Updated: Apr 15, 2020
History Part 4 - Early Years
The Reformation of the sixteenth century saw much-needed reform enter the European Church, which also caused the closing of many monasteries. The next great champion of 24/7 prayer would not appear until the start of the eighteenth century—Count Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf.
Zinzendorf was born in 1700 to an aristocratic but pious family. His father died when he was only six weeks old. The young boy was therefore brought up by his grandmother, a well-known leader of the Pietist movement and friendly with the established leader of the Pietists and young Zinzendorf’s godfather, Phillipp Spener. Growing up in the midst of such passion for Jesus, Zinzendorf speaks of his early childhood as a time of great piety: “In my fourth year I began to seek God earnestly, and determined to become a true servant of Jesus Christ.”
From the age of ten, Zinzendorf was tutored at the Pietist school of Halle under the watchful eye of Augustus Francke, another leader of the Pietists. There he formed a school club which lasted all his life, The Honourable Order of the Mustard Seed. After several years at Halle, Zinzendorf’s uncle considered the young count too much of a Pietist and had him sent to Wittenberg to learn jurisprudence, so that he might be prepared for court life. Soon the young count was accepted in various circles of society in Europe. He kept these connections for the rest of his life, although his position in the Dresden Court and future plans for Saxon court life as Secretary of State would not be fulfilled.
The Moravians and Herrnhut
In 1722, Zinzendorf bought the Berthelsdorf estate from his grandmother and installed a Pietist preacher in the local Lutheran church. That same year Zinzendorf came into contact with a Moravian preacher, Christian David, who persuaded the young count of the sufferings of the persecuted Protestants in Moravia. These Moravians known as the Unitas Fratrum were the remains of John Huss’ followers in Bohemia. Since the 1600s, these saints had suffered under the hands of successive repressive Catholic monarchs. Zinzendorf offered them asylum on his lands. Christian David returned to Bohemia and brought many to settle on Zinzendorf’s estate, forming the community of Herrnhut, The Watch of the Lord. The community quickly grew to around three hundred, yet, due to divisions and tension in the infant community, Zinzendorf gave up his court position and became the leader of the brethren, instituting a new constitution for the community.
The Hundred-Year Prayer Meeting and Subsequent Missions
A new spirituality now characterized the community, with men and women being committed to bands or choruses to encourage one another in the life of God. August of 1727 is seen as the Moravian Pentecost. Zinzendorf said August 13th was “a day of the outpourings of the Holy Spirit upon the congregation; it was its Pentecost.” Within two weeks of the outpouring, twenty-four men and twenty-four women covenanted to pray “hourly intercessions,” thus praying every hour around the clock. They were committed to see that, “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out” (Leviticus 6:13). The numbers committed to this endeavor soon increased to around seventy from the community. This prayer meeting would go non-stop for the next one hundred years and is seen by many as the spiritual power behind the impact the Moravians had on the world.
From the prayer room at Herrnhut came a missionary zeal which has hardly been surpassed in church history. The spark initially came from Zinzendorf’s encounter in Denmark with Eskimos who had been converted by Lutherans. The count returned to Herrnhut and conveyed his passion to see the gospel go to the nations. As a result, many of the community went out into the world to preach the gospel, some even selling themselves into slavery in order to fulfill the great commission. Their battle cry "May the Lamb who was slain receive the full reward of His suffering' reflect their zeal. This commitment is shown by a simple statistic. Typically, when it comes to world missions the Protestant laity to missionary ratio has been 5000:1. The Moravians, however, saw a much increased ratio of 60:1. By 1776, some 226 missionaries had been sent out from the community at Herrnhut. It is clear through the teaching of the so-called father of modern missions, William Carey, that the Moravians had a profound impact on him in regard to their zeal for missionary activity. It is also through the missions-minded Moravians that John Wesley came to faith. The impact of this little community in Saxony, which committed to seek the face of the Lord day and night, has truly been immeasurable.