Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

Christian returned to Moravia to urge other members of the Neisser family to join their brothers at Herrnhut. Eighteen more pilgrims set out in the dead of night with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few loaves of bread. Word of what Christian was doing traveled fast, and he soon learned that in retaliation angry Catholics had burned his house to the ground. But this did not stop him; on the contrary, he went from town to town urging others to flee with him.

Ludwig and Erdmuth had to return to Dresden, but letters from Johann kept Ludwig up to date about the new arrivals at Herrnhut and many of their stunning stories of escape. Some of the people had been imprisoned and later found their chains broken or their locked doors mysteriously open. One man who had been imprisoned in a castle had found some rope hidden in his cell and used it to climb down three stories to the ground. All of this thrilled Ludwig. The sacrifices the people had made and their miraculous escape stories reminded him of events in the book of Acts.

Johann also sent regular reports on more mundane issues, including progress on the mansion, which was slowly taking shape. Many of the new refugees were employed on the project as carpenters and masons.

Finally, in August 1723, after many delays, the Zinzendorf mansion was ready to move into. Ludwig took leave of the royal court for the summer, and he and Erdmuth hurried to Berthelsdorf to see their new home, a huge, square, four-story house, which Ludwig named Bethel. On the door lintel Ludwig had inscribed in gold lettering the words

Here we spend the night as guests:

Therefore this house is neither beautiful nor permanent.

Quite right: we have also another house

In heaven where things are different.

Along with these words were inscribed the Bible references of Zechariah 9:12 and 2 Corinthians 5:1–2.

Ludwig had lost none of his religious zeal while he was in Dresden. In fact, the opposite had occurred. The more Ludwig saw of court life there, the more he longed to be involved in Christian work. And now that he was back in Berthelsdorf for some months, he set to work putting several of his plans into action.

To do this, Ludwig realized that he needed a small team of committed people to help. Just as he had done while a student at the Paedagogium, he invited others to join him. The three people he asked were Frederick von Watteville, who had been staying with Ludwig since the previous Christmas; John Rothe, the Berthelsdorf pastor; and Melchior Schaeffer, pastor of the neighboring parish. The men called themselves the Covenant of the Four Brethren, and they and their wives pledged to live holy lives, encourage others to do the same, work for religious revival, publish Christian literature, and establish Christian schools.

Having made this commitment to one another, the Four Brethren got to work. They hired a printer named Gottlieb Ludwig and prepared to set up a press at Berthelsdorf. This proved to be a difficult task, however. The Saxon royal court did not appreciate anyone’s, not even a member of the court, having the ability to publish reading material, and it forbade Ludwig to set up a printing press anywhere in Saxony.

The four were not easily defeated, however, and they came up with a plan to set up the printing press at Ebersdorf under the watchful eye of Count Henry Reuss. Ebersdorf was in the province of Kostritz, not in Saxony, and the rulers of Kostritz did not object to having a printing press in their realm.

Plans were also developed for a charity school and a school for girls at Berthelsdorf. These were built with a generous gift from Lady Johanna von Zezschwitz, whom Frederick married soon after construction began.

Ludwig had another plan too. He wanted to build a school like the Paedagogium for the sons of noblemen. The other three men agreed with him, and so on May 12, 1724, everyone at Berthelsdorf arrived at the construction site to watch Ludwig lay the foundation stone for the school and hear him preach a sermon. This was supposed to be an important day, and it turned out to be just that. But the most important event had little to do with laying the foundation stone. It had to do with the five strangers who walked over the hill just as the ceremony was about to begin. These five men were destined to change the Herrnhut community forever.

Chapter 6
Growing Pains

Greetings, Count Zinzendorf. I am Melchior Zeisberger.”

“I am John Töltschig.”

“I am David Nitschmann.”

“And I am David Nitschmann.”

“And I also am David Nitschmann.”

Each man stepped forward and bowed as he introduced himself.

Ludwig searched the men’s faces to see if they were playing some kind of joke on him. Could all three men possibly have the same name?

The David Nitschmann who had introduced himself first seemed to sense Ludwig’s confusion. “We are all called David Nitschmann,” he said. “It may help you to remember that this David is a carpenter, and this David a weaver.” He pointed to the two other David Nitschmanns as he spoke.

“Thank you,” Ludwig said. “Now, you must tell me why you have come here. Did you follow Christian David?”

“Not exactly,” David Nitschmann the weaver replied. “We are fleeing from Zauchenthal, Moravia, and are on our way to Lissa, Poland, where a remnant from the Unitas Fratrum settled decades ago. When Christian passed through our town and told us about Herrnhut, we decided to come and see the place for ourselves on our way.”

“We are glad to welcome you,” Ludwig replied. “However, I must excuse myself. We are about to begin a dedication service. Please stay and join us.”

Soon the service began. The gathered group sang several hymns, and then Ludwig preached his sermon and said a prayer of dedication over the foundation stone. During the prayer he petitioned, “God bless this undertaking if it prove useful to You, but destroy it now at the beginning if it is mere human plan and action.”

When the service was over, Ludwig talked some more with the young men from Zauchenthal.

“We were touched by the words of your prayer,” Melchior said. “It is clear that God is among you.”

“We sincerely hope so, or our work is in vain,” Ludwig replied. “Now, tell me more about yourselves.”

The five men were all sons of well-to-do parents. They told Ludwig that during the previous months they had been leading an evangelical revival in their town. But eventually things had come to a head, and the five were dragged before a judge, who happened to be John Töltschig’s father. The judge ordered the men to close down their religious meetings and follow the example of the other young men in town, who were not bothered with religion but enjoyed dancing and carousing in the local taverns. He also warned them against trying to flee from Moravia for some more religiously tolerant place. He pointed out that the authorities took a dim view of people who tried to emigrate from their realm for religious reasons, and the young men would be dealt with harshly if they were caught fleeing. Yet after facing the judge, the five men could see no alternative but to flee. So the next night they set out on their journey.

When he heard their story, Ludwig urged the five young men to stay on at Herrnhut for a few days. The five accepted the invitation and several days later asked Ludwig if they could all live permanently at Herrnhut. They explained that they had found everything they hoped to find in Poland right there at Herrnhut and wanted to stay and become part of the community. Ludwig gladly agreed to take them in.

Eventually Ludwig and Erdmuth had to leave the growing community at Berthelsdorf and return to Dresden, where Ludwig was required to once again take up his responsibilities in the royal court. One happy event that broke the boredom Ludwig felt upon returning to Dresden was the arrival of Christian Ernst von Zinzendorf, to whom Erdmuth gave birth on August 7, 1724. Ludwig wrote to Johann Heitz to tell him the good news. The reply he received back was devastating.

The community at Herrnhut, which now numbered ninety, was in shambles. At first the refugees had all worked to help one another and shared what they had. But now, Johann reported, it was every man for himself. So many different languages were spoken and so many brands of religion from Calvinist to Catholic were practiced at Herrnhut that no one could agree on anything. It had been a tradition that when new refugees arrived, someone would blow a horn and the community would gather in the square to greet them and offer help. But not anymore. Ludwig read how no one now came at the sound of the horn. In fact, new refugees were often heckled and told they were not welcome, that there was not enough housing or jobs for them and they had better move on. Ludwig’s dream of a loving Christian community was fast devolving into a nightmare.

By November 1724 Ludwig knew that he had a crisis on his hands. It could not have come at a worse time. Baby Christian Ernst was sickly, and the doctor declared that he would not survive the winter. In fact, he did not survive another week. The Zinzendorfs buried their firstborn son, and then Ludwig hurried off to Berthelsdorf to see what could be done about the situation at Herrnhut.

As soon as he arrived at his estate, Ludwig began interviewing the refugees to see what their complaints were against one another and how he could help solve them. He interviewed residents for three days and nights in a row, pausing only between the hours of two and five in the morning for a quick nap. More than anything, he wanted to work out a way to turn the situation around.

Once the interviews were over, Ludwig and the other members of the Four Brethren came up with a plan based on the idea of “helpers.” Helpers were members of the Herrnhut community or the Berthelsdorf church who had proven that they were loyal, kind, and committed to God. Age, social rank, and wealth were not important. Ludwig believed that all men and women were equal in the sight of God.

Each helper was given a specific task. A tailor and a gardener were made religious teachers. Augustine Neisser was appointed as an almoner, and Jacob and Anna Neisser were appointed as encouragers. Christian David, a sixteen-year-old cowherd named Anna-Lena, and a lame teenage boy were made helpers of the sick. Every job was clearly laid out. The almoner was in charge of all the poor people, those who begged for alms. His job was to help them find employment and a place to live. The helpers of the sick were responsible for visiting all of the sick people in the community each day, bringing them medicine and bathing them.

Some members of Herrnhut objected to being told what to do by those they considered beneath them. They questioned what right a sixteen-year-old girl had to tell them what to do and challenged the idea of making someone as common as a tailor a religious teacher. But Ludwig held firm. While the world outside recognized people’s wealth, social position, and sex, he insisted that these rankings had no place in a community of Christians.

All of this organization took a lot of work on Ludwig’s part, especially when some members of the Herrnhut community argued against and objected to everything he did. Even some of the people closest to Ludwig questioned his effort in trying to start such a different type of community. Couldn’t he see that Herrnhut was eventually doomed to fail, no matter how hard he tried to keep it together? So why not just evict all the troublemakers and malcontents and keep only those who were quiet, obedient workers?

Whenever such questions came up, Ludwig always gave the same answer. “I could use my power as a landlord to make them all leave,” he would say, “but I have a firm belief that God has gathered these people here for a reason, and I will wait patiently to see what good He brings through them.”

The work continued, with Ludwig spending as much time at Herrnhut as he could while still fulfilling his duties in the royal court.

As life at the Herrnhut community began to settle into a new pattern, several industries sprang up based upon the various skills of new arrivals. Martin and Leonard Dober, two brothers from Swabia, were expert potters, and they set up wheels and a kiln and were soon selling their pottery. A linen weaver arrived too, and his looms provided work for many of the refugees.