die nicht weit genug denken, und die Realität davon nicht verstehen, unzeitig moquiren: von alle dem, hat uns befreyet der glükselige Gedanke: daß unser Schöpfer ein Mensch worden, und daß uns das Göttliche Wesen endlich, nach langem Warten, ein Bild aufgestellt, daran wir uns ewig erfreuen können.  Wunden Reden 2, pp. 19-20.

[4] So was Abiad, Elgibbor, So ging sein puls, sein odem, So ging verändrung bey Ihm vor, So dünstete sein Brodem, So stund Er auf, so legt’ Er sich Auf schlechte lager-stätte, So ward Er müde, hungerig, So redt Er, wenn er redte; … Das Er auf menschen-weise So macht; ist uns ein meritum Von unschätzbarem preise. 1757 Ger. Lit. Book, pp. 207 f. The translation in the 1759 English litany book is interesting, “So was the everlasting God, So He felt Alteration, So He drew Breath, so mov’d his Blood, So was his Perspiration, So He lay down on a poor Bed, So He did rise each Morning, So He felt Hunger, so eat Bread, So spoke, and so was turning. … In short, by ev’ry Thing He did on Earth in human Manner He hath great blessings merited And brought our State to Honour.”

[5] For a discussion of the Christological developments and controversies in early Christianity, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971):144-146, 203-207, 226-275.

[6]  Wir sind wahrhafftig bezahlt, wir sind gekaufft, wie man ein Gut von einem andern kaufft, wie man einen Gefangenen loßkauffen kan, so sind wir vom Zorn, vom Gericht, vom Fluch, vom Fall und allen Verderberben, von Sünde, Tod, Teuffel und Hölle gekaufft, durch eine wahren, in GOttes Schatz allein guultige und gantze Bezahlung, nehmlich durch das Blut des der, von GOttes Gnaden für uns alle den Tod geschmecket.  Berlinische Reden, reprinted in Hauptschriften in sechs Bänden, edited by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), vol. 1, sermon 8 (men), p. 98.

[7] Gemein Reden 33, p. 86; Wundenlitanei Homilien 1, p. 8.

[8] Wir haben zwar die grosse seligkeit, daß wir gebadet sind in JEsu, und daß wir in JEsu blut geschwimmen; aber als würmlein, mit vieler unanständigkeit, in einer geringen gestalt. Gemein Reden 2, p. 40.

[9]  David Cranz, Ancient and Modern History of the Brethren, translated by Benjamin LaTrobe. (London, 1780), p. 298.

[10] Nov. 7 and Dec. 19, 1744, Bethlehem Diary; translated by Kenneth  Hamilton, The Bethlehem Diary. Volume 1, 1742-1744 (Bethlehem, Pa.: Archives of the Moravian Church, 1971), pp. 210 and 214.

[11] Nov. 8/19, 1748, Helpers Conference Minutes, Moravian Archives (Bethlehem, Pa.).

[12] Gemein Reden 19, p. 286; Ein und zwanzig diskurse 4, p. 105.

[13] Wenn einer sagt, ich gläube es; nun so werde ich sehen, ob du ein göttlich Kind bist?  das werde ich an deinem Verlangen nach deiner Mutter Leib sehen, ob du durch die rechte Thüre in die neue Welt gegangen bist, dadurch das Pleroma des neuen Gesites heraus gegangen, nemlich durch die Seite JEsu. Ein und zwanzig diskurse 2, p. 73.

[14] Kinder Reden (ZE 6) 11, p. 59; Gemeinreden (ZH 4) 12, p. 206.

[15] Bettermann, pp. 69-75. We see this same linking in one of Zinzendorf’s favorite medieval authors, Bernard of Clairvaux; Bynum, Jesus as Mother, p. 117.

[16] Dec. 7, 1758, Bethlehem Diary.

[17] April 26, 1746. Herrnhut Archives, R.14, A18, 31, quoted by Erbe, p. 92.

[18] Wunden Reden 4, 43, 49.

[19] Zinzendorf, Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion Preached in Fetter Lane Chapel in London in the Year 1746, tr.and ed. by George W. Forell (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1973), 20.

[20]Kinder Reden, reproduced in Ergänzungsbände zu den Hauptschriften (hereafter ZE), ed. Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1964-1985), sermon 56, 282. Ein und zwanzig diskurse (ZH 6) sermon 3, 89.

[21] The Litany-Book, According to the Manner of Singing at present mostly in Use among the Brethren, again revised, and in this convenient Form set forth by the Brethren’s Chantor. Translated from the fourth German Edition (London, 1759)(hereafterLitany-book), 232; cf. Das Litaneyen-Büchlein nach der bey den Brüdern dermalen hauptsächlich gewöhnlichen Singe-Weise von neuen revidirt, und in dieser bequemen Form ausgegeben von dem Cantore Fratrum Ordinario, 4th ed. (Barby, 1757) (hereafter Litaneyen-Büchlein), 256. This idea of the wounds of Christ dripping honey also has medieval precedent. Again, Aelred of Rievaulx: “then one of the soldiers opened his side with a lance and there came forth blood and water. hasten, linger not, eat the honeycomb with your honey, drink your wine with your milk. the blood is changed into wine to gladden you, the water into milk to nourish you.” De instituione, chap. 31, Opera omnia 1:667; trans. McPherson, Works 1:90-91; quoted by Bynum, Jesus as Mother, 123

[22]Litany-book, 240; cf. Litaneyen-Büchlein, 263.

Prayers to the Holy Spirit as Mother (1757 version)

These Moravian litanies were translated by Craig Atwood and were published in Distinctiveness of Moravian Culture. Feel free to use them if you like, just give credit to Nikolaus von Zinzendorf as author and Craig Atwood as translator.

Te Matrem[1]

LORD GOD, now be praised,

You worthy HOLY SPIRIT!

You, the mother of Christendom

The church honors in unity.

All angels and the host of heaven

And whoever serves the honor of the Son;

Also the cherubim and seraphim:

They all sing with a clear voice:

Divine majesty,

Who proceeds from the Father,

Praising the Son as the creator. (Heb. 1:8-10)

And pointing to his suffering!

Your divine power and teaching craft

Have carried millions over.

The holy twelve apostles through you

Became everything they were.

You spoke in the highest degree through the martyrs,

When death sat on their tongues.

That the Four do not rest day and night,

Does not happen without your activity.

The four and twenty kings,

Who were faithful in little,

And now are set over much,

You help them to cry the Holy, Holy!

Amen.

[1.] O Mother of all God’s people,

O wisdom archetypal!

You are the informer of all hearts

And the purifier of body and soul!

2. The Virgin’s womb was not rejected

For the holy temple site,

Which was delivered of the Child

Who is the Father of all beings.

3. You led him to the arena

Where he warded off the accuser,

And then, since it went hard with him,

He became the judge of both parties.

[4.] The holy Trinity

Speaks with Christendom through you

To the Bride and her Christ

You are the friend and private counselor.

5. You come to us, spelling out ‘Abba,’

And take our word back home,

Bring our prayers into heaven

And also bring back the Amen.

[6.] Now help us, your servants,

(Who are consecrated by you yourself)

Make us ashamed of self-righteousness

And hinder all self-help.

7. Help your folk, God the Holy Spirit!

Direct them often to the Lamb of God;

Keep and nurse his own people for all time

With the bloody righteousness.

[8.] Daily, O MOTHER! You are praised

By whoever knows the Savior and you

Because you guide the Gospel

Over all the world around;

9. Because you teach the princes of the people

To walk before the cloud of witnesses;

Because you ordain prophets and

Adorn with wonders and gifts;

10. Because you sanctify priests for the Lamb,

And strew incense in their censors.

The married people and the virgins

You sanctify as your temples.

[11.] That when he comes, the friend,

[And when] the signature of the Son of Man appears

And fills all the world with fear,

You will comfort our eyes with that sign.

The Church’s Prayer to the Holy Spirit[2]

[1.] You, who from the Father joyful

Were sent here to us,

Spirit, of whom the Virgin received

The Son at the proper time;

2. Since the Lamb of God, so red,

Is the Brother of his own people,

And their Father is God of Christ, (John 20:17)

[You are] Mother of the Congregation!

(Gal. 4:26; Song of Sol. 6:8)

3. Your name, our dear God,

Be always near us.

So that the word of Jesus’ death

Shines clearly among our souls

4. Whoever the Savior calls from the grave

To return into life,

Those bring into your Ark,

And teach them to pray, Abba!

5. As in your holy heights, (Ps. 102:20)

Thus also on earth,

Your holy will shall be done

By the flocks of Jesus.

6. The righteousness before God,

Through the blood atonement,

Our dear daily food,

Comes through your serving.

7. MOTHER! Our Father’s grace

Is the life of the church,

Our dear Lord’s patience,

And your manifold forgiveness.

8. We would not want to be tempted,

Do not wish it to any member;

But if you lead one into trial,

The discipline leads to peacefulness.

9. And until the one who is called evil

Lays at the feet of God, (Ps. 110:1, Heb. 2:8)

The church remains in the Holy Spirit

Consecrated before him.

10. Amen,

Breath of Elohim! (Gen. 1:2)

Come in Jesus’ name,

And rule the Sanhedrin

Of your children.

Amen.


[1] Litaney Büchlein, pp. 70-72.

[2] Litaney Büchlein, pp. 73-74.

Motherhood of Holy Spirit in 18th century

The Motherhood of the Holy Spirit in Moravian Bethlehem
Presented to the Moravian College Faculty, April 7, 2011
Craig D. Atwood

Mother Spirit lecture 2011

Introduction [Slide] You may recognize this stone from Main Hall but you may not have considered the meaning of the text. When the residents of Bethlehem built their large building for the Single Brothers in 1748, this stone was carved to proclaim to all visitors to Bethlehem what the Moravians believed about God and their new town: “Father and Mother and dear Husband give honor to the plans of the young men.” Even people who understand the German words inscribed on Main Hall may not recognize that this was a prayer to the Holy Trinity. The Moravians in 1748 were so committed to the idea that the Trinity includes God the Mother that they literally wrote it in stone and placed it on the front of one of their largest buildings at the intersection of Church St. and Main St. However, later generations of Moravians became so embarrassed by the theology of their ancestors that the message and this stone were hidden. They were restored only recently.

Research When I was a student at Moravian Seminary in the 1980s we were told that the 1740s was a period of religious and social experimentation in the Moravian Church that historians have generally dismissed as “a time of sifting.” We were taught that one of the crazy ideas proposed during that time was that people should call the Holy Spirit “Mother.” What we were not told, and what did not appear in any of the scholarship on the Moravians prior to 1995 was that the devotion to the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit was not a passing fancy. Gary Kinkel in 1990 published Our Dear Mother the Spirit: An Investigation of Count Zinzendorf’s Theology and Praxis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), which examined Zinzendorf’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the 1740s. Though appreciative of the Count’s pneumatology, Kinkel also believed that this was a product of the Sifting Time and quickly ended after 1749. In fact, devotion to the Holy Spirit as mother was a central part of the church’s worship, doctrine, and private devotion for nearly 20 years. Here is an excerpt from one of the official litanies of the church in the mid-1700s.

[Show Slide]  This is a prayer to the Trinity that was composed in 1744, around the time of the founding of Bethlehem. It was included in the Moravian book of worship the following year. In Bethlehem worship was every day, and this prayer was sung about once a week for over fifteen years. Trisagion, by the way, refers to the “holy, holy, holy” sung by the angels before the throne of God in the Book of Revelation. The thrice-repeated “holy” is one of the most venerable parts of Christian liturgy, and is used in many different churches. The fact that the Moravians re-interpreted the Trisagion by using the language of Father, Mother, and Bridegroom is just one indication of how important this language was for the Moravians and their leader Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf.

[Slide] When I did my doctoral dissertation on how Zinzendorf’s theology shaped the communal life of Bethlehem I discovered that the doctrine of the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit was deeply ingrained in the life of the Moravians during their most creative and expansive period. In one of his first sermons to Lutherans in Pennsylvania in 1742, Zinzendorf addressed this topic. [Slide] Nearly one third of the hymns written by the Moravians in the 1740s and 50s refer to the Spirit as Mother. In 1746 in London Zinzendorf announced that the Motherhood of the Holy Spirit was “an extremely important and essential point … and all our community and praxis hangs on this point.”[1]

Origin Although Zinzendorf took some theology classes at the University of Wittenberg and managed to get ordained as a Lutheran minister, he was not an academically trained theologian. In fact, he was often frustrated by the excessive subtlety and hair-splitting of traditional theology, which seemed to him more likely to cause people to become atheists rather than disciples of Christ. He once admitted that he had never understood what the Trinity meant because the usual language the church uses to describe the Spirit is too abstract. Words like Spirit, Power, Effect, or Omnipresence meant little to him. He said that the doctrine of the Trinity was irrelevant for him until he was in his 30s when he had a spiritual and intellectual breakthrough; he discovered a new way of talking about the Spirit. “For before [theologians] regarded her as a finger, a dove, a mirror, and they publish, preach, and sing a hundred other foolish fancies about her in which there was no sense and understanding.  So now they may rather attain a childlike, simple heart concept of her, since one is better than the others: for the hearty, childlike concept can still bring them to a true, living knowledge and to a feeling of the office of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.”[2] That new and simple concept is that the Spirit functions like a Mother.

Zinzendorf insisted that Christians should not have to study Greek philosophy in order to worship God or experience the Holy Spirit. It is simple and natural to conceive of God as Father and even God as Son. Why not also visualize God as Mother? “If now such a child thinks about the holy Trinity, it does not need to speculate in the abyss of the Godhead and strain its head and reason so that it might snap and tear.  But as easy as it is for one to think about Father or Mother, so easy it is for the disposition to occupy itself with the heavenly Father and the heavenly Mother.  That is simple, childlike, easy, and tender.”[3] Any child could understand this language of motherhood. This was a type of speech that was easy to translate for Native Americans, enslaved Africans, Inuit, and other peoples. It is probably not accidental that Zinzendorf began promoting the doctrine of the Mother Office of the Spirit at the same time that Moravians began evangelizing tribal peoples from Greenland to the Cape of Good Hope.

Zinzendorf assumed that since everyone had a mother, preachers would not need to teach people what a mother is and what mothers do. All they would have to would be to convince people that God is like a mother. Fundamentally, mothers, like God, are the givers of life and they provide nourishment for their children. The word Mother expresses clearly the meaning of the Nicene Creed’s statement that the Holy Spirit “is the giver of life.” But the role of mother involves more than childbirth and nursing for Zinzendorf. He was familiar with powerful and purposeful women. His grandmother ran a vast estate and corresponded frequently with Leibnitz about philosophy. His wife, Erdmuth Dorothea, [Slide] became the manager of Zinzendorf’s estates and held supervisory offices in the Moravian Church. This is a picture of her before she adopted the more familiar Moravian dress. Erdmuth was widely recognized by the Moravians as the matriarch of the church, and people often addressed her as “Mama.”

Bible: Although he claimed that there was a long tradition of viewing the Holy Spirit in maternal images in the history of Christianity, Zinzendorf knew that his conception of the Spirit was provocative. He repeatedly tried to convince Lutheran and Calvinist that the Bible teaches the maternal office of the Holy Spirit. He linked a passage from the NT with one from the OT to argue his point.

[Slide] “Now no theologian is irritated if the word comfort is taken out of the passage and applied to the Holy Spirit, for they call her the Comforter.  But if we take out the word Mother and signify it to the Holy Spirit, then people are opposed to it.  I can find no cause for such bickering and arbitrariness.”[4] More creatively he drew on a passage [Slide] that is very popular with those evangelicals who insist that people must be “born again.” Zinzendorf was one of the few theologians to recognize the maternal imagery that is central to this conversation with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. Zinzendorf has Jesus say to Nicodemus: “There is another Mother, not the one who physically gave you birth, that one doesn’t matter: you must have another Mother who will give you birth.”[5] Ultimately, according to Zinzendorf, the Holy Spirit is the true spiritual Mother of Christians in the sense that she is the active agent in conversion.  Many theologians and preachers strongly objected to this type of biblical interpretation, but thousands of people responded positively to Zinzendorf’s sermons and hymns. Some of them were willing to cross an ocean and build a community in the wilderness of Pennsylvania.

Te Matrem [Slide]           Here is an excerpt from the most important liturgical piece about the Mother Spirit. In 1744 Zinzendorf took the ancient Christian litany called the Te Deum and wrote separate litanies to the Father, the Mother, and Christ. This was prayed every week in Bethlehem and was especially popular among the women. [Slide]  This was one way Zinzendorf tried to teach the community about the Holy Spirit and to lead them into closer union with the Spirit. The first duty of the Spirit is to bring people to Christ and lead to into spiritual rebirth. But her motherly work does not end there. She protects, guides, admonishes, and comforts the children of God throughout the changing years of their earthly life, just like a human mother teaches a child to become an adult.  The Moravians believed that Spirit does this for all Christians, but she could do her work better if Christians participate in the process by acknowledging her motherly presence in their lives.

The Moravians often referred to the Church as the school of the Holy Spirit. Christ established the Church so that people could learn about God and their own souls, and grow into the people they were intended to be. But the school of the Holy Spirit is not like a human educational institution; it is more like “a family school, that is a school on the lap, in the arms of the eternal Mother” who tenderly loves her children. The language of motherhood expressed the intimate connection the Moravians felt with God through the Spirit. Each believer “sits on the Mother’s lap, is received into the school, and is led through all classes; then it is under the special dispensation, under the motherly regimen of the Holy Spirit, who comforts, punishes, and kisses the heart, as a mother comforts, punishes, and kisses her own child.”[6] This is really a lovely rethinking of worship. Contrast the image of believers sitting on the lap of the Holy Spirit and being taught by her to the image of worship we have from Puritanism or Catholicism at the time.

Mutter Nitschmann [Slide] In a famous scene from the Book of Acts, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples so they could preach in other languages. Zinzendorf claimed that on that day the Spirit anointed one hundred and twenty people to the apostolic office, and he pointed out a fact often missed by male theologians. Women were present among the disciples at Pentecost, and the NT indicates that many women were leaders in the early church. Zinzendorf was one of the few preachers to assert that the at Pentecost the Holy Spirit created “an equality in the teaching office between the sisters and brothers.”[7]

[Slide] The Moravians in the mid-1700s gave women leadership roles denied them in other churches. Over two hundred women were ordained deacons and fourteen Priesterinnen (female priests) before the death of Zinzendorf.[8] It is not clear whether any of these women consecrated the sacraments, but they were considered clergy who had responsibility for the spiritual care of women. Some of them were preachers, and more provocatively, women elders and deacons served on almost every decision-making body in Bethlehem and other Moravian communities.[9]

[Slide] The most important of these women was Anna Nitschmann who was often referred to a Mutter, and it is suggestive that Zinzendorf pointed to her as a way to describe the work of the Holy Spirit.[10] Nitschmann had been elected an eldress in Herrnhut Germany in 1730 when she was only fifteen, and a few years later she founded the Single Sisters Choir. She remained the leader of the single women of the worldwide Moravian Church until her death in 1760. Incidentally she and Zinzendorf died within weeks of each other, leaving the church without a clear leader. Erdmuth had died four years earlier and Zinzendorf’s only son died in 1753. Leadership of the church passed into the hands of a committee, and unfortunately for historians, one of the first things the elders decided to do was burn Nitschmann’s diaries and letters. We will never know what the elders found so disturbing in her papers they had to be destroyed, but this obviously hampers research into the life and thought of Nitschmann.

Bethlehem One of the most important communities established by the Moravians during the time of Zinzendorf was Bethlehem, and there has been a lot of scholarly research on this town. It was one of the most successful communes in American history and is significant in other ways as well. There have been several very good books about colonial Bethlehem, but one of the things that had been completely overlooked by historians and religion scholars until the mid-1990s was the importance of the Mother Office of the Holy Spirit to the life of the residents even though it was written in stone.

[Slide] The leader of Bethlehem for most of the 1740s and 50s was August Gottlieb Spangenberg, who is second only to Zinzendorf in importance for the Moravians. For over 200 years historians made the false assumption that Spangenberg was more conservative than Zinzendorf and resisted his more creative ideas, such as the adoration of the Spirit as Mother. Numerous studies contrast the supposedly orthodox and practical Spangenberg to the creative and mercurial count. But there is conclusive evidence that Spangenberg actively promoted the worship of the Mother in Bethlehem in the 1750s, after the so-called Sifting Time. During that decade the church in Germany published special devotional guides about the Holy Spirit and wrote several new hymns about her motherly office.

[Slide] Early in the 1750s the church proclaimed that the Holy Spirit was to be officially enthroned as the Mother of the Moravian Church, just as Jesus had been proclaimed the Chief Elder ten years earlier. The first time the Mutterfest was held in Bethlehem was December 19, 1756. There is nothing in the records to indicate that there was any opposition among the Moravians to this new festival. On the contrary, it appears to have been enthusiastically embraced. Incidentally Moravian worship in the 1700s was a lot more sensual and expressive than today. Here is a slide [Slide] depicting Moravian women ritually washing each other’s feet in imitation of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. The second observation of the Mutterfest appears to have been even more emotional than the first year’s service, as this slide indicates. [Slide] All of the reports indicate that the women, both married and single, found the service particularly meaningful.

Women Leadership According to the doctrine of most churches, the Holy Spirit plays a special role in the sacraments, making them holy. Zinzendorf, like most theologians, asserted that the Holy Spirit is the one who truly consecrates the bread and wine in communion, making it the body and blood of Christ. [Slide] What distinguished Moravian teaching was that they taught that the Spirit who makes the waters of baptism holy and who consecrates Holy Communion is the Mother of the church. In other words, it is a Mother, not a Father, who brings people to new life through baptism and feeds the church the sacred body and blood.

Moravians were the only church prior to the mid-19th century that regularly allowed female deacons to serve Holy Communion. [Slide] (Quakers had female preachers and pastors, but they do not have sacraments.) Even though this was extremely controversial at the time, Moravians published pictures like this one in their apologetic works in the 1750s. What they did not tell the public was that the women who served communion were not simply assisting. They were ordained by Anna Nitschmann or another female elder, usually with the help of a male bishop. In other words, Nitschmann acted in the role of a bishop even if she did not have the title.

Demise of the Mother Office [Slide]           It took a great deal of research in the archives in Bethlehem and Herrnhut for me to prove conclusively that the adoration of the Holy Spirit as Mother was central to the life of the Moravians during the Zinzendorfian period. This was in part because the church did such a good job of repressing this type of devotion after the death of Zinzendorf. The church was in a very precarious financial and political situation after the death of Zinzendorf, and there was a long period of retrenchment and conservatism that lasted well into the 19th century. The church tried to minimize whatever had generated controversy and opposition against the Moravians during Zinzendorf’s life. This included the Mother Office of the Spirit. Not only did Zinzendorf’s successors destroy some of the records, they intentionally allowed Zinzendorf’s writings to go out of print. They also rewrote their worship materials to remove references to the Mother.

In 1764 the church brought together most of the leaders of the church, male and female, in a synod to deal with the crisis caused by the death of Zinzendorf. Some of the elders suggested that the language of motherhood had caused too much opposition and misunderstanding and should be dropped. Many of the members of the synod disagreed, asserting that this doctrine had been a great blessing to the church. [Slide] But the leading male authorities doubted the wisdom of using language that was so at odds with other churches. They instructed the members of the church to avoid using this language in public settings. They also decided to let most of Zinzendorf’s writings go out of print so the public would have less access to what he said. Before long it was forgotten that he preached entire sermons on the Mother office of the Spirit.

At the next synod, women had less voice in the affairs in the church, and the synod appointed a pastor to revise all of the litanies of the church. [Slide] The new litanies replaced the word “Mother” with “Comforter” in most instances. The last time the Mutterfest was celebrated was in 1774. There are occasional references to “the dear Mother” in the archival record as late as 1800, especially in items written by older Moravian women who had joined the church in the 1740s and 50s, but “Mother” was not used in published hymns, prayers, or public sermons. By 1800 the Moravians no longer worshiped God using maternal language and soon denied that this had even been part of their history.

Conclusion People often ask me “so what” when I talk about the past. Does it matter that the people who built Bethlehem and founded Moravian College once used maternal images for God and even held elaborate festivals to God the Mother? Does it matter that the Moravians were the first church to ordain women as priests who served communion and heard confessions of other women? Perhaps not. The past is past, after all, and the church moved away from this radically inclusive approach to gender. Maybe the real story is the repression of maternal imagery and what that tells us about institutions. Personally, I think that when Moravian College and Theological Seminary remembers and celebrates people like Benigna von Zinzendorf, [Slide] whom we claim as a founder we should recall that her understanding of the Trinity included God the Mother as well as God the Father. It may well be that one reason a school for women was founded in eastern Pennsylvania in 1742 was because of the Moravians devotion to the Mother Spirit. This history may give hope to women and men today who long for a more inclusive and holistic spirituality. By recovering the history, Moravian institutions may gain new insight into their own mission and identity.


[1] Zinzendorf, Eine Rede, vom Mutter-Amte des heiligen Geistes.  Gehalten  in London den 19. Oct. 1746, in Der öffentlichen Gemeinreden im Jahr 1747 (hereafter Gemeinreden), Anhang, p. 2, reproduced in Hauptschriften in sechs Bänden (hereafter abbreviated as ZH) edited by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), vol. 4.

[2] Gemeinreden, Anhang, 3.

[3] Gemein Reden 46:254-255.

[4] Eine Rede, vom Mutter-Amte des heiligen Geistes, Gemeinreden Anhang, 2.

[5] Gemeinreden 46:254.

[6] Gemeine Reden 27:375; Gemeinreden 3:71.

[7] Gemeinreden 32, 69.

[8] Peter Vogt, “A Voice for Themselves: Women as Participants in Congregational Discourse in the Eighteenth-Century Moravian Movement,” in Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, ed. by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), 227-247.

[9] Hans Joachim Wollstadt, Geordnetes Dienen in der Christlichen Gemeinde: dargestellt an den Lebensformen der Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine in ihren Anfängen (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1966), 346-348; cf. Otto Uttendörfer, Zinzendorf und die Frauen: Kirchliche Frauenrechte vor 200 Jahren (Herrnhut: Missionsbuchhandlung, 1919).

[10] Dieter Meyer, Der Christozentrismus des späten Zinzendorf (Bern: Herbert Lang, 1973), 61.