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"A Goodly Heritage" (32): Nicolaus Zinzendorf (1700-1760)

R Cargill, St Monans

In an art gallery in Dusseldorf a well dressed young man stood for a long time gazing on a unique painting, deeply moved and challenged by what he saw. The painting was entitled Ecce Homo. The artist Domenica Feti (1589-1623) had tried to depict the crucified Christ, and written beneath it (in Latin): "All this I did for thee, what hast thou done for Me?".¹

The young man was the aristocrat, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. In that life-changing moment he vowed to dedicate himself to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Man of Calvary. Aristocracy and great wealth are not often devoted to the cause of Christ, but they were in this case. One lasting evidence of this is that from his pen came around 2,000 hymns. Our best known one is four or five verses selected from his original thirty-three:

Jesus the Lord, my righteousness!
My beauty Thou, my glorious dress!
Before the throne, when thus arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

Another one we sometimes sing is:

O come, Thou stricken Lamb of God
Who shed for us Thine own life's blood,
And teach us all Thy love, then pain
Were light, and life or death were gain!

These and some others were translated by John Wesley.

German Background

Nearly two centuries after Luther's time, Europe's protestant movement had lost much of its early vision, with institutions and dogma taking the place of spirituality. A Lutheran minister P J Spener tried to revive the church by promoting the "practice of piety", emphasizing prayer and Bible reading in place of religious dogma. Thus a movement called Pietism spread quickly throughout Europe, including underground Protestants in Moravia and Bohemia (modern Czechoslovakia). The RC church violently opposed this movement so that many fled to protestant areas of neighbouring Germany. One group of families fled north to Saxony, where they settled on the lands belonging to Count Zinzendorf.

Nicolaus Zinzendorf was born in Dresden on 26th May, 1700 into an ancient and noble family in the Archduchy of Austria. His father, Saxon Minister of State, died six weeks after the birth of his son who was then brought up by his grandmother, Henrietta Catherine von Gersdorf who was a devout Pietist. His "godfather" was the above-mentioned P J Spener.

No wonder, then, that he had early inclinations toward godliness and would have liked to study theology, but his family expected him to follow his father's career into government service. He studied at Halle Academy and there as a teenager he and other young nobles formed a secret society in which they pledged to use their future positions to spread the gospel. When he had graduated, like other young aristocrats he did his "Grand Tour" of Europe and had that life changing experience in Dusseldorf Art Gallery.

In October, 1721 he became the king's judicial counsellor at Dresden, and married his cousin Erdmuth Dorothea von Reuss. However, after less than a year at court, he bought the estate of Berthelsdorf from his grandmother with the intention of forming a refuge for oppressed religious minorities. Very soon a Moravian named Christian David became his first tenant, followed by ten others from a similar background. They founded a settlement and named it Herrnhut - "the Lord's protection".

Moravian Missions

Although the Moravian movement, like many others since, began as a truly united body, dissension and division soon troubled it. In 1727 Zinzendorf left public duties to spend time with the people at Herrnhut, trying to deal with their differences and promote unity via daily Bible studies. They formulated a "Brotherly Agreement" which set out their resolves to follow Scriptural principles in all their dealings, and blessing followed in a remarkable way. It led to a renewal which in turn paved the way for a remarkable world mission movement led by Moravian brethren. We can see here similarities to a similar movement in Britain, but predating it by about 100 years.

In 1731 the Count was in Copenhagen at the coronation of Christian VI of Denmark. There he met Anthony Ulrich, a converted slave from the West Indies who told him about the plight of his enslaved people. He took him to Herrnhut to learn more, joining a group of by then around 600. As a result of this, two young men from Herrnhut went to St Thomas to bring the gospel to the slaves. They took with them only $6 each, and were willing to sell themselves as slaves if that would enable them more effectively to reach the people they were sent to help (an extreme example of 1 Corinthians 9.19-23). They were the first of many Moravian missionaries who within a few decades were taking the gospel to people in many lands ranging from Greenland in the north to South Africa.

Zinzendorf himself travelled widely and preached the gospel on the Continent, in Great Britain, and in America, even reaching into the interior to the American Indians, and organizing societies of Moravian brethren to extend the work. Notice again how this missionary movement predated by more than 50 years William Carey who is usually regarded as the father of modern missions. John and Charles Wesley were strongly influenced by Zinzendorf and their contacts with Moravian missionaries during their voyages across the Atlantic.

His Hymns

Zinzendorf's faith was focussed on a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. At the beginning of his spiritual experience this is what had motivated him - a deep inner devotion rather than intellectual assent to principles or creeds. This directed the course of his life, and it comes through in his many hymns. He wrote his first one as a boy of twelve, and his last a few days before he died.

Needless to say, his hymns were written in German. However, the Moravian missionaries translated many of them into other languages to use where they went, and most are still found in Moravian hymnbooks. Here is a sample of just two of his other hymns:²

O Thou to whose all searching sight The darkness shineth as the light, Search, prove my heart; it pants for Thee; O burst these bonds, and set it free!

Wash out its stains, refine its dross, Nail my affections to the cross; Hallow each thought; let all within Be clean, as Thou, my Lord, art clean!

The other one is a fitting burial hymn with fine sentiments and assurance:

Asleep in Jesus! blessed sleep! From which none ever wakes to weep; A calm and undisturbed repose, Unbroken by the last of foes.

Asleep in Jesus! Oh, how sweet To be for such a slumber meet; With holy confidence to sing That death hath lost its painful sting!

Just before he died on 9th May, 1760, he said to his son-in-law, "I am going to the Saviour. I am ready. I am quite resigned to the will of my Lord. If He is no longer willing to make use of me here, I am quite ready to go to Him, for there is nothing more in my way".

His coffin was carried in turns by thirty-two preachers who were in Herrnhut at the time, and over 2,000 attended the burial there. One of them asked, "What monarch was ever honoured by a funeral like this?".



1 Frances Havergal was also inspired by this painting during a visit to Germany in 1858. It led to her to write the hymn Thy life was given for me...

2 A long list can be found at www.Hymnary.org.

3 This series will now be moving away from hymnwriters to consider other servants of the Lord who have contributed in other ways to our Goodly Heritage. Interesting details of many more hymnwriters can be read elsewhere - for example Hymns and their Writers, J Strahan, 2 Vols. (GTP, Glasgow, 1989 & 2002).


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