Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

Within days of David’s arrival back at Herrnhut, Matthäus Stach and his brother Christian, along with Christian David, left the community bound for Greenland, with Friedrich Bohnisch following a year later. There, like Leonard on Saint Thomas, they would face many challenges, from the difficult language they needed to learn to hostile Eskimos who thought they had come to steal from them. With the sending of these first missionaries to Saint Thomas and Greenland, while the Moravians were still praying for the firstfruits, something beyond even Ludwig’s imagination had begun.

Chapter 9
The Expanding Work

Although a lot of government suspicion had been aroused regarding Herrnhut, the community continued to thrive, with more Christians continuing to arrive from all over Germany and beyond. One of these new arrivals at Herrnhut would prove to be a loyal friend and helper to Ludwig. He was twenty-nine-year-old August Gottlieb Spangenberg, a brilliant scholar who had recently earned a master’s degree from the University of Jena. On a trip through Jena, Ludwig had met August and immediately liked him. August was a good-natured and genuine man and was one of the leading Pietists at the university. He also had a habit of putting his faith into action, and in Jena he had helped found several free schools for poor children.

In late spring 1733 August decided to join the Herrnhut community. Ludwig was delighted with August’s decision, and soon after his arrival at Herrnhut, August became Ludwig’s personal assistant. Like Erdmuth, he handled many of the daily details of Ludwig’s life as well as of the Herrnhut community.

In December 1733 Ludwig asked August to accompany Tobias Leupold, along with fourteen men and four women, as far as Copenhagen. The group was bound for Saint Thomas and the nearby island of Saint Croix. Tobias was to replace Leonard on Saint Thomas. While absent, Leonard had been voted the new chief elder of the community and needed to return to Herrnhut as soon as possible.

Another large meeting was held to commission the new missionaries and send them on their way. During the service Ludwig spoke from his heart, instructing the missionaries. “Remember,” he said, “you must never use your position to lord it over the heathen. Instead you must humble yourself and earn their respect through your own quiet faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. The missionary must seek nothing for himself, no seat of honor or hope of fame. Like the cabhorse in London, each of you must wear blinkers that blind you to every danger and to every snare and conceit. You must be content to suffer, to die, and to be forgotten.”

While he waited for Leonard to return and take up his new position, Ludwig appointed eighteen-year-old Anna Nitschmann to fill in as chief elder. Anna had more than proved her worth and her faith as head of the single women’s choir.

A short time after the departure of the missionaries for Saint Thomas and Saint Croix, another group left the Berthelsdorf estate. Ludwig sadly said good-bye to the Schwenkfelders, who were on their way to Holland, from where they planned to sail to North America.

With the group of missionaries safely on their way to the Caribbean, Ludwig set about fulfilling his plan of becoming a Lutheran pastor. He dared not tell his mother what he was up to. He knew she would be horrified that her son, a count, was willing to stoop to become a pastor. Of course he knew that word would eventually get back to her, but he would wait until then to discuss the matter with her.

On his return from Copenhagen, August helped Ludwig to study and prepare for the rigorous process of ordination. In April 1734 Ludwig felt ready to travel to Stralsund for his first set of examinations. The exams, which were conducted in both German and Latin, lasted for three days. At the end of the examinations, Ludwig was required to preach a series of five sermons.

Much to his delight, Ludwig passed all the examinations and the preaching test and was given a certificate of orthodoxy. This meant that he was now able to apply to become a Lutheran pastor, though this next step required a lot of patience on his part, as he needed to have an exception made for him. Normally, before he could be ordained, a Lutheran pastor had to name the Lutheran congregation that had called him. But Ludwig had no congregation to call him. The people he wanted to minister to were the Christians at Herrnhut, and they were not a recognized Lutheran congregation. Ludwig began writing letters to influential church and state leaders, hoping to find a way around the situation.

Meanwhile Erdmuth gave birth to an eighth child. Their second daughter, whom they named Anna, was born on August 7, 1734. The following month, Leonard finally arrived back at Herrnhut from Saint Thomas. With him he had a seven-year-old black boy named Oly.

Soon after his arrival, a meeting was held so that Leonard could report to the community on his missionary work on Saint Thomas. The atmosphere in the room was electric as Leonard stood to speak. Everyone first wanted to know about Oly.

“Oly is the firstfruit of the work on Saint Thomas,” Leonard began.

Ludwig watched with delight as a broad smile spread across Oly’s face at these words.

“Soon after Brother David left Saint Thomas to return here to Herrnhut, Oly befriended me. He is an orphan boy, and his company cheered me through many lonely times. Together we played and laughed, and slowly I told him about the Savior’s love. At first he did not seem interested, but then one day after many months, Oly told me that he now wanted to believe in God and become a Christian. Of course I was delighted and wept with joy at his decision. He was the first, but he will not be the last. Others will follow his lead.”

Ludwig listened carefully to all that Leonard had to say. The work of proclaiming the gospel in foreign lands was difficult, but bit by bit it was moving forward.

While everyone sat spellbound, Leonard went on to tell how he had taken care of many black slaves who were sick with malaria. Most of them had died, but the other slaves noticed Leonard’s selflessness in ministering to those who became sick. When a slave revolt broke out on the nearby island of Saint John, every white man except one was killed. The white slave owners on Saint Thomas feared that the rebellion would spread to their island and that the slaves would rise up and kill them. They ordered all whites off the plantations for their own safety, but Leonard refused to leave. He explained that God had called him to minister to the slaves, and if he was killed in the course of doing that, he was ready to die.

Thankfully the revolt did not spread to Saint Thomas, and eventually French troops were brought in to quell the rebellion on Saint John, but not before several hundred slaves had been killed.

It wasn’t the slave rebellion, however, that nearly claimed Leonard’s life; rather it was malaria. Leonard had become sick before Christmas and had spent days lying on his bed, hovering between life and death. When he finally recovered, he abandoned trying to make a living as a potter. There was virtually no suitable clay on the island to fashion into pots. Instead Leonard took a job as a night watchman to earn his keep. All in all, Leonard summed up his time on Saint Thomas as both challenging and rewarding. God had blessed him and blessed others through him.

Following Leonard’s report on the progress of missionary work on Saint Thomas, many others in the community were stirred to offer themselves for service overseas. Ludwig could not have been happier. The following month, however, Ludwig received a letter from Tobias Leupold, informing him that nine of the nineteen missionaries who had gone to Saint Thomas and Saint Croix were dead from malaria and other tropical diseases.

The news from Greenland was just as discouraging. A fierce epidemic of smallpox had broken out on the island’s west coast and had killed more than three thousand people. Although the missionaries were working tirelessly among the native people, no one had yet responded to their message. The smallpox had been carried into the villages by an Eskimo who had visited Europe, causing many in Greenland to question the value of having anything to do with the outside world.

Still, Ludwig was encouraged to hear that the three missionaries in Greenland had made a covenant among themselves. They had promised to “never forget that we have come here resting upon Christ our Savior, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, not on the principle of sight but of faith.”

Despite the setbacks, the members of the Herrnhut community had by now thoroughly embraced Ludwig’s vision of preaching the gospel in foreign lands. More and more members stepped forward to offer themselves for missionary service in various parts of the world. Soon missionaries were preparing to set out to work in Surinam and Lapland.

While all of this was going on, Ludwig was still trying to find a way to reach his goal of becoming a Lutheran pastor. Every door he tried was shut in his face, until August Spangenberg interceded on his behalf with the faculty of the university in Tübingen. Finally the faculty agreed that their church laws did allow for a pastor to become fully ordained without his being assigned to a specific congregation. This finding opened the way for Ludwig, and soon afterward the Lutheran Church granted him permission to become a pastor without a parish. In early December 1734, Ludwig traveled to Tübingen to be ordained.

As part of his ordination requirements, Ludwig had to write out his testimony. He thought for a long time about how to condense so much information into a few paragraphs. Eventually he wrote:

I was but ten years old when I began to direct my companions to Jesus, as their Redeemer. My deficiency of knowledge was compensated by sincerity. Now I am thirty-four; and though I have made various experiences, yet in the main my mind has undergone no change. My zeal is not cooled.… I will continue as heretofore, to win souls for my precious Savior, to gather His sheep, bid guests, and hire servants for Him.… I shall go to distant nations, who are ignorant of Jesus and of redemption in His blood. I shall endeavor to imitate the labors of my brethren, who have the honor of being the first messengers to the heathen.… The love of Christ shall constrain me, and His cross refresh me. I will cheerfully be subject to the higher powers, and a sincere friend to my enemies.

On December 19, 1734, Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf was officially ordained as a pastor in the Lutheran Church. His ordination was the fulfillment of a dream and a way to protect the community he loved. Now he could shelter the Herrnhut community from accusations of being anti-Lutheran. He could also perform all of the offices of a state-appointed minister, baptizing, marrying, burying, and serving communion.

In the meantime, August Spangenberg had made a trip to London to meet with General James Oglethorpe and James Vernon, the secretary of the trustees of the Georgia colony in North America. There he was able to secure a land grant in the colony of five hundred acres along the Ogeechee River. In early 1735 August led a group of nine Moravian missionaries from Herrnhut to Georgia. Their purpose for going was twofold. First, the Moravians in Georgia could prepare a place for their brethren at Herrnhut to flee to in case they were banished from Saxony, and second, it provided them with a base from which they could launch missionary work among the Indians of North America.

The year 1735 continued to be a time of sending out more missionaries. In January two men set out for the Guinea coast of Africa, and in May, eleven more missionaries arrived on Saint Croix.

Word reached Herrnhut later that year that Tobias Leupold had died, as had seven of the newly arrived missionaries. And nine other missionaries, including some of those who had originally gone out with Tobias, were so weakened physically that they decided to return to Herrnhut for rest. Three of them died on the journey home. All in all, twenty-two of the first twenty-nine missionaries sent out were dead. The Herrnhut community dubbed the sad situation “The Great Dying.” Some observers expected them to give up their mission work in light of the great cost of human lives, but just the opposite happened. For every missionary who died, two stepped up to take his or her place. A mission was opened in Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America, and zealous missionaries set out to staff it, knowing that their chances of ever seeing their families and homeland again were slim.