Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

Although Ludwig was concerned that the Moravian refugees at Herrnhut might be banished from Saxony, to his surprise, it was he who was banished from the kingdom! Resentment toward his unorthodox religious ways had been growing among the nobility in Saxony for some time. And many thought he had gone too far when he, a count, was ordained a Lutheran pastor. Such an act upset the religious and social ideals that kept people in their “proper place.” Eventually Baron Huldenberg of Neukirch, a Saxon nobleman, could take it no longer. He complained to the royal court in Dresden that Ludwig was enticing people who lived on his estate to come and live at Herrnhut. For the royal court it was one complaint too many against Ludwig, and on March 20, 1736, the new Saxon monarch, King Frederick Augustus III, issued an edict banning him from the kingdom.

It was not until April 21, as Ludwig was making his way home after a trip to Holland with Erdmuth, their children, and a group from the Herrnhut community, that he heard the news. Instead of returning to the estate in Berthelsdorf, the group made its way to Ebersdorf, where Ludwig could stay with friends until he worked out what to do next.

As shocking as this new development was, Ludwig refused to let his banishment from Saxony destroy him or his work. Instead, he saw it as God’s opportunity to expand his work far beyond Berthelsdorf. He began searching for a new place to live. As he looked, he heard about two medieval castles named Ronneburg and Marienborn, located in the district of Wetteravia. The two castles were run-down and unoccupied and sat on the estate of Count Casimir of Büdingen. The count had fallen on hard times financially, and Ludwig learned that he would be willing to lease them to him.

Ludwig sent Christian David, recently returned from Greenland, to check out Ronneburg castle. Christian’s report was not good. Ronneburg castle was decayed and filthy and definitely no place for a count of the Holy Roman Empire to live. To make matters worse, the castle outhouses, farms, and stables were let out to fifty-six families of Jews, tramps, and “vagabonds” of the lowest order. Christian encouraged Ludwig to look elsewhere for a place to live.

As he listened carefully to Christian’s report, Ludwig could not shake the feeling that as bleak as the castle sounded, this was the place God had chosen for the extension of his work. Why not start working among the lowest class of men? Ludwig wondered. Surely the gospel was for them as much as for anyone else. He told Christian about his decision, saying, “I will make the place and the nest of vagabonds you speak of the center for the universal religion of the Savior.”

Christian did everything he could to dissuade Ludwig from living in such a vile place, but Ludwig had made up his mind. If that was the place God had chosen for them, they could go nowhere else.

Within days Ludwig had agreed to terms with Count Casimir of Büdingen to lease Ronneburg castle, and soon he and the group from Herrnhut traveling with him moved in. On June 17, 1736, Ludwig preached his first sermon in the castle.

As Christian had reported, Ronneburg castle was indeed run-down. The walls were crumbling in places, the roof leaked, and when the sun went down, the castle became an eerie place. Rats and mice scurried up and down the rotting staircases, and the wind howled in through the broken windows. The castle had little usable furniture, and everyone, including Ludwig and Erdmuth and the children, slept on a pile of straw on the floor. Despite the living conditions, Ludwig encouraged the small group with him to turn the place into a home. They began clearing away the piles of rotting wood and scrubbing down the walls.

Within days the group opened a free school for the “vagabond” children, teaching both the boys and the girls to read and write. They also held Christian meetings for the adults and visited people in their tumbling-down homes. Soon the children were being invited to the castle to eat with Ludwig’s children. It was a strange sight to all to see wretchedly poor children in tattered clothes eating with the noble children of a count.

Ludwig also issued an order forbidding begging. Instead, twice a week he arranged for food and clothing to be distributed to the poor who lived around the castle.

One day, as he was taking a walk around the grounds of the castle, Ludwig met a gray-haired Jewish man named Rabbi Abraham. As soon as the old rabbi saw Ludwig, he started to shuffle away. Ludwig stopped him. “Stay and talk with me,” he said kindly. “Gray hairs are a crown of glory. I can see from your head and the expression in your eyes that you have had much experience both of heart and of life. In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let us be friends.” He stretched out his hand to shake Rabbi Abraham’s.

The old man just stood staring, his mouth wide open.

“I sense your discomfort,” Ludwig said. “I am sure you have probably not heard such a greeting from a Christian before. Most likely they have greeted you with words like, ‘Begone, Jew!’”

Rabbi Abraham’s lips began to tremble, and tears formed in his eyes.

“Enough, father,” Ludwig said, comfortingly. “We worship the same God, and we understand each other. What stops us from being friends?”

From then on the two became friends. Ludwig regularly visited Rabbi Abraham in his small, run-down home, and many times they would take walks together early in the morning before the sun rose.

One morning, as the two men walked in the predawn darkness, Rabbi Abraham opened his heart to Ludwig. “My heart longs for the dawn,” he said. “I am sick, yet I don’t know what is the matter with me. I am looking for something, yet I don’t know what I seek. I am like one who is chased, yet I see no enemy, except the one within me, my old evil heart.”

Seizing the opportunity, Ludwig began to share the gospel with Rabbi Abraham. He told him about Jesus, how He had become a man so that He might bring men back to God, and how He was put to death on the cross. As Ludwig spoke, tears began to run down Rabbi Abraham’s cheeks and dripped onto his long, gray beard.

The two men climbed a low hill, on top of which stood a small church. As the sun rose, the golden cross on the church spire glistened in its rays.

“See there, Rabbi Abraham,” Ludwig said. “It is a sign from heaven for you. The God of your fathers has placed the cross in your sight, and now the rising sun has tinged it with heavenly splendor. Believe on Him whose blood was shed by your fathers, that God’s purpose of mercy might be fulfilled, that you might be free from all sin and find in Him your salvation.”

“So be it,” Rabbi Abraham said. “Blessed be the Lord who has had mercy on me.”

Ludwig was delighted by Rabbi Abraham’s decision to become a Christian. God was already beginning to bless the new community, which they had decided would be called Herrnhaag, after the Haag Church located nearby.

On November 6, 1736, Ludwig received another blessing. Erdmuth gave birth to a daughter they named Maria.

As the Herrnhaag community grew, Ludwig began inviting the people there to become part of a “Pilgrim Band.” He saw them as a sort of traveling church—a band of Christians called to “proclaim the Savior to the world.” His new motto became “The earth is the Lord’s; all souls are His; I am debtor to all.” He saw that this debt was repaid by both proclaiming the gospel to the people of the world and seeing that the unity among Christians was strengthened wherever he went. And since he was banned from returning to Berthelsdorf and Saxony, he intended to go to as many places as he could with the message of hope.

Chapter 10
A Great Sermon to Us

The year 1737 began with terrible news. Ludwig wept openly when he heard that the authorities in Russia had turned back three missionaries from Herrnhut who had gone to work with the Samoyede people living along the shore of the Arctic Ocean. The authorities warned the men that if they ever showed their faces in Russia again, they would be burned at the stake.

Then on August 31 that same year, three-year-old Christian Ludwig von Zinzendorf died of a fever. Again Ludwig found himself weeping openly.

Amidst the despair, however, good things were happening. Ludwig received an exciting account from August Spangenberg. August reported that the group from Herrnhut had made many friends while aboard the Simmonds on their way to Georgia. In London the ship had picked up General James Oglethorpe, the governor of the Georgia colony. Traveling with him was his secretary Charles Wesley, whose brother John was also on board. John was on his way to Georgia to work as an Anglican missionary. August wrote that he and John had enjoyed many enriching conversations together. John was very interested in the way the members of the Herrnhut community lived out their faith.

The following year Ludwig found himself in London, where he rented rooms for six weeks at Lindsey House in Chelsea. He had gone to London to talk about future plans for more Moravians to emigrate to Georgia. By then Charles Wesley had returned from America, and he was the man Ludwig dealt with on behalf of the Georgia colony.

Charles and Ludwig became friends almost immediately. Although Ludwig spoke limited English, the two men spent hours together speaking in Latin. They would often meet together at Lindsey House to pray and sing hymns. Charles introduced Ludwig to many Pietistic English men and women, and Ludwig enjoyed his fellowship with these like-minded Christians. It was also in England that people began referring to the Unitas Fratrum and the Herrnhut and Herrnhaag communities as the Moravian Church, and the name began to stick.

Soon after his return from England, Ludwig was ordained as a bishop in the Moravian Church. This did not mean that he gave up being a Lutheran pastor. Rather, Ludwig had the unique position of holding office in two denominations at the same time. He became a bishop in the church because he needed to be able to ordain other ministers among the Moravians. Many of the missionaries who had been sent out from Herrnhut were having difficulty because they were not ordained. They were forbidden to perform many pastoral tasks, such as conducting weddings, baptizing converts, and serving communion. Yet if they did not do these things, who would? In many instances, white traders, slave owners, and government officials blocked slaves and natives from attending the Moravians’ churches.

Some people thought that Ludwig had changed from being a Lutheran to being a Moravian, but the truth was that he had little time for people who concerned themselves too much about what denomination a Christian belonged to.

“Is not the greatest unity to agree that souls think differently?” one Moravian asked Ludwig.

“Yes,” Ludwig replied. “That is the real bond of unity. Nature is full of different creatures of different inclinations, and it is the same in the spiritual world. We must learn to regard various ways of thinking as something beautiful. There are as many religious ideas as there are believing souls, so we cannot force everyone to measure up to the same yardstick. Only God, according to His infinite wisdom, knows how to deal with every soul.”

As life in exile progressed for Ludwig, the elders at Herrnhut wrote to him regularly and often visited Herrnhaag. Meanwhile, Erdmuth produced a tenth and then an eleventh child. Johanna was born August 4, 1737, and David, on October 22, 1738. Two months after David’s arrival, four-year-old Anna died. She was buried in God’s Acre, the community cemetery at Herrnhaag.

With the expansion of the Unitas Fratrum community, the missionary work continued to expand. Soon George Schmidt volunteered to go to work among the Hottentot tribe in South Africa. Although the Dutch East India Company had ruled South Africa for one hundred years, it had done nothing to share Christianity with the Hottentots. In fact, quite the opposite was true. The Dutch clergymen in South Africa referred to the Hottentots as “black cattle” and preached that they had no souls and belonged to a race of baboons. All of this touched the hearts and consciences of the Moravians, who gladly sent George off to work among their black brothers.