Count Zinzendorf’s Weird Help/Hurt Relationship With the Moravian Church

One of the most interesting aspects of Joseph Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church is his portrayal of Count Zinzendorf. As Hutton tells the story, Zinzendorf is both the good guy and the bad guy. His quirks and faults were as big as his virtues.

No doubt his generosity and wisdom was essential for the renewal of the Moravian Church in the 1720’s.

His generosity continued for the rest of his life. He funded them. But he also mismanaged his money and accumulated debt.

His help was essential, but it was a mixed blessing. In many ways he held them back even while helping them move forward.

He started a controversy in the 1740’s when he introduced his “Blood and Wounds Theology.” This steered the Moravian worship into an emphasis on the physical wounds of Jesus. The controversy became known as “The Sifting Time.”

Other historians have more or less exonerated Zinzendorf of the more extreme abuses of the Sifting Time. Joseph Hutton recognized this, but he himself laid the blame at Zinzendorf’s feet.

Hutton also blamed Zinzendorf for the failure of the Moravians to flourish in England. When they set up in England, they did not seek to plant congregations throughout the land. Instead, they had a single community, based on the Herrnhut model. It was difficult to join. Even if you were willing to submit to the regulations, you had to be approved by lot.

Zinzendorf introduced the Moravians to the practice of consulting the lot. This meant pulling a piece of paper out of an envelope. All decisions were finalized this way.

Fully qualified and motivated missionaries were not sent anywhere simply because they pulled the wrong piece of paper out of the envelope.

If two young Moravians wanted to get married, and they had the approval of their elders, they still only had a 50/50 chance. The lot either said “yes” or “no” and that was the last word.

When reading Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church one can’t but wonder if Zinzendorf really wanted to help them after all. The answer was yes, he wanted to help them to thrive, but only according to his own peculiar vision for them.

This is illustrated by the Moravians’ first church-wide convention. It was Zinzendorf who called this convention. He gathered the Moravian Church to strengthen and encourage it — and to announce that in fifty years it would cease to exist!

Here is how Hutton describes it. (“Geimeine” is a word that Zinzendorf made up to refer to a movement or denomination or something.)

At the first Synod, held at Ebersdorf (June, 1739), the Count expounded his views at length. He informed the Brethren, in a series of brilliant and rather mystifying speeches, that there were now three “religions” in Germany — the Lutheran, the Reformed and the Moravian; but that their duty and mission in the world was, not to restore the old Church of the Brethren, but rather to gather the children of God into a mystical, visionary, ideal fellowship which he called the “Community of Jesus.”

For the present, he said, the home of this ideal “Gemeine” would be the Moravian Church. At Herrnhut and other places in Saxony it would be a home for Lutherans; at Herrnhaag it would be a home for Calvinists; and then, when it had done its work and united all the children of God, it could be conveniently exploded.

He gave the Moravian Church a rather short life. “For the present,” he said, “the Saviour is manifesting His Gemeine to the world in the outward form of the Moravian Church; but in fifty years that Church will be forgotten.” It is doubtful how far his Brethren understood him. They listened, admired, wondered, gasped and quietly went their own way.