Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

Not long after John was appointed, he visited Ludwig, bringing with him a friend he introduced as Christian David. Christian was ten years older than Ludwig and had been born in Moravia, a region located about two hundred miles southeast of Saxony. At age twenty-seven he had become a Christian while staying in Görlitz, Saxony.

After his conversion, Christian had begun making preaching tours back to Moravia, where he came upon a number of persecuted Christians who were descended from a group known as the Unitas Fratrum, or the Unity of the Brethren. Ludwig had not heard of this tiny group before and was eager to learn all about it. Christian told him that the Unitas Fratrum traced its roots back to the teachings of the reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in Prague in 1415. Although the group had been persecuted throughout most of its existence, after the Reformation its persecution by the Catholic Church had become even more intense.

“Count Zinzendorf,” Christian began respectfully, “a group of these Christians calling themselves the Hidden Seed seek a place where they might settle and practice their beliefs unhindered by the religious authorities. I am told that you might let some of these people come and settle on your Berthelsdorf estate.”

Ludwig thought back to the vow he had taken in the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed. He had pledged to do good to his fellow men. And here he was hearing about a downtrodden and persecuted group of Christians. What else could he say but yes?

“I will give them land to build on, and Christ will give them rest,” Ludwig told Christian.

Ludwig did not think too much more about his conversation with Christian. His work in Dresden occupied much of his time. The chancellor kept him busy negotiating settlements between citizens and sorting out land claims. But although there was a lot of work to do, the work was relatively easy, and as the months rolled by, Ludwig became bored with it. He constantly reminded himself that he was honoring his mother and grandmother’s wishes and that one day God would give him the desires of his heart. To help him through this time, he turned to writing hymns to express how he felt. He was especially pleased with one hymn he wrote called “Jesus, Still Lead On.” The hymn’s verses read,

Jesus, lead us on till our rest is won;

And although the way be cheerless,

We will follow, calm and fearless.

Guide us by Your hand

To our fatherland.

If the way be drear,

If the foe be near,

Let not faithless fears o’ertake us;

Let not faith and hope forsake us,

For through many a woe

To our home we go.

For Ludwig, life in Dresden was for the most part cheerless and dreary, except for one thing that kept him going—his Sunday-afternoon meetings. The meetings, which were held in his apartment, started at three in the afternoon and lasted for four hours. Anyone, whether a peasant or a nobleman, was welcome to attend, both those who were searching for truth and those who were firm believers in Christ. Ludwig would lead the people as they read the New Testament together, prayed, and discussed religious topics. And although Ludwig had always loved to talk about spiritual issues, this was the first time he really had had the opportunity to listen to people from lower social classes. Even though these people did not know Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, Ludwig was impressed with many of their insights into the Bible. The thought that everyone, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, noble or commoner, had something to contribute to the meeting surprised and then delighted Ludwig and inspired him to keep going through the dreary weeks.

Although he would have liked to visit Berthelsdorf more often, Ludwig was happy with the way things were progressing there. He was confident that in Johann Heitz and John Rothe he had found the right men for the job of overseeing the managerial and spiritual needs of his estate. Both men were also good letter writers, and they kept Ludwig up to date with what was happening at his new estate.

In early June, Ludwig received a letter from Johann reporting that Christian had returned from Moravia with the Neisser family. Ludwig was surprised at how fast Christian had moved. He had expected it would be many months before any Christians from Moravia arrived at his estate.

Johann also reported that he had set aside a patch of land about a mile from the village for the new arrivals to live on. He had chosen this spot because it was on the highway between Lobau and Zittau. Since the Neisser brothers were cutlers by trade, making and repairing knives and farm instruments, Johann thought that they would be better off carrying on their business near a steady stream of passersby.

The place where the new refugees from Moravia were located was known as Hutberg, or Watch Hill, and in his enthusiasm, Johann told Ludwig that he had named the place Herrnhut. Explaining the choice, he wrote:

May God grant that your excellency may be able to build on the hill called the Hutberg a town which may not only itself abide under the Lord’s Watch [Herrn-hut], but all the inhabitants of which may also continue on the Lord’s Watch, so that no silence may be there by day or night.

As the days went by, Ludwig found himself thinking more and more about the refugees at Herrnhut. How were they faring in the unusually wet summer? Had they made friends with the local people at Berthelsdorf? And most of all, what would their future hold?

Ludwig also thought about his own future. He had adjusted to the idea of not marrying Theodora, but he still wanted to get married. This time, however, he prayed hard before he asked someone.

The woman he had in mind was Countess Erdmuth Reuss, the sister of Count Henry Reuss, who had married Theodora. Ludwig had spoken to her a little when he had first visited Ebersdorf. He had been back several times since then to visit Henry and Theodora. On these visits he found himself looking forward to seeing Erdmuth. She was a tall, attractive woman with high, arched eyebrows and an oval face. She was intelligent, like his mother and grandmother, but what Ludwig liked most was the way she lived out her faith. For once he had found someone with a reputation for being more pious than he was! Erdmuth and her older sister Benigna were well known both for the wonderful Christian services they held at the castle for their workers and for their kindness to friends and strangers alike.

All of these traits impressed Ludwig greatly, and he felt sure he had found the right bride this time. He wrote to Erdmuth’s mother expressing his desire to marry her daughter. Trying to be as honest as he could about his uncertain future and his passion to live for God, he wrote,

I foresee many difficulties in this case: I am but a poor acquisition for any person, and the dear Countess Erdmuth must not only enter upon a life of self-denial with me, but also co-operate with me in my principal design, namely, to assist men in gaining souls for Christ, under shame and reproach, if she will be of any service to me.

Erdmuth herself wrote back to say that she was more than willing to follow Ludwig in whatever he felt led to do. This was a huge relief to Ludwig, and a wedding date was set for September 7, 1722. The couple were married by the court chaplain at the Reuss castle in Ebersdorf. Ludwig was twenty-two years old and Erdmuth twenty-one.

The newlyweds stayed at Ebersdorf for several weeks after the wedding before returning to Dresden, where Ludwig again took up the task of court adviser. Ludwig and Erdmuth rented an apartment from the local burgomaster and set up home. As part of her wedding gift, Baroness von Gersdorf sent the couple lavish furniture. She also sent a letter to Erdmuth, welcoming her to the family and expressing her hope that they would meet soon.

It wasn’t until December 2, 1722, that Ludwig was free enough from his court responsibilities to make the trip back to Berthelsdorf with his new wife. He wanted to spend the Christmas season with his family and also look over plans for a mansion that he planned to build there for him and Erdmuth. His old friend and fellow member of the Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, Frederick von Watteville, happened to be visiting Dresden, and he went along with them.

Tall pine and beech trees cast shadows over the road as the three weary travelers made their way toward Berthelsdorf. By the time they neared their destination, the sun had set and darkness enveloped them. As they rode along, Ludwig noticed a light shining through the thick trees.

“Stop,” Ludwig called to the coach driver. “I wish to investigate something.” He then turned to Erdmuth and Frederick. “See that light in the woods? If I am not mistaken, that is the new home where the Neisser family from Moravia has settled. Let us find the path to their house.”

Ludwig climbed from the coach and walked ahead a little farther. The full moon rising above the trees gave him ample light to see.

“Here it is,” Ludwig said, motioning to the other two. Then he turned to the driver. “You stay here. We won’t be long.”

Erdmuth and Frederick followed Ludwig as he led them into the frozen woods until they came to a two-story wooden cottage. Ludwig knocked at the door. Immediately he heard the sound of little feet running, and a small boy about seven years old opened the door. The boy’s eyes grew wide as he looked at Ludwig’s elaborate clothes.

“Hello, young man,” Ludwig said, patting the boy’s head.

A woman came up behind the boy and curtsied deeply when she saw the three travelers.

Soon they were all seated beside the fire. Augustine and Martha Neisser introduced themselves, as did Augustine’s brother, Jacob, Jacob’s wife, Anna, and their son Wenzel.

“I thought you had more children,” Ludwig said. “Twins perhaps?”

Jacob reached for his wife’s hand. “We did, sir,” he replied. “But the Lord saw fit to take the twin babies home last month, and then a week ago our three-year-old daughter, Anna, suffered greatly from water on the lungs and did not recover.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Erdmuth said. “It is very difficult to accept these things, but the Lord’s will be done.”

“Yes,” Jacob agreed. “Even though we have endured great trials, we are sure that God has led us here. I don’t step outside this cottage without thinking of the words of my grandfather, George Jaeschke. As he saw the angel of death draw near to him fifteen years ago, he gathered his family together and said this to us: ‘It is true that our liberties are gone and that our descendants are giving way to a worldly spirit.… It may seem as though the final end of the Brethren’s Church has come. But, my beloved children, you will see a great deliverance. The remnant will be saved. How, I cannot say, but something tells me that an exodus will take place and that a refuge will be offered in a country and on a spot where you will be able, without fear, to serve the Lord according to His holy Word. Take care that when the exodus begins, you are among the first to leave. Do not wait until last. Remember what I have told you.’”

Ludwig was greatly moved when he heard these words. “You are very welcome to live here and to practice your religion free from harm,” he said. “Now I would like to pray for you all.”

With that he knelt on the wood floor. Everyone else in the room quickly joined him, and Ludwig prayed that God would protect and guide this family, who had already endured so much.

The following day, Christian and Johann took Ludwig and Frederick out to show them the plans they had for the development of Herrnhut. Christian was so excited that he could hardly get the words out in the right order. He talked of a large city rising out of the hills, with wide streets, paved courtyards, and a library, school, hospital, and printing house.

Ludwig privately thought that the plan was mostly Christian’s wild imagination. He wasn’t convinced that any other refugees would join the Neissers. However, Ludwig did not account for Christian’s passion to lead Protestants out of the persecution they were facing at the hands of Catholic priests and nobility.