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The great commission and the Moravian response

1 May 2010 | by David Rees

The great commission and the Moravian response

Most of us remember the words from the film Mission Impossible ‘Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is…’. This is the story of a group of believers within a small church in Germany who heard the commission of the Lord Jesus Christ to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. They accepted His mission and went.

In 1732, the Moravian congregation in Herrnhut, Saxony was about 300 strong and sent out their first missionaries to the West Indies. Within fifteen years, the Moravian church had sent out hundreds of missionaries and had established churches on every continent. These missionary endeavours led to the salvation of many who had never before heard the gospel which shamed and inspired the Protestant church.

Humble beginnings

In June 1722, a small group of persecuted believers from Moravia (part of the modern Czech Republic) arrived at the estate of Count Nikolaus of Zinzendorf in Saxony. The Count gave them land on which to build and the settlement of Herrnhut was founded and the settlers determined to build a town in which God would be honoured and glorified.

The early years of the Herrnhut settlement saw a rapid increase in the number of settlers, both Moravian refugees and Germans dissatisfied with the Lutheran Church. Disunity initially threatened to undermine this fledgling church. However, on 13 August 1727, during a service at the local church, the congregation felt a powerful awareness of God’s presence. The impact was profound. Not only were differences put aside, but the believers in Herrnhut became known for their holy and disciplined lives, their love of others and their desire to take the gospel to the lost.

Count Nikolaus urged the Moravian believers to consider mission overseas and on 11 February 1728 a group of single men covenanted that they would respond to God’s call to the mission field when it came. They started to study medicine, geography and languages so that they would be ready for that call. It was to come just three years later.

The first missionaries

In 1731, while attending the coronation of the King of Denmark, Count Nikolaus met a converted slave from the West Indies, Anthony Ulrich. Anthony told the Count of the plight of the slaves:

If only some missionaries would come, they would certainly be heartily welcomed. Many an evening have I sat on the shore and sighed my soul toward Christian Europe; and I have a brother and sister in bondage who long to know the living God.

Count Nikolaus was deeply moved and that very day set off back to Herrnhut taking Anthony with him. He arrived at two in the morning to find a number of the believers in a prayer meeting.  He told the Moravians Anthony’s story and two young believers, Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann, volunteered to go as missionaries to work amongst the slaves on St Thomas in the West Indies, even though they believed the mission would require them to become slaves themselves. These men laboured tirelessly, speaking of freedom in Christ to those in human bondage. Within fifty years, the Moravians had established churches in St Thomas, St Croix, St John’s, Barbados, Antigua and St Kitts, and over 13,000 converts were baptised.

Reaching the unreached

The St Thomas mission was just the start. Over the next few years, the Herrnhut church sent out missionaries across the globe.  Rarely were these missionaries sent to ‘civilised’ places and people. They went to places where Christ was not known, they went to harsh and alien cultures and to people who were more likely to kill than welcome then. In 1733, Matthew Stach, Christian David and John Beck started a mission amongst the Eskimos of Greenland.  Initially the Eskimos appeared to have little interest in the Moravians’ preaching. One day, instead of preaching, John Beck decided to read a passage from the Bible translation he was preparing. He read of Christ’s sufferings as he approached the cross. The interest of the Eskimos was awakened and the missionaries found that the more they spoke of Christ and the cross the more the Eskimos wished to know. Soon many turned to Christ and new churches were established.

In 1737 the Moravians began a mission to the Dutch provinces of South Africa and, led by George Schmidt, took the gospel to the despised Hottentot tribe. Schmidt opened a school for them and soon had fifty pupils to whom he taught the Scriptures. In a scene reminiscent of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, George Schmidt baptised William, the first Moravian African convert as they travelled between Capetown and the mission station.

In 1739, David Zeisberger left Herrnhut for North America to labour for sixty-three years amongst the Iroquois and Delaware Indians of North America. He learned their languages, adopted their customs and translated the Bible and hymns. Many responded to the gospel. In 1782, during the American Revolution, David Zeisberger was imprisoned by the British. In his absence, ninety of his pacifist Christian converts who had refused to fight were captured by American soldiers. They spent the night in prayer and praise and the next morning they were clubbed to death and scalped. Ziesberger wrote in his journal at the end of that year:

The chief thing which gives us joy and courage is this; that the gospel of Jesus, our Saviour, his incarnation, passion, and death for us and for all the world, is not preached in vain; we see that it always finds hearts and minds.

There isn’t space here to write about the many other missionaries sent out to places like Iraq, Surinam, Sri Lanka and Russia. Nor can I write of the work of men like John Cennick in Ireland or the influence these fearless missionaries had on men such as John Wesley.  Many of these missionaries lost their lives as they travelled by sea. Many were martyred as soon as they arrived by the people they had come to serve. Many died of illness as they worked amongst slaves and lepers. What is remarkable is that others were willing to take their place. Twelve missionaries died of fever on St Thomas. They were immediately replaced by twelve new volunteers. Count Nikolaus once asked a Moravian brother called John Soerenson, ‘Are you ready to serve the Lord in Greenland? … We want someone to go at once’. Soerenson replied, ‘If you will get me a new pair of boots I will set off today. My old boots are worn out and I have not got another pair’.

A lasting influence

The missionary endeavour of the Moravian church was instrumental in the development of the modern missionary movement. Whilst there were protestant missionaries before this, they were largely state sponsored. No European protestant church was seeking systematically to evangelise the unreached.

The zeal and love of the Moravians for the lost was to urge the protestant church on to action. The great missionary to India, William Carey, was so inspired by their example that, while addressing his fellow Baptist ministers he challenged:

See what the Moravians have done! Can we not follow their example, and in obedience to our heavenly Master go out into the world and preach the gospel to the heathen?

The example of the Moravians was a key factor in the establishment of many great missionary societies in England.

The Moravian challenge

Why did the Moravians give up their wealth, positions, health and even lives to take the gospel to the remotest places and most despised peoples of the world? The answer is simply that they loved Christ, had a passion for the lost and took Christ’s commission seriously. Do we rest comfortably, hoping that we won’t hear a call to mission? These Moravians didn’t. Their default position was that there was a world to be won for Christ and they were ready and willing to accept the mission.

The Moravians gave everything to speak of God’s love to slaves, professional assassins, lepers; anyone who would listen. If we don’t take the good news to the wretched of this world, who will? The great Robert Murray McCheyne was deeply moved by the work of Moravian missionaries in an African leper colony and wrote:

You will ask, who cares for the souls of the hapless inmates?…Two Moravian missionaries, impelled by a divine love for souls, have chosen the lazarhouse as their field of labor. They entered it never to come out again; and I am told that as soon as these die, other Moravians are quite ready to fill their place. Ah! my dear friends, may we not blush, and be ashamed before God, that we, redeemed with the same blood, and taught by the same Spirit, should yet be so unlike these men in vehement, heart-consuming love to Jesus and the souls of men?

David Rees is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Cardiff.