Thursday, March 1, 2012

Those Moravians—The Oldest Protestants

The Seal of Unitas Fratrum, The Moravian Church 

Readers of this blog are an educated and sophisticated bunch, which is why you flock to this page in unprecedented numbers.  In particular, many of you are very savvy about religion and religious history.  Which is why you probably know for a fact the Protestant Reformation began on that day in 1517 when the German monk Martin Luther allegedly nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.

But, of course, you would be wrong.  Sixty years earlier on March 1, 1457 The Unitas Fratrum was established in the village of Kunvald, on the Bohemian-Moravian borderland, both part of the loose Holy Roman Empire.  Most scholars point to this event as the establishment of the first modern Protestant denomination who would come to be known to the world as the Bohemian Brethren and latter simply as the Moravians.

Some credit the Waldensians, who arose in 12th Century Italy, with being first.  But they had been all but wiped out as heretics and driven deep underground and were barely functioning by the mid 1450’s.  Yet Moravian tradition asserts that these underground Waldensians passed ecclesiastical authority to the new group.

The true roots of these Brethren were with Jan Hus, a celebrated martyr burned at the stake in Konstanz for heresy on July 6, 1415 by order of the great Church Council meeting in that southern German city.  Hus had let a popular movement in Bohemia and Moravia calling for reform in the Catholic Church.  Many of his proposed reforms were really just an appeal to return to the norms of the Orthodox Church which had been usurped in the region—liturgy in Czech, the language of the people; the laity receiving communion of both bread and wine; married priests; and eliminating indulgences and the idea of Purgatory.

Hus had received support from the Bohemian King Wenceslaus—the very king made famous in an English carol—and local nobles and was elevated to Rectorship of the University of Prague.  Both the King and Hus were caught up in the complicated politics in the church which was then riven by opposing Popes.  Eventually Hus was declared a heretic.  Several papal armies attempted to suppress his movement but were defeated, as was a rebellion by local Catholics.

But Wenceslaus eventually had to withdraw support in hopes of being crowned Holy Roman Emperor.  The Council at Kunvald settled the question of Papal legitimacy then exercised its new unified power by condemning Hus and smashing his movement.

The suppression of the Husites was so complete that many people to this day believe that Hus left no church, that he was a premature dead end.

But the beliefs of Hus were kept alive underground for generations.  This ability to lie low and rise up again would be a recurring theme and even become an article of faith—the Hidden Seed which could survive long periods of suppression and then spring to life once more.

From their humble beginnings in Kunvald, the Brethren spread rapidly over most of the Czech lands.  They quickly won over most of the landed aristocracy and the thriving burgers of the cities.  They won wide support by establishing schools in every village giving instruction in Czech as well a teaching Latin and German at the higher levels.  This spread literacy to an unprecedented degree across the region.  By the mid-15th Century—about the time Luther was getting started—it is estimated that 90% of Czech speaking Bohemians and Moravians were Protestant.

And their movement spread north to Poland where the Polish Brethren, who developed even more revolutionary beliefs that included unitarian theology, also flourished.

Alarmed, authorities in Rome decided finally to fight back by sending in the Marines—I mean Jesuits.  They first established their own schools to counter the ones operated by the Brethren.  But their schools only instructed in Latin.  A crusade against instruction in the vulgate followed. 

By 1618 the very Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, sought to reassert his authority by imposing a Catholic as King of Bohemia and March of Moravia.  Fearing the loss of their rights, local nobles rebelled in the Bohemian Revolt, which was finally crushed in 1621.  The nobles were deposed or executed and Germans placed in their spots by the Hapsburg rulers of the Empire

The war, subsequent repression, and the Black Plague depopulated Bohemia which was reduced from more than three million residents to less than 800,000.  The weakened population could not resist.  The Jesuits seized the Brethren schools and forbad the teaching of Czech or its use as an official or court language.  The Brethren were forced underground and into exile by brutal suppression.  A similar fate befell their Polish cousins.

Small bands of exiles spread across Northern Europe.  Holland, a refuge for dissidents, became home to many.  Other scattered across the German principalities, out of reach of the Emperor. For a hundred years they survived underground or in exile, once again the Hidden Seed.

In 1722 a small band of the Hidden Seed who had survived in deep hiding in Moravia, escaped the rotting Empire and accepted the protection of a local nobleman in Berthelsdorf, in present day Saxony in eastern Germany.  Under his protection they founded a village, Herrnhut which grew into a city as the exiles were joined by hundreds, then thousands of others.

On August 13, 1727 the exiles gathered at the parish church of Berthelsdorf with the encouragement of the nobleman, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, they united to renew the ancient Unitas Fratrum.  The modern Moravian church was reborn.

The Moravians thrived in their new home, not only collecting more members of their diaspora, but attracting the adherence of many German locals, particularly among the higher peasantry.  At least 30 more villages were founded and settled on the Herrnhut model which emphasized prayer and worship, and a form of communal living to assist the members in their spiritual growth. Christians from different confessional backgrounds were welcomed to participate in the discussions.  Christian education for children was emphasized and the communities became centers of support for the Moravian Mission work throughout the world.

In Europe small “renewal groups” were encouraged to function within existing churches.  These diaspora societies spread pietic Christianity as firm tendency in many national churches.

In fact the Moravians were really the first missionary Protestants.  They dispatched not only clergy, but pious and learned laymen with their families.  Within a mere 30 years Moravian missionaries were at work across the globe—the Caribbean, North and South America, the Arctic (Greenland and Iceland), Africa, and the Far East. They ministered not just to Europeans on those distant shores, but particularly to the native peoples and even to slaves.

In North America, the Moravians took a particular interest in the native nations.  As early as 1740 they were working among the Mohicans of New York.  The British colonial government, fearful that the Mohicans would ally with the French, expelled the Moravians from the colony, but some Mohican bands continued their congregations on their own.

About the same time Moravian settlers arrived in Pennsylvania.  Count Zinzendorf himself along with David Nitschmann established the settlement of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, 1741.  Many Moravians settled in the area. They also ministered to the Algonquian speaking Lenape, also known as the Delaware.  This was some of their most successful work until peaceful villages of Moravian Lenape were forced into exile in Canada after the American Revolution settling around Morviatown, Ontario.

Other Moravians helped settle North Carolina, including establishing Salem, now part of Winston-Salem.  In 1801 they began an ambitious mission to the Cherokee which continued until that tribe was forcibly removed in the Trail of Tears.

The Moravians, often the only organized Christians on the frontier, played a key part in early American history.  But their pacifism and unconventional religious beliefs often made them targets for repression and prejudice with the arrival of Methodist and Baptist saddlebag preachers.  Their pacifism made them suspect in time of war as did their support of the Indians.

After the early 19th Century, the American Moravians became less missionary.  The Moravian denomination persists in this country with congregations in 18 states. The highest concentrations are in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Bethlehem is the seat of the Northern Province and Winston-Salem of the Southern. There are probably less than 50,000 members.

Worldwide the modern Unitas Fratrum has about 850,000 members organized into 18 semi-autonomous Unity Provinces, seven Missionary Provinces, and dozens of missions.  By far the highest concentration of Moravians in the world is now in Tanzania, a tribute to its missionary roots.

Today Moravian theology, though pious, is charmingly simple and surprisingly liberal.  It is best summed up by their motto, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”

No wonder isolated Moravian congregations in the South sometimes drifted to Universalism.  And the motto could be a distillation of Theodore Parker’s fundamental Unitarian sermon, The Permanent and Transient in Christianity.


  1. Nice description, Patrick. These are, in an important sense, some of our radical-protestant spiritual ancestors. Of the motto, we may differ slightly on which parts are most essential, of course, but note that even there they said unity and not uniformity. (Patrick, you might want to change the last line to read Theodore Parker instead of Channing.) Good post!

    1. Thanks! Can't believe I made that rookie mistake on Trancient!