Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

Other Moravian missionaries went to Amsterdam, Holland, where they worked among Jewish people. This was something very new. To this point most Christian denominations viewed the Jews with suspicion and often with contempt. But now here was a group who had come just to focus on sharing the gospel with the Jews. In going to the Jews in this way, they were following Ludwig’s example with Rabbi Abraham.

Exciting news from Greenland also arrived. After an unpromising start to the missionary work there, in June 1738 a “great awakening” had broken out in Greenland. Many people were becoming Christians and were being added to the church.

Ludwig rejoiced when he heard of all the good things that were happening. He prayed and fasted more fervently for all those missionaries who were in difficult situations. Still some people criticized him. “The count is willing to send others to die of diseases on foreign soil, but he is not willing to go himself!” they said.

Such comments challenged Ludwig, who began to wonder whether indeed he should go to the mission field himself, perhaps to Saint Thomas, where the Moravian missionary effort had begun. Ludwig wrestled with the idea, but he could find no peace about what to do. Finally he decided to use the lot to see whether or not he should make a trip to Saint Thomas. He prayed, reached into the small, wooden box, and pulled out a scroll of paper. According to the lot, God was directing him to Saint Thomas.

Ludwig began putting his affairs in order. He drew up a last will and testament and published what he titled his last sermon. He did this because he fully expected to die while on Saint Thomas. So many Moravian missionaries had already died there that Ludwig found it difficult to think he would meet a different fate. He told people before he left, “I have been commissioned by the Lord God to spread the word of Jesus without concern as to what happens to me as a result.”

In November 1738 Ludwig, accompanied by George Weber and several other Moravians, set sail for the Caribbean islands. The wind on the journey was favorable, and passage across the Atlantic Ocean was swift. As the sailing ship carrying the group gently pitched back and forth, running before the wind, Ludwig thought about what he would find when he arrived at Saint Thomas. Following the death of Tobias Leupold, Friedrich Martin had taken over the mission work on Saint Thomas. He had been joined a few months later by Matthäus Freundlich, who was the last survivor of the group of missionaries who had gone to Saint Croix. Ludwig had read some good reports of their work on Saint Thomas. August Spangenberg had made a trip there two years before and had written telling Ludwig how the number of Christian converts there was still small but growing. August had even had the pleasure of baptizing several of the new converts while there.

The cost of the work on the islands had been high. Many Moravian missionaries had died on both Saint Thomas and nearby Saint Croix. Yellow fever and other tropical diseases were still a constant threat, striking a healthy and strong man or woman down in a matter of a few days.

As the lush, green hills of Saint Thomas appeared on the horizon, Ludwig finally voiced his thoughts and concerns to George Weber. “What if we find no one there? What if the missionaries are all dead?” he said, motioning toward Saint Thomas with his head.

“Then we are here,” George replied confidently.

“You are an indestructible race, you Moravians,” Ludwig exclaimed to his traveling companion, as he clapped him on the back. “I marvel at you!”

It was true. The Moravians never ceased to amaze Ludwig with their determination, no matter what the cost, to go throughout the world and proclaim the gospel. And here on Saint Thomas, if all of the missionaries previously sent out were dead, George and the other Moravians on board were ready to pick up where their brethren had left off.

It was a clear, sunny day on Thursday, January 29, 1739, when Ludwig finally stepped ashore on Saint Thomas. As he walked through the streets of Tappus, the main community on the island, he was eager to make contact with Friedrich Martin and Matthäus Freundlich. “Do you know where the Moravian brethren are?” he asked a slave he came upon just outside of town. “Are they alive?”

“They are alive,” the slave said.

Ludwig said a quick prayer of thanks. “Where are they?” he asked.

“In prison,” the slave replied.

Ludwig took a moment to digest what he had just heard. “How long have they been there?” he asked.

“For over three months,” came the reply.

“This is an outrage,” Ludwig snapped. “They have permission from the Danish authorities to preach to the people. How dare anyone throw them in prison!” It was then that he noticed that the slave was smiling. “What can make you happy about missionaries being imprisoned?” he asked.

“The imprisonment of the missionaries is a great sermon to us,” the slave declared. “I myself have come to accept their message as a result of it. We slaves are astonished to see that our masters treat the missionaries in the same manner they treat us. We have come to understand that the missionaries are not like the slave owners. No, they are our friends, willing to suffer for us.”

The slave grinned widely, and Ludwig noticed the sparkle in his eyes. “A great revival is beginning. You should be happy the missionaries have been in prison, for their influence has grown widely among the slaves as a result.”

“Your observation is correct. God has obviously allowed a great wrong to be turned to good for His sake. But now we must see what can be done about the situation,” Ludwig said.

Ludwig soon learned that a Reformed clergyman on Saint Thomas had complained to the island governor that the Moravian missionaries had baptized some of their converts without an ordained minister being present. This was not true. In fact, Friedrich Martin had been ordained through a letter from the Moravians at Herrnhut. But the Reformed pastor refused to accept this ordination and continued to complain to the governor, who eventually had the Moravian missionaries locked up.

When he learned all the details, Ludwig marched in to see the governor. He burst into his mansion like a thunderbolt, demanding the missionaries be released from jail. The startled governor did not seem to know quite what to do. It was not wise to antagonize a European count, but on the other hand, he did not want to make church leaders on the island angry with him.

Ludwig showed the governor a document signed by the king of Denmark and authorizing the Moravians to preach in the Danish West Indies. The governor had no option. He issued an order that the prisoners be immediately released. Once and for all, the document put the work of the Moravians on Saint Thomas on solid legal ground.

Friedrich and Matthäus were both delighted to be out of prison and to see Ludwig in person on Saint Thomas. They all retreated to the small plantation the Moravians had bought a year before as a base for their mission work. Ludwig called the place Posaunenberg (Trumpet Mount) when he saw it.

After he had been on the island several days, Ludwig was so impressed by the work the missionaries had done that he wrote in his diary, “Saint Thomas is a greater marvel than Herrnhut.”

In many ways it was. For three years Friedrich had worked tirelessly building the work of the Moravians on Saint Thomas. Despite fierce opposition from planters and other religious leaders, he had managed to establish several native congregations. He had also set up a school for slave boys and formed the new converts into societies for Bible study and prayer.

Ludwig was eager to see the work progress further, so he set up a single men’s and a single women’s choir and appointed leaders for each. And as at Herrnhut, he established helpers for the community, along with advisers and distributors of alms. He also introduced the system of twenty-four-hour prayer that still continued at Herrnhut.

In the evenings Ludwig preached at Posaunenberg, where up to six hundred slaves at a time came to hear him. With each passing night, Ludwig’s excitement grew. The slave man he had spoken with upon his arrival on Saint Thomas had been right: a revival was beginning on the island.

Finally Ludwig’s time on Saint Thomas drew to a close. On his last night on the island, eight hundred people came to hear him speak. He had a surprise for them. Ludwig always encouraged missionaries to learn the local language as quickly as possible, and he tried to follow his own advice. During his stay he had made a real effort to learn the dialect of the slaves. When he rose to preach that night, he spoke to the slaves in Dutch Creole. The slaves were greatly moved, and many became Christians as a result of Ludwig’s preaching that night.

Ludwig also made short visits to encourage the Moravians on the neighboring islands of Saint Croix and Saint John before boarding a ship for the return voyage to Europe. Despite his worst fears, he had not died in this part of the world. The sermon he had published before he left, titled “Count Zinzendorf’s Last Sermon,” would have to be given a new name. As the ship cut through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Ludwig thanked God for preserving his health, glad to know that he would soon be back in the company of his wife and children.

Chapter 11

Ludwig returned to Europe and continued to travel, encouraging Christians wherever he went. But the trip to Saint Thomas had fired even more his passion for missions, and he looked forward to the prospect of going overseas again. By now more than seventy Moravians had gone out to the mission field. Some had gone to support existing mission bases, while others had gone to establish new bases in Ceylon, Romania, Algeria, and Constantinople. Everywhere the mission work of the Moravians was growing.

The impetus Ludwig needed to go again to the mission field came as the result of a letter from August Spangenberg, now in Pennsylvania. The Moravian missionaries who had emigrated to Georgia had struggled since arriving in the colony. Their numbers had dwindled from thirty to twelve and then to six. Many had died, and others had returned to Herrnhut, discouraged and ill. To make matters worse, the Spanish army, stationed in Florida, was preparing to invade Georgia from the south and claim it for Spain. The governor of Georgia had called for all colonists to buy guns and prepare to defend their colony. But the Moravians had refused to do this. They would not kill others in the name of political and geographical ambition.

The Moravians’ position did not sit well with the leaders of Georgia, and the matter soon came to a head. The Moravians were ordered to either bear arms or leave the colony. At that time a fiery evangelist named George Whitefield was preaching in Savannah. When he heard of the plight of the remaining Moravians in Georgia, he offered them free passage on his ship bound for Pennsylvania. He also offered them work there building a school for Indian children on a tract of land he had recently purchased and named Nazareth. Thus, the center for Moravian missions in North America moved from Georgia to Pennsylvania.

It was not the mission itself, however, that tugged at Ludwig’s heart the most, but the news that the one hundred thousand or so Germans who had settled in Pennsylvania were in spiritual trouble. Many of these people had fled to William Penn’s colony to escape religious persecution in the various German kingdoms. But virtually no pastors or church leaders were around to watch over their spiritual needs. As a result, the people had begun to splinter into many small church groupings and sects with such names as Dunkers, Mennonites, French Prophets, Freethinkers, Hermits, Newborn Ones, New-lights, Protestant Monks and Nuns, Independents, Separatists, and Calvinists. Reports back to Europe suggested that they spent most of their time and energy criticizing one another. No one thought of banding together to reach the nearby Indians with the gospel. August also pointed out that almost all of these people spoke only German, meaning that they could not worship with non-German Christian settlers.