The Rich Young Man Who Said Yes

N.L. von Zinzendorf, a coherent defender of the unity of all Christians.


Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was born in 1700 in a rich and noble family. From 1662 all the men from the clan Zinzendorf carried the title of “Count”, which is the reason why Nicolaus is also known as Count Zinzendorf. His father’s death and his mother’s new marriage brought him under the care of his grandmother and of his aunt, who raised him.

A compassionate boy

The young count grew up in an atmosphere impregnated with prayer, biblical reading and hymns. With infantile sincerity, he wrote love letters to Jesus and threw them from the window of the castle tower, with certainty that the Lord would receive them and would read them. When the soldiers of Charles XII invaded Saxony, they entered the castle and the room where they found the 6 year-old count in his accustomed devotions. They were paralysed by fear and reverence when they heard the small boy pray!

This incident was prophetic of the way in which the count would move others with the depth of his spiritual experiences. Zinzendorf’s inheritance, spiritually speaking, was that spark of Lutheranism influenced by ‘pietism.’ History however would come to know it as ‘Moravian’, even though none of those names pleased Zinzendorf, because he loved the unity of all Christians. The pietists sought to know Christ in a personal way and to revive the church by means of small meetings of biblical study and prayer. For them, to walk with the Saviour meant being separated from the world, in obedience to Christ, to His Word and to love Him with all their heart.

As a boy, Christ’s sufferings impressed him strongly. He frequently meditated on the words of a hymn of Gerhardt: “O Head so full of bruises, So full of pair’ and scorn, ‘Midst other sore abuses, Mocked with a crown of thorn.” However, this godliness was strongly contrasted by his secular education. “Lutz”, as they called him, was not allowed to “forget that he was a count.” He was trained and taught for the future service in the court.

A well guided youth

At the age of ten, Zinzendorf was sent to study in Halle, where he received the inspiring teaching of the Lutheran pietist August H. Francke. There Zinzendorf met with other devote youths, and they began an association known as «Order of the Mustard Grain», a Christian fraternity dedicated to love toward «the whole human family» and to the propagation of the gospel. They used a small distinctive emblem, with the words “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the man”), and the motto: “His wounds are our health.” Each member of the order used a golden ring with the inscription: “No man lives for himself.” Frequently, during the meals at Francke’s home, they shared edifying narrations of distant regions, preachers’ testimonies and of those imprisoned for their faith. All this increased their zeal for the Lord’s cause in a powerful way.

From Halle, Zinzendorf went to Wittenberg to study Rights as preparation for a career in statistics, the only acceptable vocation for a nobleman. There, Zinzendorf demonstrated that he was a well guided student. At 15 years of age, he could read the classics and the New Testament in Greek; and possessed fluency in Latin and French. He also showed a clear poetic talent. However, he was not happy with what the future afforded him. He yearned to enter into the Christian ministry, but the break from the family tradition seemed impossible. The question oppressed him until 1719, when an incident changed the course of his life.

What do you do for me?

It happened during a tour of Europe after finishing his studies. In an art gallery, he saw a painting (“Ecce Homo” of Domenico Feti) that showed Christ suffering the produced by the crown of thorns, and an inscription that said: “All this I did for thee; what doest thou for Me?” From that instant, Zinzendorf knew that he could never be happy living a life of nobility. In spite of the price that he would have to pay, he would look for a life of service to the Saviour who had suffered so much to save him.

When he returned home, at the end of his trip that he took to renovate his consecration, he visited his aunt, the Countess of Castell and her daughter, Theodora. During his stay he fell ill with fever, forcing him to remain with them longer than expected. In those few days he discovered that he was in love with his young cousin. Still showing little affection, she gave him her portrait. The Count accepted the gift with great joy, as an initial promise of love. A few days later, in a fortuitous encounter with his friend Count Reuss, Zinzendorf noticed that his friend wanted to marry Theodora as well. Each one expressed their desire to desist in favour of the other, and not being under conditions of solving the matter, the two youths agreed to see what Theodora herself would say.

Zinzendorf later told of his true feelings in that moment: “Although it would cost me my own life having to give her up, if this was more acceptable to my Saviour, I would sacrifice what was most dear to me in the whole world.” The two friends arrived at Castell’s home, and Zinzendorf realized that Theodora loved his friend. The engagements were sealed immediately in a Christian ceremony. The young count composed a cantata for the occasion that was presented before the whole Castell household. At the end of the festival, the young composer offered such a tender prayer in favour of the couple that all were moved to tears.

After studying in the Old and New Testament what the Lord spoke of regarding marriage, and following a great deal of prayer and consultations with his friends, the count decided to marry “only choosing a spouse that shared his ideals.” He found that person in the countess Erdmuth von Reuss, with whom he married in September 1722. Zinzendorf formed a home with her that was even more dedicated and godly than his own. The count’s aim was to serve Christ, and his wife would support him in that objective. Erdmuth came to be the “adoptive mother of the brothers.”

Herrnhut is born

That same year, Zinzendorf began in the office of state counsellor in Dresden. On Sunday afternoons he led biblical studies, and he prayed that the village in which he lived would become a real Christian community, without knowing how God would respond to this desire.

The opportunity to participate in a Christian service of importance was presented when a Moravian group looked for protection in his property in Berthelsdorf which was later called Herrnhut (“the care of the Lord”). Zinzendorf’s invitation for these refugees to settle down on his properties, in spite of the opposition of other family members, was a decisive point in the development of the Moravian movement. Herrnhut grew quickly when news spread of the Count’s generosity. The refugees continued arriving, and soon the property became a growing community.

Beside the Moravians, others such as Lutherans, Calvinist, Bohemian brothers and sisters, ‘schwenkfelders ‘ and other diverse deserters of established churches began to arrive. With the growing population, the problems also increased. The different doctrinal foundations of the residents created disharmony and, on more than one occasion, placed the existence of Herrnhut in danger.

Zinzendorf was very patient and was a peacemaker. He listened to all that they had to say, trying to understand their point of view, as far as he could, without contradicting the truth. He avoided all that meant a violent nature. When Zinzendorf was in Herrnhut everything seemed to be all right, but before he had even left its gates the problems resurged.

A covenant of unity

On 12 May 1727 Zinzendorf decided to do something that would mark a definitive solution: he summoned all the brothers and sisters and spoke to them for three hours about the ungodliness of the division. That day, the brothers and sisters made a covenant with him in the presence of God. The brothers and sisters, one after another, agreed and committed to belong to the Saviour alone.

They were embarrassed by their religious disagreements and unanimously they were willing to bury their differences forever. They gave up loving themselves; they gave up their own will, their disobedience and free thinking. They wanted to be poor in spirit and be taught by the Holy Spirit in all things.

Following this, the Count established some personal responsibilities and gave them some rules to guide their mutual relationships. This was how, five years after the first refugees arrived, the whole atmosphere changed. A period of spiritual renovation began and arrived at its climax in a communion service on 13 August of that year with a great revival which, according to the participants, signalled the coming of the Holy Spirit to Herrnhut. This great night of revival produced a new enthusiasm for the missions that were the main characteristic of this movement.

The small doctrinal differences no longer constituted cause for discussion. On the contrary, there was a strong spirit of unity and a high dependence on God. There were three meetings a day, the first one at 4 in the morning, to pray, to worship and to read the Bible. In that time a twenty-four hour, 7 days a week, prayer chain began, without interruption, which lasted more than a hundred years.

An illustrious visitor

The English preacher John Wesley got to know the Moravians on a voyage in a ship travelling over the Atlantic. He was a godly young man, but still didn’t know his salvation. Amid a tempest on the sea, while all the passengers were frightened, a Moravian group remained perfectly calm. When the storm concluded, Wesley came closer and asked one of them: “Your wives and your children were not afraid?” “No, Mister, our wives and our children don’t fear death”, it was a simple answer. Wesley understood that he still didn’t have such a faith like that of those individuals.

Later, Wesley travelled to Germany to get to know them more. There, he had the opportunity to admire the purity of their customs. “They were always busy, - he said- always joyful and of good humour in their treatment of others: they never allowed anger to dominate them; they avoided all motives for quarrels, all kinds of acrimony and foul language; wherever they were, they always walked in a way worthy of the Christian vocation.”

In Marienborn, near Frankfurt, Wesley met with Zinzendorf, who he wanted to get to know. His conversations with Zinzendorf were extremely useful and pleasant. “I have found what I was looking for –he later wrote–: living proof of the power of faith, individuals liberated of interior and external sin through the love of God poured into their hearts, and free of doubts and fears through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.”

In Herrnhut he was amazed by what he saw: “I am with a church whose conversation is in the heavens; it possesses the Spirit that was in Christ and walks as he walked.” He was impressed with the solemn simplicity of their meetings that contrasted with the ceremony of the Anglican Church in those days. “The great simplicity and solemnity of that scene brought me back 17 centuries to one of those assemblies presided over by Paul or by Peter”–Wesley wrote. “I wanted to spend all my life here, but the Teacher called me to another part of his vineyard, and I had to abandon this blissful place. Ah, when will this Christianity cover the earth, as those “waters do cover the sea?”

The peak of the missions

Zinzendorf’s direct participation in the missions abroad didn’t happen until some years after the great spiritual revival in Herrnhut. In 1731, while he attended the crowning of the Danish king Christian VI, he was introduced to two people from Greenland and a black slave from Western India. He was so struck by the application of the missionaries that he invited the slave to visit Herrnhut, and he himself returned home with a sense of urgency to begin missionary work immediately. Within one year the first two Moravian missionaries were sent to the Virgin Islands, and in the following two decades they sent more missionaries than the all the Protestants during the previous two centuries put together.

Although Zinzendorf is mainly known as an initiator and motivator of missions, he also personally participated in them. In 1738, some years after the first missionaries had gone to the Caribbean, Zinzendorf accompanied three new missionaries that had received the commission of uniting their colleagues there. On their arrival, they found, to their distress that their colleagues were in the jail; but Zinzendorf, without losing a moment, used his prestige and nobleman’s authority to obtain their freedom. During his visit he held daily religious services for the Caribbean people, and prepared the organization and the territorial assignments of the missionaries. When he saw that the missionary work was strong, he returned to Europe. After two years, he set sail again, this time toward the North American colonies. He worked there shoulder to shoulder with the brothers and sisters that worked among the natives.

Although Zinzendorf had given up his life as a nobleman, it was not easy for him to assume the lifestyle of a missionary. By nature, he didn’t like life in the country nor did he easily put up with the annoyances of daily work. But all that he did, with all his passion, demonstrated his victory over himself, and his deep love for his Lord, who he tried to follow in everything.

As an administrator of the mission, Zinzendorf spent thirty three years supervising missionaries throughout the whole world. His methods were simple and practical. All his missionaries were prepared as laymen, not in Theology, but in personal evangelism. As laymen who sustained themselves, it was expected that they should work side by side with their possible converts, giving testimony of their faith through the spoken word and by living example. They were to show themselves as equals, not as superior to them. Their message was Christ’s love, without considering doctrinal truths until after conversion; and even then, the devote communion with the Lord had more importance than theological teaching.

By the year 1742, more than 70 Moravian missionaries, from a community of not more than 600 inhabitants, had responded to the call to go to Greenland, Surinam, South Africa, Algeria, North America, and other lands, taking with them the gospel.

Difficulties and tests

When the missionary fire in Herrnhut burned brightest, Zinzendorf suffered more opposition. In 1736 he was banished from Saxony. He left, with his family and some brothers and sisters, and they went to the outskirts of Frankfurt, where they settled down in an old castle called Ronneburg. One decade later, a new colonization was established there, Herrnhaag that became larger than Herrnhut in size. But in Ronneburg the countess felt that the stay there had been turbulent from the beginning. One time, when Zinzendorf was away, on one of his regular trips, his 3 year-old son, Christian Ludwig, became ill. There being no medical help there, he died. Zinzendorf and Erdmuth had 12 children, of which only 4 reached maturity.

During their exile, and because of necessity, Zinzendorf formed an “executive committee” itinerant, which became well-known as the “Pilgrimage Congregation.” This committee served to direct the work of the church of foreign mission and the ministry for the Diaspora societies. The Pilgrimage Congregation followed the regime of Herrnhut in relation to prayer and discipline, but it was flexible. The years of exile found the group in Wetteravia, England, Holland, Berlin and Switzerland. From Hernnhaag, in 1747 alone, 200 brothers and sisters would leave as missionaries.

In 1755, their son Christian Renatus, who was 24 years old, died in London and the following year countess Erdmuth died in Herrnhut. Remorse and guilt attacked the count after his wife’s death, for giving her less and less attention throughout the last two decades of her life.

One year after the countess’s death, he married Anna Nitschmann and gave up his position in the State as head of the noble family. Ludwig abdicated in favour of his nephew, because he was increasingly less inclined toward the honours of the world.

In the year 1760 they registered 28 years of wonderful missions. Nearly 226 missionaries had been sent. As a great visionary and a tireless pilgrim, Zinzendorf lived his last years in Herrnhut.

Legacy of Zinzendorf

Zinzendorf had a very close relationship with the Lord. He lived day after day in a living communion with Christ, like with a close friend. He investigated all the passages that speak of God’s friendly and kind communion with man in all the Scriptures, to exhort the brothers and sisters to maintain a faithful relationship with their Saviour. “Nothing should be so valued as the awareness that He is always close by and that you can tell him everything. The brothers and sisters should consider him and to listen to him in all things, because He is the most beloved and faithful friend. He had to be their first thought when they woke up in the morning, and the whole day should be spent in His presence; to bring all their complaints before Him, expect all their help from Him, to conclude their works with Him and to go to sleep in His presence.”

Zinzendorf lived in the constant expectation of the coming of the Lord. He said: “The hope that the Saviour will soon come, and will receive us in His rest, is a noble, blissful, sensitive and captivating thought.”

Zinzendorf had a strong conviction of the unity of all Christians. He saw that unity is a matter of the divine life shared by all believers. He encouraged communion with all Christians, even with those that have a non biblical position because of ignorance. Consequently, Zinzendorf preferred believers to use the term “brothers and sisters”, because it was simple and biblical, and therefore he rejected the terms Bohemian or Moravian, because they promoted sectarianism.

Zinzendorf said that the Church is the congregation of God in the Spirit throughout the whole world, that constitutes the spiritual body whose Head is Christ. He understood that the church in general had been degraded in becoming part of the world and united with the political structures. However, he knew that some genuine believers could still be found inside the denominations. To explain this confused situation, Zinzendorf sustained the teaching of the ‘ecclesiola ‘, the “church inside the church”, composed of by those who were faithful in following the Lord. He saw the Moravian brothers and sisters joining together like an ‘ecclesiola’; however, he never abandoned Lutheranism.

The brothers and sisters of Herrnhut practiced an intense church life, facilitated by the fact that they lived together daily. They had diverse types of meetings to assist the different necessities of the community: for prayer, for the word, for worship, for children, for visitors, for brothers, for sisters, etc. They cared for the sick, for widows and for orphans. In their church life, they experienced the life of heaven on earth.

A Thousand Times I heard Him

It has been written of Zinzendorf that: “Until the day of his death, Christ his Saviour, was his all and in all. He lived only for His glory and maintained an uninterrupted communion of faith and love with Christ. Possessions, land, honour and fame were, for him, nothing in comparison with Christ.” He said of His Lord: “I only have one passion; and that is Him, only Him.” “A thousand times I heard Him speak in my heart and I saw Him with the eyes of faith”. “Of Christ’s qualities, the greatest is His nobility; and of all the worthy ideas in the world, the noblest is the idea that the Creator should die for his children. If the Lord was abandoned by the whole world, I would still follow Him and would love Him.”

Herder, the German poet, wrote about Zinzendorf saying: “He was a conqueror in the spiritual world.” John Albertini, the eloquent preacher, describes the key note in the life of Zinzendorf: “It was the love of Christ that burned in the boy’s heart, the same love that burned in his youth, the same love that made him vibrant in adulthood, the same love that inspired each one of his works.”

One day before his death, Zinzendorf was very weakened. Hardly in a whisper, was he able to tell bishop Nitschmann who was at his side: “Did you suppose, in the beginning, that the Saviour would do as much as we now really see, in the various Moravian settlements, amongst the children of God of other Denominations, and amongst the heathen? I only entreated of Him a few of the first fruits of the latter, but there are now thousands of them. Nitschmann, what a formidable caravan from our Church already stands around the Lamb!”

Zinzendorf has been described by some as somebody genuinely Christ centric; for others as a spiritual leader who gave form to the course of the Christianity in the XVIII century, and still for others, as the young and rich ruler who encountered Jesus and fervently told him “Yes.”

Magazine “À Maturidade”.
John Wesley, His Life and Work (Mateo Lelievre).

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