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Reading 1: Early History of the Moravian Community
As a young Roman Catholic priest and professor at the University of Prague, the Bohemian-born Jan Hus (1369-1415) was drawn to the writings of English priest and reformer, John Wycliffe. Both men were offended by the behavior of some of their fellow clergy whom they accused of being ignorant of the Bible and selling indulgences (partial remission of punishments due for a sin). They also shared the belief that all members of the church should have the right and the opportunity to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Wycliffe had even translated the Bible from the official Latin language into English. Hus became well known for his writings about the need for religious reform. He was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415 when he would not recant his criticisms of Roman Catholic church practices.
After his death, Hus's followers remained convinced that the church needed reform. In 1457, the group was formally assembled as the Unitas Fratrum, one of the first organized Protestant religions. Members agreed to accept the Bible as their only standard of faith and to practice a code of behavior based on the principles of simplicity, purity, and brotherly love.
Unitas Fratrum members experienced periods when they were free to practice their faith openly as well as periods when they were persecuted. Prior to the German Reformation in 1517, the group claimed 200,000 members and 400 places of worship. Intolerance and the bloody Thirty Years' War (1618-48), a struggle between Protestants and Catholics for political power, took its toll. With the Peace of Westphalia at war's end, Catholicism became the official religion of Bohemia and Moravia. The few surviving members of the Unitas Fratrum either left their homeland or worshiped in secret, becoming known as "The Hidden Seed."
By 1722, few members of the Unitas Fratrum remained. The group was saved from extinction, however, when Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (1700-60) invited the remaining members to move to his estate in Saxony, a former region in Germany. An ordained Lutheran pastor, Zinzendorf allowed the members of many persecuted Protestant religious groups to live on his property. Together these groups built a settlement they named Herrnhut, which means "The Lord Watches Over." Zinzendorf believed that individual religious preference was less important than what he called "the congregation of God in the Spirit." Herrnhut was a place where all were free to practice their own religious beliefs.
Zinzendorf was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm and simplicity of the members of the Unitas Fratrum, who by this time were referred to as Moravians. He recognized in them the potential for fulfilling his own dream of preaching the gospel to those who did not share the same beliefs. The Moravians began missionary work as early as 1732. Some members traveled throughout Northern Europe, up and down the Rhine River, into England and Ireland, and as far away as Greenland and St. Croix, in an effort to spread their religious beliefs and establish new congregations.
In 1725, a group of exiles from Silesia (the northern region of Poland today), known as Schwenkfelders, had joined the other persecuted groups in Herrnhut. The Count of Saxony, concerned with the rapid rate of growth in Herrnhut, pressured Zinzendorf to stop allowing immigrants on his land. In 1733, the Count forced the Schwenkfelders to leave Saxony. After witnessing religious persecution again, some Moravians left Herrnhut to establish a settlement in North America where they could worship freely and concentrate on Christianizing the "heathens."
A small group of Moravians first settled in Georgia, but an oppressive climate and tension with the Spanish led the group to consider Pennsylvania, a colony known for its rich natural resources and extraordinary toleration of ideas. By 1741, they had purchased a 500-acre tract of land north of Philadelphia, along the Lehigh River. Along with Zinzendorf, the Moravians organized and built the religious communal society of Bethlehem. Although the settlement began with fewer than 20 people, the population had grown to several hundred by the 1750s. In their effort to Christianize American Indians and Africans in North America, the Moravians eventually established 32 mission towns. Bethlehem was the central location for all of the Moravian missionary activity in North America. Its existence was the fulfillment of Zinzendorf's dream:
The purpose for our coming into this region was not on account of making a living or for freedom of conscience --we had no lack of both--but the desire to also communicate to others that, which we know will further the eternal welfare.1
Questions for Reading 1
1. Who was John Hus and how did his beliefs lead to the formation of the Moravian Church?
2. How did the Thirty Years' War affect the Unitas Fratrum members?
3. Who was Count Zinzendorf and why did he welcome religious groups to his property?
4. Define "missionary work." Why was this work important to the Moravians?
Reading 1 was adapted from Dr. Hellmuth Erbe, A Communistic Herrnhut Colony of the Eighteenth Century. Elizabeth Bahnsen, trans. (Stuttgart: German Foreign Institute, 1929); Joseph Mortimer Levering, A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: 1741-1892 (Bethlehem, PA: Times Publishing Company, 1903); and W. Ross Yates, Bethlehem of Pennsylvania: The First Hundred Years, 1741-1841 (Bethlehem, PA: Bethlehem Chamber of Congress, 1968).
¹Dr. Hellmuth Erbe, A Communistic Herrnhut Colony of the Eighteenth Century. Elizabeth Bahnsen, trans. (Stuttgart: German Foreign Institute, 1929), 10.