For more than four centuries the Moravian Church has proclaimed the gospel in all parts of the world. Its influence has far exceeded its numbers as it has cooperated with religious faiths on every continent. Proud of its heritage and firm in its faith, the Moravian Church ministers to people wherever they are.
The name Moravian identifies that this historic church had its origin in ancient Bohemia and Moravia in what is present-day the Czech Republic. In the mid-ninth century these countries converted to Christianity chiefly through the influence of two Greek Orthodox missionaries, Cyril and Methodius. They translated the Bible into the common language and introduced a national church ritual. In the centuries that followed, Bohemia and Moravia gradually fell under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Rome, but some of the Czech people protested.
Standard Bearer of Protestantism
Actually the Moravian Church is recognized as the Standard Bearer of Protestantism. The church's first members were the forerunners of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. They were the followers of the great preacher and educator John Hus (1369-1415). Hus was dean of the philosophical faculty of the University of Prague and was twice elected Rector of the University.
The Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where Hus preached, became a rallying point for the Czech reformation. Gaining support from students and the common people, Hus led a protest movement against doctrinal positions of the Roman clergy and hierarchy. He was accused of heresy, underwent a long trial at the Council of Constance, and was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, 102 years before Martin Luther began the movement that became the Reformation.
Moravian Church Established
The reformation spirit did not die with Hus. The Moravian Church, or Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), as it has officially been known since 1457, arose as followers of Hus gathered on the estate of Lititz, about 100 miles east of Prague, and organized the church. This was 60 years before Luther and 100 years before the establishment of the Anglican Church. By 1467 the Moravian Church had established its own ministry, and in the years that followed three orders of the ministry were defined: deacon, presbyter and bishop.
The Moravians placed high value on learning. When the printing press was invented in 1454, the Unitas Fratrum bought one and opened a publication office in Jungbunzlau. By 1510, they had published at least 50 of the 60 works that appeared in Bohemia. From 1579 to 1593, they translated and published the entire Bible.
The Unity of Brethren numbered at least 200,000 by 1517 with more than 400 parishes. It had its own hymnal and its own catechism.
A bitter persecution broke out in 1547, leading to the spread of the Brethren's Church to Poland where it grew rapidly. By 1557 there were three provinces of the church: Bohemia, Moravia and Poland. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648) brought further persecution to the Unitas Fratrum, and the Protestants of Bohemia were severely defeated at the battle of White Mountain in 1620.
The leader of the Unitas Fratrum during these tempestuous times was John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Czech educator and bishop. He became world-renowned for his progressive views on education and was offered the first presidency of Harvard. Comenius, however, never came to America, living most of his life in exile in England and Holland where he died. His prayer was that some day the "hidden seed" of his beloved Unitas Fratrum might once again spring to new life.
Renewal of the Church
The 18th century saw the renewal of the Moravian Church through the patronage of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a pietist nobleman in Saxony. Some Moravian families, fleeing persecution in Bohemia and Moravia, found refuge on Zinzendorf's estate in 1722 and built the community of Herrnhut. The new community became the haven for many more Moravian refugees. Count Zinzendorf encouraged them to keep the discipline of the Unitas Fratram, and he gave them the vision to take the gospel around the world. August 13, 1727, marked the acceptance of the Brotherly Agreement, which united the residents of Herrnhut in a common purpose and culminated a great spiritual renewal for the Moravian Church. In 1732 the first missionaries were sent to the West Indies.
After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a Moravian settlement in Georgia (1735-1740), the Moravians settled in Pennsylvania on the estate of George Whitefield. Moravian settlers purchased 500 acres to establish the settlement of Bethlehem in 1741. They bought an additional 5,000 acres of the Barony of Nazareth from Whitefield's manager, and the two communities of Bethlehem and Nazareth became closely linked in their agricultural and industrial economy. Other settlement congregations were established in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. All were considered frontier centers for the spread of the gospel, particularly in mission to the American Indians.
Bishop Augustus Spangenberg led a party of men to survey a 100,000-acre tract in North Carolina. The tract became known as Wachau after an Austrian estate of Count Zinzendorf. The name later was anglicized to Wachovia. The area became the center of growth for the Moravian Church in the region, with Bethabara, Bethania and Salem (now Winston-Salem) emerging in 1753 as the first Moravian settlements in North Carolina.
Bethlehem in Pennsylvania and Winston-Salem in North Carolina became the headquarters of the two provinces (North and South), which developed as the Moravian Church of America. The church became established as an autonomous body after the Unity Synod of 1848.
The church spread out from these geographical centers, following German emigrants to the Midwest. At the end of the 19th century they responded to the spiritual needs of Moravian refugees of German ancestry who were fleeing to Canada because of persecution in Poland and Russia. The wide geographical spread cause the Northern Province to be divided into Eastern, Western and Canadian Districts. After World War II, strong pushes for church extension took the Northern Province to Southern California as well as some Eastern, Midwestern and Canadian sites. The Southern Province added numerous churches in the Winston-Salem area, throughout North Carolina and extended its outreach to Florida and Georgia.