The Key Factor That Set the Moravian Missionaries Apart

The Moravian church experienced a move of God in 1727 at Herrnhut, Germany. Many people affected by that revival spent the rest of their lives doing missionary work in foreign lands.

The sending began in 1732. Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann set sail for the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas.

The sending continued for decades. From Greenland to South America, South Africa to Egypt, including a great work among Native Americans that was cut short by the Revolutionary War.

The Moravians were among the first modern missionaries and they influenced many others. Their passion and discipline were inspirational. Their methods were copied.

There was one thing that especially set the Moravian missionaries apart from their contemporaries: they were sent directly by their local church.

Historian Joseph Hutton pointed this out in his History of the Moravian Church.

In the quote below, Hutton points out that other European missionaries didn’t have the same direct connection to their local congregations. Some had been sent by organizations like the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. These were parachurch organizations formed because local churches were not doing this work.

Other European missionaries were actually sent by their government. The Moravians, on the other hand, came with absolutely no political strings attached.

They also came with no financial support. They had been sent by a local congregation unable to support them. The Moravian missionaries had learned trades by which they could support themselves.

As Hutton explains, the close connection to their local congregation made the Moravian missionaries unique. What they lacked in financial support they made up for in preparation and moral support.

Let us try to estimate the value of all this work. Of all the enterprises undertaken by the Brethren this heroic advance on heathen soil had the greatest influence on other Protestant Churches; and some writers have called the Moravians the pioneers of Protestant Foreign Missions. But this statement is only true in a special sense. They were not the first to preach the Gospel to the heathen. If the reader consults any history of Christian Missions he will see that long before Leonard Dober set out for St. Thomas other men had preached the Gospel in heathen lands.

But in all these efforts there is one feature missing. There is no sign of any united Church action. At the time when Leonard Dober set out from Herrnhut not a single other Protestant Church in the world had attacked the task of foreign missions, or even regarded that task as a Divinely appointed duty.

In England the work was undertaken, not by the Church as such, but by two voluntary associations, the S.P.C.K. and the S.P.G.; in Germany, not by the Lutheran Church, but by a few earnest Pietists; in Denmark, not by the Church, but by the State; in Holland, not by the Church, but by one or two pious Colonial Governors; and in Scotland, neither by the Church nor by anyone else.

At that time the whole work of foreign missions was regarded as the duty, not of the Churches, but of “Kings, Princes, and States.” In England, Anglicans, Independents and Baptists were all more or less indifferent. In Scotland the subject was never mentioned; and even sixty years later a resolution to inquire into the matter was rejected by the General Assembly {1796.}. In Germany the Lutherans were either indifferent or hostile. In Denmark and Holland the whole subject was treated with contempt.

And the only Protestant Church to recognize the duty was this little, struggling Renewed Church of the Brethren. In this sense, therefore, and in this sense only, can we call the Moravians the pioneers of modern missions. They were the first Protestant Church in Christendom to undertake the conversion of the heathen. They sent out their missionaries as authorised agents of the Church. They prayed for the cause of missions in their Sunday Litany. They had several missionary hymns in their Hymn-Book. They had regular meetings to listen to the reading of missionaries’ diaries and letters. They discussed missionary problems at their Synods. They appointed a Church Financial Committee to see to ways and means. They sent out officially appointed “visitors” to inspect the work in various countries. They were, in a word, the first Protestant Missionary Church in history; and thus they set an inspiring example to all their stronger sisters.

Hutton went on to point out the advantage the Moravians had because of their political independence:

As these Brethren laboured among the heathen, they were constantly coming into close contact with Governors, with trading companies, and with Boards of Control. In Greenland they were under Danish rule; in Surinam, under Dutch; in North America, under English; in the West Indies, under English, French, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese; and thus they were teaching a moral lesson to the whole Western European world.

At that time the West Indian Islands were the gathering ground for all the powers on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. There, and there alone in the world, they all had possessions; and there, in the midst of all these nationalities, the Brethren accomplished their most successful work. And the striking fact is that in each of these islands they gained the approval of the Governor.

They were the agents of an international Church; they were free from all political complications; they could never be suspected of treachery; they were law-abiding citizens themselves, and taught their converts to be the same; and thus they enjoyed the esteem and support of every great Power in Europe.