Zinzendorf, the Moravian Revival and Unceasing Prayer

The Moravian Revival is like a goldmine for today's church and especially the prayer movement. As a forerunner, Zinzendorf realized in a small town in East Germany what today, almost 300 years later, God is establishing world wide in an unprecedented intensity: 24/7 prayer that fuels a new, emerging missions movement. Thus, studying the Moravian Revival is not only extremely exciting, but can also help us understand God's heartbeat and plans for this age.

Count Zinzendorf and the German Pietism

In the 17th century, Pietism emerged as a reforming movement in the midst of the German Evangelical church out of a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. As primary initiator, Philipp Jakob Spener played a huge role in catalyzing the movement through his 'Pia desideria' – a writing he published in 1675 in which he proposed several ideas for a renewal of the church. Among Spener's ideas were those that became main focuses of the entire Pietistic renewal, which included: the emphasis on a personal spiritual life rooted in experience and the spiritual practice of prayer and personal bible study; the emphasis on personal consecration and holiness in the everyday life; the concept of the priesthood of all believers and thus the use of lay ministers.

This is the context in which Nikolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf grew up. He was born in 1700 in Dresden, Germany as the only child of a noble family. Already early in his life, he experienced the regular gatherings in the house of his grandmother Henriette Katharina of Gersdorf who raised him up. During his studies in Halle, he came in contact with August Hermann Francke and met the Danish missionary Ziegenbalg who ignited in him the fire to “live among the peasants and win their souls for Christ.” But instead of pursuing this dream, he was sent to Wittenberg by his parents to study law. In 1719 he finished his studies and started his educational tour through Europe during which he received further inspirations, especially in theology and church life. While working as privy councilor for the Saxon government starting in 1721, he got married to Erdmuth Dorothea Comtesse Reuss – a marriage which he described as 'Streitehe' for the sake of the spreading of the gospel. In May 1722, Zinzendorf, who was now 22 years of age, bought the German town Berthelsdorf and induced an expansion of the property: the construction of the new village Herrnhut (“The Lord's Watch”), close to it. Because of Zinzendorf's relationship with the Moravian carpenter, Christian David, one of his primary purposes for the town of Berthelsdorf, was for it to become a place of safety for religious refugees. Zinzendorf had especially desired the city to be one of refuge for the Moravians, whom had been under intense persecution by the Catholic Church at that time.

The Little German Town Herrnhut

Only three years after the settlement began, at least 300 residents were counted, many of whom were Moravians (there were Christians from various traditions who settled there as well). The quick growth of the settlement was possible because of Zinzendorf's approach on unity and peace, through which he became the forerunner for the ecumenical movement. At that time, Zinzendorf had already set up corporate services, bible studies and other meetings in order to establish Christian fellowship among the believers. However, due to conflict amidst diversity, problems and quarrels arose and the settlement started separating into small groups. On May 12, 1727 therefore Zinzendorf called a corporate mass in which he spoke up for unity in love and made everyone who wanted to stay in the village sign a 42-article contract about the life together and the spiritual life in that place. Part of it was the appointing of twelve elders by lot, daily gatherings with song and prayer and the establishing of bible study small groups (later also age- and gender-specific choirs). In the following summer, the church services held in the newly built church building counted about 1000 participants. Zinzendorf, at that time, had already quit his job in Dresden to give his undivided attention to the community of Herrnhut.

The Herrnhut Revival of 1727

During the following months, the spirit of prayer manifested in several of the groups that Zinzendorf had initiated. This led to ever-growing prayer gatherings, as well as the first “night watch,” which began on August 5th. The days that followed were marked by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit (even among the children), which manifested in emotional and ecstatic prayer and singing meetings. On August 13th, 1727, these corporate meetings came to a climax; the entire community had been called together for the celebration of the Holy Communion, in which all discord between them found an end and real unity grew in them while singing hymns in brokenness and tears.

Soon after the night of Holy Communion, some of the citizens committed themselves to a chain of unceasing day and night prayer, which found no break for over one hundred years (which is the specific spiritual practice that is further investigated in the next chapter). Along with non-ceasing prayer, several other spiritual practices were established in Herrnhut. For instance, the lovefeast, the washing of feet, nightly song services, fixed hour prayers in the morning, as well as the reading of the daily scripture that was chosen by the casting of lots. At the same time, the idea and reality of the Daily Text Book emerged, which is still popular and in still in use today.

In the summer of 1727, the Herrnhut revival birthed the spiritual practice of non-stop prayer. However, this practice did not stand alone, but was embedded into a whole set of disciplines. The spiritual atmosphere of the town was increasingly marked by the daily practices of prayer-meetings, sermons, singing services, and small group bible studies. The singing and writing of hymns within the Herrnhut community, which was inspired by Zinzendorf's personal focus of music and singing in his own spirituality, became of growing interest among the Herrnhuterians. The count's so called 'religion of the heart,' with its emotional relationship to the Savior in its center, was the basis for a spirituality that was mystical in its essence. If there was not such a unique communal emphasis, it would have been easy to assume that Zinzendorf had monastic background rather than Lutheran.

The Idea of a Never Ending Prayer Chain

The start and practice of a never ending prayer line cannot be separated from the community and the revival of Herrnhut who are crucial to gain deeper understanding. Several groups called 'bands' had already started doing 'nightwatch' prayer meetings by themselves, in which they would walk singing through the village. At the end of every night shift, Count Zinzendorf instructed the night guards to sing certain hymns. In one of the Herrnhut corporate prayer meetings, Count Zinzendorf felt that the Holy Spirit was highlighting Leviticus 6:13 to him: “Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out.” Urged by the strong impression that “the intercession of his Saints should incessantly rise up onto [God], like holy incense”, Zinzendorf proposed the setting up of a never ending prayer-chain to the Herrnhuterians. Even though something like this had never taken place in the Protestant Christendom, this concept was not a new invention. The idea of praying without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) had inspired the monastic movement from its beginnings. Furthermore, there are biblical role-models in the Tabernacle of David (1 Chr 9:33), as well as Jesus' parable of the contending widow (Luke 18:7-8). However, it is not clear if and how strongly Zinzendorf was inspired by these Scriptures. Apart from the Old Testament typology of the fire on the altar there is no further reference to biblical texts.

The Prayer Chain Starts

On August 26, only thirteen days after the community revival began, 48 Herrnhuterians voluntarily committed to form a day and night prayer chain, which became known as the “Hourly Intercession”. The team was comprised of 24 men and 24 women, each one of them praying for one hour a day, which resulted in at least two people praying fervently at the same time. The shifts were assigned by the casting of the lot. The average age of the people praying was around 30 years of age; however, even children enthusiastically participated. As a matter of fact, 7 of the 24 women who agreed to the daily hour of prayer were girls whose names appear in numerous documentations in connection with the Herrnhut children awakening. There is no statement whether males and females prayed together, or separately. However, among the children, it is verified that boys and girls prayed in separate groups as they began their own prayer-meetings; the same could be assumed for the adults. The Hutberg ('watch mountain'), was the place in which the prayer watchmen spent their time in hourly intercession; the Hutberg is also where the Herrnhutians had their community prayer meetings. Due to the continual meetings, the construction of a small shack on the top of the “Watch Mountain” was ordered, so that the intercessors would have a shelter during times of bad weather.

The Why Behind Unceasing Prayer

Basically, the prayer chain had two purposes: 1. “to lie prostrate before his throne both day and night, offering to him the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for all his kindness shewn unto them” and 2. “to lay before [the] Saviour, the distress and case of all who were known to them in or out of the Congregation.” Praise and thanksgiving included the singing of songs and hymns, usually whenever the praying person was not able to pray for a full hour. The second function involved interceding for the sick and oppressed, for the fellow believers who were persecuted and imprisoned, as well as for their own village of Herrnhut, which also suffered from the crossfire of criticism. Furthermore, the intercessors felt “how highly needful it was, that the Congregation in its present state of infancy, and having Satan as her adversary, who slumbers not day or night, should be preserved from his wiles, and be under constant and holy guardian care.” In order to fulfill their task most effectively, a weekly meeting was set up in which requests where shared and updated.

The Fire Keeps Burning

The number of intercessors grew quickly, so that in 1728 the Hourly Intercession was covered by 90 groups of up to seven people who met several times a week. As this movement became more popular, visitors from many places came to watch and experience the prayer-chain. Furthermore, even as missionaries, the Moravians would take the Hourly Intercession wherever they went. For more than 100 years, this prayer-chain would go on without a break, keeping not only the fire of revival alive, but also fueling one of the biggest missionary movements of the second millennium. With fervent love and the readiness to sacrifice their lives, the Moravians witness to all whom the Lord called them to reach.

Zinzendorf's Later Ministry

For the rest of his life, Zinzendorf's main activity and calling was to care for the spiritual life and well-being of the community of Herrnhut. In addition, in accordance to the general development of the Moravian Herrnhut community, Zinzendorf started traveling all over Europe and North America for the sake of mission, pilgrimage, and to establish more places in the style of Herrnhut (such as Bethlehem, PA in 1741). In the following years, many Moravian missionaries would be sent out from Herrnhut into even the farthest places of the world. Worried about the existence of Herrnhut because of the increasing attention and accusations, Zinzendorf tried to make as many friends as possible during his travels in order to have the favor of many. After being exiled from the Saxon territory, he often visited Herrnhut secretly. On May 9th 1760, Zinzendorf died in the Herrschaftshaus in Herrnhut, the town that can be seen as his greatest achievement.

Zinzendorf's Legacy

Among the Pietists, Zinzendorf is seen as a bit of a hero, and is given much credit for the way in which he helped shape the Pietistic tradition; some historians have even called Zinzendorf “The Conqueror of Pietism,” because of the mark he left in its history, as well as the way in which he gave it a distinctly new directions. Zinzendorf brought many creative innovations into the church during his time, including: his focus on Christian unity; the emphasis on community singing; the use of casting of lots for decision making; the familial approach to spirituality and community (as opposed to the monastic tradition); his holistic understanding of Christian life and experience (also called “religion of the heart”); and the idea of having a prayer chain of day and night prayer (which had been a totally new concept for the protestant movement, although not for Christianity in general).

For Zinzendorf, the Moravian community and the beautiful, unique settlement of Herrnhut, were, by far, his greatest achievements. The Lord used Zinzendorf and Herrnhut to restore the Moravian beliefs, traditions, and culture. Also, Zinzendorf was used to establish new concepts within the Church that would eventually lead to world mission and so change many lives and the face of planet earth for ever.

3 comments:

  1. hi benjamin,
    were did you get the information that the 24h prayer chain actually took place in the watchtower on the hutberg? 'cause i recently was in herrnhut and i'm pretty sure they told me that historically there is no evidence that people did actually 'pray' in that watchtower at all but that it rather simply served as an observation point which zinzendorf had build because from the hutberg he and his wife one day saw a beautiful rainbow from stretching from herrnhut to the church in bertelsdorf ...
    blessings from berlin!!
    raphael

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  2. Hey Raphael, thanks for your feedback and question. I got the information that the Hutberg was the place for the Moravian prayer meetings from the following book and page: Erich Beyreuther, Zinzendorf und die sich allhier beisammen finden (Marburg: Francke, 1959), 201. It says that they prayed on the Hutberg, but doesn't specifically mention the tower itself (that's the way I put it, too). So there doesn't need to be a connection between them, just like the guide in Herrnhut suggested. I personally could imagine that it was used for that purpose at least at some point, because after all the prayer chain continued for over 100 years.
    Blessings from Japan! I love Berlin! =)
    Benny

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  3. Hello Benjamin,

    Thank you for your blog and the details regarding Herrnhut & Zinzendorf. I truly enjoyed reading it. Great inspiration!

    Blessings from Texas!
    Jesse

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