Count Zinzendorf: Firstfruit

The response of Leonard and Tobias inspired two cousins, Matthäus Stach and Friedrich Bohnisch from the single men’s choir, to offer themselves as missionaries as well. They wanted to go to Greenland because rumor suggested that Hans Egede, the missionary who had been appointed by the Danish royal court, was about to give up his mission work and return home. The cousins believed that they could carry on Hans’s work.

These four young men were eager to begin their missionary endeavors, but the community at Herrnhut was not yet fully ready to send them. Most people in the community were suspicious of the whole idea of sending out missionaries. After all, no Protestant congregation had sent out missionaries since early Bible times. The few Protestants who had gone out as missionaries went under the patronage of a royal court, like the men from Halle who had gone to Tranquebar, India, and Hans Egede to Greenland.

Although Ludwig was eager for these young men to go, he decided it would be wise to wait until everyone was ready to send them.

In the meantime Erdmuth gave birth to another son, whom they named Johann. The baby was born on March 19, 1732, and died exactly two months later. He was Ludwig and Erdmuth’s sixth child, of whom three were still alive.

In the midst of this personal tragedy, Ludwig watched his wife carry on with her many duties. By now Erdmuth was in charge of the family’s finances, and since Ludwig provided much of the money for Herrnhut, she kept a close eye on what was happening there as well. It was a helpful arrangement for Ludwig, who was not interested in the details of ledgers and account books. In fact, he was so impressed with the way Erdmuth was handling the job that he signed over all of his estates to her. Erdmuth became the official owner of both Berthelsdorf and Herrnhut.

Ludwig signed everything over to his wife, partly because she was a better manager than he was and partly because he had a feeling that hard times lay ahead and the land would be safer in Erdmuth’s name than in his own.

Finally, a little more than a year after Anthony Ulrich visited Herrnhut, the community agreed that they were willing to send missionaries to Saint Thomas. By now the leaders of the community were using the lot to determine many of their decisions, and during one of the community meetings they called Leonard Dober and Tobias Leupold to the front.

Ludwig watched closely as Tobias pulled from a small wooden box a tiny scroll with some words printed on it. As he read the scroll, his face fell, and he shook his head. “It is not God’s will for me to go to Saint Thomas,” he said. Next Leonard stepped forward. With a trembling hand he, too, picked a verse from the box. “Praise God, I am called!” he announced, walking over to Ludwig and handing him the scroll.

Ludwig read the words aloud. “Let the lad go, for the Lord is with him.” He clasped Leonard’s hand. “God will be your guide and your strength,” he said.

Now the community looked around for someone who could accompany Leonard to Saint Thomas and help him to get established there. They chose David Nitschmann the carpenter and authorized him to stay with Leonard on Saint Thomas for the first four months. It did not take the two men long to pack, taking with them only a change of clothes, a sleeping mat, and a little food.

On August 18, 1732, the entire Herrnhut community gathered to commission the missionaries. They sang as they had never sung before, first twenty hymns, then forty, and then sixty. Still no one wanted to stop, and eventually over a hundred hymns were sung to speed Leonard and David on their way.

Two days later Ludwig needed to go to Dresden on business, and he offered to take the new missionaries as far as Bautzen, where the road forked to the west and to the north. The men left at three o’clock in the morning.

As the coach rattled along, Ludwig gave some last instructions to Leonard and David. “You must live among the people as one of them,” he said. “Earn your own keep, for you are there to serve. Do not expect to convert masses of people at once. Remember, the Lord already knows those whose hearts He has prepared to believe. It is your job to find these people, even if they be few in number. They will be the precious ‘firstfruits.’”

When they reached the fork in the road at Bautzen, Ludwig ordered the coachman to stop the carriage. The three men climbed out into the early-morning darkness. The two missionaries knelt together at the side of the road, and Ludwig prayed a prayer of blessing over them. “Let yourself always be led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” was his last admonition to them before climbing back into his carriage.

Ludwig watched as the two determined young men took the fork in the road that headed north and soon disappeared into the darkness. He had given each man thirty shillings, though that was not nearly enough to pay for passage to Saint Thomas. The men would have the support of the twenty-four-hour prayer chain that was still continuing at Herrnhut, but they would have to find their own way to Saint Thomas, and they would be expected to earn their keep once they arrived there.

In the weeks that followed, Ludwig and the other members of the Herrnhut community waited expectantly for news from their new missionaries. Ludwig was more aware than anyone of the problems the two would face merely getting a ship to take them to Saint Thomas, so he was encouraged when he read their first letter to the community.

In the letter, dated October 8, 1732, Leonard explained just how much scoffing and ridicule he and David had faced so far. Most Christian people they met on the way to Copenhagen told them they were crazy and should return home. Only Countess von Stollberg at Wernigerode encouraged them. And when they reached Copenhagen, even the pious Christians within the royal court believed that they faced certain death if they went to Saint Thomas. They told the two missionaries that they would die either from some tropical disease or at the hand of a slave owner who did not take kindly to having someone preach to his slaves.

Leonard was glad, however, to report that their persistence had paid off. Slowly people’s hearts began to change, and eventually some were willing to help them. Princess Charlotte Amelia gave them money and a Dutch Bible, as Dutch was the main language spoken on Saint Thomas. And since no Danish ship would transport them to the Caribbean, an officer in the royal court found a Dutch ship that was willing to take them on board as ship’s carpenters. The officer of the court even convinced the ship’s captain to buy the men their own set of carpenter’s tools to use on the ship and which they could keep when they reached their destination.

All of this was heartening news to Ludwig, though it was followed soon afterward by the devastating death of yet another child. This time it was two-year-old Theodore. The only two Zinzendorf children who had survived the trials of childhood illnesses so far were six-year-old Benigna and five-year-old Christian Renatus. A seventh child, Christian Ludwig, was born on March 20, 1733.

Soon after the birth of his latest son, Ludwig received some terrible news. In 1726 he had allowed another persecuted religious group, the Schwenkfelders, to settle on the upper reaches of his Berthelsdorf estate when the group was expelled from neighboring Silesia. Now, on April 4, as Ludwig returned from a trip to Tübingen, he received word that a royal edict had been issued banishing the Schwenkfelders from Saxony. He was deeply troubled that this group would have to leave his estate. But what troubled Ludwig even more was the fact that if an edict could be so easily issued to banish one group of persecuted Christians from his land, a similar edict could just as easily be issued banning the Moravian refugees from Saxony. After all, the Moravians had come to Saxony seeking a safe haven from persecution just as the Schwenkfelders had.

As he rode along toward Berthelsdorf, Ludwig began to devise a plan of action in case the Moravians were ordered to leave Saxony. While he could not stop an edict from being issued, he could lessen the destructive impact it would have on the Herrnhut community. By the time Ludwig arrived at his estate, he had decided that he would divide Herrnhut into two groups, those who were German Lutherans and those who were refugees from Moravia. In this way, if the Moravians were ever banned from Saxony, they could move on without the Herrnhut community’s collapsing. Ludwig also decided that the time was right for him to pursue becoming a Lutheran pastor. In this way he could deflect the criticism among religious leaders that the Lutherans at Herrnhut were not receiving proper pastoral oversight and were being overly influenced by the principles of the Unitas Fratrum.

When he arrived back at Berthelsdorf, a group of leaders from the Schwenkfelders approached Ludwig and asked for his help. They had heard of General James Oglethorpe and his plan to let people fleeing religious persecution into his Georgia colony in North America. They wanted Ludwig to intercede on their behalf and secure a new home for them in Georgia. Ludwig did as he was asked and obtained permission for them all to emigrate to Georgia, where they would be granted land to live on.

Still, the news of the Schwenkfelders’ banishment did not dim Ludwig’s or the Herrnhut community’s newfound zeal for missions. On April 17, 1733, David Nitschmann the carpenter arrived back at Herrnhut, and Ludwig was eager to learn from him how things were progressing in Saint Thomas. The day after his arrival, David and Ludwig went for a stroll together on the Berthelsdorf estate. “Tell me all about Saint Thomas,” Ludwig said.

“We arrived on the island on December 13. I wish I had the words to describe it adequately. It was so different from anything I had ever seen before. Lush green hills and beaches that sparkled in the noonday sun. And palm trees lined the shore. It was hard to imagine that in such a beautiful place so many did not know of the Savior. We walked along the narrow streets of Tappus looking for lodging, and it was there that we came upon Mr. Lorenzen, a planter on the island. Mr. Lorenzen proved to be God’s answer to our prayers. He offered us free lodging until such time as we were able to earn money to pay our own way. I soon began plying my trade as a carpenter to earn the money we needed.”

Ludwig nodded. “So it was possible to earn your own keep?”

“For me, yes,” David replied. “But it was not possible for Leonard. We looked long and hard, but we could not find any clay for him to make his pots with.”

“Interesting,” Ludwig interjected. “Continue with your report.”

“On our first Sunday on Saint Thomas, we went in search of Abraham and Anna, Anthony’s brother and sister, so that we might deliver the letter Anthony had given us for them. We found them and read the letter aloud. In it Anthony told of his conversion to Christianity and pleaded for his siblings to do the same. We then explained salvation to Abraham and Anna. Soon other black slaves gathered round to listen. They were astonished to learn that we wanted to tell them about God. Until that point they were barred from listening to any Bible readings or preaching. But their hearts did not soften right away. They remained wary of us, fearing that our appearance among them was some trick of their masters. At times they tried to chase us away. But we prayed and persisted in our efforts to share the gospel with them.

“In April I boarded a ship to return home. Before I left, I prayed fervently that God would watch over and encourage Leonard. The work ahead is hard. Not only do the slaves remain suspicious of us, but also most often the slave owners treat us with contempt and hatred for our work. We must all pray that God will guide Leonard to those firstfruits you spoke of upon our departure.”

Ludwig was both excited and saddened by David’s report. He was excited that they had made it safely to Saint Thomas and had begun their missionary work, but the task of winning converts was going to be every bit as difficult as Anthony had told them. Yet he believed that in time God would indeed guide Leonard to the firstfruits.