Nicolaus Zinzendorf: German bishop and saint (1700 - 1760) | Biography
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Nicolaus Zinzendorf
German bishop and saint

Nicolaus Zinzendorf

Nicolaus Zinzendorf
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro German bishop and saint
Was Religious scholar Writer Priest Translator Theologian Poet Hymnwriter
From Germany
Field Literature Religion
Gender male
Birth 26 May 1700, Dresden
Death 9 May 1760, Herrnhut (aged 59 years)
Spouse: Erdmuthe Dorothea of Reuss-EbersdorfAnna Nitschmann
Children: Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf
Nicolaus Zinzendorf
The details (from wikipedia)


Nikolaus Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf (26 May 1700 – 9 May 1760) was a German religious and social reformer, bishop of the Moravian Church and founder of the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine. He was called Ludwig or Brother Ludwig by his intimates, never 'Nicolaus'.
He was a major figure of the 18th century Protestantism, notable for providing shelter for the German-speaking Moravian exiles at Herrnhut. This settlement was influenced by his Pietist ideas from the Lutheran faith he was brought up in. Nowadays, the Moravian Church remains heavily shaped by Zinzendorf, in addition to its Hussite origin.
Born at Dresden, Zinzendorf was often influenced by strong and vehement feelings, and he was easily moved both by sorrow and joy. He was a natural orator, and though his dress was simple his personal appearance gave an impression of distinction and force. His projects were often misunderstood. In 1736, he was banished from Saxony, but in 1749 the government rescinded its decree and begged him to establish within its jurisdiction more settlements like that at Herrnhut.
He is commemorated as a hymnwriter and a renewer of the church by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on their Calendar of Saints and on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 10 May.

Formative years

The Zinzendorf family belonged to one of the most ancient of noble families in Lower Austria. They were feudal lords over many places in the Wachau area of the Danube Valley. Their seat was in Karlstetten, Lower Austria. Family members occupied many important positions in the imperial household, at the Reformation they became Lutherans. Among the Zinzendorf ancestors was the Emperor Maximillian I. Zinzendorf's great grandfather was made an Imperial Count.

His son Erasmus Maximillian von Zinzendorf chose to sell his Austrian possessions and emigrate to Franconia rather than accept forced conversion to Catholicism. His children entered the service of the Electors of Brandenburg and of Saxony Zinzendorf's father was in the service of the Saxon Elector at Dresden at the time of his youngest son's birth. He died six weeks later and the child was sent to live with his maternal grandmother and an aunt. His parents were engaged in Pietist circles and had Philipp Jakob Spener appointed as his godfather. His mother married again when he was four years old, and he was educated under the charge of his pietistic Lutheran grandmother, Henriette Catharina von Gersdorff, who did much to shape his character.

His school days were spent at Halle where Pietism was strong, and in 1716, he went to the University of Wittenberg, to study law so as to be ready for a diplomatic career. Three years later, he was sent to travel in the Netherlands, in France, and in various parts of Germany, where he made the personal acquaintance of men distinguished for practical goodness and belonging to a variety of churches. On his return he visited the branches of his family settled at Oberbürg near Nürnberg and at Castell. During a lengthened visit at Castell he fell in love with his cousin Theodora; but the widowed countess, her mother, objected to the marriage, and the lady afterwards became the wife of Count Henry XXIX of Reuss and Zinzendorf married Reuss's sister Erdmuthe Dorothea. He seems to have considered this disappointment as a call to some special work for God. He had previously, in deference to his family, who wished him to become a diplomat, rejected the invitation of August Hermann Francke to take Baron von Canstein's place in the Halle Orphanage; and he now resolved to settle down as a landowner, spending his life on behalf of his tenantry.

He bought Berthelsdorf from his grandmother, Baroness von Gersdorf and called Johann Andreas Rothe for pastor and John George Heiz for factor; he married Erdmuthe Dorothea, sister of Count Heinrich XXIX of Reuss-Ebersdorf, and began building on his home.

He wanted to demonstrate practical application of Spener's Pietist ideals. Zinzendorf did not intend to found a religious organization distinct from the area's Lutheran Church, but to create a Christian association, the members of which by preaching, by distributing tracts and books and by demonstrating practical benevolence might awaken torpid Lutheranism. The "band of four brothers"—Johann Andreas Rothe (pastor at Berthelsdorf); Melchior Schäffer (pastor at Görlitz); Friedrich von Watteville (a boyhood friend); and Zinzendorf—set to create a revival of religion as well as to preserve the warmth of their own personal trust in Christ. Their printing-house at Ebersdorf (now in Thuringia) printed large quantities of inexpensive Bibles, catechisms, hymnals and religious tracts. A French translation of Johann Arndt's True Christianity was also published.

Religious Freedom and Discord

A dislike of the dry Lutheran orthodoxy of the period gave Zinzendorf some sympathy with that side of the growing rationalism which was attacking dogma, while at the same time he felt its lack of earnestness, and of a true and deep understanding of religion and of Christianity, and endeavoured to counteract these defects by pointing men to the historical Christ, and seeking to recapture practices and spirituality of the apostolic church. He began to think that true Christianity could be best promoted by free associations of Christians, which in the course of time might grow into churches with no state connection. These thoughts took a practical turn from his connection with remnants of the Bohemian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum).

In 1722, Zinzendorf offered an asylum to a number of persecuted wanderers from Moravia and Bohemia (parts of Czech Republic today), and permitted them to build the village of Herrnhut on a corner of his estate of Berthelsdorf. Most of the initial refugees who came to this asylum were recruited by Christian David and came from areas where the early Protestant groups such as the Unitas Fratrum had been dominant prior to the Thirty Years' War. As the village grew it became known as a place of religious freedom, and attracted individuals from a variety of persecuted groups, including the Schwenkfelders. The concentration of differing beliefs in the village produced intense conflict. Personal and religious differences between the estate manager Heitz and Johann Andreas Rothe, the Lutheran pastor of Berthelsdorf, were made more tense by the apocalyptic preaching of Johann Sigismund Krüger.

The village fell into disarray and severe conflict. Some, including village founder Christian David, got caught up in apocalyptic fanaticism, referring to Zinzendorf as the Beast of the Apocalypse, and Rothe as the False Prophet. Zinzendorf finally took an indefinite leave from his court commission in Dresden and moved back to his estate to devote himself full-time to reconciliation of the conflict. He began to visit each home for prayer, and finally called the men of the village together for an intense study of the Scriptures. The question they came to focus on was how the Scriptures described Christian life in community. These studies, combined with intense prayer, convinced many of the community that they were called to live together in love, and that the disunity and conflict they had experienced was contrary to the clear calling of Scripture.

Reconciliation and the Brotherly Agreement

Out of this study and prayer, the community formed a document known as the Brüderlicher Vertrag, the Brotherly Agreement, a voluntary discipline of Christian community. This document, and a set of rules laid down by Zinzendorf known as The Manorial Injunctions, were signed by the members of the community on 12 May 1727. This document, which has been revised over many years, is today known as "The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living." The Moravian Church is one of the few denominations that emphasizes a code of Christian behavior over specific creeds.

Continued study and prayer in small groups known as banden resulted in a sense of reconciliation in the community, leading to a powerful spiritual renewal on August 13, 1727 during a special communion service at the Berthelsdorf Church. This experience, referred to as the "Moravian Pentecost," marked the beginning of a new era of spiritual growth in Herrnhut. It also began a period of radical experimentation with communal Christian living as expressed in Zinzendorf's theology.

Reconnection with early Unitas Fratrum

As the renewed community of Herrnhut grew, Zinzendorf obtained a copy of Ratio Disciplinae, the church order of the early Bohemian Unity. As he began to study the history of the Bohemians, he was astonished to find powerful similarities between the theology and practice of the early Unitas Fratrum and the newly established order of Herrnhut. Zinzendorf and the Herrnhuters felt a strong identification with the writings of Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius and incorporated many of the ideas of the early Unity. However, Zinzendorf saw the new group as a spark for renewal of all denominations, not a new and separate denomination. This theological bent was reinforced by the legal structure of the Lutheran State church.

New Protestant family order

In this renewed community, Zinzendorf was able to organize the people into something like a militia Christi, based not on monastic but on family life. However his ideas of family were centered not on a traditional nuclear family of parents and children. Indeed, he wanted to break traditional family bonds by organizing communal families based on age, marital status and gender. The banden, or small groups, continued but were organized into "choirs" based on age, marital status, and gender. Zinzendorf's theology recognized that at each stage of life, we had different spiritual needs and a different relationship with the Savior. Moravian communities based on this model, such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Salem, North Carolina, were designed for the sole purpose of serving Christ, who also was considered to be the community leader. In these communities, a radical equality of spiritual life was practiced. In Bethlehem, nobility and converted Native Americans shared common quarters; in Salem, slaves were full members of the Church and could be elected to offices of leadership.

Zinzendorf was consecrated a bishop at Berlin on 20 May 1737 by Bishops David Nitschmann der Bischof and Daniel Ernst Jablonski.

Missionaries and the Pilgrim Count

Zinzendorf monument in Herrnhut, Germany
Zinzendorf preaching to people from many nations
Zinzendorf`s waistcoat in Lititz Moravian Archive and Museum

Zinzendorf's interest in missionary work was sparked by meeting two Inuit children converted by Hans Egede's mission in Greenland and a freed slave, Anthony Ulrich, who told of terrible oppression among the slaves in the West Indies.

In 1732, the community began sending out missionaries among slaves in the Danish-governed West Indies and the Inuit of Greenland. Zinzendorf's personal and familial relation to the court of Denmark and to King Christian VI facilitated such endeavors. He saw with delight the spread of this Protestant family order in Germany, Denmark, Russia and England.

In 1736, accusations from neighboring nobles and questions of theological orthodoxy caused Zinzendorf to be exiled from his home in Saxony. He and a number of his followers moved to Marienborn (near Büdingen) and began a period of exile and travel, during which he became known as the "Pilgrim Count."

The missionary work in the West Indies had been hugely controversial in Europe, with many accusing Zinzendorf of simply sending young missionaries off to die. Zinzendorf decided to place himself on the line, and in 1739 left Europe to visit the mission work on St. Thomas. Convinced that he himself might not come back, he preached his "last sermon" and left his will with his wife. The visit was a huge success, however, and enabled him to free some of the missionaries who had been illegally jailed. However, the missionaries' mistreatment by the plantation managers established their credibility with the slaves, and after Zinzendorf's visit the mission work was much more successful.

In 1741, Zinzendorf visited Pennsylvania, thus becoming one of the few 18th century European nobles to have actually set foot in the Americas. In addition to visiting leaders in Philadelphia such as Benjamin Franklin, he met with the leaders of the Iroquois and, with the assistance of Conrad Weiser reached agreements for the free movement of Moravian missionaries in the area.

In 1749, Zinzendorf leased Lindsey House, a large manor on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea built on the estate of Sir Thomas More to be a headquarters for work in England. He lived there until 1755. Missionary colonies had by this time been settled in the West Indies (1732), in Greenland (1733), amongst the North American Indians (1735); and before Zinzendorf's death the Brethren had sent from Herrnhut missionary colonies to Livonia and the northern shores of the Baltic Sea, to the slaves of South Carolina, to Suriname, to the Negro slaves in several parts of South America, to Tranquebar and the Nicobar Islands in the East Indies, to the Copts in Egypt, to the Inuit of Labrador, and to the west coast of South Africa.


Zinzendorf was a very eclectic theologian. He called his group the "Church of God in the Spirit" or the "Congregation of God in the Spirit." Rather than focusing on doctrine or belief, Zinzendorf's theology emphasizes the growth of the spiritual relationship between the believer and the Savior. As reflected in the communities he established, he believed in Christians living lives of love and harmony, and believed that every Christian needed to live in a faith community, or Gemeinde (congregation). He taught that the Savior had a relationship with each believer, but a different level of relationship with the Gemeinde. Decisions on interpretation of Scripture were to be made communally, not individually. He believed it was the Gemeinde, not the ecclesiastical and political institution, that was truly the Church of Jesus Christ.

Zinzendorf's theology strongly included the emotional life of the believer as well as the intellectual. He criticized the coldly intellectual approach common in his day, and built a great deal of practice around the transformation of the emotions. He referred to this as the "religion of the heart."

Zinzendorf's thought and practice was radically ecumenical in a world of rigidly defined religious/political boundaries. He believed that each denomination had a unique perception of Christ, and a unique gift to offer the world. He met and had profound personal relationships with religious leaders ranging from Cardinal Louis Antoine de Noailles, the Catholic Archbishop of Paris to John Potter, the Anglican (Episcopalian) Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom became members of Zinzendorf's Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed, pledging to use their positions of power to serve Christ. Others who were members of the Order included Christian VI, King of Denmark; General James Oglethorpe, Governor of Georgia; Tomochichi, Chief of the Creek nation of Native American Indians; and Erskine, a Scottish member of the British Parliament.

Zinzendorf often worked to have denominations work together and respect one another. In 1742 he advocated respect for the Saturday Sabbath keeping among the German speaking Christians in Philadelphia citing the use of that day by the Ephrata Cloister, thus promoting the first practice of the two-day weekend in America. He also used Sunday for preaching the Gospel.

Declining years

The community in Herrnhut, from which almost all these colonies had been sent out, had no money of its own, and Zinzendorf had almost exclusively furnished its expenses. His frequent journeys from home made it almost impossible for him to look after his private affairs; he was compelled from time to time to raise money by loans, and about 1750 was almost reduced to bankruptcy.

This led to the establishment of a financial board among the Brethren, on a plan furnished by a lawyer, John Frederick Köber, which worked well. Christian Renatus, whom Zinzendorf had hoped to make his successor, died in 1752 and the loss devastated him. Four years later, on 17 June 1756 he lost his wife Erdmuthe Dorothea, who had been his counselor and confidante in all his work. On 27 June 1757 Zinzendorf married Anna Caritas Nitschmann (24 November 1715 – 21 May 1760), with whom he had been very close for many years. Anna had for years been spiritual leader of the women of the movement. The marriage was not publicized broadly since Anna was a commoner, and would have been extremely controversial. Three years later, overcome with his labours, he fell ill and died (on 9 May 1760), leaving Bishop Johannes von Watteville, who had married his eldest daughter Benigna, to take his place at the head of the community. His wife, Anna, died 12 days later.


He wrote a large number of hymns, of which the best-known are "Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness" and "Jesus, still lead on". A selection of his Sermons was published by Gottfried Clemens in 10 vols., his Diary (1716–1719) by Gerhard Reichel and Josef Theodor Müller (Herrnhut, 1907), and his Hymns, etc., by H. Bauer/G. Burkhardt (Leipzig, 1900). The German version of this article says that perhaps his best-known work is the "Common Table Prayer": "Come Lord Jesus, be our Guest and let Thy gifts to us be blessed." In another translation this is called the "Moravian Blessing", "Come Lord Jesus, our Guest to be, and bless these gifts bestowed by Thee."


A four-part documentary series, Count Zinzendorf was produced in 2000 by Comenius Foundation with the assistance of the Christian History Institute.


The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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