Click here to get started today!
Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A sect generally said to have arisen under Nicholas Lewis, count of Zinzendorf, a German nobleman of the last century, and thus called because the first converts to their system were some Moravian families. According to the society's own account, however, they derive their origin from the Greek church in the ninth century, when, by the instrumentality of Methodius and Cyrillus, two Greek monks, the kings of Bulgaria and Moravia being converted to the faith, were, together with their subjects, united in communion with the Greek church. Methodius was their first bishop, and for their use Cyrillus translated the Scriptures into the Selavonian language. The antipathy of the Greek and Roman churches is well known, and by much the greater part of the Brethren were in process of time compelled, after many struggles, to submit to the see of Rome. A few, however, adhering to the rites of their mother church, united themselves in 1170 to the Waldenses, and sent missionaries into many countries. In 1547 they were called Fratres legis Christi, or Brethren of the Law of Christ; because, about that period, they had thrown off all reverence for human compilations of the faith, professing simply to follow the doctrines and precepts contained in the word of God.
There being at this time no bishops in the Bohemian church who had not submitted to the papal jurisdiction, three priests of the society of United Brethren were, about the year 1467, consecrated by Stephen, bishop of the Waldenses, in Austria, (see WALDENSES;) and these prelates, on their return to their own country, consecrated ten co-bishops, or co-seniors, from among the rest of the presbyters. In 1523, the United Brethren commenced a friendly correspondence, first with Luther, and afterwards with Calvin and other leaders among the reformers. A persecution, which was brought upon them on this account, and some religious disputes which took place among themselves, threatened for a while the society with ruin; but the disputes were, in 1570, put an end to by a synod, which decreed that differences about non-essentials should not destroy their union; and the persecution ceased in 1575, when the United Brethren obtained an edict for the public exercise of their religion. This toleration was renewed in 1609, and liberty granted them to erect new churches. But a civil war, which, in 1612, broke out in Bohemia, and a violent persecution which followed it in 1621, occasioned the dispersion of their ministers, and brought great distress upon the Brethren in general.
Some of them fled to England, others to Saxony and Brandenburg; whilst many, overcome by the severity of the persecution, conformed to the rites of the church of Rome. One colony of these, who retained in purity their original principles and practice, was, in 1722, conducted by a brother, named Christian David, from Fulneck, in Moravia, to Upper Lusatia, where they put themselves under the protection of Nicholas Lewis, count of Zinzendorf, and built a village on his estate at the foot of a hill, called Hutberg, or Watch Hill. The count, who, soon after their arrival, removed from Dresden to his estate in the country, showed every mark of kindness to the poor emigrants; but being a zealous member of the church established by law, he endeavoured for some time to prevail upon them to unite themselves with it, by adopting the Lutheran faith and discipline. This they declined; and the count, on a more minute inquiry into their ancient history and distinguishing tenets, not only desisted from his first purpose, but became himself a convert to the faith and discipline of the United Brethren. The synod which, in 1570, put an end to the disputes which then tore the church of the Brethren into factions, had considered as non-essentials the distinguishing tenets of their own society, of the Lutherans, and of the Calvinists. In consequence of this, many of the reformers of both these sects had followed the Brethren to Herrnhut, and been received by them into communion; but not being endued with the peaceable spirit of the church which they had joined, they started disputes among themselves, which threatened the destruction of the whole establishment.
By the indefatigable exertions of count Zinzendorf these disputes were allayed; and statutes being, in 1727, drawn up and agreed to for the regulation both of the internal and of the external concerns of the congregation, brotherly love and union was again established; and no schism whatever, in point of doctrine, has since that period disturbed the church of the United Brethren. In 1735, the count, who, under God, had been the instrument of renewing the Brethren's church, was consecrated one of their bishops, having the year before been examined and received into the clerical order by the Theological Faculty of Tubingen. Dr. Porter, then archbishop of Canterbury, congratulated him upon this event, and promised his assistance to a church of confessors, of whom he wrote in terms of the highest respect, for their having maintained the pure and primitive faith and discipline in the midst of the most tedious and cruel persecutions. That his Grace, who had studied the various controversies about church-government with uncommon success, admitted the Moravian episcopal succession, we know from the most unquestionable authority; for he communicated his sentiments on the subject to Dr. Secker, while bishop of Oxford. In conformity with these sentiments of the arch-bishop, we are assured that the parliament of Great-Britain, after mature investigation, acknowledged the Unitas Frairum to be a Protestant episcopal church; and in 1794 an act was certainly passed in their favour.
This sect, like many others, has been shamefully misrepresented, and things laid to their charge of which they never were guilty. It must, however, be acknowledged, that some of their converts having previously imbibed extravagant notions, propagated them with zeal among their new friends in a phraseology extremely reprehensible; and that count Zinzendorf himself sometimes adopted the very improper language of those fanatics, whom he wished to reclaim from their errors to the soberness of truth; but much or the extravagance and absurdity which has been attributed to the count is not to be charged to him, but to those persons who, writing his extempore sermons in short hand, printed and published them without his knowledge or consent. This eminent benefactor to the United Brethren died in 1760, and it is with reason that they honour his memory as having been the instrument by which God restored and built up their church. But they do not regard him as their head, nor take his writings, nor the writings of any other man, as the standard of their doctrines, which they profess to derive immediately from the word of God. It has been already observed, that the church of the United Brethren is episcopal; but though they consider episcopal ordination as necessary to qualify the servants of the church for their respective functions, they allow to their bishops no elevation of rank or pre-eminent authority; their church having from its first establishment been governed by synods, consisting of deputies from all the congregations, and by other subordinate bodies, which they call Conferences.
The synods, which are generally held once in seven years, are called together by the elders who were in the former synod appointed to superintend the whole unity. In the first sitting a president is chosen, and these elders lay down their office; but they do not withdraw from the assembly; for they, together with all bishops, seniores civiles, or lay elders, and those ministers who have the general care or inspection of several congregations in one province, have seats in the synod without any particular election. The other members are, one or more deputies sent by each congregation, and such ministers or missionaries as are particularly called to attend. Women, approved by the congregations are also admitted as hearers, and are called upon to give their advice in what relates to the ministerial labour among their sex; but they have no decisive vote in the synod. the votes of all the other members are equal. In questions of importance, or of which the consequences cannot be foreseen, neither the majority of votes nor the unanimous consent of all present can decide; but recourse is had to the lot. For adopting this unusual mode of deciding in ecclesiastical affairs, the Brethren allege as reasons the practices of the ancient Jews and the apostles; the insufficiency of the human understanding amidst the best and purest intentions to decide for itself in what concerns the administration of Christ's Kingdom; and their own confident reliance on the comfortable promises that the Lord Jesus will approve himself the head and ruler of his church.
The lot is never made use of but after mature deliberation and fervent prayer; nor is any thing submitted to its decision which does not, after being thoroughly weighed, appear to the assembly eligible in itself. In every synod the inward and outward state of the unity, and the concerns of the congregations and mission, are taken into consideration. If errors in doctrine or deviations in practice have crept in, the synod endeavours not only to remove them, but, by salutary regulations, to prevent them for the future. It considers how many bishops are to be consecrated to fill up the vacancies occasioned by death; and every member of the synod gives his vote for such of the clergy as he thinks best qualified. Those who have the majority of votes are taken into the lot, and they who are approved are consecrated accordingly; but, by consecration, they are vested with no superiority over their brethren, since it behoves him who is the greatest to be the servant of all. Towards the conclusion of every synod a kind of executive board is chosen, and called The Elders' Conference of the Unity.
At present it consists of thirteen elders, and is divided into four committees, or departments.
1. The Missions' department, which superintends all the concerns of the missions into Heathen countries.
2. The Helpers' department, which watches over the purity of doctrine, and the moral conduct of the different congregations.
3. The Servants' department, to which the economical concerns of the Unity are committed.
4. the Overseers' department, of which the business is to see that the constitution and discipline of the brethren be every where maintained. No resolution, however, of any of these departments has the smallest force till it be laid before the assembly of the whole Elders' Conference, and have the approbation of that body. The powers of the Elders' Conference are, indeed, very extensive: besides the general care which it is commissioned by the synods to take of all the congregations and missions, it appoints, and removes every servant in the Unity, as circumstances may require; authorizes the bishops to ordain presbyters or deacons, and to consecrate other bishops; and, in a word, though it cannot abrogate any of the constitutions of the synod, or enact new ones itself, it is possessed of the supreme executive power over the whole body of the United Brethren. Besides this general Conference of Elders, which superintends the affairs of the whole Unity, there is another Conference of elders belonging to each congregation, which directs its affairs, and to which the bishops and all other ministers, as well as the lay members of the congregation are subject. This body, which is called the Elders' Conference of the Congregations, consists,
1. Of the Minister, as president, to whom the ordinary care of the congregation is committed, except when it is very numerous, and then the general inspection of it is intrusted to a separate person, called the Congregation Helper.
2. Of the Warden, whose office it is to superintend; with the aid of his council, all outward concerns of the congregation, and to assist every individual with his advice.
3. Of a Married Pair, who care particularly for the spiritual welfare of the married people.
4. Of a Single Clergyman, to whose care the young men are more particularly committed.
5. Of those Women who assist in caring for the spiritual and temporal welfare of their own sex, and who in this conference have equal votes with the men. As the Elders' Conference of each Congregation is answerable for its proceedings to the Elders' Conference of the Unity, visitations from the latter to the former are held from time to time, that the affairs of each congregation, and the conduct of its immediate governors, may be intimately known to the supreme executive government of the whole church. In their opinion, episcopal consecration does not confer any power to preside over one or more congregations; and a bishop can discharge no office but by the appointment of a synod, or of the Elders' Conference of the Unity. Presbyters among them can perform every function of the bishop, except ordination. Deacons are assistants to the Presbyters, much in the same way as in the Church of England; and in the Brethren's churches, deaconesses are retained for the purpose of privately admonishing their own sex, and visiting them in their sickness; but though they are solemnly blessed to this office, they are not permitted to teach in public, and far less to administer the sacraments.
They have likewise seniores civiles, or lay elders, in contradistinction to spiritual elders, or bishops, who are appointed to watch over the constitution and discipline of the Unity of the Brethren, over the observance of the laws of the country in which congregations or missions are established, and over the privileges granted to the Brethren by the governments under which they live. They have economies, or choir houses, where they live together in community: the single men and single women, widows and widowers, apart, each under the superintendence of elderly persons of their own class. In these houses every person who is able, and has not an independent support, labours in their own occupation, and contributes a stipulated sum for their maintenance. Their children are educated with peculiar care; their subjection to their superiors and elders is singular, and, appears particularly striking in their missions and marriages. In the former, those who have offered themselves on the service, and are approved as candidates, wait their several calls, referring themselves entirely to the decision of the lot; and, it is said, never hesitate when that hath decided the place of their destination. (
See Above.) In marriage, they may only form a connexion with those of their own communion.
The brother who marries out of the congregations is immediately cut off from church fellowship. Sometimes a sister, by express licence from the Elders' Conference, is permitted to marry a person of approved piety in another communion, yet still to join in their church ordinances as before. A brother may make his own choice of a partner in the society; but as all intercourse between the different sexes is carefully avoided, very few opportunities of forming particular attachments are found, and they usually rather refer their choice to the church than decide for themselves. And as the lot must be cast to sanction their union, each receives his partner as a divine appointment; and, however strange this method may appear to those who consult only their passions or their interest, it is observable, that no where fewer unhappy marriages are found than among the Brethren. But what characterises the Moravians most, and holds them up to the attention of others, is their missionary zeal. In this they are superior to any other body of people in the world. "Their missionaries, " as one observes, "are all of them volunteers; for it is an inviolabel maxim with them to persuade no man to engage in missions. They are all of one mind as to the doctrines they teach, and seldom make an attempt where there are not half a dozen of them in the mission. Their zeal is calm, steady, persevering. They would reform the world, but are careful how they quarrel with it. They carry their point by address, and the insinuations of modesty and mildness, which commend them to all men, and give offence to none. The habits of silence, quietness, and decent reserve, mark their character.
If any of their missionaries are carried off by sickness or casualty, men of the same stamp are ready to supply their place." As they stand first on the list of those who have engaged in missionary exertions, we shall here insert a farther account of them and their missions, with which I have been favoured by a most respectable clergyman of their denomination: "When brethren of sisters find themselves disposed to serve God among the heathen, they communicate their wishes and views to the committee appointed by the synods of the brethren to superintend the missions, in a confidential letter. If on particular inquiry into their circumstances and connexions no objection is found, they are considered as candidates. As to mental qualifications, much erudition is not required by the brethren. To be well versed in the sacred Scriptures, and to have an experimental knowledge of the truths they contain, is judged indispensably necessary. and it has been found by experience, that a good understanding joined to a friendly disposition, and, above all, a heart filled with the love of God, are the best and the only essential qualifications of a missionary. Nor are in general the habits of a student so well calculated to form his body for a laborious life as those of a mechanic. Yet men of learning are not excluded, and their gifts have been made useful in various ways. When vacancies occur, or new missions are to be begun, the list of candidates is examined; and those who appear suitable are called upon, and accept or decline the call as they find themselves disposed." "The following are the names of the settlements of the United Brethren in heathen countries. "Begun in 1732, in the Danish West India Islands. In St. Thomas; New Perrnhut, Nisky. In St. Croix; Friedensberg, Friedensthal. In St. Jan; Bethany, Emmaus.
In 1733: In Greenland; New Herrnhut, Litchenfels Lichtenau.
1734: In North America; Fairfield, in Upper Canada, Goshen on the river Muskingum.
In 1736: At the Cape of Good Hope; Bavians Kloof (renewed in 1792.)
In 1738: In South America; among the negro slaves at Paramaribo and sommelsdyk; among the free negroes at Bambey, on the Sarameca; among the native Indians at Hope, on the river Corentyn.
In 1754: In Jamaica; two settlements in St. Elizabeth's parish.
In 1756: In Antigua; at St. John's Grace Hill, Grace Bay.
In 1760: Near Tranquebar, in the East Indies; Brethren's Garden.
In 1764: On the Coast of Labrador; Nain, Okkak, Hopedale.
In 1765: In Barbadoes; Sharon, near Bridgetown.
In 1765: In the Russian part of asia; Sarepta.
In 1775: In St. Kitt's; at Basseterre.
In 1789: In Tobago; Signal Hill (renewed in 1798.) "The Brethren had three flourishing settlements on the river Muskingum, Salem, Gnadenhuetten, and Schoenbruna, before the late American war, during which these places were destroyed, and the inhabitants partly murdered, partly dispersed. The settlement Fairfield, in Canada, was made by those of the Indian converts, who were again collected by the missionaries. In 1798, a colony of Christian Indians went from thence to take possession of their former settlements on the Muskingum, which have been given to them by an act of congress, and built a new town, called Goshen. Part of the Indian congregation will remain at Fairfield, in Canada, as a good seed; our missionaries entertaining hopes that the Gospel may yet find entrance among the wild Chippeway tribe inhabiting those parts. "The Mission among the Hottentots at the Cape of Good Hope was begun in 1736, by George Schmidt, a man of remarkable zeal and courage, who laboured successfully among these people, till he had formed a small congregation of believers, whom he left to the care of a pious man, and went to Europe with a view to represent the promising state of the mission, and to return with assistants. But, to his inexpressible grief and disappointment, he was not permitted by the Dutch East India Company to resume his labours; some ignorant people having insinuated that the propagation of Christianity among the Hottentots would injure the interests of the colony.
Since that time to the year 1792 the brethren did not cease to make application to the Dutch government for leave to send missionaries to the Cape, especially as they heard that the small Hottentot congregation had kept together for some time, in earnest expectation of the return of their beloved teacher. He had taught some of them to read, and had left a Dutch Bible with them, which they used to read together, for their edification. At length, in 1792, by the mercy of God, and the kind interference of friends in the Dutch government, the opposition of evil- minded people was over-ruled, and leave granted to send out three missionaries, who, on their arrival, were willing, at the desire of the governor, to go first to Bavians Kloof, about one hundred and sixty English miles east from Capetown, and there to commence their labours on the spot where George Schmidt had resided. Their instructions from the government in Holland granted them leave to choose the place of their residence, wherever they might find it most convenient; but the circumstances of the colony at that time would not admit of it.
Since the English have made themselves masters of that country, they have built a new chapel; and from the favour and protection which the British government has uniformly granted to the brethren's missions, we have the best hopes that they will remain undisturbed and protected in their civil and religious liberty. The late Dutch government at the Cape deserve also our warmest thanks for the kind manner in which they received and protected the missionaries, promoting the views of the mission to the utmost of their power. "When the missionaries first arrived at Bavians Kloof, in 1792, it was a barren, uninhabited place. There are at present (1811) twelve missionaries residing there and in the neighbourhood, and about 1000 Hottentots. "The settlement near Tranquebar, on the coast of Coromandel, was made in the year 1760, at the desire of the Danish government, chiefly with a view to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of the Nicobar islands. After a persevering but fruitless attempt to form an establishment at Nancawery, one of the Nicobar islands, for that purpose, the whole plan was defeated by the following circumstances: The Danish government, finding the advantage gained by their settlements on these islands not to answer the great expense attending it, withdrew the people, who had already suffered greatly by the unwholesomeness of the climate; and the Brethren residing there being left alone, and all communication cut off between Tranquebar and the Nicobar islands, it became necessary to purchase a vessel to convey provisions and other necessaries to the missionaries.
This was done with great expense and hazard for some years, when, in the American war, the vessel was taken by a French cruiser, though belonging to a neutral state. No redress could be obtained from the French, and the Brethren at Tranquebar were obliged immediately to procure another vessel, lest the missionaries at Nancawery should be left destitute. The enormous expense and loss incurred by these events, and the sickly state of the missionaries, made it necessary to recall them: and thus not only the mission in these islands, but the first aim of the Brethren's settling in the East Indies, was frustrated. Since that time, no success has attended the mission near Tranquebar. Some brethren, indeed, went to Serampore and Patua, where they resided for a time, watching an opportunity to serve the cause of God in those places; but various circumstances occasioned both these settlements to be relinquished. By a late resolution, the East India mission will be suspended for the present, the expenses attending it having of late years far exceeded our ability. "Serepta, near Czarizin, on the Wolga, in Russian Asia, was built chiefly with a view to bring the Gospel to the Calmuck Tartars, and other Heathen tribes in those vast regions, among whom an opening might be found. Hitherto but little success has attended the Brethren's labours, though there exertions have been great and persevering, and equal to those of any of our missionaries in other countries.
Some Brethren even resided for a considerable time among the Calmucks, conforming to their manner of living in tents, and accompanying them wherever they moved their camp in the Steppe (immense plains covered with long grass.) They omitted no opportunity of preaching to them Jesus, and directing them, from their numberless idols and wretched superstitious, to the only true God, and the only way of life and happiness; but though they were heard and treated with civility, little impression could be made upon the hearts of these Heathen. Four Kirgess Tartar girls, who had been ransomed and educated by the Brethren, have been baptized. These, and one Calmuck woman, have as yet been all the fruits of this mission. The greatest part of the Calmucks have quitted those parts. The Brethren, however, have been visited by the German colonists living on the Wolga; and, through God's blessing, societies have been formed, and ministers of the Gospel provided for most of the colonies by their instrumentality. Thus the mission has answered a very beneficial purpose. "The most flourishing missions at present are those in Greenland, Antigua, St. Kitt's, the Danish West India islands, and the Cape of Good Hope. A new awakening has appeared of late among the Arawacks and free negroes in South America, the Esquimaux on the coast of Labrador, and in Barbadoes; and the latest accounts give us the most pleasing hopes of success in those parts.
In Jamaica the progress of the missions has been slow. However, of late, some of the most considerable planters in that island, being convinced of the utility of the mission, generously undertook to provide for the support of more missionaries, and measures have been adopted accordingly, to which we humbly trust, the Lord will give success in due time. Several attempts to carry the Gospel into other parts of the earth made by the Brethren have not succeeded. In 1735, missionaries were sent to the Laplanders and Samojedes; in 1737, and again in 1768, to the coast of Guinea; in 1738, to the negroes in Georgia; in 1739, to the slaves in Algiers; in 1740, to Ceylon; in 1747, to Persia; in 1752, to Egypt; of which we omit any particular account, for brevity's sake. In upper Egypt there was a prospect of their being useful among the Copts, who were visited for many years. "A society for the furtherance of the Gospel among the Heathen was instituted by the Brethren in London as early as the year 1751, for the more effectual co-operation with and assistance of the said missions' department, in caring for those missionaries who might pass through London to their several posts. The society was, after some interruption in their meetings, renewed in 1766, and took the whole charge of the mission on the coast of Labrador upon themselves; besides continuing to assist the other missions as much as lay in their power, especially those in the British dominions.
As no regular communication was kept up with the coast of Labrador by government, a small vessel was employed to convey the necessaries of life to the missionaries once a year; and here we cannot help observing, with thanks to God, that upwards of twenty years have now elapsed, during which, by his gracious preservation, no disaster has befallen the vessel, so as to interrupt a regular annual communication, though the coast is very rocky and full of ice, and the whole navigation of the most dangerous kind. "In amsterdam a similiar society was established by the Brethren in 1746, and renewed in 1793, at Zeist near Utrecht. this society took particular charge of the mission at the Cape of Good Hope; but the late troubles in Holland have rendered them unable to lend much assistance for the present. The Brethren in North America established a society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen in the year 1787, which was incorporated by the State of Pennsylvania, and has been very active in assisting the missions among the Indians. These three societies do all in their power to help to support the great and accumulated burdens of the above-mentioned missions' department, and God has laid a blessing upon their exertions. But they have no power to begin new missions, or to send out missionaries, which, by the synods of the Brethren's church, is vested solely in the Elders' Conference of the Unity."
The number of converts and persons under instruction in the different missions amount to about 55, 150, and the number of missionaries about 163. As to the tenets of the Moravians though they acknowledge no other standard of truth than the sacred Scriptures, they adhere to the Augsburg confession (see that article.) They profess to believe that the kingdom of Christ is not confined to any particular party, community, or church; and they consider themselves, though united in one body, or visible church, as spiritually joined in the bond of Christian love to all who are taught of God, and belong to the universal church of Christ, however much they may differ in forms, which they deem non-essentials. The Moravians are called Herrnhuters, from Herrnhuth, the name of the village where they were first settled. They also go by the name of Unitas Fratrum, or United Brethren. If the reader wish to have a fuller account of this society, he may consult Crantz's Ancient and Modern History of the Church of the United Brethren, 1780; Spandenburg's Exposition of the Christ Doctrine, 1784; Dr. Haweis's Church History, vol. 3: p. 184, &c.; Crantz's History of their Mission in Greenland; the Periodical Accounts of their Missions; Loskell's History of the North american Indian Missions; Oldendorp's History of the Brethren's Missions in the Danish West Indian Islands.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Moravians'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/m/moravians.html. 1802.