Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

Chapter 1
Disappointed but Never Deterred

They met few people out here. There were no roads, no castles, no bustling towns, just rolling green hills covered with vegetation—so different from Europe. Back in Saxony, Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf would have been riding in the luxury of a carriage. But here, deep in Indian country, he rode on horseback.

Guided by Chief Skikellimy and several braves, Ludwig and his companions wound their way up Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, riding steadily toward the home of the Shawnee Indians in the valley’s upper reaches. As he rode, Ludwig thought of all the wonderful things that might come from this long journey. He hoped to negotiate with the Shawnees for permission for missionaries to enter their tribal land and live and work among them.

All went well as the party made their way along the Susquehanna River—until they forded a creek. Halfway across the creek, the girth strap on Ludwig’s saddle broke, and Ludwig tumbled backward from his horse into the frigid water, his saddle landing on top of him. Chief Skikellimy and the braves burst into uproarious laughter.

Martin Mack, one of Ludwig’s traveling companions, rushed to Ludwig’s aid, lifted the saddle from him, and pulled him to his feet.

“My poor brother,” Ludwig apologized in embarrassment. “I am an endless source of trouble!”

Martin clapped Ludwig on the back. “The way is treacherous,” he countered. “It could easily have happened to anyone. You stand aside, and I’ll take a look at your saddle.”

Once the saddle had been repaired and put back on his horse, Ludwig mounted up, and the group continued on. They traveled for several more days, stopping in the evening to pitch their tents and prepare a meal from the meager supplies they carried with them.

At last they reached a cluster of Shawnee villages. Since Ludwig imagined that it would take a number of days to win the confidence of the Shawnees, he paid closer attention than usual to where he pitched his tent. Finally he chose what seemed to be a good site, about twenty yards from his companions’ tents.

All went well the first night. The following day Ludwig sat on his bedroll and spread his books and papers on the ground in front of him. He jotted down several verses of a hymn he was composing and then picked up his journal and began making an entry for the day. As he wrote, a small movement caught his eye. He ignored it. Soon a huge snake was slithering across the papers spread in front of him. Ludwig froze. What should he do? He had no idea. He dared not breathe as he waited for the snake to strike him.

The creature simply ignored Ludwig and continued across the papers, disappearing out under the side of the tent. Ludwig let out a deep breath and put down his pen. Then, without any warning, the scene repeated itself as a second snake glided over the papers and disappeared outside. As soon as the snake was gone, Ludwig leaped up and bolted from his tent. He begged several Indians to come and see where the snakes were coming from, but he did not anticipate their reaction. They checked around inside his tent and then burst into gales of laughter.

One of the Indians pointed to a hole in the ground. “You have pitched your tent over the mouth of a snake den!” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Either you get used to the snakes, or you’ll have to move.”

Ludwig felt himself turning red with embarrassment. Back in Saxony no one ever laughed at him. They wouldn’t have dared! Besides, he seldom made mistakes like this. In Saxony he owned a castle and did not have to worry about scratching around for a good site to pitch a tent! Despite his humiliation, Count Zinzendorf was undeterred. He had come on a mission to negotiate with the Shawnees, and that was what he was going to do.

As Ludwig began to talk with the Shawnee chiefs, it soon became obvious that his negotiations were going nowhere. The Shawnees did not trust him, no matter how hard he tried to convince them that he had come in peace as a friend. Ludwig also noticed that Chief Skikellimy and the braves with him were growing suspicious of the Shawnees’ intentions.

Deeply frustrated by the situation, Ludwig sat in his tent one night and poured out his heart to God in prayer, asking Him what he should do. The next day Conrad Weiser, a man Ludwig had befriended in the colony, arrived at the Shawnee village. He was a well-known mediator and interpreter between Indians and whites. He was also well respected by the Shawnees, and he was able to quickly size up the situation.

That evening Conrad and Ludwig sat by the fire and talked.

“You were in great danger, Count Zinzendorf,” Conrad began. “The Shawnees were preparing to kill you all.”

Ludwig’s mouth dropped open. “Why?” he stammered. “I have done them no harm.”

“The Shawnees believed that you were an agent of people who want to get their hands on the silver deposits located in their territory. So they had decided the best thing for them to do was kill you all as a message to others who might come seeking their silver. I managed to convince them that you have no such intentions—that you have no interest in their silver, just their souls.”

“You are an answer to prayer then, my friend!” Ludwig exclaimed.

“Perhaps,” Conrad replied, “but I am afraid I have been unable to change the Shawnees’ minds regarding your request to send missionaries among them. On that they steadfastly refuse.”

“What are we to do then?” Ludwig asked.

“Ah,” Conrad said, “perhaps time will change things.”

“And prayer,” Ludwig added.

The following day the party packed up, and Conrad led them back the way they had come. As they rode along, Ludwig was disappointed that things had not gone as well with the Shawnees as he had hoped, but his zeal was not dampened. He believed that in time the Shawnees would have a change of heart and invite missionaries to come and live among them and teach them.

As the narrow trail led them back alongside the Susquehanna River, Ludwig thought back to his privileged life in Saxony. If his grandmother could see him now, in his muddy buckskins, with uncombed hair, and with only a few meager rations in his knapsack! She had preened and prepared him for life in the royal court in Dresden. But here he was, laying aside all that ease and privilege to be the first European nobleman to leave behind the edges of North American civilization and travel deep into Indian country. His life had certainly taken many unexpected detours from the course that was mapped out for him growing up in Saxony.

Chapter 2
“This Shame Shall Not Crush Me”

Four-year-old Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf wanted to scream, but he fought back the impulse. He also wanted to wave after the coach as it rumbled down the road, but he did not want to send the wrong message—that it was all right for his mother to leave without him. How could she? Why couldn’t she take him with her? And why did he now have to stay with his grandmother? Nobody had bothered to ask him what he wanted!

All these thoughts and emotions coursed through him as he watched the coachman crack the whip. The carriage sped up and soon disappeared into the surrounding woods. Ludwig stood and stared, the tears rolling down his cheeks. His mother was leaving him behind to live with her new husband, fifty-year-old Field Marshall von Natzmer, in Berlin. Now Ludwig would have to live with his grandmother and his aunt and uncle at Gross-Hennersdorf castle in Upper Lusatia, sixty miles east of Dresden. He had never known his father, who had died of tuberculosis when Ludwig was six weeks old, and his mother was now leaving him behind too. He had no idea whether he would ever see her again.

Just when Ludwig thought he could no longer stand the pain, he felt his grandmother wrap her arm around him. “Come, Ludwig. Things will work out. I will take care of you, and God will take care of you. You will see.” With that she guided him inside the castle.

Baroness Henriette Katrina von Gersdorf was true to her word. She took good care of her grandson, who soon was studying under the guidance of a watchful tutor. Ludwig’s life quickly fell into a busy routine, and it wasn’t long before the boy stopped thinking about his mother all of the time.

In the morning Ludwig had breakfast with his grandmother and then went off to reading class with his tutor. He ate lunch with his mother’s younger sister and brother, Aunt Henriette and Uncle Nicolaus. After more studies in the afternoon with his tutor, Ludwig sat down to dinner in the castle’s ornate dining room with his grandmother, aunt, and uncle.

During dinner the baroness would quiz her grandson on what he had learned that day. Ludwig knew how much she wanted him to do well in his studies. Unlike most noblewomen of her day, the countess had a well-rounded education herself. She was an accomplished oil painter, was fluent in Greek and Latin, and had a special interest in theology.

Indeed, the part of Ludwig’s education that his grandmother and aunt cared about most was his spiritual upbringing. Both the Gersdorf and Zinzendorf families were strong Lutherans. They went to church several times a week and sang hymns and had Bible readings every day in their castle. Baroness von Gersdorf encouraged Ludwig to write his own hymns and poems. She also often reminded Ludwig that his godfather had been Philip Jacob Spener, the great leader of Pietism in Germany. As well, August Franke, another leader of Pietism, often stayed at the castle and took a special interest in praying with Ludwig.

In fact, just about every person Ludwig knew was a strong Christian. So it was not surprising that he grew up thinking that every young boy prayed, sang hymns, and read his Bible. Ludwig had a simple, trusting faith in God. He would often write down his prayers on small pieces of paper, which he then threw from one of the upstairs windows, scattering them to the wind for God to read. And he had no reason to believe that God did not read his prayers and answer them all.

It was Ludwig’s devotion to prayer and Bible reading that kept the castle from being ransacked one day in 1706. Six-year-old Ludwig was sitting at the table with his Bible open, reading and praying, as he did each day, when the door to Gross-Hennersdorf castle burst open and a detachment of Swedish soldiers stormed in. The Swedes had overrun Saxony, the small German kingdom where Ludwig lived, and the soldiers were going through the countryside, rounding up supplies from various estates. Ludwig looked up when the soldiers burst in and then returned to his prayer and Bible reading. The soldiers stopped in their tracks and stared. Ludwig kept right on praying, and after a few moments the soldiers turned and left.

Two minutes later Baroness von Gersdorf and Aunt Henriette came running into the room. “Ludwig! Ludwig! We are safe. What did you say to the soldiers?” his grandmother gasped. “They left the castle saying they could not ransack this place because God watched over it.”

Ludwig was puzzled. “I just kept reading my Bible and praying,” he replied.

His grandmother tousled his brown hair. “Were you a little afraid?” she asked.

“No, Grandmother,” Ludwig replied. “I was reading how even the wind and waves obey Jesus, and it made me feel safe.”

“Quite right,” his grandmother agreed. “God can keep us safe from harm. We shall have to tell your mother all about it when she comes next week.”

“My mother is coming?” Ludwig asked, overcome with excitement.

“Yes,” the countess replied. “I was just coming to tell you when the soldiers arrived. She sent me a letter. Fredrick and Susanne are coming too.”

Young Ludwig’s heart raced. Fredrick and Susanne were his older half-brother and half-sister from his father’s first marriage. Ludwig was the only child of his father’s second marriage. When their father had died, the two older children had gone to live with their Uncle Otto von Zinzendorf, while Ludwig had stayed with his mother until she remarried.

Now that he was living with his grandmother, Ludwig always looked forward to seeing his mother. He thoroughly enjoyed her visits, including this one, and he continued to enjoy her visits in the coming years—until the time she sent word that she was coming to take him away. That time ten-year-old Ludwig dreaded her arrival. His mother and his grandmother had both decided that he should attend a boarding school in the city of Halle, 120 miles away. Although the two women agreed that this would be a good place for Ludwig to go to school, Uncle Otto, who controlled the Zinzendorf family money, was not happy with the decision. To him Halle was a hotbed of Pietists, Christians who put great emphasis on people’s knowing and experiencing God in their hearts. Uncle Otto wanted to send Ludwig to a more traditional Lutheran school that emphasized finding God in the traditions and theology of the church. Eventually, though, Ludwig’s mother and grandmother won Uncle Otto over, and he agreed to pay for Ludwig’s education in Halle. So, on August 5, 1710, Ludwig’s mother bundled him up and took him away from his grandmother’s castle.