Today my co-teacher, Jennifer, is driving me to Herrnhaag near Frankfurt. We will be accompanied by her five-year old, Jacob, and I recent PhD from the American Studies program named Heiki. We had planned to stop by to see the ruins of the Ronneberg Castle where Zinzendorf lived briefly after his exile, but it is closed for the Pentecost holiday. There is, however, a medieval faire with jousting. Since the boys, Craig and Jacob, love jousting knights and faire food, we are stopping there for lunch. We should get to Herrnhaag this afternoon about 3 and the Moravian pastor has agreed to show us around. We had planned on going Saturday, but there was a major Moravian youth festival over the weekend and it would have been hard to wander the grounds freely. There is something exciting, though, about hundreds of Moravian youth gathering in Herrnhaag.
Herrnhaag has a special place in Moravian lore. It was the first major community built after Herrnhut and in many was was the model for other planned communities more so than Herrnhut. In the 1740s it was a glamorous place with beautiful buildings, artwork, and festivals. Moravian music was perfected at Herrnhaag and the neighboring castle of Marienborn. It was here that the Christmas candlelight tradition began, and it was here that the Moravians invited people like John Wesley to visit to see if they wanted to be part of this multi-cultural, joyful community dedicated to the Lamb once slain. Most of the great Moravian leaders spent some time in Herrnhaag.
But it was also here that the so-called Sifting Time took place in 1748. Paul Peucker has written a book that examines all that can be known about the events of that year, but much will never be known since the church destroyed many revelatory documents. We know that Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf was at the center of it, and it involved mainly single people. It appears to have been antinominian and probably sexual in nature. And it frightened Zinzendorf, Spangenberg, and a whole generation of Moravian officials. It continues to affect how people read Moravian history. Were the rumors true about Herrnhaag – and was such fanaticism a natural outcome of Zinzendorf’s theology? Was it a symptom of something inherently unhealthy in Zinzendorfianism? For two hundred years Moravian historians treated Herrnhaag as a morality tale to warn the church against the enthusiasm of Zinzendorf and some dismissed most of what happened in the 1740s as the Sifting Period. But the zeal and energy that built Herrnhaag was also behind most of the creativity and mission of the Zinzendorf era. Over a thousand people lived in Herrnhaag because there was something deeply attractive about Zinzendorfianism. Hundreds of people left Europe to bring the good news about the Lamb of God to people who were being abused by European colonialists. Moravians have let the Sifting Time in Herrnhaag overshadow the beautiful things that Herrnhaag represented.
But in 1749 the local count insisted that the Moravians in Herrnhaag either repudiate Zinzendorf or leave his realm. The Moravians voted to abandon Herrnhaag. The church relocated about 1000 people, some of them to Bethlehem. London became the new headquarters of the church. By 1752 the beautiful buildings built by the Moravians were empty. Herrnhaag, the jewel of Moraviandom was left desolate and slowl fell into ruin. A more radical Pietist group known as the True Inspired were invited to occupy the buildings and keep up the property. They formed a religious commune led by prophets. Eventually some of them built a colony in Iowa called Amana. So there is a connection between Herrnhaag and American refrigerators and microwave ovens!
Today I am making my second pilgrimage to Herrnhut. By first was back in 1998 when the restoration work was just beginning. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress that has been made and being able to imagine the glorious festivals that took place in the days of Christian Renatus. And to wonder what Christianity might have been like if Herrnhaag had not been left desolate. Is it possible to have a form of devotion to Christ that embraces art, mysticism, beauty, ritual, sexuality, joyfulness, and sacrificial service to the poor and downtrodden? Is it possible to worship the Lamb of God without mortifying the flesh and rejecting the beauty of creation?
On the way to Herrnhaag we stopped by the Ronneburg Castle, a medieval ruin that the Zinzendorf’s stayed in immediately after his exile in 1736. It just so happened that there was a medieval faire at the castle today. So we got to enjoy the jousting – very skillful events with lance, sword, and bow, and I had a cup of hot mead.And then went up into the castle tower. Fun day.