Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was a remarkable nobleman who became one of the great mission leaders of all time. He lived during a period of great dislocation after the disastrous Thirty Years War” (1618-1648).
That on-again, off-again struggle was just about the most exhausting armed conflict in the history of central Europe. Essentially it involved Catholic efforts to regain territories lost to Protestants as various regional rulers took sides following the Reformation. Armies marched back and forth throughout Germany, opposing all that stood in their way. It is estimated that the decimation embraced one-third of all urbanites and two-thirds of all rural peasants. German princes, foreign interventionists, roving bands of ex-soldiers and religious groups (“Every church for herself”) made a horrible mix and mess.
The war broke out in Bohemia, which had become predominantly Protestant. There it all but extinguished the descendants of a vital pre-Reformation Pietist movement associated with Jan Hus. The group was known as the ancient Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of the Brethren. More than 1 million were slain, and bands of survivors sought refuge in Germany. One small group was welcomed to settle on Count Zinzendorf’s estate.
Zinzendorf had an unusually godly upbringing. His father died when he was only six weeks old. When his mother subsequently remarried, he was sent to live with his grandmother and aunt in a context (a castle) renowned for its Lutheran Pietism.
Both of these women read their Bibles in the original Hebrew and Greek. They brought the young Zinzendorf into contact with August Hermann Francke, and from his tenth birthday onward the boy studied at Francke’s Paedagogium in Halle. There he gained a vision of the church’s worldwide mission and took a vow always to be concerned for the Jewish people. Later, Zinzendorf studied law at the University of Utrecht. He seemed destined for a significant career in politics, but certain events took him in a different direction.
Shortly after Zinzendorf’s twentyfirst birthday, he acquired the large estate of Berthelsdorf from his grandmother and began to wonder what he should do with it. Then he learned about the need of that small band of Bohemian refugees and encouraged them to settle on his estate.
As refugees from all over began to learn of Count Zinzendorf’s welcome, the number of settlers increased. At first, Zinzendorf didn’t know what to make of these people. Then he began to reflect on their Christ-centeredness, their biblical orientation and their deliberate nonparochial outlook. In no time at all, he became deeply involved in their communal life and ardent worship.
Space prevents a detailed account of the subsequent history of Herrnhut, the village created on a hill of the Berthelsdorf estate, or of the amazing worldwide Moravian missionary movement that eventuated under Count Zinzendorf’s leadership. Suffice it to say that on August 13, 1727, after weeks of special prayer and discussion, the Holy Spirit was pleased to come upon that community. By the twenty- seventh, 48 members had covenanted together to devote themselves to “hourly intercession” for God’s blessing on the congregation and its worldwide witness. Then wonderful things began to happen!
Under Zinzendorf’s leadership, members were sent out near and far to exemplify “the simple truth that to be a Christian was to be involved in a mission to the whole world” (Lewis 1962:61). Particularly interesting is the fact that in Herrnhut’s first contingent of missionaries sent forth to the nations, Leonard Dober was sent to evangelize the Jewish people residing in Amsterdam. Furthermore, those who were sent out to share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles were specifically told that their task was to gather in “a few selected spirits, ‘Candace-souls’ (Acts 8:27) who were eager and waiting for the truth” (p. 88). Zinzendorf believed that no heathen race as a whole could be converted until the Jews had embraced Jesus as their Messiah (p. 88). Such was his understanding of Scripture.
Zinzendorf noted that the repeated efforts of the Apostles to evangelize the Jews recorded in Acts met with increased hostility and resistance. He endorsed the guidance God then gave them to turn to the Gentiles. But what particularly caught Zinzendorf’s imagination was the Apostle Paul’s conviction that toward the close of the Church Age, a renewed Jewish people would play an important role in God’s missionary purpose. First, there would be Israel’s wholesale turning to the Lord “and so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). In turn, Israel’s service under God’s direction would mean nothing less than “life from the dead” for the Gentile nations (Romans 11:15). To Zinzendorf, this meant that even the evangelization of the Jews in his day could be related to what God would do through them in the Last Day. After all, no one knew when He would commence His transforming work in their hearts.
By 1739, Moravians had been sent to Paramaribo, the capital of Dutch Suriname, where the first synagogue in all the Americas was located. They witnessed to both Jews and slaves. But because “their mission began to excite interest, especially among the Jews of the city,” the civil and ecclesiastical authorities became hostile, and the mission had to be withdrawn (Hamilton 1900:186).
At that time, Count Zinzendorf and his associates were in deep trouble themselves with the political and religious authorities in Germany. Because of their nonparochial approach to denominational loyalty, they were banished from Berthelsdorf. For almost ten years, they were “strangers and exiles” (Hebrews 11:13) even in their homeland. Fortunately, a wealthy member of the nobility came to their assistance and offered them residence in a half-ruined medieval castle in Ronneburg, east of Frankfurt am Main.
Would they accept this desolate refuge in such a wild and forbidding location? Zinzendorf agreed to look it over. When he did so, he found that 56 families of Jews and gypsies were occupying the castle’s outbuildings. Of course the Count, who had long sought to share his faith with leaders in Jewish communities in Europe, could not turn down this offer with its unexpected and exciting possibilities!
Soon Count Zinzendorf, his family and the missionary community took over the castle at Ronnenburg. Now the Moravians had both an operational headquarters and another new Jewish mission field! When their banishment ended, they returned to Herrnhut, and their years at Ronneburg (Wetteravia) entered the annals of God’s gracious work among and through the Moravians. There Zinzendorf had carried out his first ordination—that of the Moravian Peter B÷hler. (B÷hler became God’s instrument in bringing John Wesley to the assurance of his faith and the joy of full salvation.)
Count Zinzendorf’s ministry among the Jewish people set precepts and examples we would all do well to emulate. He made it a rule that once a year, on Israel’s solemn Day of Atonement, all Moravians should gather in their churches, get down on their knees and pray for the conversion of God’s chosen people. One of the petitions he inserted in the regular Moravian Sunday morning liturgy was:
Deliver thy people Israel from their blindness; bring many of them to know Thee, till the fulness of the Gentiles is come and all Israel is saved (Hutton 1909:245-245).
Count Zinzendorf’s example was equally impressive. On a voyage to the West Indies, he learned that the mother of a poor Jewish family in steerage was very sick. The record states that “he turned over his cabin to her while he spent the rest of the voyage below decks in the ill-smelling part of the ship” (Lewis 1962:19). One cannot but recall the occasion when some Jewish people commended to Jesus a Gentile of similar grace then living in Capernaum. They said of him, “He loves our nation” (Luke 7:5). Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was truly a “righteous Gentile.”
Many contend that William Carey (1761-1834) was the “Father of Modern Missions,” but Zinzendorf antedated Carey. Not only that, Zinzendorf spoke far more decisively and acted far more deliberately in making sure that the evangelization of the Jewish people would not be forgotten in his own day. Furthermore, he faithfully reminded Christians everywhere that Israel had a future and glorious role in the worldwide purpose of God. I regard Zinzendorf as the “Father of Modern Biblical Missions.”
- Hamilton, John Taylor History of the Moravian Church. Bethlehem, PA: Times Publishing Co. (1900).
- Hutton, J.E. History of the Moravian Church. London: Moravian Publication Office (1909).
- Lewis, Arthur James Zinzendorf, Ecumenical Pioneer. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press (1962).