Excerpt from “The Moravian Experience“
In 1957 the Moravian Church, often regarded as the oldest Protestant church in continuous existence, celebrated its 500th Anniversary. Moravian history is divided into two major epochs, the era of the Ancient Unity dating from 1451 to 1727, and the era of the Renewed Church, dating from 1727 to the present day.
In its more than 550 years of existence, the Moravian Church has compiled an impressive list of firsts:
1. The spiritual forerunner of the Moravian Church, John Hus was among the first to set aside Latin and preach the gospel of Christ in the language of the people he served. Hus was ordained a Catholic priest in 1400 and named the Rector of the University of Prague in 1402. He was put to death by the Council of Constance on July 6, 1415. It has often been said that the Moravian Church grew up out of his ashes.
2. The Ancient Unity was the first Protestant church to produce a Hymnal. Containing 89 hymns, the first edition was published in 1501. Moravians in the era of the Renewed Church regarded the Hymnal as, “a human response to the Bible, an echo and extension thereof.”
4. In the years 1579 to 1593 the Ancient Unity translated Scripture from the original Hebrew and Greek into Czech, the lingua franca of its members. Moravian scholars did this work in stages. The full translation was completed in 1593 and published as the Kralitz Bible, two decades before the King James Bible of 1611.
5. Both the Ancient Unity and the Renewed Church endeavored to educate girls and women with the same thoroughness as boys and men. Likewise, in the early days of the Renewed Church women served alongside men on the Elders. For a short time, Anna Nicheman served as Chief Eldress. ****
6. The Renewed Church was a leader in the Protestant Mission Movement. In 1792****, when William Cary challenged British Baptist to world mission, he produced a copy of a periodical about Moravian missions and said, “See what these Moravians have done! Why can’t we do likewise?”
7. Members of the Renewed Church crossed paths with John and Charles Wesley, and had a profound influence on both of these future “Methodists.” Charles was inspired to write his great hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” after one of the Moravians spoke to him saying, “If I had one thousand tongues, I would use them all to praise Jesus.”
8. The Renewed Church was a leader in the Ecumenical Movement before it was so named. One of Zinzendorf’s biographers, A.J. Lewis, called his subject and his book, “The Ecumenical Pioneer.” At Zinzendorf’s insistence, members of the Renewed Church learned to subordinate individual differences in theology to shared loyalty to Christ. The Renewed Church not only accepted diversity of thought among its membership, it accepted diversity of doctrine and practice among the other Protestant churches. Moravians believed that God called the various churches into existence and allowed their differences for the express purpose of serving a variety of inclinations and needs among people. Moravians endeavored to cooperate with the other churches on many fronts. For instance, in the Virgin Islands, while Lutherans attended to the spiritual needs of the plantation owners and business class, Moravian missionaries sought to take the gospel to the slaves. This was a primitive partnership, but it was based on mutual respect.
9. The Renewed Church was among the first of the European Protestant churches to undertake work in America. In 1741 Moravians settled Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1753 they purchased 99,000 acres of land in North Carolina from Lord Granville and settled there. Wherever the Moravians went, they took their culture with them, especially their music, and not just their hymnody. Often, the first performances of works by the great European masters took place not in New York or Philadelphia, but in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania or Salem, North Carolina. Today, our musical legacy is preserved by the Moravian Music Foundation located in Winston-Salem, N.C.