Part two of "The Truth about Missional Orders." Again, the quotes and stories come from Scott Bessenecker's book, The New Friars. I think you'll really like this next group, the Moravians, and their fearless leader, Anna! For sure this is the work of God and not any man or woman!
The Moravians, The Beginnings
Word had been floating around about a safe haven for religious refugees in Lutheran Germany (though some Lutherans did their fair share of persecuting Anabaptists like the Mennonites), so the Nitschmanns decided to join a growing community of outcasts on the grounds of a generous count, Nicolas von Zinzendorf. A few years prior to their coming, Count Nicolas decided that his Christian faith was all talk and no action. So when a Unitas Fratrum refugee named Christian David asked if he could squat on Zinzendorf’s estate, the twenty-two-year-old count decided this was his chance to put his faith into practice. Christian David moved onto the property at Zinzendorf’s encouragement and soon invited some of his brothers and sisters to camp out with him. By the time Anna’s family arrived in 1725 there were ninety people in a squatter settlement on Zinzendorfs land. They turned the swampy grounds a mile outside of Berthelsdorf (the town that had grown up around Zinzendorf’s castle) into a little colony. The refugees were mostly of working-class stock and had the basic skills to put together a makeshift village, which they dubbed “The Lord’s Watch,” or Herrnhut. A year and a half after the Nitschmanns arrived, the squatter settlement had grown from ninety to over three hundred. Since these were religious fanatics who had paid dearly to speak out against Catholic Christianity, they now exercised their freedom to disagree with one another: “As the settlers learned to know each other better they learned to love each other less. As poverty crept in at the door love flew out the window.” The Lutheran church in Berthelsdorf that the squatters attended began to resent this factious group of refugees disturbing their peace.
By age twelve, Anna had had enough of the kind of religious zeal that had brought her family so much trouble and, most likely, of the division among the asylum seekers. When someone from the community attempted to convert Anna, she would tell them to go convert themselves. Then in the summer of 1727 the Holy Spirit swooped down upon them all.
Zinzendorf had become concerned that the bickering was going to destroy the refugees along with his Berthelsdorf community. The Unitas Fratrum were anything but “Unitas,” so Zinzendorf preached a three-hour sermon on unity that struck a chord with the little flock. The pastor at the Berthelsdorf Lutheran church invited the Herrnhut community for a communion service on August 13, 1727, to restore fellowship between the various warring parties. Confessions began and weeping erupted. To everyone the nearness of God’s presence was palpable. People were on their faces, prostrate in utter repentance. It was a festival of penitent wailing where no one was left unscathed – a good old-fashioned revival meeting that has been hailed as the Moravian Pentecost. Several days later a similar revival swept through the children’s service. After that, Anna was different. She now embraced the faith with all her energy.
That summer the community decided that for any given day, twenty-four men and twenty-four women would each take an hour to pray. They did this twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for one hundred years. From that summer of 1727 forward their identity as a fellowship – distinct from Roman Catholics, and even distinct from Lutherans – had been forged. They really were the Unitas Fratrum once more, though because so many were from Moravia they simply became known as the Moravian church. Their prayer meeting would fuel one of the greatest mission movements to the margins of the plant the church has ever known. “In its singleness of aim,” Kenneth Scott Latourette says of the Moravian church, “it resembled some of the monastic orders of the earlier centuries.” Moravians were hungry people. They knew hardship and marginalization, and it gave them a passion for prayer, for the kingdom and for the outer edges.
Anna, the Girl on “Fire” (Hunger Games anyone?)
The young Moravian men and women as well as the widows and widowers each lived in separate households and drew lots to identify a leader who would be responsible to direct their affairs and represent them to the larger community. When the time came to determine the eldress over the young women of Herrnhut, the lot fell to fourteen-year-old Anna. The count thought it was highly irregular for a child to occupy such a key position of leadership, so he urged Anna to turn down the role. But it seemed wrong to Anna to say no to God, who had directed the outcome of the lot. So at an age when most kids today are just leaving middle school, Anna became a leader in the Moravian community. Since the Moravians were far more egalitarian than most congregations of the day, this meant that little Anna not only spoke into the lives of the single women over whom she had charge, but also spoke into the affairs of the entire community alongside her counterpart in the single men’s household as well as the leaders of the other households. In 1746 Anna was named mother of the entire Moravian church, becoming known simply as “mama,” although she never bore children to the day of her death.
Anna began her reign by leading single sisters into a covenant “that henceforward they would not make matrimony the highest aim in life, but would rather, like Mary of Bethany, sit at the feet of Christ and learn of Him.” Though this was not a vow of celibacy, Anna had opportunity to put this oath into practice. As time moved on, Anna turned down two marriage proposals and watched many of the single sisters in her household marry boys from the household of single brothers. Her aim was to be a devoted student of Jesus first and foremost, and in many ways her singleness allowed a mobility that married sisters did not enjoy.
Anna’s role became apostolic. She traveled extensively since the Moravians burdened themselves with the fate of slaves and indigenous people in the Americas, the West Indies, South Africa and other locations. Anna went with Zinzendorf and others as they helped establish communities like Herrnhut around the world. At twenty-five she sailed to America where she ministered from community to community in Pennsylvania. “So as not to be a burden to the hard-working people among whom she missionated, she assisted them in the labors of the house, and of the farm; for Anna Nitschmann was the daughter of a peasant, and had often watched her father’s sheep in the pastures of Kunewald.
She did marry, quite late in life by eighteenth-century standards or even by today’s. She was forty-one when she wed Zizendorf of all people, a year after his wife had died. The idea of a count marrying the daughter of a peasant was so scandalous that they kept their marriage a secret from the German nobility for a year. Three years after their marriage the count died, and Anna followed ten days later. Except for her lengthly periods of travel, Anna served as head eldress of Hermhut from age fourteen until her death in 1760 more than thirty years later.
Though she was bright and skilled as a leader, Anna was unknown to anyone but the Moravians. She was an enigma in the Christian world at the time. In the 1700s, women did not have governance roles within the church. In fact, shortly after Zinzendorf’s and Anna’s deaths, under preasure from within and without, the Moravians backpedaled on women in leadership and fell in line with mainstream Christianity, prohibiting women from having the kind of governance role that Anna exercised over the whole Moravian church.
Born into a peasant family, living within a persecuted, “fringe” religious community, serving as an apostle and traveling throughout the world at a time when very few people crossed countries let alone oceans, giving leadership to the global Moravian community from age fourteen onward when women were relegated to child-rearing roles – Anna Nitschmann lived her life on the outer rim of “normal” eighteenth-century society. But life at the margins was normal to Moravians.
In a book attempting to draw a line between missional monastic movements of the past and today’s emerging orderlike mission structures, you might think it strange to include a chapter on a Protestant sect. Clearly the Moravians would not define themselves as an order in the sense that the Franciscans do. Still, the connection is not as odd as it may seem. The great evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce compared the Moravian missionary effort in the West Indies to the Jesuit missions in Paraguay. In fact, like the Jesuits, the Moravians lived essentially in missionary settlements, intent on raising up and sending out from their communities numbers who would travers the world in the attempt to plant colonies on the edges of the “civilized” world. This is what formed the foundation for their Christian community. The least and the lost were the holy obsession of the Moravians, who sent wave after wave of missionary squads to some of the harshest environments on the planet: to the native people in Arctic lands, to the Hottentots of South Africa, to Tibetans of the Himalays, to slaves in the West Indies and to dozens of other locations. They paid a price for their compulsion. If they survived the journey to the margins many died on the field, especially in the early years of a mission settlement.
*Bessenecker, Scott A. (2006-10-31). The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World's Poor (p. 147-150). IVP Books. Kindle Edition.