Moravians: Theological Trailblazers, Part 1

A Forged Foundation

Jesus Still Lead OnThis week I’ve been reading Jesus Still Lead On (Second Edition) by Dr. Craig Atwood. It’s a book written to help people better understand two statements of faith that are important to Moravians: “The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living” and “The Ground of the Unity.” As I’ve been reading, I’ve been struck once again by just how many foundational teachings of the Moravian tradition are seminal for all Protestant Christians. It’s surprising how this relatively obscure movement of Jesus-followers has had such an outsized impact on global Christianity—and it may be largely due to its unique history.

Moravian theology is borne of their rich yet repressed history that begins as a reform movement within the medieval Western church but grows into an independent and illegal ministry. After intense persecution, it is later reborn as a conglomerate of religious refugees seeking to recover an embattled heritage. This historical and geographical journey that spans centuries and the globe—at times in the wilderness of political and religious persecution, and at other times in danger of utter annihilation—has forged the theological imagination of this innovative and pioneering denomination.

Jan Hus martyr
Jan Hus (1372–1415) burned at the stake during the Council of Constance

1. The Ancient Unity

There are three major eras of the Moravian theological tradition. The first is after the martyrdom of Jan Hus, a beloved Bohemian Catholic priest and professor who was inspired by Wycliffe to 
challenge and reform the Western Church in areas of corruption and other harmful practices. After he was burned at the stake for his audacity, the Hussite Wars engulfed Bohemia and Moravia, leading to massive ecclesial shifts, including the birth of the Unitas Fratrum, the first “Protestant” church.

This first major era is called “the ancient Unity”, the original ministry that liberated itself from the domination of the medieval Western church, which began in a small village called Kunvald in Bohemia in 1457 and was almost entirely lost by the 1620s. The Unity was the first free church, the first peace church, and the first “Protestant” church. It also pioneered ecumenical work and innovated sacramental theology as well as soteriology.

Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760)

2. The Renewed Moravian Church

One of the most prominent figures in Moravian history, John Amos Comenius, prophetically dreamed that the Unity would become a ‘hidden seed’ that would be born again. His dream came true in the second major era, the “Renewed Moravian Church,” that was reborn in Herrnhut, Saxony, in 1722, on the estate of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a charismatic, innovative, and ecumenical Lutheran Pietist. There at Herrnhut, Zinzendorf was instrumental in uniting a diverse community of Jesus-disciples from multiple cultures and traditions. This period was filled with innovations in missions, music, and ministry that would go on to shape global Protestantism ever since.

Rebecca Protten
Rebecca Protten “Mother of Modern Missions” (1718–1780)

3. The Reorganized Moravian Church

The third major era of Moravian history began in 1857 when the global Moravian Church reorganized itself into autonomous provinces joined together in one “Unity.” This decentralized the church from Western/American power. This work continues and we may be part of a new, fourth era since 1957: a Post-Colonial Era.

Perhaps due to its early and intense conflict with powerful religious and political institutions, Moravian theology has been developed in the midst of necessity and in response to extreme danger. This tempers its approach to theology like steel. Moravian theology is not only time-tested, but battle-hardened. Many of the theological innovations Moravians pioneered have thus seeded other traditions forming the basis upon which they have developed further. Often without proper recognition, Moravianism has been seminal in many forms of Reformation/Protestant theology.

While it would be impossible to exhaustively cover all the ways Moravians have been theological trailblazers, over the next several posts I only want to highlight a few that are most meaningful to me:

  1. Jesus & Scripture

  2. Sacraments & Soteriology

  3. Ecclesiology & Ecumenism

  4. Discipleship & Missions

  5. Education & Science

  6. Gender & Sexuality

  7. Orthopraxy & Orthodoxy

Tune in next time!