Zeisberger preaching to the Indians

They Had No Names — Moravian Missions Pt. 1

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During this past semester, I had the privilege to focus some of my research on Moravian missionary work. With Christmas around the corner, I was reminded of a story I read about in my study.

The Moravians had sent workers to aid in George Whitfield’s ministry in the New World. However, the Moravian brethren and George Whitfield soon had a falling-out over theological disagreements (arguments over Calvinism aren’t anything new). The Moravians were ejected from Whitfield’s property. They settled in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and soon had a thriving missionary presence in the New World, particularly among the Native Americans. Upon visiting the settlement days before Christmas, Count Zinzendorf named the missionary outpost Bethlehem in honor of Christ’s birthplace.

This beautiful story draws the themes of Christmas and missionary work together. Like the star of Bethlehem, the missionary movement of the Moravians shines forth as one of the brightest beacons of Gospel expansion in history. Their fervor for evangelization grew throughout the entire world and still heavily affects mission’s philosophy today.

These historic Moravians were the models for many missionary efforts throughout history and into the present day. The Moravian influence was pivotal in the evangelization of John Wesley, the spark of the First Great Awakening.1 In the face of death, hunger, and persecution, their sacrifice was also the rebuke that roused Baptist supporters to finance William Carey’s mission work to India and found the Baptist Missionary Society.2

Today, very few Christians know the names of Leonard Dober, Rebecca Protten, David Zeisberger, or Anna Rosina Gambold. Jumbled together in a mix of history that highlights great men like Edwards, Carey, and Judson, these brave men and women, and many others like them, might as well be nameless to the average modern Christian.

But, most likely, these Moravian brothers and sisters prefer it that way. As Count Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravian church, taught training evangelists, “Above all, the Brethren must be content to suffer, to die and to be forgotten.”3, 4 The Count demanded self-denial, not allowing even biographies to be printed of himself or any of his missionaries while he remained alive.5

A persecuted church of around three hundred settled in the town of Herrnhut (located in modern-day Germany) under the authority of the Count. In the twenty-eight years following their missionary awakening, the Moravians sent two hundred people to over two dozen countries across the globe.6 In the decades following, they had evangelized and discipled tens of thousands of new members worldwide.

The modern missionary culture could learn a lot from these courageous and sacrificial missionaries. While undoubtedly imperfect, the Moravians were uniquely used in missions work during the 18th century and into the 19th century. A study of their methodology ought to be examined, considered, and, where feasible, applied by each missionary.

Over the next few weeks (or perhaps months), I will be releasing articles adapted from a recent paper I submitted for my coursework at MABTS. These articles express a few of the missionary methods and philosophies that the Moravians implemented in their ministry. The hope is that the behavior and actions of the Moravian missionaries would impact churches and individual missionaries as they seek to spread the Gospel.

In each article, I will describe the practice of the Moravians. At the end of each article, I will present specific suggestions for the modern church based on Moravian practice. Perhaps some of their stories and actions could inspire the church to have a greater focus on worldwide evangelism. There are many subjects that could and should be discussed about the Moravians. Perhaps I will write on some of these in the future. For these articles, I will be focusing on four topics:

  • Community: The community was the platform from which Moravian missionaries launched. I found their community to be the most significant factor in their mission work. This is why I chose to start here.
  • Theology: The theology of the Moravians was unashamedly Christ-centered. They avoided divisive discussions over tertiary differences. The unadorned Gospel was their primary apologetic.
  • Worldview: They did not seek to change culture further than the Bible would have it changed. The Moravian missionaries sometimes adopted the culture and became unrecognizable to their fellow countrymen.
  • Target Groups: Though they are not without their sins, Moravian grace towards the outcast brought persecution from fellow Christians in a time when showing love to slaves, Native Americans, and other subjugated populations was scoffed.

These forgotten men and women impacted the world; they turned it upside down. Their methods were founded in a conviction to true Gospel power and a childlike faith that God’s promise of a great harvest would be fulfilled. They are examples to missionaries today, and the simplicity of their mission should inspire all Christians towards world evangelism.

The impact of the Moravian missionaries on world evangelism cannot be overstated. The purpose of the Moravian mission movement was simple: “to win souls for the Lamb.”7 And win souls they did. Across the whole world, Moravian missionaries brought souls to Christ, so much so that they can be likened to the great British Empire in its prime, “The sun never sets on Moravian Missions.”8

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