Zinzendorf, Nikolaus Ludwig von (1700-1760)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter

Zinzendorf is celebrated as the founder of the Moravian community of brethren, or Unitas Fratrum, emanating from Herrnhut. He was a member of the high aristocracy who dedicated all his energies to a faith which he himself helped to shape, influenced by pietism, Lutheranism, and the romanticism and enlightenment thinking of his period. He was the patron and diplomat behind the emerging utopian community at Herrnhut.


Early Influences


Reichsgraf (count) Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) himself came from a pietist family which had converted to Protestantism during the Reformation, and his grandfather took exile in Franconia (Franken) during the Counter-Reformation. His father moved to Saxony and married a Gersdorf, but died soon after the birth of Lutz, who was then raised by his maternal grandmother, Henrietta Katharina von Gersdorf (1648-1726) at Hennersdorf (near Dresden and Halle). [1]  
This was one of the most learned women in Germany. The Gersdorfs were from Friesia, and she was referred to as the ‘learned Friesian’, or ‘the crown of learned women’. She commanded eight languages including German, French and Italian, the three bible languages, and Chaldaic (a form of Hebrew). She was a poet, painter, musician and patron of several philanthropic institutions. She was closely acquainted with and influenced by Phillip Jakob Spener, the ‘father of pietism’ at Dresden, and financed his translation of the Bible into the Wendt language. (Wendts migrated to South Australia in the 1850s, and the Lutheran Archives of South Australia holds six Wendish bibles.[2]) All of this positioned young Lutz early on in a vortex of ideas and leading intellectuals.
Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, 1740

Zinzendorf attended the school run by the influential August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) at Halle, who is credited for the model of the later Volksschulen (public schools), and who founded the Halle Mission in 1705 which sent the first Protestant missionaries overseas. They set up missions in the Danish colony at the Coromandel coast (Malabar) in India in 1705, an undertaking widely considered dangerous, adventurous and useless. It also received opposition from the Danish East India Company and the Catholics already established among the Tamil. Zinzendorf later met one of these pioneer missionaries to India. Halle was a high seat of pietism, notwithstanding that its university (founded in 1694) hosted the rationalists Christian Wolff (1679-1754) (expelled from there by his colleagues) and Siegmund Baumgarten. Halle was also an early seat of pietist orientalism under Christian Benedikt Michaelis. With a fellow student from the Francke college, Zinzendorf sought to emulate the English bible societies (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, formed in 1698 and Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, formed in 1701). They formed the ‘order of the mustard seed’, with the aim to convert all heathens.[3] (Herrnhut Moravians subsequently occasionally alluded to the mustard seed in their writings.)

At Wittenberg (1716) Zinzendorf studied law, but continued to maintain close connection with theologians and witnessed bitter disputes between orthodox Lutherans and pietists. His ‘grand tour’ (1719) took him to the Rhineland, Holland and France, where he made contacts with leading Jansenites and the Danish royal family, although this did not result in the career opportunities he had hoped.  


Forging a new community of faith


Zinzendorf’s wealth and his marriage were given over to serve God. In 1722 he purchased the Berthelsdorf (Herrnhut) estate from his grandmother and formed a ‘Streiterehe’, (a marriage in battle for Christ) with Countess Erdmuthe Dorothea (of Reuss-Ebersdorf from southern Germany), who assisted him in establishing a refuge community of Moravians. Her influence softened the ascetic behavioural code he had earlier acquired which was hostile to all indulgence and diversion. The community was enlarged with the acceptance of rural Bohemian artisans who added to it their own Augustinian devoutness (belief in predestination) and simplicity of faith, and grew into an evangelical movement of pietism and devoutness.
Against this simplicity of the community, its leadership was composed of free-thinking utopian savants, so that there was a constant debate and danger of ideological fragmentation. Zinzendorf had formed a ‘four brothers’ band’ with theologians Johann Andreas Rothe, pietist Melchior Schäffer from Görlitz, and Friedrich von Wattewille or Wattenwyl, who all had slightly different ideas about how to position the Herrnhut community vis-à-vis the Lutheran church, which had become closely aligned with the state apparatus. They organised the community of brethren along egalitarian and gender-neutral lines, which did not privilege its ordained members.
Other theologians and free thinkers joined into the community, such as August Gottlieb Spangenberg, who later (1834) founded a Moravian community in Georgia. In 1727, having ejected one of the leaders who had started to portray Zinzendorf as the Antichrist, the community adopted its own constitutional principles and was organised into gender-separate ‘bands’ similar to Spener’s ‘collegia pietatis’. Important offices were decided by drawing lots according to the Old Testament (Ex 28,3; Lev 8,8; Dtn 33,8; Esr 2,63; Neh 7,65; Apg 1,26) and Luther’s interpretation of Jona 1,7. The community decided (by drawing lots) to abide by the Moravian church constitution rather than be subsumed under the Lutheran church (as Zinzendorf would have preferred). 
In order to formulate the Herrnhut faith, to engage in theological dialogue and to muster external support, Zinzendorf published profusely, including the ‘Socrates of Dresden’ (1725). His biographer Wesseling describes Zinzendorf’s philosophy as an attempt to combine heartfelt Christian devoutness with the reasoned religiosity of the early enlightenment (‘Herzenschristfrömmigkeit und frühaufklärungsphilosophisch-vernunftreligiöse Ansätze’). It was indeed a difficult brokerage.




The community sought to shelter in the religious tolerance clause of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 but this was not yet an age of religious freedom. The 1648 treaty only guaranteed that subjects were no longer required to adopt the faith of their ruler, and that any ‘right-thinking’ faith could be practised ‘in private’. Religious splinter communities therefore were still largely dependent on the goodwill of whoever was in power, and felt the need to muster external support. Moravian Brethren were sent in June 1828 to London, Denmark and central Germany to maintain contacts with other faith communities, and Zinzendorf visited the centre of radical pietism in Berleburg, Philadelphia in 1730 and other pietist communities in Germany. 
Zinzendorf railed against the emergence of religious splinter groups (Konventikelwesen) then in vogue particularly among Halle pietists, and tried to position the Brethren as not entirely separate from the Lutheran Church, but neither could he avoid controversies with Lutheran orthodoxy. In 1733 he commenced a new translation of the bible from original texts together with three other scholars. This ‘Ebersdorf Bible’ was intended as a people’s edition and diverged in its summaries from the Lutheran bible and therefore became the target of attack from Lutherans. Zinzendorf maintained a vigorous dialogue with the theological faculty in Halle under Francke, until 1733 when a stand-off developed over the interpretation of the Eucharist. Whether or not Christ was really present at the Lord’s Supper had been a decisive disagreement in 1529 between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (founder of the Reformed Church) and later became one of the most divisive issues within Lutheranism under pressure of unification as a state church. 
As the leader of a religious splinter group which had no legal standing, and was therefore exposed to the whims of those in power, Zinzendorf was exiled from Saxony three times, in 1733, in 1737, and from 1738 to 1747. In the wake of the first expulsion, Zinzendorf completed the theological examination and was ordained in the Lutheran Church in Stralsund (Mecklenburg, north Germany). He received some recognition as a Lutheran pastor, at least in neighbouring state of Württenberg, but nevertheless, he was again expelled in 1737. He was offered a pardon if he abstained from all religious office, declined, and was again expelled in 1738. During his years of exile Zinzendorf travelled extensively, in between clandestine visits to his home at Berthelsdorf.




Zinzendorf’s periods in exile greatly contributed to the notion of the pilgrim, which became central in the self-image of the Moravian Brethren. Apart from the missionaries sent by Francke to India, the Brethren at Herrnhut became the earliest German protestant missionary enterprise. From 1732 to 1739 (when the community was under attack from state Lutheranism), missionaries were sent out practically every year to different corners of the earth: Virgin Islands (1732), Greenland (1733), Lapland and Siberia (1734), Georgia (1734), Suriname and Berbice (1735), the Dutch Cape Province (1737), Ceylon (1739). A mariners’ mission was set up in the Dutch port of Heerendyk in 1736, resisted by the Reformed Church until it received support from Mennonites in 1745. The Unitas Fratrum basically became a missionary movement which sent 1 out of every 60 of its members into missions, compared with 1:5,000 in the remainder of Protestant movements.[4]
Zinzendorf’s expulsion from Saxony enlarged the sphere of his influence. He spent some years in England (1737-1741), where he organised a London community which was responsible for the conversion of John Wesley in 1738. Wesley started to distance himself from the ‘naïve enthusiasm’ of some of his London brethren in 1740, and formed a breakaway group, known as the Methodists in 1741.  
Zinzendorf then spent a year in New England (1741-42) where two communities, Bethlehem and Nazareth, had been set up in Pennsylvania in 1740. In the United States he gathered strong impressions about the Delaware Indians and their rootedness in nature, which intoned him with the age of romanticism.
A new period of religious tolerance in Prussia was heralded by the accession of King Frederick II in 1742, who recognised the Moravians as a separate church (Freikirche). In 1743 Zinzendorf returned from the United States, although his expulsion was not formally lifted until 1747.This period facilitated internal colonisation by the Moravians with the establishment of communities in Silesia at Niesky (1742), Gnadenberg (1743), Gnadenfrei (1743), Gnadek (1743), and Neusalz (1745).
With Zinzendorf’s return to Herrnhut conflict over his leadership developed. From 1745 (until today) the Brethren were organised into degrees of consecration of acolyte, deacon, presbyter (elder) and bishop. This organisation addressed an issue which had been the cause of bitter external and internal criticism. Despite the egalitarian principles of organisation at Herrnhut, Zinzendorf’s countenance had sometimes been characterised as courtly, reminiscent of a miniature monarchy. Zinzendorf had variously asked to be addressed as ‘Papa’ and (from 1737 to 1741) as ‘bishop’, as if seeking pseudo-papal status in his newly created church.
Another conflict emerged in 1748 as a result of Zinzendorf’s appointment of his son Christian Renatus to the position of ‘elder’, heralding the spread of mysticism (passionsmystische Schwärmerei). Allegations were soon raised that the younger Zinzendorf interpreted ‘brotherly love with too much latitude so as to offend public morality’ (Geschwisterliebe mit sittenwidriger Freizügigkeit). The large community of Herrnhag, which had been permitted to settle at the Wetterau in 1736, and which had within a decade excelled Herrnhut in size and vigour, was expelled in 1748.
This debacle, too, was turned to advantage by Zinzendorf. Drawing on the connections made during his first visit to the United States with Thomas Penn, he achieved the passing of the 1749 ‘Act for Encouraging the People Known by the Name of Unitas Fratrum or United Brethren, to Settle in His Majesties Colonies in America’, facilitating their migration to Pennsylvania. Five years later, during a second visit in the United States, he achieved the ‘Acta Fratrum in Anglia’ recognising the Moravians as an Episcopal church in Britain and its dominions. That the Moravian Brethren established themselves as an Episcopal rather than a Presbyterian church, despite their egalitarian aspirations, is probably due to Zinzendorf’s influence.
After six years in New England Zinzendorf returned to Saxony in 1755, close to bankruptcy. Although his wife was still alive (until 1757) he spent two years at Herrnhut in the young men’s house (Jüngerhaus – bachelors’ house, or apostle’s house). His wife was well aware that he had become involved with Anna Nitschmann (1715-1760), who had lived at Herrnhut since age 10, and had been a missionary in Bethlehem and Nazareth. The day after Dorothea’s death Anna accepted Zinzendorf’s marriage proposal. She was by this time even more under the spell of mysticism than Zinzendorf. Both died three years later in May 1760, Anna two weeks after Zinzendorf.

[1] The major source for this entry is Klaus-Günther Wesseling’s entry on Zinzendorf in Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, Vol. XIV, 1998, pp. 509-547 (available online).
[2] Burger, Rupert, The Coming of the Wends from Germany to Australia from 1848
Lutheran Church of Australia and Wend Sorb Society of South Australia, 2003.
[3] Anita Zimmerling Enkelmann, ‚Ich habe nur eine Passion, und die ist Er, nur Er’, Thesis, Schule für Diakonie in Greifensee, 2004, also available as  ‚Zinzendorf - Kindheit und Jugend’ http://www.zimmerling.ch/z_childhood.htm
[4] Cairns, Earle E. and J. Douglas (eds) The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 1978, p. 676.