Protestant denominations have been around for centuries, and one of the oldest of these is the Moravian Church. Its roots extend to the 15th century. The name was applied to it about three hundred years after its beginning, when a group of exiles left Moravia due to persecution, but it began in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (what is now the Czech Republic) in the mid-1400s, though the area was reached for Christ in the ninth century.
The area gradually became generally ruled, religiously, by Rome, but some Christians protested. One person stood out in the early 1400s, the philosopher and rector of the University in Prague, named John Hus. He preached at the Bethlehem Chapel, located in Prague, and this became the headquarters of the reformation in the area. With the support of the Christians around him, he led a protest against the Roman Catholic practices. An accusation of heresy resulted in a trial that ended with Hus burned at the stake.
However, the loss of their leader did not impede the reformation occurring. In 1457, the believers organized into the Unity of Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), which is the official name of the Moravian Church. It would be another sixty years before Martin Luther’s theses and a century before the Anglican Church was established.
The founder of the church, Gregory the Patriarch, held the view that a Christian was not such due to beliefs and doctrine, but due to the life lived. One who followed Christ’s teachings and lived as He set forth was a Christian. The first members of the Moravian Church were described by Gregory as “people who have decided once and for all to be guided only by the gospel and example of our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy apostles in gentleness, humility, patience, and love for our enemies.” (from History of the Unity by Rican).
Within ten years, the church had its ministry established and went on to define three orders: bishop, deacon, and presbyter.
The Moravian Church grew quickly, including over 200,000 people by 1517. They had created a catechism and a hymnal specifically for their church, and having acquired two printing presses, they were able to print Bibles in the language of the Bohemian and Moravian people to provide to them.
Thirty years later, religious persecution began to severely affect the Christians in Moravia and Bohemia, and the church spread to Poland, where it grew quickly. Continued persecution during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) resulted in the defeat of Bohemian Protestants in 1620 at the battle of White Mountain.
Through these years, the leader of the Unity of Brethren was Bishop John Amon Comenius. He was most known for his view on education. Because of the persecution, he lived in exile much of his life, in England first, then in Holland until his death in 1670. He believed and prayed that a remnant of the Unitas Fratrum existed to return life to the church.
His prayer was answered in the 1700s. The Saxony nobleman Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf opened his estate to some of the fleeing Moravian people, where they built a community called Herrnhut. Many more refugees from Moravia were welcomed to the community. The count was a part of the Moravian Church, as well, and encouraged the people to hold to the Christian lifestyle, and also shared with them the vision he had to evangelize the world.
The Moravian Church’s apex of spiritual renewal in 1727 began in Herrnhut and four years later the group sent missionaries for the first time, to minister to the West Indies.
Moravians traveled to America during the colonization days of the country. A group arrived in Georgia in 1735 with General Oglethorpe, but they were not successful in establishing a community in Savannah.
However, their influence extended to John Wesley, who was there during a personal crisis. Their calm demeanor in facing a storm which rattled experienced sailors impressed him. He visited a Moravian Church service after his return to London and found it heartwarming.
Despite the lack of success in Georgia, the Moravians went on to form a community in Pennsylvania, where they were given space on the property of George Whitefield. They went on to buy 500 acres for their own town, Bethlehem, in 1741. They added 5,000 acres from Whitefield’s manager, where they established the town of Nazareth.
Moravian congregations developed throughout the area, extending into New Jersey, New York, and Maryland. Along with congregations, the Moravians also established communities. They used these communities as headquarters for spreading the gospel to the people on the frontier, including the Native Americans.
A 100,000 acre expanse in North Carolina became the southern headquarters, called Wachovia (originally dubbed Wachau, which was one of Count Zinzendorf’s estates, located in Austria). Several other settlements were quickly formed, including Bethania, Bethabara, and Salem (which is now Winston-Salem).
Along with their beginnings in Europe and their establishments in America, the Moravian Church also has members in eastern Africa, the Caribbean, South Africa, Canada, and more. The Unity of Brethren continues to believe strongly in mission work and still carries the gospel to a large portion of the world, as well as ministering evangelistically to those with whom they are surrounded. They offer personal support to their congregations and their communities.
Read more about the Moravian Church’s history.
Where to Buy
Behold The Lamb: The history, life and dream of the Moravian Church. A radical community based design for the local church and foreign missions
This history follows the development of the Moravian Church from its roots through the course of its growth.
This Images of America book contains photographs taken by both amateur and professional photographers of the Moravian communities documents their day-to-day life.
The faith and surrendered lives of the Moravian Christians is traced in this book from its roots with John Huss and on up from there.
This explains the community-based design that the Moravian Christians used for both their local church and for foreign missions.
Though Count Zinzendorf was a key figure in the Moravian’s settlement in Pennsylvania, his name is not well known. He was a compassionate and joyful man of God who leaned on His Savior for strength.