Category Archives: Moravian Items

Power point slides of lectures

It was a busy fall with lectures and conferences in addition to the normal teaching load. I’ve posted several sets of powerpoint slides on the website for the Center for Moravian Studies: http://www.moravianstudies.org.  Some of the lectures are here on the blog, but many people wanted to see the slides. Some of them are repeated since topics did overlap, but here’s the list:

Motherhood of the Holy Spirit in the 18th century Moravian Church – lecture given at Moravian College

Moravian Civic Values – lecture given for the Bethlehem Rotary Club

Moravian Pacifism – lecture and discussion at Moravian Theological Seminary

Sister Judges, Elders, and Priests: Offices for Women in Moravian History – lecture given at the Moravian Archives

Moravian Theology 101 – workshop given for the Lay Seminary program in Winston-Salem

Moravian Roots of Moravian College – lecture given for Moravian College alumnae/alumni

I hope you enjoy the slides!

 

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Women Leadership in the Moravian Church

Sister Judges and Deaconnesses: Offices for Women in the Moravian Church

Presented at the Moravian Archives, Sept. 13, 2011

Introduction  [Slide 2]  Women “also are formed in the image of God, and share in His grace and in the kingdom of the world to come. They are endowed with equal sharpness of mind and capacity for knowledge (often with more than the opposite sex), and they are able to attain the highest positions, since they have often been called by God Himself to rule over nations, to give sound advice to kings and princes, to the study of medicine and other things which benefit the human race, even to the office of prophesying and of inveighing against priests and bishops. Why, therefore, should we admit them to the alphabet, and afterwards drive them away from books?”[1]

[Slide 3] So wrote Moravian bishop John Amos Comenius in his Great Didactic three and a half centuries ago. Comenius was writing to educated men in a society that systematically and sometimes brutally denied women the opportunity to pursue their own sense of vocation and develop fully as beloved children of God. Comenius was writing to a society that tolerated violence against women in their own homes and that largely ignored the suffering of poor women without homes.

Comenius was a prominent public witness to the traditional Moravian belief that all of God’s children should be valued and encouraged to pursue their vocations in the world. This evening we are going to take a brief tour of the role women played in the leadership of the Moravian Church. We will see that the Moravians centuries ago were very progressive in their ideas of women’s leadership, but after the death of Zinzendorf they adopted the sexist norms of their society. When Moravians in Europe began ordaining women after World War II, many people thought this was something new and radical. Little did the average Moravian know that their church had a long history of appointing women to leadership offices.

Ancient Unity             [Slide 4] Many of you are familiar with John Hus who was killed because of his opposition to injustice, but you may not know about the Taborites who were the direct ancestors of the Moravian Church. Four years after Hus’s death, thousands of men and women gathered on a hill in southern Bohemia to celebrate communion. They renamed the hill Mt. Tabor, the name of the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. We have the following description of what happened on Mt. Tabor:  “The people having been divided into groups, the men by themselves and the women and children by themselves, the more learned and eloquent priests, from early morning on, fearlessly preached the Word of God and especially those things that concern the pride, avarice, and arrogance of the clergy. There all called each other brother and sister, and the rich divided the food that they had prepared for themselves with the poor.”[2]

[Slide 5] The Taborites attempted to create a more just and equitable society based on Acts 4, but they ultimately failed to transform Bohemian Society. Eventually the Church of Tabor was destroyed by the rulers of Bohemia, but the idealism of that first communion on the mountain made its way into the old Moravian Church. Women were not ordained to the priesthood by the Taborites, but they played a major role in the Taborite church. They were teachers and even took part of worship leadership. True to Hussite principles, they were allowed to drink from the chalice in communion, unlike women in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Inquisition repeatedly expressed its frustration that Taborite women were educated and could discuss Scripture better than many trained theologians. Some of them claim that this was proof that the devil was working at Tabor.

[Slide 6] Some of the survivors of Tabor formed the nucleus of Unity of the Brethren, which Moravians often refer to as the Ancient Unity.[3] Although the name of the church sounds sexist today, from the beginning the church recognized that sisters were equally members of the body of Christ. The Brethren did not ordain women as priests, but they did have an office in the church for women. Women could be “congregational Judges.” The Judges in the Unity were similar to modern elders, in that they assisted the pastor in his duties of oversight. Form the instruction manuals for the judges we learn that they heard confessions and helped people improve their behavior and attitudes. Judges were trained to settle disputes within the congregation and were expected to be wise enough to prevent disputes from developing. Clearly Judges were people of respect and authority within the congregation.

What is significant for our talk this evening is that in the 15th century the Moravian Church set some women apart in the congregation as pastoral leaders. This is a rare example women being instructed and counseled by women religious authorities outside of convents. Unfortunately we do not know much about the Sister Judges, only that they did the same kinds of pastoral care that the Brother judges did.

Zinzendorf Era  [Slide 7] You are probably familiar with the name Count Zinzendorf and the village of Herrnhut in Germany where the Moravian Church was resurrected after having been destroyed by Catholic authorities. The church created at Herrnhut was not the same as the old Unity of the Brethren in Bohemia, but many of the ideals of the old Brethren found new life in Zinzendorf’s community. The Moravians were one of the most controversial Christian groups in the 18th century. To be a Moravian at that time was to be a member of the most egalitarian and multi-cultural organization in the Western world. [Slide 8]  It was not perfect by any means, but it was only in Moravian communities that you could find European aristocrats calling Africans, Native Americans, and European peasants “brother” and “sister” and even kneeling to wash their feet. Many of the most beloved practices of the Moravians today, such as the lovefeast, had their origin in Zinzendorf’s radical vision of the New Jerusalem where all followers of Christ are brothers and sisters.

[Slide 9] One of the most important leaders in the early Moravian Church was Countess Erdmuth Dorothea von Zinzendorf. She was raised in a very pious household at Ebersdorf in Germany where the mystic Hochman von Hochenau was a preacher. She and the count viewed their marriage as a partnership for the service of Christ, and she played an important role in managing the affairs of the Zinzendorf household and the church. She travelled as far as Russia to advocate for the Moravians and was the author of many hymns. Zinzendorf once claimed that his theological principles came from her. Erdmuth was given the important office of the Charnier or Hinge for the church at the same synod that elected Christ as Chief Elder. Most Moravians simply called her “Mama.”

[Slide 10] One of the most shocking things the Herrnhuters did in the early days was to select women to serve as elders alongside of the men. One of the first elders to be chosen was Anna Nitschmann who was just a teen-ager when she assumed office. Anna later founded the Single Sisters Choir and was part of the inner circle that governed Moravian affairs for thirty years. She travelled extensively, and was a participant in some of the most momentous decisions of the church, most notably the election of Christ as Chief Elder. In addition, she wrote hymns and was a much beloved counselor. Eventually she was ordained as a deacon and later became one of the first female presbyters in the Moravian Church. That’s right, she was ordained as a presbyter, but in Moravian circles she was simply called “Mutter.”

[Slide 11] Some of radical Protestant churches, like the Quakers, allowed women to preach and teach, but it appears that the Moravians were the first church with formal ministerial ordination that ordained women. At least they were the first church since the early days of Christianity. It is possible that the Moravians knew about deaconesses in early Christianity. Certainly they saw that there were women in the New Testament who held office. According to Zinzendorf the Holy Spirit anointed one hundred and twenty people to the apostolic preaching office at Pentecost, including women. He claimed through that “an equality in the teaching office between the sisters and brothers” was made that has not stopped.[4]  [Slide 12]

Zinzendorf recognized that many women are identified in the New Testament as disciples, prophets, co-workers, deacons, and even apostles. He believed that the church should strive to live up to the standard of the New Testament, and under his leadership, the Moravian Church provided many leadership roles for women denied them in other churches. Historian Peter Vogt has shown that most of the pastoral care of women was carried out by women who were ordained. Some of these women even preached publicly.[5]

[Slide 13] Scholars have identified over two hundred women who were ordained deaconesses during the time of Zinzendorf . There were also fourteen Priesterinnen (female priests or presbyters) who were ordained in secret We know that these women assisted in serving communion and leading other liturgical services, but it is not clear if they consecrated the sacraments.[6] We should not make too much of the fact that these deacons and presbyters were deaconesses and eldresses. It appears that these offices were the equivalent of the male offices, but we do not know for sure. In any case, I think that it is time that the Moravian Church officially acknowledges that it first ordained women in the 1730s rather than 1957. The fact that Zinzendorf’s successors tried to bury this history does not make it any less true.

It is significant that the female presbyters were ordained by bishops, just like the men. The Moravians were one of the few Protestant churches that claimed its bishops were in apostolic succession, and they were the only one in which bishops ordained women. Clearly they wanted these women to be within that apostolic tradition. It is also significant that a woman, often Anna Nitschmann, assisted in the ordinations of women. I would not be surprised if researchers one day learn that Anna Nitschmann had secretly been consecrated as a female bishop. Certainly she functioned like a bishop in the Moravian Church and was the one responsible for the women clergy. [Slide 14]

One of reasons that women in the 18th century Moravian Church had leadership roles was the Choir System. You are probably familiar with the 18th century Moravian practice of dividing the church into groups organized according to gender, age, and marital status. One of primary reasons for the choir system was so that women could be guided by other women rather than by men. As in the old Unity of the Brethren, women served as spiritual guides and mentors for other women. It should be noted that the Moravians in the 18th century were not entirely free of patriarchal assumptions about women. Although the community gave women a surprisingly good education, most of the economic activity of women was restricted to jobs such as cooking, sewing, and childcare. Thus it is inappropriate to refer to equality, but it is evident that the power and status of women was greatly enhanced compared with the contemporary culture. Women choir leaders played important roles in the governing structures of Moravian villages. As Beverly Smaby puts it, “Male and female roles were much more symmetrical than in any other colonial society, including the Quakers.”[7]

Women were in charge of women’s education and discipline and devotional life. The choir houses for Single Sisters and for widows provided room and board so that women were not forced into marriage by economic necessity. Katherine Faull recently lectured here at the archives on the ways choir leaders helped women deal with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as they progressed through the stages of life. She’ll be giving the Moses Lectures at the seminary in two weeks on the choir instructions. The choir system provided a useful network of support for women in Moravian communities. Single Sisters had older women to guide them through puberty and maturity, and when a Sister married, the Married Sisters Choir provided spiritual and emotional support for the new bride. Pregnant sisters met together for devotions, and they continued to have meetings for months after giving birth. When a woman’s husband died, she was immediately welcomed into the widows choir where her Sisters helped her deal with grief and change of life. In short, women were supported in every aspect of their physical, social, and mental health by women who had offices in the church.

[Slide 16]  Women had their own sphere for leadership and growth, but they were not separated from the community as whole. Men prayed for and cared for women, too. This is most evident in the 18th century Litany where the congregation offered the following prayer:

Regulate and keep in Order the festival Seasons of Matrimony (Especially of the newly married Pair N.N.) (Deut. xx. 8. ch. xxiv. 5. I Cor. vii. 5.), Let our pregnant Sisters reap the Blessing of thy having lain under a human Heart, And let those who give Suck, enjoy the Blessing of thy having sucked the Breasts of a Mother;

Sanctify all bodily Fathers to the spiritual Father, And all who bear Children, to the Mother of us all; Bless thy Gift, the Children; Visit them even in their Mother’s Womb!

May Faith in the Marriage of the Lamb be the Girdle of the Reins of the espoused Sisters, Call their Chamberlains thy espoused ones, and this will be a Girdle to their Loins; Be thyself the Reward of those Brethren, who have discharged their matrimonial Ministry with Faithfulness,

And be Thou the blessed Hope of those Sisters, who are lonely and Widows indeed; Pour out thy Holy Spirit on all thy Servants and handmaids!

Hear us, O dear Lord and God!

Examples of Female Leadership  [Slide 17] There were many important women leaders in the 18th century Moravian Church. Tonight I want to mention two of them, both of whom were African. In the 1730s, the Moravian missionary Georg Schmidt traveled to South Africa where he made contact with the Khoi people, who were called Hottentots by the Europeans. These people were viewed as animals by the European settlers and sometimes were hunted like game, but Schmidt went to them with the simple message of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. Among the people who responded to his teaching was a young woman whom Schmidt renamed Magdalena when he baptized her. Her name recalled Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Magdalena, or Lena as she was called, learned to read the Dutch New Testament that Schmidt gave her.

Schmidt planted a pear tree in the valley where he formed a small community of about three dozen converts. Lena was one of his assistants. Unfortunately the European authorities in Cape Town decided that the Chrisitian Gospel was too dangerous for the native peoples of Africa. Schmidt was forced to leave South Africa. It was half a century before Moravian missionaries allowed back into the territory. When they arrived they went immediately to the valley that Schmidt had worked in. There they found the pear tree blossoming. More important, the elderly Lena was still holding worship services with a small flock of believers. Like her biblical namesake, the Khoi woman was a witness of the resurrection and the mother of a church.

[Slide 18]  Another African woman who heard the message of God’s love from Moravian missionaries lived on St. Thomas. Moravians today celebrate the names of Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, but how many of us know about Rebecca Freundlich Protten?[8] Rebecca was a freed slave living on St. Thomas who responded to the preaching of the Moravian missionaries. She became an evangelist who assured other slaves that the Moravians could be trusted. She was one of the founders of the Posaunberg congregation, which is now called New Herrnhut. Rebecca married one of the Moravian missionaries, which was a rare instance of inter-racial marriage blessed by a Christian church during the colonial era. The marriage was controversial, and both Freundlichs were imprisoned by colonial authorities. She continued to preach to the slaves from her prison cell. When Zinzendorf came to St. Thomas in 1738 he was able to secure her release. In the 1740s the Freundlichs traveled to Germany, but Matthew died before reaching Herrnhut. Rebecca was ordained a deacon in Germany. She was the second African woman to be ordained by the Moravians, which means that she was the second African woman we know of to be ordained by any Christian church. After the death of her first husband, she married an African brother named Protten and they went to Africa as missionaries.

[Slide 19] Rebecca, Lena, Anna Nitschmann, and Ermuth Dorothea are just a few of the courageous Moravian women who defied social norms and traveled the world inspired by the love of their Savior. They labored long into the night counseling and caring for their sisters. They were pastors who cared for their flocks. They were preachers and writers and musicians; brides of Christ and mothers of the church.

Theology  The historical record is clear. There were many leadership positions for women in the Moravian Church, and women played vital roles in the development of the church in the 18th century. Some of this may go back to the heritage of the Unity of the Brethren and Comenius, but it is really Zinzendorf who deserves credit for creating such an inclusive community. He did not do it alone, obviously. His wives helped shape the practice of the church, but I think it was primarily Zinzendorf’s theology that provided the foundation for women’s leadership in the 18th century.

[Slide 20] When the Moravian Church published a new Book of Worship in the 1990s, there was a lot of concern over the language that would be used to describe God in Moravian prayers and hymns. What most Moravians at the time did not know was that during Zinzendorf’s lifetime our ancestors routinely prayed to the Holy Spirit as “Mother.” [Slide 21] For more than thirty years, this was the accepted practice and was strongly encouraged by Zinzendorf and other leaders of the church, including August Gottlieb Spangenberg and Peter Böhler here in Bethlehem. Zinzendorf said that the motherhood of the Holy Spirit was “an extremely important and essential point … and all our church and practice hangs on this point.”[9]

[Slide 22]  One of the most important litanies to the Holy Spirit during Zinzendorf’s time was titled the Te Matrem, which was based on the ancient Te Deum Laudamus. The litany begins: “Lord God, now be praised, you worthy Holy Spirit! You, the mother of Christendom, the Church honors in unity. All the 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.” This litany represents an extremely rare example of Christian liturgy using feminine language to describe God, but it was only one of several worship pieces to the mother Spirit in Moravian churches.

[Slide 23] Zinzendorf acknowledged that this type of language for the Holy Spirit was not typical, but he always insisted that it was the simplest, clearest, and best way to communicate the nature of the Holy Spirit. This is language that even a child can comprehend. Zinzendorf argued for the scriptural authority of the Mother Office by linking together the Old and New Testament verses Isaiah 66:13 and John 14:26: “When the dear Savior at the end of his life wanted to comfort his disciples (at that time the language was not as rich as ours is); by that time the Savior, who was a very great bible student, had doubtlessly read the verse in the Bible ‘I will comfort you as a mother comforts.’ Then the dear Savior thought, ‘If I should say to my disciples that I am going away, then I must give them some comfort. I must say to them that they will receive someone who will comfort them over my departure. It will not be strange to them, for they have already read it in the Bible. …There it reads they shall have a Mother: I will leave you my Spirit.’”[10]

[Slide 24]  Zinzendorf believed that the church should be a school of the Holy Spirit, which would unlike any human educational institution. It is “a family school, that is a school on the lap, in the arms of the eternal Mother” who tenderly loves her children. A Christian is like a child who “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.”[11] We do not know if Zinzendorf ever read Comenius’ Mother School, but this quotation is certainly consistent with Comenius’ understanding that education is a benevolent process guided by a nurturing figure.

[Slide 25]  The idea of the Holy Spirit as Mother became an important part of Moravian devotional and communal life. The church established a festival for the Holy Spirit, popularly called the Mutter Fest (the Mother festival), which was first mentioned publicly in 1752. It was observed annually until 1770. It appears that the devotion to the Mother was particularly important to the women of the community. The Church’ s Prayer to her Mother was regularly used on the Single Sister’s festival day. It is very significant that Zinzendorf compared the Holy Spirit to Anna Nitschmann, who was also referred to simply as the Mutter.

[Slide 26]  The 18th century Moravians also had a remarkably positive view of the human body. We do not have time tonight to go into detail on Zinzendorf’s view of the human body, which is a fascinating topic in its own right. Suffice it to say that Zinzendorf took the doctrine of the Incarnation very seriously. Like the early Church Fathers, 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 suffered. God died on the cross.[12] The Creator’s assumption of a human body blessed and redeemed humans from the law of sin and death. The Creator took on human flesh in Mary’s womb because he wanted to restore human nature and bless human life. [Slide 27]

According to Zinzendorf, the blessing of women’s bodies comes through Mary, the mother of Jesus. Nursing mothers should meditate upon the mystery that God was a baby whom Mary nursed. Zinzendorf insisted that the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb and the birth of Jesus removed all shame associated with the female body. As such, women and their bodies ought to be honored by all. “And from that same hour the womanly member, the womanly mother, was no more a shame but the most honorable of all members.”[13] Zinzendorf boldly proclaimed that the bodies of women are holy. This is one of the most extraordinary ideas in the history of Christianity, but it was hidden away for many years. Think of the shame that is heaped on women in our day and how this idea could bring hope and healing to women around the world. Once all notion of shame is removed from women’s bodies, there was no longer a barrier to their being fully included in leadership.

What Happened?  It is clear that the Moravian Church actively promoted the full inclusion of women in the leadership and fellowship of the church. The church at one time valued women of all ages and status in life, where strong women leaders were challenged to build up the kingdom of God. But something happened during the 19th century and this history was almost forgotten. What happened? [Slide 28]

As soon as the public learned what was happening in Moravian communities there was pressure on the Moravians to conform to sexist society. Vicious polemics were published against Zinzendorf and the Moravians. Missionaries were imprisoned, and evangelists were assaulted. Many of the polemics against the Moravians mentioned the danger they posed to public order by allowing women to hold offices. As Paul Peucker has shown, some of the Moravians were also concerned that the church might be dominated by women.[14] After the death of Zinzendorf, the leadership in Herrnhut tried to reassure the public that the Moravians were not a dangerous cult threatening social norms. Men like Spangenberg published material that minimized the radicalness of the Moravian Church, and some of Zinzendorf’s boldest ideas were repressed against the wishes of some members of the church. [Slide 29]

Beverly Smaby has shown that demise of women’s leadership was a conscious decision on the part of prominent male leaders of the church to remove women from the internal decision-making process. [Slide 30] The male elders explain the new policies thus: “we are obliged to adjust ourselves as much as possible to [the world’s] customs in those things that don’t belong to the essence of our Church, and to do nothing different unnecessarily that could give the public cause to conceive all kinds of false conceptions of us and, even with the appearance of truth, to draw detrimental conclusions from [what we do].”[15] They were more concerned about public relations than the New Testament’s vision of the true Christian community that had motivated their ancestors.

Women were excluded from the committees established to manage the church’s affairs after the death of Zinzendorf. Not surprisingly, the all-male committees decided to end women’s ordination.[16] Women were no longer allowed to assist in serving Holy Communion in groups where men were present, and they gradually lost other rights in the church.

[Slide 31] In 1789, when male delegates expressed concern about women were attending synod, the women protested in writing. They called the proceedings “humiliating” (demütigend) and they tried to reclaim their accustomed leadership role stating: “that the Savior had granted us the gift that [people of] our sex want to be led and reprimanded by their own kind, which, especially in spiritual matters, is not usual in the whole rest of the world…. [T]o legitimate the service of the Sisters in the Church it is necessary, that the male servants of Jesus honor [the Sisters] with respect and trust…. [O]ur cause will surely fall into chaos, if the maids of the Savior are, from one time to the next, more and more pushed back.”[17]

One of the most disturbing discoveries made by modern historians, especially Paul Peucker, is that the church’s leaders intentionally destroyed some of the documents associated with the radical experiments of the 1740s and 1750s.[18] This included the burning of most of the letters and personal papers of Anna Nitschmann because they contained things that they were not comfortable with.[19] The reason we know so little about the most important woman in Moravian history is that the church’s male elders burned the records. Men have often erased the history of women in the Christian church, but at least the Moravians were honest enough to record that they had done this.

[Slide 32] It was not just women’s leadership that suffered in the years after Zinzendorf’s death. The devotion to the Holy Spirit as the Mother of the Church was also a source of anxiety for his successors. The first synod held after Zinzendorf’s death raised the issue of the Mutter Fest and decided that this should be restricted to private gatherings because outsiders would not understand it.[20] Some protested this decision since the Mother name was considered “a real and divine truth which the Savior has declared to us through the blessed Disciple [Zinzendorf].” It was also decided that the litanies of the church needed to be revised, and the word Mother was systematically removed. The new litanies appeared in the liturgy books of 1770 and 1773. The word “comforter” replaces “mother” in some places. The Spirit is no longer referred to as the “Mother of God’s People” but is instead “Lord God Creator.” What was once vital to the community was removed, and it was not accidental that the worship of the Moravians changed at the same time that women lost their roles in leadership. It would not be until the second half of the 20th century that the church would ordain women in significant numbers. [Slide 32]

Conclusion  For hundreds of years the Moravians taught that women are equal to men spiritually and should be fully incorporated into the life of the church. For most of the history of the church there were specific offices for women so they could provide pastoral care to women. For a brief, extraordinary period in the 18th century the Moravians ordained women as elders, deacons, and presbyters. During the days of Zinzendorf two of the most important leaders in the Moravian Church were called Mama and Mutter. Women served as missionaries and helped found some of the most important congregations in the Americas and Africa. Moravians even worshiped God as both Father and Mother. But there was a backlash to this positive view of women after the death of Zinzendorf. Women were slowly, but persistently pushed out of office and even the historical record was distorted. Still Moravian women and men today may be inspired by the past to create a more just future. [Slide 33]


[1] Comenius, The Great Didactic of Comenius, tr. by M. W. Keatinge, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1910 reprint by Kessinger Publishing, no date), 68.

[2] Kaminsky, Hussite Revolution, 284-285.

[3] Craig D. Atwood, Theology of the Czech Brethren (Penn State Press, 2010).

[4] Zinzendorf, Gemeinreden 32 (ZH 4), 69.

[5] 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.

[6] 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).

[7] Smaby, The Transformation of Moravian Bethlehem from Communal Mission to Family Economy (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 13.

[8] Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).

[9] N. L. von 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), vol. 4, ed. by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962). This discourse is found between the two sections of the Gemeinreden. For more on the mother office of the Spirit, see Gary Kinkel, Our Dear Mother the Spirit: an investigation of Count Zinzendorf’s Theology and Praxis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990), and Atwood, “The Mother of God’s People.”

[10] Zinzendorf, Gemeinreden 3 (ZH 4), 64 and 65. He also uses the Song of Solomon as support. Eine ist meine Taube, eine ist ihrer Mutter die liebste. Wer ist die Mutter? Ingleichen sehet Salomo in seiner Krone, damit Ihn Seine Mutter gekrönet hat am Tage der Freuden seines Hertzens. Spangenberg records a vigorous disagreement within the Brüdergemeine over Zinzendorf’s exegesis of this passage. Apologetische Schluß-Schrifft (ZE 3), 79 f.

[11] Zinzendorf, Gemeine Reden 27 (ZH 4), 375.

[12] Zinzendorf, Einundzwanzig Diskurse über die Augspurgische Konfession (ZH 6), 65.

[13] Zinzendorf, Gemein Reden, (ZH 4), Anhang, 36; Zinzendorf, Gemein Reden 1 (ZH 4), 29.

[14] P.M. Peucker, “ „Gegen ein Regiment von Schwestern“: Die Stellung der Frau in der Brüdergemeine nach Zinzendorfs Tod,“ Unitas Fratrum, Heft 45/46,

[15] Unvorgreiffliche Anmerkungen und Desideria dem Ehrwuerdigen General-Synodo zur Prueffung und Decision pflichtmaessig dargelegt von dem verordneten Unitaets Syndicats Collegion nebst Beylagen Sub. Cit: A. bis Cit. H., page 41, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.2.B.45.2.a, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Restrictions.”

[16] Es sey diese erste Conf: ohne die Schw. veranstaltet worden, damit wir über ihre Concurrenz erst mit einander sprechen möchten, u. es würden sodann die Schw. ausgemacht, die künftig zur Conf: kommen solten, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.3.B.4.c.1, May 30, 1760, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Restrictions.”

[17] Protokoll der General synode 1789, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.2.B.48, pages 481-484, as quoted in Peucker, “Gegen ein Regiment von Schwestern,” 69-70.

[18] Peucker, “Im Staub und Asches”

[19] Extr. aus einem Briefe von Br. David Nitschm. an Br. Petrum. London. 13 Sept. 65, Moravian Archives Herrnhut, R.14.A.z.44.a.18, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Relationships.”

[20] 28th session of the synod. August 9, 1764. Verlass des Synodi zu Marienborn im Jahr 1764 gehalten, p. 1305- 1310. Archiv der Brüder-Unität, Herrnhut, Germany. Item R.2.B.44.1.c.2, quoted by Smaby, “Negotiating Gender Restrictions.”

Violence in the Houses of Grace, 9/11 and Moravian History

Central Moravian – September 11, 2011

Amos 6:4-7, Luke 16:19-31; Psalm 146

Introduction                When Pastor Carol asked me to preach this morning, I immediately agreed. I find it hard to say “no” to her, especially now that I am a member of the church. Then she reminded me that today would be the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and I was tempted to change my mind. This is a hard day for many of us, and I know that your thoughts are filled with memories of that dark time when planes were grounded, telephone communications were down, and television reports were full of tales of both horror and heroism. Some of you are too young to remember 9/11, but your lives have been changed as well.

Like many of you, I was unaware of the events unfolding in New York on that Tuesday morning. I was teaching a class on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at Salem College when the towers fell.  After class a colleague told me the news.  One of my first thoughts was how meaningless that class had been.  Suddenly what had seemed of vital importance for students to know at 8:30 a.m. seemed meaningless at 10:30 a.m.  My normal world was shattered as if it were an illusion. My experience is just a pale reflection of the experience of the tens of thousands of people who had to adjust to life without a spouse, a parent, or a child. I learned that week that my work as a chaplain and a professor was not meaningless as my students tried to make sense of what had happened and how they could respond as people of faith. We studied the ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims have dealt with violence and conflict in the past. Many Americans lost their innocence and discovered that we do live in a dangerous and sometimes hostile world. The rest of the world knew this already. One thing we learn from history is that Christians in every age and every culture have been confronted with similar tragedy, suffering, and fear without losing their faith.

Revealing Who we Are:                     I spoke at many gatherings and vigils in the days that followed 9/11. I’d like to share with you some of what I said in a Moravian congregation on Sunday after the terrorist attacks. “This week we discovered just how far men of hate will go in expressing their wrath.  We also found how far some will go in acts of courage and valor.  There were those who were willing to die in order to bring destruction on others.  There were also those who willingly gave up their own lives to prevent the deaths of others. In between the hatred and the heroism were millions who watched and prayed and wept. People across this country and throughout the world have been in prayer, both privately and in large gatherings and vigils.  I walked into the chapel at Salem College to see housekeepers, groundskeepers and students bowed in prayer together. And here we are gathered in prayer, hoping for comfort and guidance.  Here we are singing in the midst of tragedy. There are times when there are no words that express what we feel, but music speaks to us and through us to bring the healing that we need. Our many voices, with our many pitches, all somehow unite in sentiments that are harmonious and true and beautiful even in the midst of our greatest nightmares.” That was ten years ago.

Ten Years Later                       As citizens and as people of faith, we continue to struggle with what happened a decade ago. Sometimes people say that everything changed that day, but that is not true. Many things remained the same. Courage, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness remain Christian virtues. A crisis like 9/11 reveals our true selves.  Those we call heroes, those who lost their lives saving lives, were heroes day to day.  Those who voluntarily crashed their plane Pennsylvania could give up their lives to save others because they had learned to sacrifice themselves in small ways for their children and friends each day. Our actions in crises flow from deep convictions lived out in ordinary times.

Crises reveal who we are. They also call us to examine ourselves and to see where our ordinary lives have become disordered and destructive.  We are asked to look within to see how, not if, but how our actions, words, and attitudes contributed to the disaster.  Crises call us to repent, not in the way some televangelists mean repent, but in the biblical sense of “turning around.”  We are called to turn around and see where our individual and national lives, our ordinary lives, need to be re-ordered and redirected. This is the message of the Scripture lessons for this morning. The prophet Amos preached to Israelites who were about to be taken into exile and told them that they were suffering because they had enjoyed their luxury while ignoring the poor in their midst. The rich man in Jesus’ parable recognized far too late that he should not have ignored the poor man at his gate day after day. Our Psalm praises God because remembers the poor and outcast that we prefer to forget. These Scriptures remind us that one of the central messages of the Bible is that God is a God of justice, and that we are called to end oppression in this world. Our Moravian ancestors read these same passages and felt a call to bring the good news of liberation and salvation to some of the poorest people in the world. They were inspired to lay down their lives and share their resources with others. They took the radical risk of love.

Moravians                   I think it is helpful to look at how our ancestors responded to instances of violence. For most of our history, the Moravians were pacifists who avoided taking up arms except in self-defense. The founders of our church tried to live strictly by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instructed his followers to love their neighbors as themselves and even love their enemies. One of our early theologians repeated asked how can anyone claim to love a person while maiming or killing him.

We Moravians should keep in mind that many of our ancestors were killed centuries ago because of their faith. At times they had to worship in hiding, but they did not deny their faith by responding to violence with violence. Bishop John Amos Comenius was one of the most prominent advocates for peace during the violent days of the 17th century. He saw his church destroyed. He and many other Moravians were driven into exile by religious violence, but Comenius believed that Christians can and should work together to solve conflicts before they escalate into violence. He also argued that the primary purpose of government is to preserve the peace. When governments fail to preserve the peace they fail as governments.  He believed that churches fail when they do not follow the teachings of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

As many of you know, in the 1720s the Moravian Church was reborn from the ashes on the estate of Count Zinzendorf. What many Moravians do not know is that Moravians in the 18th century were also pacifists. Moravians went into the word armed only with the good news of salvation. Several governments, including the British Parliament, exempted Moravians from swearing oaths and bearing arms. Moravians did not take up arms during the French and Indian War or during the American Revolution even though Moravians died in both those conflicts. Individual Moravians who joined the militia were excluded from the church until they repented and laid down their weapons. There was an article last week from the Associated Press about the Moravians having to pay additional taxes during the American Revolution because they were pacifists. Rather than fight in the war, Moravians set up hospitals and tried to restore life and health in the midst of death and hatred. Moravians in Europe suffered during the Napoleonic Wars, but they also maintained their commitment to non-violence until the 1800s. Over time the church made military service a matter of personal conscience, and many Moravians have bravely worn their nations’ uniform, but the church still prays for peace. We pray that our soldiers will be able to come home and that they will be unharmed in body and undamaged in soul.

Gnadenhutten Two great tragedies struck the Moravian Church in America within a quarter of a century in the 1700s. These were the equivalent of 9/11 for the Moravian Church at that time. As you may know, the Moravians had an extensive mission to the native peoples of America. Dozens of men and women were sent out from Bethlehem to the forests of Pennsylvania and New York, and hundreds of native people were baptized in the name of Jesus and welcomed as brothers and sisters. One of the Moravian mission stations was named Gnadenhutten, which houses of grace. It was in the Wyoming Valley just north of us. Even though Moravians were pacifists, they got caught up in the violence of nations at war. In November 1755, a band of hostile Indians attacked the mission and killed eleven Moravian missionaries, including women and children.

When news reached Bethlehem that so many brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues had been brutally murdered the Moravians gathered in the church to cry, and pray and sing just as millions of Americans did ten years ago. The pastor, August Gottlieb Spangenberg, declared that the missionaries were martyrs like the martyrs of the early church. They died in witness to their faith in Christ. Spangenberg also told the community that the tragedy was a call to repentance. He asked them to reflect on what sins may have contributed to this tragedy. Many were angry about what had happened, but rather than retreat from engagement with the world, the Moravians in Pennsylvania decided that they should increase their mission to native peoples. They decided that God was calling them to reach out in love in the midst of conflict. Only the gospel of peace could counter the councils of war. Rather than seeking revenge or victory our ancestors responded to violence with a renewed commitment to love and the pursuit of peace.

When their neighbors formed a militia to take revenge on Indians in the area, the Moravians brought dozens of Indian brothers and sisters to Bethlehem for their protection. They built a small village called Nain for the Indians. We should note that even though they were pacifists, the Moravians in old Bethlehem were not naïve or foolish. They established a defense for Bethlehem, which included armed sentries, but the intention was to frighten attackers away. Spangenberg instructed the defenders to avoid shooting or killing anyone. He reported: “I called all the Brethren together and begged them for Jesus’ sake by all means to spare the life of every hostile Indian, and if one was, perchance, shot in the legs, we proposed to take him in for treatment and care for him with all faithfulness until he recovered. I fell upon my face and besought the Saviour to graciously prevent all bloodshed at our place, and, to Him be thanks, He heard our prayer.” Despite their fear and anger and grief, the Moravians relied on prayer and compassion, wisdom and courage, rather than revenge and hatred. And they labored for reconciliation.

Sadly, 25 years later another group of Moravians was cruelly massacred. This time it was ninety Moravian Indians living in a village also named Gnadenhutten, but this Gnadenhutten was in Ohio. In March 1781 an American militia under the command of Colonel David Williamson came to the village. The militia was investigating the murder of a frontier family by natives who were fighting for the British. The Moravians in Gnadenhutten were pacifists who had not been involved in that assault, but they were easy targets for revenge. The American militia held a mock trial and decided to execute the people who had welcomed them to their village. To their credit, some of the militia refused to participate in this crime, but rather than prevent it, they simply left. The militia locked everyone in the church, and a Mohican pastor named Abraham spent his last hours preparing his people for martyrdom. Thirty-five of the victims were children, two of whom survived to tell the tale.

The Moravians responded to this atrocity in the way they had for centuries. David Zeisberger, the missionary, did not abandon his flock. He gathered together those members of the church who had not been in Gnadenhutten, and he took them to Canada where they would be safe. The whole Moravian Church was shaken by this tragedy, but they did not respond in violence. They prayed for those who had died and kept their memory alive. Moravians continued to work with native peoples and advocated for them for decades. They did not respond with violence and hatred, but with grief, prayers, and a renewed commitment to missions. They remained faithful.

Conclusion:                  What we can learn from our past is that hatred, violence, and revenge are not the only ways to respond to violence. We know from our history that it is possible for the followers of Christ to respond in faith and love even in the darkest of times, but it takes courage. It is also takes practice. Our Moravian ancestors responded the way they did because they lived each day in the love of Christ. The crises they faced revealed who they really were. 9/11 and similar tragedies challenge us and reveal to us who we really are.

Our Moravian ancestors knew that the only war that God calls us to fight today is the war for justice for all God’s children, in every corner, in every street, in every tent, and every home in this world. We serve the Prince of Peace, not the ancient gods of war. The only time Jesus called us to lay down our lives is when we sacrifice ourselves to give life to others, not to bring death. When times are darkest and the world is most frightening, it is vital that Christians bring light and hope. This is what we can learn from Scripture and from our own ancestors in the faith. The question for us today is how will we respond to violence. What will we teach our children? Will we reach out in love to our neighbors and forgive others as God forgives us?

How Moravians have Read the Bible in the Past

Eastern District Conference July 2011

I.  Ground of the Unity        The primary doctrinal statement for the worldwide Moravian Church is the Ground of the Unity. It was written in 1957 and revised about 30 years later. It includes a lengthy discussion of the Moravian view of the Bible, which is consistent with over 500 years of Moravian history. Raise your hand if you’ve read the Ground of the Unity prior to today. In this workshop we are going to focus on how Moravians have read Scripture in the past, but I think it is good to have the Ground of the Unity in mind as we do so.

“God’s Word and Doctrine               The Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation; and this Scripture is the sole standard of the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life. The Unitas Fratrum recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and it sees its primary mission, and its reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message. We ask our Lord for power never to stray from this.”

II. The Unity of the Brethren         Today we’re going to look at the past for guidance in how to read the Bible in our time. This statement from the Ground of the Unity is consistent with what Moravians have always understood about the Bible. To begin with, I think we need to remember just how seriously our spiritual ancestors took the Bible. They separated themselves from the ministry of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1400s because they believed that the church was violating the teachings of the New Testament. At the time people who rejected the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church could be arrested, tortured, and killed. Keep in mind that the inquisitors justified their actions on Scripture. I often remind Moravians that every year we remember the death of John Hus who was condemned for heresy by the Council of Constance. Every year we are reminded that disputes over Scripture can lead to violence.

At his trial, Hus insisted that the Scriptures should be the final authority in the church, not the opinions of popes, theologians, and lawyers. The Catholic Church was afraid of what would happen if people were allowed to interpret the Bible on their own. Hus could have saved his life at any point simply by agreeing with the church’s teachings, but he chose not to. His life was shaped by the story of Jesus. For Hus, it was better to die as a witness to the truth than to conform to lies and corruption. Hus died singing because he believed that he would live with Christ in heaven. When Moravians talk about our lives being shaped by the Scriptures, keep in mind that this has included the idea of dying with Christ.

Hus’s followers continued his reformation after his death. They proclaimed that the Law of Christ was superior to the law of popes and cardinals, and the symbol of their rebellion was the chalice used in Holy Communion. For years the Catholic Church forbade lay persons to drink from the chalice even though Jesus said “drink of this all of you.” The Hussites believed that this was an egregious example of the institutional church defying the clear teachings of Jesus. Don’t think this was a minor disagreement. The government killed hundreds of people simply because they drank from the chalice. The pope and emperor launched five crusades against the Hussites who insisted that the Bible must be the final authority in the church. The Hussites argued that the Catholic Church of their day acted more like the Church of the Antichrist than the Church of Christ, no matter how much they quoted Scripture.

Fifty years after the death of Hus a small group of men and women led by Gregory the Patriarch formed a covenant community in the village of Kunwald in Bohemia. They did not call their community a church, since that word referred to the large institutional church. They were a voluntary community of brothers and sisters who wanted to shape their lives according to the teachings of the New Testament. They were a Unity of Brethren, and they believed that obedience to the Law of Christ meant much more than drinking wine in communion. They insisted that the Sermon on the Mount is the clearest expression of the Word of God for the church. They believed that Jesus’ instructions in the gospel are binding on his followers.

The Brethren were strongly influenced by the writings of lay theologian named Peter Chelcicky. Peter went much further than Hus in advocating for a complete reform of the church. He argued that the church of the apostles was the purest expression of Christianity, and all churches should try to live up to that ideal. It is the New Testament that provides a description of the church living under the Law of Christ. Peter regarded the Old Testament as an inferior and incomplete revelation that must be read only in light of the New Testament. The kingship of Christ had replaced the flawed kingship of David, and Old Testament laws regarding secular authority and war had been abolished abolished by the Law of Christ.[1] Peter completely rejected the idea that secular authority should enforce the laws of the church.

Christians should live according to the new covenant, which is based on radical love rather than fear. He wrote: “if the Law has been commuted, and if we are liberated from the Law of death through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and subjected to the Law of love, then let us see on what foundation power can be placed in Christ’s faith…. If he had wanted people to cut each other up, to hang, drown, and burn each other, and otherwise pour out human blood for his Law, then that Old Law could also have stood unchanged, with the same bloody deeds as before.”[2] In other words, Christians must look first and foremost to the teachings of Jesus, not the old law of Moses. Peter did not get rid of the Old Testament, but he did recognize that the Old Testament can be a very dangerous book if taken literally.  Peter subordinated the old revelation of Moses and the prophets to the new revelation in Jesus Christ.

A young noble by the name of Gregory read Peter Chelcicky’s writings and decided to live according to the Law of Christ. Gregory and his followers broke completely with the state church and ordained their own priests in 1467. They also wrote their own hymns and confessions of faith, established a strict church discipline, and established schools. They tried to recreate the church of the apostles as seen in the New Testament. This was the origin of the Moravian Church. Christ was the “one thing necessary” because through Christ humans could know God, be saved from sin and death, and learn the law of love. The New Testament was to be preferred in matters of faith and practice because it “neither condemns to death … nor coerces anyone to fulfill its commandments, but rather with loving patience calls for repentance, leaving the impenitent to the last judgement.”[3] In the Old Testament, they valued the wisdom literature that deals with ordinary living much more than the books of law and history.

The Brethren viewed Christ as the true Word of God in human flesh; therefore Christ was the revelation of the invisible God in human form. Scripture should point beyond itself to God and should lead people into a faithful relationship with Christ.[4] Since Scripture is the touchstone for authentic teaching, it must be provided in the language of the people and made available to everyone who professed faith in Christ. This was a radical concept in the 15th and 16th century. For centuries the church had believed that the sacred Scripture should be read only in the sacred languages of Latin or Greek, but the Hussites believed that God’s word must be understood by the people. The fact that they were willing to translate the Bible meant that they did not view the words of the Bible themselves as sacred. It was the revelation within the Scripture that was sacred. Every man, woman, and child should be taught to read and understand the Gospels.

The Brethren made an important distinction between things that are essential to salvation; those that minister to salvation; and those that are incidental. The essentials are just that. They decided there were six essential things. God creates. God redeems. God sanctifies. Humans respond to God’s work with Faith, Love, and Hope. Those are the essentials. God is the one who creates, redeems, and sanctifies, not the church. The work of the believer is in the realm of faith, love, and hope. It does not matter how brilliant your theology is or how accurate your translation of the Bible is or how successful your church is if you do not have faith, love, and hope.

Many of things that churches think are essential were considered ministerial by the Moravians: Baptism, Holy Communion, confession, the priesthood, worship, church discipline. Ministerials are very important because they communicate what is essential. The ministerials are sacred because they point to what is truly sacred, but they are not sacred in themselves. One way to think about this is to ask: what happens if the Inquisition burns down your church, kills your priest, and throws you in prison? Have you lost your salvation or do you still have what is essential: faith, love, and hope? Or, on the other hand, if you have a beautiful church with great music and inspiring preaching but do not have faith, love, and hope, what do you have?

Luke of Prague                     It often comes as a surprise to Moravians to learn that the founders of our church viewed Scripture as ministerial rather than essential. The great Moravian theologian Luke of Prague said that “the Word of God is the first, greatest, and most necessary ministerial thing.”[5] It was the basis of all other ministerial things, which get their holiness from the Word, but the Word of God was not simply the words of the Bible. The true Word of God is the gospel of Christ and his commandments, not the words of Scripture alone. Luke, like earlier Moravians, believed that the Word of God is more clearly seen in the New Testament than the Old. This is the foundation of true faith without which no one can come to God. This did not diminish the status of Scripture because Scripture points to Christ. But it is Christ, not the written Bible that is essential. The Bible is the guiding rule of faith, and he taught Moravian ministers to distinguish “between the external writing of the law, with ink on paper or parchment, and the external reading of it, and the internal truths contained in it.”[6] Luke instructed preachers to pay close attention to four things when interpreting a passage: when was it written, where was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written.[7] Was a particular passage written in ancient Israel in the time of the Mosaic Law or was it written in the time of the early church and the Law of Love? The essential teachings of the Bible were illuminated through the Holy Spirit within the community of faith rather than in classrooms and libraries, according to Luke.[8]

One of the most important Moravian Confessions of Faith (1535) begins with a statement on the authority of Scripture.[9]  This was actually the first Christian confession of faith to begin with a discussion of the authority of Scripture. It says that the apostolic writings “should be preferred to the writings of anyone else as sacred to profane writings and divine to human ones.” It is interesting that this article defines Scripture as those writings “received by the fathers and endowed with canonical authority,” thus acknowledging that the canon of Scripture was determined by the early church rather than given directly by the apostles. The Confession of 1535 insists that Scripture be translated into modern languages rather than being treated like an arcane text for the intellectual elite. It should be “understood by all” and believed “implicitly and simply.” Scripture was inspired, not dictated, by God “through the instrumentality chiefly of Peter and Paul.”

Comenius                  One of the most important Moravian thinkers was John Amos Comenius who lived during a time of intense religious violence. Protestants fought Catholics; Lutherans fought Calvinists; Puritans fought Anglicans. He urged Christians to recognize that moderation is itself a part of Christian faith. Satan works by inflaming unholy passions and pushing people to extremes of rationalism empty of faith or fanatical devotion devoid of reason.  “We must therefore oppose Satan by keeping to a middle course 1. between neglect and abuse of the Scriptures, 2. between a life of profanity and one of superstition, 3. between neglect of discipline and harmful rigidity.”[10] He also argued that if the path ahead is uncertain, he advised, it is safer to keep to the middle so that you can move to the right or left as needed without becoming lost.

Comenius examined many of the doctrinal issues that were dividing Christians and he concluded that some of them could not be decided on the basis of Scripture alone. He blamed theologians, who seemed to think that “to know simply Christ seems too simple a theology,” for the disputes and divisions among Christians.[11] He reminded his readers that Satan was “a sophist” who was always offering arguments, just like a theologian. On the question of justification by faith or works, for example, Paul and James clearly disagree. Comenius concluded that both faith and works are necessary.[12] Rather than fighting over this, Christians should follow both Paul and James: “As Paul praises faith, you must put your trust in our beloved Saviour with all your heart. As James recommends works, you must do everything with a pure heart.”[13]

Comenius believed that true Christianity is simple, profound and powerful.[14] Politicians, priests, and lawyers create needless perplexity and complication. Comenius pointed out that the first religion was that of Abraham: “to believe in one God, to obey one God, to hope for life from God the fount of life.” He also quoted Micah 6:8 (“to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”) as a summary of true religion. “See, this was the whole of religion before the law and under the law, to grasp God by faith, to embrace God with love, and to hold God by hope.”[15] Comenius insisted that the Bible is the great fountain of divine truth and guidance, but it has to be studied carefully. Comenius urged people to apply reason to the study of Scripture. A Bible student starts “by learning all the biblical history,” but must go beyond this to perceive “the true meaning of these three articles: faith, love, hope.”[16] The ultimate goal of reading the Bible and being part of the community of faith is to become a renewed creation: a man or woman “created according to God, in justice and holiness of truth.”[17]

Simplicity in doctrine does not mean stupidity; nor does trust in God mean turning away from human responsibility. Faith and reason, service and devotion, love and reconciliation, realism and hope were united in Comenius’ thought, just as they were in the teaching of the Brethren from the beginning. Comenius continued and refined the Unity’s theological heritage that Christianity is not a matter of wrangling over the mysteries of salvation; it is a discipleship that allows a clear-minded commitment to social justice, personal integrity, interpersonal forgiveness, and sacrificial love. The one thing needful, for Comenius, was the Christ who provides a “paradise of the heart” in the midst of confusion and frustration by leading believers out of self-centeredness and greed into universal love and justice.

Zinzendorf                 As you probably know, the Moravian Church was reborn in the 1720s on the estate of Count Zinzendorf. He was one of the most creative theologians of modern times, and his ideas continue to shape the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf loved the Bible and even tried to translate the New Testament from Greek into modern German. One of his great innovations was taking individual verses of Scripture out of context and using them as “watchwords” for the day. Today these verses are chosen by lot, but originally Zinzendorf selected them personally. He wanted people to take the words of Scripture into their hearts and minds and let the words guide their actions and attitudes. Moravian liturgies, especially in Zinzendorf’s day, were composed primarily of Bible verses or paraphrases. Moravians were expected to know their Bibles so intimately that they would understand references to Elisha or the daughters of Philip.

It is important for readers of the Bible to recognize that Paul and Peter were both Christians and yet had different things to say about Jesus. The Bible does not speak objectively as a uniform and authoritative expression of a single viewpoint, and it is wrong for theologians to try to force it to do so. The diversity in the Bible increases its usefulness for the church. Zinzendorf agreed with modern biblical scholars that the Gospel of John was written last, but this makes it superior to the others according to Zinzendorf. He claimed that the Holy Spirit had more time to reveal the truth about Jesus to John than the other apostles.[18] But John should not simply replace Mark. Each of the gospels is necessary even if John is the key to understanding the whole Bible.  

The key to understanding Zinzendorf’s approach to the Bible, though, is his idea of religion of the heart. He believed that true religion is a matter of the heart or soul, not the mind alone. He did not have much sympathy for those who get wrapped up in the most obscure parts of the Bible and ignore what is clear. He claimed that the prophets sometimes received dark and confusing revelations; “even they had no clear concept of it in the understanding.[19] The Bible includes a number of voices speaking out of their own experience; therefore the personal histories and personalities of the biblical authors shape their expression of revelation.[20] Even more provocatively, Zinzendorf openly acknowledged that the Bible is flawed in its historical details and lacks the artificial beauty of the classics. The Bible is not a perfect book, but this only proves that it is true to God’s purpose and to human life.[21] God let the authors speak out of their own experience. Zinzendorf argues that it is a terrible error, perhaps even a sin, to try to force the Bible to speak with a single voice, or to “improve” it. “The fact that the Bible has so many errors (scarcely a book today would be published with as many), is, for me at least, an unassailable proof for its divinity. Why?  It was so much the desire of the Lord that not a syllable in the divine teaching of the Holy Scriptures be altered.”[22]

Zinzendorf valued the Old Testament more than the original Moravians did, but he agreed with them that the Old Testament must be interpreted through the New Testament. He claimed that the Old Testament is actually about God the Son not the Father. Here in Pennsylvania Zinzendorf preached: “In the Old Testament people knew about no other God at all except our Lord Jesus, who at that time was called Jehovah.”[23] Zinzendorf believed that the Bible teaches that Christ is the Creator.[24] The first chapter of the Gospel of John clearly paints Jesus as the pre-existent logos who is the creative force in the universe. Zinzendorf accepted the tradition that Isaiah 9:6 is a messianic prophecy, but he focused on the idea that the messiah would be called “almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Zinzendorf points to other passages of the New Testament that explicitly or implicitly identify Christ as the Creator (e.g. Heb. 1:8 f., and especially Col. 1:16) in order to show that those who deny that Christ is the Creator are denying the plain truth of scripture.[25] The Creator was incarnate in Jesus.

“Indeed, when they [the theologians] ask us for a single axiom from which we derive with our doctrine all other principles; when they ask us for the two chief lines of the Bible without which the Bible is and remains a chaos of nonsense; when they ask I say, the two chief propositions upon which scriptural doctrine stands and falls: the first is that there is a Savior, and the second is that the Savior is the Creator.”[26]

The doctrine of Christ as Creator was so important to Zinzendorf that he dared publicly to disagree with the Apostle Paul who in I Cor. 15:24 subordinates the Son to the Father.[27]  Since the Savior is the Creator, there is no separation between creation and redemption. The same God who made human creatures also came to redeem them. We can debate the merits of Zinzendorf’s theology another time, but the idea that Christ is the creator was part of Moravian doctrine well into the 19th century. The important thing for our discussion this morning is that Zinzendorf and his followers had a clear method for making sense of the Bible. Christ is the Word of God who was incarnate. We read the Bible through the mind of the redeemer. The Bible is a living book of revelation because Christ is a living presence in the community of faith.

New Testament Practice                  The Moravians in Herrnhut tried to create a new Christian community based on the teachings of the NT rather than simply following tradition. This meant that they ordained women to offices in the church since women were among the disciples, apostles, and elders of the early church. They called each other brother and sister, and insisted that clergy are servants rather than lords. They exchanged the Kiss of Peace and shared in lovefeasts and footwashings. They believed that Christ had made all people, not just white people, and that Christ had purchased all people through his blood. This meant that slaves and Indians were brothers and sisters who were to be loved not exploited. The first worship service in the new sanctuary of the Salem church in North Carolina in 1771 gives you some idea of just how radical the Moravian’s interpretation of the NT was. An African named Sam was baptized and received into the congregation with a kiss given by the white pastor. Can you imagine anywhere else in America where a white man would kiss a black man publicly and call him brother? The limits of the Moravian view of Scripture, though, were also evident in that service. Sam remained a slave after his baptism.

Spangenberg was less provocative than Zinzendorf, but he also acknowledged that the canon of Scripture was determined by the bishops of the early church. He believed that both testaments provide reliable information about the nature of God and God’s will for human beings, but he rejected the notion that the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible verbatim. Like Zinzendorf, he asserts that the Holy Spirit let each author write according to his own natural ability and knowledge. “If they gave him only their heart, and were willing to be led and governed by his Holy Spirit, for all the purposes he had with them, he then left all the rest to take its own natural course, as far as there was nothing sinful in it.”[28] This is a far cry from fundamentalist theories of “plenary inspiration” in which the biblical authors were stenographers of the Spirit.[29] Spangenberg viewed the Bible as the source of doctrine and moral instruction, and he is not all concerned over the historical issues raised by critical study of the Bible.[30] He wants people to focus on the central teaching of the Bible: redemption through Christ.

Spangenberg asserts that those who have accepted their redemption in Christ are empowered to live by an ethic of love. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they will be able to love their neighbors and so fulfill the demands of the Decalogue. His love ethic has radical potential since all humans are our neighbors. Followers of Christ must love all people “whether friends or foes, whether of the same religious persuasion” or not. “We must be obliged to say, Thou shalt love all men as thyself, whether converted or unconverted, whether Christians, Jews, Turks, Pagans, or by whatever name they may be called.”[31] The opposite of love is hatred, which is the desire to harm others or to rejoice in the harm that they suffer. Spangenberg insists that “hatred against any man is therefore not compatible with a heart, that has experienced Jesus to be its Saviour.”[32] He is intolerant of hatred, calling it a “notorious work of the flesh” that will prevent a person from entering the Kingdom of God. It is part of the fallen condition of humankind that must be overcome by grace. Sanctification is characterized by love for all people. This love must include the love of one’s enemies. “Now, if any one loves his enemy, then he not only seeks to avoid whatever might hurt him; but he is also inclined, and earnestly intent upon doing every thing to the utmost of his power, to the furtherance of that which can be of service to him.”[33]

19th and 20th centuries      After the death of Zinzendorf, the Moravian Church grew more conservative theologically and socially. The church’s leaders were profoundly frightened by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Europe. In America, they were afraid of the emotionalism of the Second Great Awakening and the rationalism of the liberals. A Moravian synod approved a statement of the Chief Doctrines of the church in the late 18th century. Originally there were four chief doctrines, but by the end of the 19th century the number had been expanded to eight. Americans sometimes called these 8 doctrines the Essentials. Interestingly, the Bible itself was not one of the eight chief doctrines, but it was the basis for them all. “The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments are and shall remain the only rule of our faith and practice.  We venerate them as God’s Word, which he spake to mankind of old time in the Prophets and, at last, in His Son and by his Apostles to instruct us unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  We are convinced that all truths that declare the will of God for our salvation are fully contained therein.”

In 1914 the following paragraph was added:  “We hold fast to our genuine Moravian view, that it is not our business to determine what the Holy Scriptures have left undetermined or to contend about mysteries impenetrable to human reason.  We would keep steadily in sight the aim set before us by the apostle Paul, Eph. 4:13, 14, that we may “all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”  At the same time, we would never forget that every human system of doctrine remains imperfect, for, as the same apostle says, I Cor. 13:9: “We know in part.””

This was the basis for the statement we now have in the Ground of the Unity. Although the Moravians grew more conservative over time, they did not jump on the fundamentalist bandwagon. Over the centuries the church has been remarkably consistent in its teaching on the Bible even if specific doctrines and practices have changed.

1) The Bible is authoritative for the teaching and practice of the church. Congregational worship and Christian ethics should be grounded in the New Testament.

2) Both the Old and New Testament are divine revelation, but the NT should be used to interpret the Old. We are first and foremost followers of Christ. We cannot understand the revelation of God without experiencing Christ. Jesus is our guide for interpreting the whole Bible.

3) The Bible is a complicated and confusing book that does not provide a clear system of doctrine. It was written over many centuries by many different people who were inspired in different ways by God. It is important to focus on the central message of the Bible rather than getting lost in obscurities.

4) The central story of the Bible is that we were made by a loving God who wants us to be happy and healthy. But we are corrupted by sin, hatred, greed, and the fear of death. We cannot save ourselves, but God took on human form in order to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus Christ was the living Word of God who is the full revelation of God for humankind, and we can be united with Christ in love. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit we are able to live as God would have us live. We will never be perfect, but we can learn to love and serve.

5) The Bible is a book about liberation from sin, hatred, and death. It teaches us that all people are our neighbors and our brothers and our sisters.

6) We should expect different people and different churches to interpret the Bible in different ways. Are differences are less important than what unites us as followers of Jesus.


[1] Wagner, Chelčický, 86-89.

[2] Chelčický, Triple Division, 139-140.

[3] Brock, Unity of Czech Brethren, 86.

[4] Paul Ricouer, “The ‘Sacred Text’ and the Community,” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, tr. by David Pellauer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 68-74 discusses the crucial difference between the Bible as an authoritative text and as a sacred object. “Maybe in the case of Christianity there is no sacred text, because it is not the text that is sacred but the one about which it is spoken.” The Bible has authority because it is the defining text for the community and its life. “Preaching is the permanent reinterpretation of the text that is regarded as grounding the community; therefore, for the community to address itself to another text would be to make a decision concerning its social identity.”

[5] Müller, I:462.

[6] Molnár, Bratr Lukás, 82, quoted by Crews, “Luke of Prague,” 38.

[7] Quoted by Müller, Geschichte der böhmische Brüder, I:462.

[8] Peschke, Kirche und Welt, 170.

[9] Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions, I:801-802.

[10] Panorthosia, II:204.

[11] Unum Necessarium, 97.

[12] Panorthosia, II:13-133,

[13] Panorthosia, II:142.

[14] Unum Necessarium, 64.

[15] Unum Necessarium, 88-89.

[16] Unum Necessarium, 73.

[17] Unum Necessarium, 74.

[18] Beyreuther, Studien, p. 38; Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 4, p. 101.

[19] Gemeinreden (ZH 4), Anhang 2, p. 18.

[20] Wundenlitanei Homilien (ZH 3) 15, p. 145. Even errors in astronomy were tolerated by the Holy Spirit; Spangenberg, Apologetische Schluß Schrift (ZE 3), p. 146.

[21] “Therefore it is a great thing that the Holy Scripture was brought together with a great heavenly wisdom out of a hundred pieces, and their proper purpose is not at all to run together a series of thoughts in a flowing connection, like a system. Instead it [concerns] faith matters which concern the ground point of our blessedness and way of life.”  Gemeinreden (ZH 4), part 2, Intro., p. 2-3 (unnumbered). In Bettermann’s judgment, p. 17, “The many historical mistakes of the scriptures are to him [Zinzendorf] a sign of their divine truth, because here human ambition which always must improve and correct until no one can find any more fault with the book fails.”

[22] Wünden Reden 15 (ZH 3), p. 144.

[23] Pennsylvania Sermons, First Sermon, p. 19.

[24] Kinder Reden (ZE 6) 84, pp. 411-412; Beyreuther, Studien, p. 11 f.

[25] Pennsylvania Sermons, Sermon 1.

[26] Gemeinreden (ZH 4) 37, pp. 153-154.

[27] Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 4, p. 96.

[28] Idea, 42.

[29] Idea, 42.

[30] Hans Frei, Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974), 38-40.

[31] Idea, 360-361.

[32] Idea, 361.

[33] Idea, 365.

Eco Camp at Laurel Ridge

I just finished a week of camp at the Moravian summer camp called Laurel Ridge in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It’s been 20 years since I’ve been a camp counselor, and it was a wonderful week. This was the third Eco Camp, and my daughter Madeleine has been to all three. Since I had to drive her 500 miles this year to go to camp, I decided to just stay as a counselor and I’m glad I did. I had a cabin of 7 boys ranging in age from 8-10, and it has been a long time since I’ve been in the middle of so much energy. It was almost too much some nights, but my co-counselor was a young seminary student who was wonderful with the boys. I had to adjust to the fact that I am no longer the “cool” and “fun” counselor.I was the definitely the dad, but the kids really wanted a dad. Aaron started reading to them from the Gospel of John after we had our “candle talk” each evening, and they quieted right down. One boy told another that he should be a preacher one day. He started jumping up and down shouting “I’m going to be a preacher when I get big.” Then he said, “I can’t wait to tell them that at Temple. No, wait! I’ll have to be a rabbi!” We didn’t know until then he was Jewish. He was the one who was doing back flips on his bed the first night. Who knows, there may be a back flipping rabbi who loves the Moravians one day!

It was the first time Madeleine had ever gone fishing and I saw her catch her first fish. I caught a couple, but I spent most of the afternoon helping boys remove their fish and untangle their lines. I also climbed a tree, which I always loved as a boy, and caught salamanders in the creek. It was such fun. The purpose of the camp is to awaken a love of and understanding for God’s creation, and I think it succeeds admirably. David Guthrie and Rick Sides created the camp three years ago, and they apply Comenius’ theory of education. Children learn best by doing and by exploring according to their own interests. Adults are there to keep them safe and help direct them to healthy activities, but learning comes from the children’s encounter with God’s world not from adults talking. We had a couple of professors from local colleges there to help the children learn about the plants and animals. One of them caught frogs and mice and  chipmunks (safely) for the children to observe. Another caught and banded some birds. An apiary expert brought his hives and campers got to hold drone honey bees. We chewed on black birch twigs and fresh mint to refresh us, and splashed in the creeks. Every camper got suitably dirty. No one had to be sent home for bad behavior, and all of the counselors were engaged with the same activities as the kids. One of the highlights for me was our long hike around the mountain. I never knew that 3rd graders could out hike me and still have energy to play.

For worship our last night we went to many of the sacred places where they had played and learned and laughed and hugged, and there we read scripture. We stood on the northern overlook and read Psalm 122. We stood looking over the ferns on the mountain slope and read Matthew 6. Do not be anxious. This world was made by God and is a good creation. Treat it with love. Treat it with respect. And know that you belong.

Mothers Day and the Christian Church

Mothers Day is one of the most commercially successful holidays of the year. Americans spend billions of dollars on flowers, greeting cards, meals out, and other ways to express affection for mothers. It set the standard for all of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” designed to get people to buy gifts and greeting cards, but Mothers Day is something more than a marketing tool. I suspect that most churches and synagogues (and increasingly mosques as well) do something special on the second Sunday in May even though Mother’s Day is not part of any religion’s official liturgical calendar.

In fact, it is one of the great festivals of American Civil Religion. Civil Religion is a term coined by sociologists to describe the way a secular government creates a shared sense of identity without a state church to sanctify the political and social order. People of almost any faith or no faith can participate in the sacred festivals and rituals of Civil Religion. There are the rituals of patriotism like standing for the national anthem, flying the flag, and making pilgrimages to the Lincoln memorial. And we have holidays (rather than holy days) to reaffirm the key doctrines of civil religion, such as respect for government (President’s Day), expressing gratitude (Thanksgiving), and honoring our soldiers (Veteran’s Day). Over time, these things gain an aura of timeless sanctity and are part of our schools, in youth organizations, in the media, churches and synagogues, and even through sporting events.

One of the most popular of these observances is Mothers Day, which was officially proclaimed a national observance by Congress in 1914. It is ironic that Mothers Day was added to the national calendar in the same year that World War I broke out because Mothers Day actually began as part of the peace movement. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Ann Jarvis tried to establish a Mother’s Friendship Day that would reunite families that had been divided by the recent conflict. She hoped that women could begin to heal the wounds caused by men. Julia Ward Howe, who had rallied troops with her sanguine Battle Hymn of the Republic joined Jarvis in the anti-war movement in 1872. Grieving mothers and widows, they believed, understood that the pain of war continues long after victory is declared. Despite the efforts of Jarvis, Howe, and others it was decades before Mothers Day was a reality. Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Marie, took up the cause after her mother’s death in May 1905. Her Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia had a special observance of Mothers Day in 1907, but it was the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker who brought the observance to national attention in 1908 by holding ceremonies in his store. Before long West Virginia and other states adopted the observance, and Jarvis campaigned to make it a national holiday. Jarvis herself protested at the way Mothers Day was commercialized because she believed it was in danger of losing its deeper meaning.

I have found that Mothers Day is a very big affair in some churches, especially African American congregations, but liturgical churches often find Mothers Day awkward since it is not part of the Christian liturgical calendar. There is also the fact that God is the only proper focus of worship. There are dangers when we use worship to “honor” any human other than God. Some churches do honor the saints, of course, but not all mothers are saints by any means. For many people Mothers Day is a time of sadness and grief rather than joy and warmth.

Perhaps if we reclaimed some of the original intention of Mothers Day, we could find a way to observe the second Sunday in May as a liturgical feast rather than simply as a form of Civil Religion that has encroached on worship. What if we used the day not only to honor our own mothers (who may indeed be saints, like mine was), but to lift up all of those mothers around the world who are grieving because of war, violence, AIDS, and poverty? What if Mothers Day were a time to lift up in prayer those mothers who are campaigning to rid God’s good earth of land mines and other obscene weapons of terror and death? What if Mothers Day were a day to pray for women who seek to heal the wounds caused by men?

What if all churches took a cue from Count Zinzendorf in the 18th century and set aside Mothers Day to offer our prayers to God the Holy Spirit who comforts us “as a mother comforts her children”? What if we took just one Sunday out of the fifty-two allotted and preached about God as a mother hen longing to gather her children? What if churches put John 3:16 in its proper context and preached about the Holy Spirit as the one who rebirths us as true children of God? What if Protestants took one Sunday to preach about Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Ruth in the Old Testament as living images of God? Why not include Mothers Day in our liturgical calendars as a festival  reconciliation and divine forgiveness? We all should have two mothers: the one who bore us in her body and God: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11)

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.

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.

In Essentials Unity….

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.