In Zinzendorf Territory: Deep in the Snow and Christian Communism of Herrnhut

Icy Arrival

‘We are certainly in the sticks’, she said, looking out the window of the rail motor taking us from Dresden to Löbau, deep in the southeast of Germany, close by the Czech and Polish borders. Through the darkness, through heavy snow swirling about in the strong wind, the rail motor seemed to be cutting its way through a blanket. Ahead, its headlight barely made out the way ahead; behind it, a cloud of snow billowed in its passing. Inside, a rotund man dug a piece of those omnipresent German sausages from the back of teeth, farted and burped and settled in for the ride. At Löbau, we were the only ones to disembark, slipping on the ice of a platform that showed little evidence of salt, gravel or snow shovel. From here it was to be the last bus of the night, so we waited at the bus stop with chattering teeth, hoping the driver had not decided to stay in his warm home, or that he had not slid off the road on an icy corner on his way to pick us up.

Arrive he finally did, albeit without a smile or a word of welcome. “Hernhut’, I said, clumping snow off my shoes, shaking out scarves and gloves and hats. We had the bus to ourselves, along with the surly driver who obviously wished he were warm at home, wondering why he had to do runs like this with barely a passenger on board, peering through windscreen wipers desperately trying to sluice away the snow that kept pelting the windscreen.

As the snowstorm thickened, I imagined Herrnhut as a collection of a few houses and a church, with but one stop in the middle of the night and a single light showing us the place in which we were to stay. So at the first hint of settlement – the closed-down Herrnhut Bahnhoff – we clambered off the bus, full of anticipation … Not a welcoming light in sight, not a clump of houses or a church to be seen. All that greeted us was an icy road winding its way into the gloom and a faint light or two in the distance. Anticipating few opportunities to find food out here, we had stocked up for the week, with the result that I had two large, heavy bags along with my backpack. At least I had two, for that way I felt balanced, with both arms stretching out, threatening to become dislocated at the shoulders with every slipping step on the ice.

Eventually the village emerged, but not a soul was to be seen who might help us with directions. At last a light, a person in the window absorbed in a task. So we knocked, asked directions in broken German and were told to walk further. Meanwhile the slope changed from downhill to uphill, so now one threatened to slip backwards rather than forwards.

‘That’s it’, she said. I breathed a sigh of relief only to find that it was merely a sign to our lodging, through Zinzendorfer Platz and by the curious church, down a narrow road festooned with strange Christmas stars shining in the night. I was later to learn that these multi-pointed stars, of all sizes, lit from within, were an invention and product of the Brüdergemeinde, the Moravian Brethren, whose spiritual home was here, in this small village of Herrnhut. Now the stars are sold throughout the world, but to see them decking out the whole street was strongly welcoming after our trek, an invitation to an inn, dry and warm inside. I just hoped that inn wasn’t full.

Thankfully, it wasn’t, but it took the man on duty an eternity to appear after we knocked. Middle-aged, peaceful, moustached, he said he had been waiting for us at the main bus stop in the middle of the village, just opposite the church. When we didn’t step off the bus, he had said to himself, ‘it will be a long night’. Apparently, we had mistakenly disembarked too early in our eagerness to find our lodgings. Perhaps it was the trudge through a cold and snowy night, laden with food and packs that made the spacious room seem all the more luxurious. But it was the cheapest and best accommodation we had found anywhere in Europe – a blessing of the remainders of the communist east, perhaps, along with its location in small village. Even then, we later found out that it was actually the most expensive around …

Zinzendorf, Herrnhutters and Christian Communism

The next five days, during which the snow continued to pile higher and higher, before I had to leave again for Amsterdam, were among the most peaceful and restoring days I have experienced in a long time. Far from the madding crowd, in a village of stone houses dating back to the early eighteenth century, it was where the Moravian Brethren had come in dribs and drabs from persecution under the Habsburgs in Moravia and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). One element of the Radical Reformation that was so strong in that part of the world, they had been invited by Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf, to find refuge on his estate. A man of extraordinary energy and significant political influence, with a vivid imagination and deeply spiritual, if not charismatic tendencies, Zinzendorf sought, among others, a spiritual renewal in the Lutheran Church.

He had been influenced by his mother’s pietism, but he was also taken with the image of Christian communism found in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-5).

Now the company of all those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-5).

But it was to be a while before these ideals were reformulated for the renewed movement of the Moravian Brethren. The dribs and drabs that fled to Zinzendorf’s estate at Berthelsdorf, whom he encouraged to build the community of Herrnhut on a corner of his estate, were a cantankerous, argumentative lot, given to apocalyptic fervour and expectation. So bad did the dissension and struggles become that some, among them the Moravian leader, Christian David, saw in Zinzendorf the anti-Christ. Sensing the urgent need to deal with the crisis, Zinzendorf gave up his imperial post in Dresden and returned hastily to his estate. He threw himself into the fray, visited all and sundry, exercised his considerable influence and cajoled, threatened and persuaded the people that strife was not the proper mode of Christian living, but that peaceful, communal cooperation was what the New Testament suggested as the ideal for Christian communities.

From then on, Zinzendorf became spiritual leader (eventually a bishop in the Lutheran Church), preacher, theologian, hymn writer, financier, organiser and missionary director. Eventually, all the hard work killed him by the age of 60. By then, however, the small Moravian community had been organised on the terms of the old Unitas Fratrem (a document of which Zinzendorf had happened upon in his reading), into ‘bands’ or ‘choirs’ of men and women, living in communal houses for single men and women, married couples and children. In the process, his vivid imagination developed a discourse concerning the human body and sex that came well before its supposed appearance in nineteenth century Europe. Through guidelines for the ‘choirs’ of young men and women concerning their bodily changes at puberty, matter-of-fact ways of dealing with discharges, a valuing of sex as the symbol of the union of the believer with Christ, Zinzendorf and the Moravians sought to remove the shame and stigma associated with sexual bodies. Of course, it did produce a new form of policing sex and bodies, a way of making them public knowledge and unabashed topics of open conversation.

And Zinzendorf was fascinated by blood, especially the blood of Jesus that poured from the hole cut in his side on the cross. There, he felt, was the moment of salvation, when one nestled in that hole and was washed clean by the blood that flowed freely for our sins. Later Moravian leaders felt called upon, in all due modesty and with a concern that it might appear a little wacky, to tone down the explicitness of this imagery in the theology, instructions and hymns, but not before it influenced the likes of John and Charles Wesley and their fledgling Methodist movement in England.

Within two decades of the renewal and charismatic awakening – at a moment in 1727, or so the story goes, during worship in the Bertheldorf church, the ‘spirit’ was felt to move powerfully among the congregation – the community had sent out missionaries, well before the massive Protestant push of the nineteenth century, to what were literally, from a European perspective, the ends of the earth: Africa, Central America (the Moskito Coast), the Caribbean, Australia, Siberia, Greenland, Labrador, the far East. As a proper noble, Zinzendorf first asked permission from the European colonial headquarters, where there was one, using family and political connections with the royalty of Europe to do so. But he also faced much criticism that he was sending men and women to their deaths. So Zinzendorf set out himself to show that it could be done, spending time in the Caribbean and North America (albeit not Greenland, Labrador, Africa or Australia).

As a result, the movement had an impact way beyond its size, with the deep piety coursing its way through the Lutheran churches, the hymns taken up into many a hymn-book, the missions producing a worldwide movement which today has 700,000 members, even though only 30,000 may be found in Europe.

Village Life

What does all this mean for village life today in the deep east of Germany, the spiritual home of the world-wide Moravians? Despite the Roman Catholic Church in town, it does mean that many in the village are part of the Moravian church, as well as those in surrounding towns and villages. We were there just before Christmas, so the Moravians would come for the almost daily Advent services, prayer meetings and concerts in the extraordinary church building. That building is vaulted, if starkly white and cleared, in good Reformation fashion, of any ornamentation and distraction from one’s focus on God and the spiritual life (we attended one such service to see what it was like). With their continued, although modified, patterns of communal living and deep spiritual introspection, it seems to give the village a greater sense of quiet than you would otherwise find. Walking around town, immersing myself in Moravian history, trekking over to Zinzendorf’s home in Berthelsdorf, peering towards the Hungarian, Czech and Polish borders barely a few kilometres away, I encountered stares rather than glances at the newcomer or visitor, the open perusal and assessment of a new face in town, the small concerns of everyday life that loomed large, and not a little parochialism.

The Moravian Brethren also made a small difference on the depth of the economic recession that afflicted Europe at the time (Christmas 2010, more than two years after the spectacular global economic crisis of 2008). In Herrnhut, unemployment was at about 10 percent; around about it was a staggering 25 percent. Deep in old communist territory, it was one of those regions that had still not achieved the GDP of 1989, before the Berlin Wall came down. The former Eastern Bloc was still at the rough end of a capitalist makeover that had not dealt kindly with those countries in more than two decades. One could still see factories and plants that had been peremptorily closed, depriving people of employment that had in many cases not returned, apart from farm work.

But the Moravians had been through worse before, for Zinzendorf himself was not the best financial manager. Sole financier of the early community, he soon enough found himself raising loans, teetering on bankruptcy, until the Brethren met and decided that they needed to take this matter at least out of the count’s busy hands. From the middle of the eighteenth century, they established firmer economic foundations for the community, based on a simple life, pooled resources, self-sufficiency and careful attention to what would work.

It seems to have worked – not a bad legacy of Christian communism.