Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

The hundred or so people who had been standing watch at the Disciple House wept quietly when they heard of Ludwig’s passing. John went into Anna’s room to tell her that Ludwig had died. Anna nodded, as if she were expecting the news, and replied, “I have the happiest prospect of you all. I will soon be going to him.”

The trombones, which played whenever there was a death at Herrnhut, sounded loud and clear the following morning. As tendrils of mist wafted through the surrounding forest, people recognized the death tune. Their only question was, had they lost the father of their community or the mother?

Soon enough the people found out that it was Ludwig who had gone from them. Ludwig’s body was dressed in the white surplice that he, as a Lutheran pastor, had worn when he officiated at communion. Ludwig was lifted into a purple-lined coffin and lay in state in the drawing room. Thousands of people from all walks of life came to file past his body and say their final good-byes to a man who had somehow crossed all of the social lines of the day and become their friend. That night, several of the men carried Anna into the drawing room to say her last good-bye as well.

The community waited a week to bury Ludwig, giving some time for those from the other communities to gather for his funeral. Finally on the evening of May 15, the funeral procession wound its way to God’s Acre. Leading the procession was a group of singing children dressed in white. Behind them came Ludwig’s three surviving daughters, Benigna, Maria, and Elisabeth, along with John von Watteville, Bishop David Nitschmann, and Frederick von Watteville. Frederick proudly wore the ring of the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, which Ludwig had given to him over forty years before.

When the procession reached the grave site, members of the Herrnhut community, residents of nearby villages and towns, and visitors crowded around to hear David Nitschmann speak as the coffin was lowered into the ground beside Countess Erdmuth’s grave. “With tears we sow this seed in the earth; but He, in His own good time, will bring it to life and will gather in His harvest with thanks and praise! Let all who wish for this say Amen.”

Four thousand voices echoed “Amen.”

Anna was too ill to attend the funeral, but she watched it, propped up at a window in the single women’s dormitory. Seven days later, on May 22, she, too, died and was buried beside her husband. By then Ludwig’s gravestone had been laid in place. It read:

Here lie the remains of that unforgettable man of God, Nicolaus Ludwig Count and Lord of Zinzendorf and Pottendorf. Through God’s grace and his own faithful and untiring service he became the honored Ordinary of the Brethren’s Unity, renewed in this eighteenth century. He was born at Dresden on May 26, 1700, and entered into the joy of his Lord on May 9, 1760. He was destined to bring forth fruit, fruit that should remain.

The Work Goes On

While the death of Count Zinzendorf was a blow to the Moravian Church, it marked a new phase and not the end of the church’s growth. Ludwig had acted as the general arbiter in the church, laying out the rules for the various communities and congregations and making most of the major decisions. Now with his passing, the church decided that it was time to take another look at the way it was structured. Over the next several years, key Moravian leaders met together to draft a constitution for the church and establish a framework of leadership and governance that would carry them into the future.

Nor did the death of Count Zinzendorf cause the Moravians to neglect the missionary endeavors that Ludwig had been so pivotal in helping to establish. At the time of the count’s death, the Moravians had sent out 226 missionaries and baptized over 3,000 converts. The church continued to send out missionaries to the mission field, expanding existing missions and establishing new mission locations.

The Moravian mission work on Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John continued to grow and develop. In the first fifty years of their missionary work there, they baptized 8,833 adults and 2,974 children.

The work of the Moravian Church also spread to many other islands of the Caribbean, including Antigua, where between 1769 and 1792 the number of Moravian converts on the island grew from 14 to 7,400.

In Surinam the missionaries were caught in the fighting between Indians and slaves. Unable to subdue the rebellion that was occurring, the government eventually granted the slaves their freedom, and the fighting subsided. The Moravians then set up more mission centers and went back to working among the Indians and slaves alike. But even then the Moravian mission work struggled along through epidemics and food shortages. The missionaries were forced to close several of their bases of operation. Despite the difficulties, they refused to abandon their work in Surinam. Over time the missionaries’ determination paid off, and many thousands of converts were added to the church there.

Three more mission communities were established among the Eskimos in Greenland as the work there continued to grow. And ten years after Count Zinzendorf’s death, Moravians from Great Britain were successful in finally establishing four mission centers along the Labrador coast of Canada. However, it took many years of patient work by these missionaries before any of the natives responded to the gospel that the missionaries had come to share.

Mission work among the Indians of North America also continued. The French and Indian War had been a very difficult time for the Moravians living and working among the Indians. The French had tried to get as many Indian tribes as possible to go on the warpath against the English. The Moravians had found themselves caught in the middle, trying to keep themselves and the Indians in their mission communities out of harm’s way. This had not always been possible, as demonstrated by the massacre of Moravian missionaries at Gnadenhütten, Pennsylvania, on November 24, 1754.

Eventually the war had come to an end, and hostilities had died down. The Moravians had then gone back to their work among the Indians, where one of the features of their work was their insistence on learning the language of the tribe they were working among and using that language for all of their teaching and preaching. As a result, a trust and rapport was established between the Moravians and the Indians.

David Zeisberger was one Moravian missionary who enjoyed a productive ministry to the Indians. After the French and Indian War, he established missions among the Indians on the western frontier, eventually establishing Schönbrunn (Beautiful Spring) on the Tuscarawas River in southeastern Ohio. A short while later, Gnadenhütten, named after the ill-fated mission station in Pennsylvania, was established ten miles farther south. Many Delaware Indians as well as Indians from other Moravian settlements migrated to these settlements. They cleared land, planted crops, and raised cattle. Schönbrunn and Gnadenhütten were thriving communities, filled with peaceable converts who had renounced many of their old practices and had vowed to never again go on the warpath.

Later, another war—the Revolutionary War—engulfed the communities. Schönbrunn and Gnadenhütten were located between the British military outpost in Detroit and the Americans in Pittsburgh. David and his fellow Moravian missionaries were viewed with suspicion by both sides. Each side suspected them of being spies for the other and of inciting the Indians to side with the enemy in the war. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Moravians and the members of their communities were pacifists and took a neutral stand in the war.

Eventually British soldiers arrived and forced the residents of Schönbrunn and Gnadenhütten to abandon their land and crops. The residents were then herded north to Sandusky, where they endured a harsh winter during which they nearly starved to death. From Sandusky, David and the Moravian missionaries with him were ordered to Detroit to be tried by the British as American spies. As spring approached, and with their missionaries gone, about 150 starving Indian converts sought and received permission to return temporarily to Gnadenhütten to glean what they could of their crops from the fields.

As the Indians gathered food from the field, ninety American volunteers under the command of Colonel David Williamson descended upon them. This group of American soldiers had been dispatched from Pittsburgh to avenge the death of a white farmer and his family, who were allegedly killed by Indians who spoke German. The Indians befriended the soldiers when they arrived and fed them, but the soldiers repaid this hospitality by brutally massacring the entire group the following morning, March 8, 1782. Of the 150 Indians, only two small boys managed to escape and report the horrific killings.

More than one hundred years after the atrocities at Gnadenhütten, President Theodore Roosevelt called the massacre a “deed of revolting brutality” and said, “even now a just man’s blood boils in his veins at the remembrance.”

The massacre at Gnadenhütten had a deep impact upon the work of all missionaries working among the Indians. The Moravians tried to pick up where they had left off at the end of the Revolutionary War, but the massacre had changed the attitude of many Indians. While a number of the converts drifted back to the Moravian communities, many Indians asked why they should accept the white man’s religion. After all, look at what it had got them—bloodshed and heartache. From this time on, missionary work among the Indians of North America became a much more difficult task, as missionaries now had to overcome deep-rooted suspicion and resentment.

David Zeisberger continued his work among the Indians for twenty-five more years, but his work never attained the same momentum and vibrancy that it had before the events at Gnadenhütten.

Despite the setbacks, the work of David and the other Moravian missionaries living among the Indians of North America did have an impact, not only on the Indians but also on white people. Author James Fenimore Cooper, the first American novelist to achieve worldwide fame, spent much of his early life on the frontier in New York surrounded by Indians. There he also met many of the Moravian missionaries working among them, and he was greatly challenged by what he saw. The journals of David Zeisberger and several other Moravians provided the inspiration and source material for many of the stories in his Leatherstocking Tales series. And early Moravian convert Tschoop is recognized as the model for the character Chingachgook in Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans.

The missionary zeal of Count Zinzendorf reached far beyond the Moravians themselves. In many ways Ludwig’s life influenced more Christians outside the Moravian church than those in it. John Wesley had visited Herrnhut to personally observe this vibrant community. And while he had some doctrinal differences with the Moravians, he introduced many of the Moravian practices into the Methodist Church, which he founded. And in 1792 at a small gathering of Baptist pastors in Kettering, England, William Carey, who was destined to be the first Baptist missionary, tossed copies of the Moravian magazine Periodical Accounts onto the table and declared, “See what the Moravians have done! Can’t we Baptists at least attempt something in fealty [devotion] to the same Lord?”

The Moravians at Herrnhut continued to pray for missionaries around the globe. In fact, the twenty-four-hour prayer chain started in 1727 continued unbroken for over one hundred years.

Today, more than two hundred years after Ludwig’s death, the spirit that Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf tried so hard to foster lives on, both in the Moravian Church and in the many other missionary organizations around the world. Count Zinzendorf sought only the firstfruits, but today, largely as a result of his vision and dedication, many millions more have been added to the unity of all believers.