Below is an excellent article written by my friend David Sitton of To Every Tribe at the “Reckless Abandon” blog back in 2010.
Opposition to the evangelical gospel was fierce in 18th century Germany. Christians were on the run for their lives and carried the gospel in every direction they went. One small group of persecuted believers ended up on the estate of a wealthy German governor, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.
Zinzendorf was an influential plantation owner who loved the gospel and offered the battered believers a safe place of refuge in Herrnhut. Denominational allegiances seemed less important in the heat of hardship, and for that moment, this smattering of Lutheran, Anabaptist, Moravian and a few converted Catholic believers eagerly huddled together for fellowship, prayer, and encouragement on Zinzendorf’s expansive estate.
Within five years, that small handful quickly grew to several hundred, and the theological squabbles among them multiplied just as quickly. In May 1727, after days of prayer, fasting, and public teaching from the Scriptures, Zinzendorf challenged the community to lay aside their “theological guns.” It was time to stop the divisive bickering. Through Zinzendorf’s persuasion, the people were convinced of the danger of disruptive non-essentials, and resolved to stop grinding one another to dust by fussing over peripheral issues.
During the next three months, an amazing spiritual renewal gradually began to overwhelm them. Everyone sensed a steadily stronger presence of the Holy Spirit in their gatherings, with repentance and the love of Christ for one another becoming a primary emphasis. These theologically-divided brethren began passionately praying unified and joyful prayers.
Remarkably, on August 13, 1727, a powerful presence of God unexpectedly overtook them during a Wednesday evening communion service. What had been steady, spiritual renewal now became a rapid, full-blown revival which was characterized by intense intercessory prayer for the spiritual maturing of their community and for the speedy spread of the gospel to the far-flung places.
The Moravians began to pray and they didn’t stop. Twenty-four men and twenty-four women began praying one hour each day. They scheduled themselves so prayer would be on-going every minute of every day. That intercessory prayer group evolved into an around-the-clock, around-the-world prayer movement — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year — which continued without interruption for more than 100 years!
This around-the-clock prayer watch was not limited to just the Moravians living on the Zinzendorf estate in Germany. Wherever a church was established in a new land, the new believers were immediately taught to intercede with the same sort of 24-hour-a-day praying. There were literally tens of thousands of Moravian believers, including the missionaries themselves, in those 100 years who constantly prayed for God to prosper the spread of the gospel, save souls, plant churches, and hinder the power of the enemy.
This was warfare prayer, and it wasn’t easy to sustain. One account tells of a small band of Moravian missionaries who were traveling by ship. All were suffering from malaria, dysentery, and dehydration. Yet, they tag-teamed between one another to keep the prayers going even as they took turns in the galley outhouse!
On another occasion, a missionary was so delirious with fever that he couldn’t remember what he had done five minutes before. When the ship landed, he was offered medical care and an opportunity to return to Germany, but he refused to go. He said, “Just let me die here, this is good!” The value of the gospel and the privilege of carrying it were so great that risk, danger, the most grisly of sufferings, and martyrdom were not considered to be significant.
The First Two Moravian Missionaries
In 1732, just five years into the 100 year prayer, the Lord stirred the hearts of two Moravian men for the suffering slaves of St. Thomas in the West Indies. Leonard Dober was a potter and David Nitschman was a carpenter. They decided the best way to win the slaves of St. Thomas for Christ was to voluntarily sell themselves into slavery. Leonard and David eagerly volunteered for this “open door” of ministry for the gospel. They boarded a Dutch ship on October 8, 1732. As the ship left the harbor, their friends and relatives onshore could hear them shouting from the lower deck over and over again: “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering . . . May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering.” Those were the last words heard from these brothers as the ship disappeared over the horizon. They simply believed the Lamb Jesus had purchased elect men for God with his blood from among every nation, tribe, and language group. Leonard and David recklessly went after some of them for Jesus. This became the rallying cry of the Moravians for more than a century as they led the way in the radical evangelization of hostile peoples, often enduring unbelievable hardship and horrific martyrdoms for the name of Christ.
The Moravian missionaries were fearless in their gospel exploits and suffered a tremendous loss of life. As quickly as they were killed off, others stepped forward to take their place. They really did not care if they were killed, and even prayed for the privilege of dying!
The Moravian View of Missionary Calling
Do you know how the Moravians decided who got to go as missionaries when new opportunities arose? They cast lots for it . . . for it . . . not to avoid it! The attitude of the whole community was that they were all called to go and send. They might be called upon at any moment, so everyone lived in constant readiness. When the lots were thrown down, they eagerly gathered around, hoping for their name to be called out. It was like winning the lottery! When twelve missionaries died from disease on St. Thomas, the Moravian leadership in Herrnhut gathered the community together, threw down the lots, and chose twelve more to replace the ones who had died!
These people took the Great Commission seriously and personally. In just the first 15 years of the prayer revival, churches were established in the Virgin Islands, Greenland, Turkey, the Gold Coast of Africa, South Africa, Suriname, the Arctic, Algiers, Sri Lanka, Persia, Ethiopia, and among the Eskimos and Indians of North America.
Even John and Charles Wesley were converted, in part, through their contact with the Moravians. George Whitefield hotly debated some of the Moravian theology, but came to love and respect their zeal to get Christ known in places where no one else would even consider going.
Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf, with all of his personal flaws and theological deficiencies – and there were many – passionately loved Christ, the gospel, and the nations. Zinzendorf did much, and suffered much, to enlist missionary martyrs for the truly tough places of the world. He deservedly is considered one of the most influential leaders in mission history. Zinzendorf laid a foundation for cross-cultural, protestant mission that pioneered the way for what is called “The Great Century of Mission” which followed in the 1800’s. Sixty years before William Carey set out for India and one-hundred fifty years before Hudson Taylor sailed for China, God had already selected a rag-tag, rough-and- tumble group of radical believers to demonstrate what he will do when a few sell-out to Christ and simply do what he tells them to do.
I’ve scribbled the name of Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians into the margin of Hebrews 11 in my bible alongside the other gospel champions listed there. Like those biblical examples, the Moravians’ lives demonstrated outrageous faith and extreme risk for the gospel. They lived by faith, and they died by faith. It is appropriate to remember the Moravians among God’s flock of fools who went to the far nations to gather a chosen, ransomed people for the glory of his name.