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Moravians and Peace

Moravian Church as an Historic Peace Church

Craig D. Atwood

Originally published  in The Moravian, March 2010. Reprinted with permission.

The Unitas Fratrum was the first peace church.[i] Our church was founded in 1457 during a period of intense religious conflict and persecution. Brother Gregory and his companions were frustrated that the state church had beautiful worship and sophisticated theology but had forgotten the weightier matters of Jesus’ teaching. In a little village called Kunwald they tried to create a Christian community that followed the Law of Christ as presented in the Sermon on the Mount. Gregory drew heavily on the writings of Peter Chelčickỳ who insisted that Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies is central to our faith. Peter frequently pointed out that it is impossible to love someone while killing or maiming them. The original Brethren were uncomfortable with the way churches use the violence of the Old Testament to justify violence. Even though the ancient Israelites had engaged in warfare, that does not mean that Christians may violate the commandments given by Jesus. It is the New Testament that should govern the lives of Christians.

Members of the Unitas Fratrum were forbidden to serve in the military or even to serve on juries since they might participate in the harming of others. This strict pacifism was threatening to rulers who expected the church to sanctify the violence of the state. As a result, hundreds of Moravians were harassed, arrested, tortured, exiled, or killed. As time passed, it grew harder for the Moravians to maintain such a strict pacifism and separation from the state. There were a few nobles who offered protection to the church, but only if members were willing to assume the duties of citizenship, such as serving on juries. Gradually the elders moderated the original non-violence. Members were allowed to serve on juries, but they were to temper justice with mercy. Eventually, Brethren were allowed to serve in the military, but only if they were forced by the state. Brethren could not be professional soldiers, and members who were conscripted into the army were instructed to seek out non-combat roles. If they had to fight they should try to wound rather than kill.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Unitas Fratrum established ties with the Calvinists in Geneva, and they drifted further away from their original peace witness. In 1618, some of the prominent members of the Unity participated in the rebellion against the Habsburg rulers. During the ensuring Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the Unitas Fratrum was destroyed by religion persecution and violence. Thousands of Moravians went into permanent exile; others tried to keep the faith alive in secret in their homeland. The greatest Moravian scholar in history, John Amos Comenius, lived during this violent era. He is most famous for his books on education reform, but Comenius also dedicated himself to the cause of peace. Toward the end of his life he wrote: “Mankind has had enough of folly and war, and it is to be hoped that the time will come when all men are exhausted with wars and return to peace.”[ii] Comenius revived the waning peace witness of the Unitas Fratrum and made it central to his theology, pedagogy, and ethics. Violence is contrary to the nature of Christ and should be banished from the church. He urged his readers: “Whenever you encounter one of your neighbours, regard him as yourself in another form (which he is), or indeed as God in another form, for he is the image of God, and God will be watching to see how reverently you treat him.”[iii]

Comenius tried to preserve the witness of the Unitas Fratrum through his writings, and he lived in hope for a better day when those who profess Christ would live as Christ commanded. Decades after his death, a new generation of Moravians chose to go into exile so that they could live according to the teachings of the New Testament. Under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf, they formed a covenant community called Herrnhut in Germany. The Brotherly Agreement they signed in 1727 stipulated that they would seek to live in peace with all people. Disputes were to be settled through conversation rather than violence. Although the Moravians did not condemn the military per se (and had many friends in the military) members of the Moravian Church were not allowed to enlist. Those who did so were generally removed from membership in the church. Moravians also did not participate in capital punishment, although they did not protest the state’s authority to try capital cases. It is not surprising that Moravians settled in the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania.

The pacifist stance of the Moravians was hard to maintain during the long years of the American Revolution. Some historians argue that pacifism was merely a way to maintain neutrality and to avoid the consequences of choosing sides in the conflict, but the commitment to the Sermon on the Mount ran deeper than that. The pastor of Hope Moravian in North Carolina was beaten up by an American militia because of his pacifism, and many of the younger brethren had to hide in the forest to avoid conscription. The church paid heavy fines to both the Americans and the British during the war, and the residents of the Moravian village of Gnaddenhutten in Ohio were murdered by an America militia without defending themselves. Some of the younger Moravians in Pennsylvania and North Carolina did enlist in the revolutionary army and were allowed to rejoin the church after the war.

As Moravian communities declined in the 1800s, it grew harder for the church to maintain its original pacifism. After the Nat Turner rebellion in 1830 every municipality in North Carolina was required to have a militia, and so the Moravians in Salem formed a regiment. For the first time the church sanctioned the study of war because of the fear of a slave revolt. During the Civil War, there were Moravians in both the Federal and Confederate armies. It is sadly illuminating that the first war that Moravians fully endorsed was one in which brother fought against brother. By 1865 the Moravians had largely forgotten their four hundred year history of pacifism. Some even denied that the Unitas Fratrum had ever been a peace church. Moravians on both sides of the Atlantic fought in World Wars I and II, thinking that their fight was just.

During the peace movement of the 1960s, some Moravians tried to claim the church was a peace church, but it was hard to convince the federal government of that since the church also had military chaplains. By 1969 the question of peace and war divided Moravians, and it remains a point of contention. Still, the fact remains that the Unitas Fratrum was the first peace church. For four hundred years the Moravian Church maintained a fairly consistent peace witness, but this was largely forgotten during the titanic conflicts of the past two centuries. The question we face in the 21st century is whether the Moravian Church should reclaim this identity and become a peace church again. This is not a question of history, but of faith, love, and hope. How will this generation respond to the Law of Christ?

[i] This is explored in detail in my book The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius (Penn State University Press, 2009).

[ii] John Amos Comenius, Panorthosia or Universal Reform, ch. 1-18 and 27, trans. A. M. O. Dobbie (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 57.

[iii] Ibid. 197-198.

Theology after Google

I’m attending a conference called theology after google at Claremont School of Theology. It is an effort to get theology (especially progressive theology) out of books and into the virtual world. One of the questions we raised was whether texting makes it harder or easier to communicate the gospel. There is much talk about how different the world today is from the world of the past, especially with instant global communication. Much of this good and useful, but there is a tendency to see things too dualistically. At times, it sounds like we have forgotten that people, ordinary people, used to communicate instantly. It was called talking. The academic elites never truly controlled thought and speech. People have always created theology through dialog, discussion, and conversation. The Reformation took place in the workplace, with Flemish cloth workers talking about law and grace, in taverns as manifestoes were read aloud, in homes where mothers sang hymns to their children.


I was very disturbed to read in the paper today that so many people are opposed to helping the people of Haiti. Many people blame the Haitians for their poverty, just as many blamed the people of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans for their suffering. There is so much misery in the world and so much injustice, why do we add to it by condemning others. I remember those times in school when bullies would victimize someone weak or poor or awkward or unpopular. Which was more pathetic, the suffering of the victim who was unable to defend himself or herself, or the fact that some people make themselves feel important by inflicting misery on others, or was it the way others stood around and enjoyed the spectacle. How pathetic that we stand by while others suffer. It is even more pathetic when we justify our selfishness with political or economic or religious platitudes, blaming the victims instead of helping them.

Thank you

Many thanks to all of the people who send cards and notes of condolence after the death of my mother. One of the blessings during such a difficult time is being reminded of how many people love you and care for you.


Ecclicheastical – the tendency of churches to speak in religious cliches instead of meaning language.

Mucha’s slavonic epic paintings

People interested in the Moravian Church may enjoy these paintings by the Czech artist Mucha:


Divinity School Application for Liberals

Beginning term: [_]  Fall         [_]  Spring         [_] Summer ___ [_] Other?

Indoctrination: [_] Master of Divinity         [_] M.Div./MA Counseling         [_] M.Div./JD

[_] M.Div./MBA           [_] Certificate Health and Spirituality                  [_] Exploratory

Personal Information

Imposed Name: ____________ Patriarchal Name: _________________Real Name: ________

Are you a citizen of the American Empire: ______Why:_______________________________

Where the Federales Deliver Your Documents______________________________________


Phone: (home) ______________ (cell) ______________ Email: _________________________

Blog:_________________________ Facebook: ___________________ Twitter: ___________

Institutions of Past Indoctrination and / or Liberation


School: ___________________________________ Location: _________________ Years Attended: _______

Degree:  Yes / Not a meaningful concept.   Major(s): __________________ GPA? ____

List all the good you did, including marches, protests, speeches, and sticking it to the man: __________________________________________________________________________________________

Ever suspended, dismissed, or arrested? Yes / hell yes / not yet

List all other schools through which you passed on your pilgrimage to your true self:

School: ___________________________________ Location: _________________ Years Attended: _______

School: ___________________________________ Location: _________________ Years Attended: _______

Specialized Training or Skills, especially in useful areas (organic horticulture, interpretative dance, deconstruction of metanarratives, making tea, guitar, etc.) __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Perceived experiences of what some term “work”:

What did you do?

Who paid the bills?

How did this make the world a better place?

How did you grow as a person?

Meaningful relationships?

Please provide a journal or other artistic expression of your engagement in the world.

Demographic Information (so the government knows how much money to give you)

My ancestors were oppressed by Europeans by [_] being taken from Africa in slavery

[_] Spanish colonization of the “New World” [_]colonization of Asia [_] conquest of the Pacific Islands [_] English colonization of the “New World” [_] economic exploitation of globalization OR [_] I have benefited from the exploitation of other peoples (I’m white, but overcoming)

Gender: M/F/L/G/B/T/Q   [_] Other________

Involvement in Church?

[_] spiritual not religious [_] worship the goddess within [_] worship the earth

[_] oldline liberal [_] evangelical (I like the music and the gym) [_] Episcopal

What else would you like to share with us?

Did you violate any of the arbitrary norms of bourgeois society and experience confinement? Are you likely to? Are you sure? Will you be cool dealing folks who aren’t like you? Do the authorities have records of your perceived misdeeds?

Please provide us with the names of people who will write a letter telling us how wonderful you are – even though we all know it’s propaganda.

Name:________________________________ Relationship: ___________________________

Name:________________________________ Relationship: ___________________________

Will you be willing to attend most classes and do some of the reading? ______________

How did you hear about our community of seekers? [_] drugs [_] friends [_] online

[_] at the health food co-op [_] from those engaged in justice work [_] at the coffee shop

I certify that all the information provided on this application, any attached paperwork, and the attached essays are accurate and truthful even though we all know that truth is a relative term that supports the entrenched power of elite institutions and contributes to the oppression of peoples everywhere.

Signature: _____________________________________ Date: _______________

Mapping Sin in the USA

Sermon for Divinity School

We had orientation for new divinity students at Wake Forest University School of Divinity last week, and I led devotions. Here is what I told the class of 2012.

Divinity School Orientation

Sermon on Jeremiah 17:5-8

So, you decided to come to Divinity School? How did people respond when you told them what you wanted to do with the next three years of your life? Did anyone ask if you were crazy? Did they back away slowly afraid that someone who would choose to spend three years studying theology might do anything? Were they thrilled that you had finally answered the call to ministry that they always knew you had? Did they envy you for doing something they wished they had done years ago or did they pity you because they knew that unless you are Crefelo Dollar you’ll never make money off of the Word of God? What did they say to you?

More importantly, what did you say to yourself as you were filling out applications to Wake Forest and maybe even one of those other divinity schools in the area? What did you say to yourself during those long sleepless nights as you struggled with your sense of vocation and your desire to do what God wants you to do with your life? I remember what it was like twenty-five years ago when I packed up all my belongings and drove north to Pennsylvania with a song on my lips and anxiety gripping my heart. It wasn’t easy pursuing my Master of Divinity degree, especially since I was married and already had one daughter. I thought about Isaiah having his lips purged with flaming coals from the altar before he could preach the Word. I thought about Nathaniel, in whom there was no guile, and the other disciples whom Jesus called. I thought about Jeremiah struggling with his call to be a prophet, accusing God of having seduced him and abandoned him. During a particularly boring class, a classmate drew a picture of me as a biblical prophet in exile longing for Salem. It felt like exile. You see, I had never lived outside of the state of North Carolina nor had I been a member of any church other than the one I was baptized in as a baby. I felt uprooted and was a stranger in a very strange land. But at least I could comfort myself with the knowledge that I would never be corrupted by mammon and materialism after I was ordained.

The orientation committee asked me to lead devotions on this remarkable text from Jeremiah that they chose as the theme for these four days. It is a good selection because the prophet reminds us of some truths that have endured the corrosive effects of history and the rise of modern biblical criticism. Jeremiah was a prophet who was called to deliver God’s word of judgment during one of the worst times in the history of Judah. If they had had a course titled God and the Jerusalem Times in those days, Jeremiah would have been the major topic of discussion. Jeremiah “spoke truth to power” centuries before that became a meaningless cliché. In his sermons he called the people to change their ways in order to preserve their country. His calls to self-examination and repentance were so brutally honest and so memorable that we now label any such call to communal repentance a Jeremiad. (See you are already learning things for church history class!) People did not always take kindly to Jeremiah’s preaching, as you probably know, and his life was often threatened. For years he labored and suffered for his people, and finally he went into exile in Egypt. His life as well as his words witnessed to his devotion to God and his love for his people despite rejection and hardship.

 I’m telling you all this so you will see that our lesson for today does not exist in isolation. These verses are a central part of Jeremiah’s overall ministry as a prophet of the Lord. I suspect that Jeremiah was not merely preaching to others when these beautiful words fell from his lips like honey from the honeycomb. He asked himself questions like you have been asking. He often wondered why he was doing what he was doing. He questioned the goodness and wisdom of God in choosing him to proclaim judgment and hope for the nation. He felt uprooted, abandoned, and exiled. And these words were a reminder to focus on what is essential and true. Those who trust in the Lord are like trees planted by the waters.

It may have something to do with growing up with the last name Atwood, but I have always loved trees. I used to climb trees all the time as a child, sometimes taking a book with me to read while sitting on a branch. Trees are remarkable living things. They are a bridge between heaven and the earth. They live long lives and provide shelter and nourishment for many kinds of animals. Yes, it is true; I am a tree hugger who loves the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Trees seem so stable and durable that we can easily forget that trees are living creatures who need water and nourishment to grow. Living in an arid land, Jeremiah knew that trees cannot reach their full potential or their full lifespan without lots of water. A tree growing beside a stream will grow and flourish because the water is there to renew its life. Such a tree will flower in season and put forth fruit. Such a tree will be supple and flexible when the winds of change blow and storms threaten.

I hope that you are such a tree. I hope that you are firmly rooted beside the stream of living water that flows from God while you are in Divinity School. At times you may feel parched and thirsty and needy. At times you may feel like you have been uprooted from all that gave your life meaning and structure previously. At times you may feel like the storms of theological controversy or existential shock are going to topple you, but remember that you can be a planted by a living-giving stream that flows from God. The faculty and the dean cannot plant you by the river flowing with God’s grace. You have to heed Jeremiah’s words and trust in the Lord who has called you to this place. You have to keep trusting in God and drinking deeply of divine goodness and mercy.

We are hoping that you will grow here intellectually, spiritually, professionally, but the old adage is true. We can lead you to the waters, but we cannot make you drink. Don’t get so wrapped up in learning about Jeremiah’s historical context in pre-exilic Judah or the debates over authorship of different sections of Jeremiah that you forget to learn from the words that the scribes recorded for us. Don’t get so wrapped up in theological and pastoral debates over sin and forgiveness, judgment and grace that you forget to drink deeply from the living waters of grace and experience forgiveness. Don’t get so wrapped up in analyzing old Baptist preachers use of the Jeremiad in American revivalism that you ignore this message. Let your roots stretch out into the living waters so that you may become a bridge between earth and heaven. Let your leaves grow and may your branches be covered with delicious fruit that will nourish a hungry world.

New Book

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.The book is finally out!