On Moravians and Other Radical Voices

Nicolaus von ZinzendorfA few weeks ago, when Chris crafted some questions for me to answer, he asked me to talk a bit about the Moravians – a Pietist movement that that I happen to study quite a lot. “What might a churchly Pietist like myself learn from the Moravians?” he asked. I thought this was especially interesting and we decided it deserved its own post. So now I return to this topic…

Perhaps to start, however, an abbreviated introduction to the Moravians is in order. Simply put, the Moravian movement grew up around the visionary Pietist, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), a Lutheran nobleman from Saxony who was attracted to Pietist spirituality as well as the religious heritage of reformers from the Moravian region of what is now the Czech Republic (called the Unitas Fratrum). In Europe, Zinzendorf’s band became known as the Brüdergemeine; in English-speaking areas, they were called the Moravians or the Moravian Brethren. So this group was really an eclectic movement, with Lutheran, Reformed, and Pietist influences.

The seal of the Moravian Church
The seal of the Moravian Church

What should those in more “churchly” circles learn from the Moravians? I’m not sure I can answer that exactly, but I will mention that Zinzendorf had a fascinating view of the relationship between the various church confessions during his own time. Like Luther, Zinzendorf believed he had started a renewal movement, not a new branch of the church. So Zinzendorf did not believe that individuals should leave their church membership behind if they joined the Moravians. Indeed, Zinzendorf believed the various confessions each had its own “treasure” that could contribute to the overall Body of Christ. Moravians have often been called ecumenical for this reason, but it was really more inter-confessional. Zinzendorf called the church confessions (Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, Mennonite, etc.) “tropes” (Latin: tropus, meaning “way” or “style”) and he encouraged those who joined his ranks to remain members of their original tradition and embrace the unique path that that tradition possessed. So Chris, Zinzendorf would have encouraged us to stay put in our “churchly” contexts! [ed. – whew!]

The question did make me think, however, about the role of “radical” voices in religious and social contexts. Zinzendorf was considered radical in his time and is also counted among the Radical Pietists by historians today. This is because Moravians were unconventional in a number of ways. They embraced an imaginative “blood and wounds” spirituality. And sometimes they set up alternative living arrangements that separated members into “choirs” based on age, gender, and marital status (not the singing kind of choirs – more like small, communal societies). Zinzendorf was also a creative thinker who sometimes angered more traditional folks with his penchant to think “outside the box.”

Personally, I’m not much of an intellectual risk-taker and probably not that creative. In short I’m pretty un-radical! But I have come to believe that radical voices are worth listening to, even if we don’t end up “drinking the Kool-Aid.” 

Often, it’s the radicals who are able to see things the rest of us can’t see and who put their finger on some injustice, contradiction, or blind spot that others miss. I remember being challenged by reading Malcolm X, whose “radical” message challenged me to think about the subtleties of structural racism. Or the radical pacifism of Shane Claiborne (Jesus for President), who challenges us to ask hard questions about national identity and the supposedly redemptive potential of military violence. I’ll never be a radical, but I recognize that the radicals among us often uncover issues that the rest of us need to examine and be challenged with.

If you want to learn more about the “radical” teachings of Zinzendorf and the Moravians, I would recommend Author J. Freeman’s An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart: the Theology of Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf and Craig Atwood’s Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem.

4 thoughts on “On Moravians and Other Radical Voices

  1. Thanks, Jared. I wonder if you could do a follow-up on the theme of joy within Moravianism — within Covenant Church historiography, there’s the idea that Swedish Pietism had roots in both Halle and Herrnhut, with the former’s emphasis on struggling with sinfulness counterbalanced by the joyfulness of the latter.

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