In my Hymnology class this semester, I’ve delved into the relationship that the Wesley brothers had with the Moravian church, and explored how the Moravian influences defined many characteristics of the Methodist tradition, even that remains still today. It’s a fascinating topic, and as a born-‘n-bred United Methodist, it’s one that’s really helped me understand my own denomination’s musical tradition. It’s also been enlightening as a spiritual endeavor: John Wesley’s “Moravian Period” was during some of the formative years of his theological beliefs, especially as they pertained to his leadership of the Methodist gatherings. While I studied John’s journey, as he wrestled with the theological and spiritual topics the Moravians introduced, and as he solidified his own views, I worked through those same issues in my own faith, decided where I stand, and contemplated what I would have done in John’s position.
Through this illuminating experience, I feel more connected to the early Methodists, and I have a better understanding of where we came from, why Methodism was started, and why we do what we do today. I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I do!
We’ll start things off with a brief history of the Moravians. Before I began this research project, I had no idea what the Moravian church was, because it’s never been one of the “mainstream” denominations, and it’s been fascinating to learn about their history. It’s important to understand where they came from and their traditions, if we’re ever to understand how those traditions influenced the Wesleys.
The Moravian church began in the 1400’s, after the death of Jan Hus of Bohemia (Bohemia, at the time, was a country in the region that is now called The Czech Republic, along with the countries of Moravia and Czech Silesia.)
Jan Hus was a pietist, and he disputed some of the tactics of the Catholic Church at the time. We all know how reasonably the Church responded to critics in the 15th century; he was burned at the stake for his “heresy”. His followers began the Unitas Fratrum in his honor in 1457, also known in English as the Unity of the Brethren, the Hussite Brethren or the Bohemian Brethren, and they dedicated themselves to following the pietist path he showed them. They were devoted to a simplicity of life, they followed strict piety, and they believed strongly in congregational participation in worship.
The Ancient Church struggled with the same questions in the 15th century that Jan Hus wrestled with and that led to his martyrdom, most prominently the following three questions: the appropriateness of nobility in places of authority in the church; the proper use of worldly power, and the relationship of faith and works in the salvation process. The issue of worldly power was one that was unique and pertinent to the church during the time of the Ancient Brethren, because as wars were fought over religion, the pietistic JUnitas Fratrum often found themselves caught in the middle of the dispute and forced to abandon their homes, fleeing into Poland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and other nearby countries. They would get settled again, only to find another war had begun, and would be forced to flee again. Likewise, their discussion of salvation by faith or works was unique to the time, and they were one of the first Christian denominations to declare that salvation was by faith alone, not by works. While they strove to avoid consequential disputes with other denominations, they came down on the wrong side of all three of these questions, at least from the perspective of the Catholic Church, and for that reason they were heavily persecuted through the centuries.
In 1722, a group of persecuted refugees, the descendants of the original Unitas Fratrum, were introduced to the German Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, a preacher, hymn writer, patron of Christian missions, advocate of religious toleration, and social critic, who immediately knelt and prayed with them, and promptly devoted the rest of his life to their well-being.
The refugees built the city of Herrnhut (The Lord’s Shelter) on the Count’s property, and pledged their devotion to Count Zinzendorf as their feudal lord. This began the renewal of the Moravian church, which continues still today around the world. (For more information about the settlement in Herrnhut, and the remarkable faith of the Moravian refugees, here is a good resource: http://countzinzendorf.ccws.org/community/index.html)
Perhaps due to the persecution they faced, the Renewed Moravian church determined a way to avoid unnecessary disputes: they distinguished between things “essential” to salvation, “ministrative”, and “appropriate”. In this way they could be assured that they would not cause rifts with other Christians over trivial matters, but could stand up when important matters were in dispute. They worked hard to establish good relationships with new Protestant denominations as they arose, especially with the Lutheran and Reformed churches. However, the newcomers did not have the same aversion to conflict as they did, and they soon became fed up with the quarrels of the Lutherans and Calvinists, so they resolved to remain a separate denomination. At the start of the Thirty Years’ War, the Moravians were banished once again, this time from Bohemia and Moravia, and many settled in Germany, Poland, and Switzerland. This time was different from previous wars, however. The moral reaction against the decadence, religious divisiveness, moral subversion, social degradation, and economic destruction of the Thirty Years’ War helped start the Pietist movement in the 17th century, and suddenly the pietistic Moravians found themselves with an identity as part of larger group of Christians that were calling for a return to the spiritual pietism that they had been practicing for centuries. This helped to legitimize their faith tradition within the larger Christian church, which became especially important in England in the 18th century.
Moravian life was not divided into sacred and secular spaces; all of life was “to be a liturgy, an act of worship”. Count Zinzendorf regarded music as the “fifth gospel”. To this end, they primarily lived in a communal setting, because they desired to have a sense of separation from the secular world. Unlike many communal attempts, they did not live with each with the hope of creating a utopia, but simply to find intimate connection of Christian faith and service to others by living a holy and faithful life with others who had the same goal.
Music had a position of importance in their lives as a part of their daily and constant worship, and has since the very beginning of the Ancient Unity. As they worshiped all day, every day, so they were musical, all day, every day. “Moravian music, past and present, is grounded and rooted, grows and bears fruit, within and for the worship of the Savior.” Jan Hus wrote a hymn before his death, which was the first hymn available to the Unitas Fratrum. The Brethren began writing hymns of their own as soon as they formed the Unity, and they quickly became known for their prolific hymn writing and composing, which has continued since, composing over 550 years and around the globe. Count Zinzendorf saw music as the best means of communicating directly to the heart, and as such, music was used as a tool for theological teaching. Their hymns translated abstract thoughts into down-to-earth terms for the congregations to better understand. As he stated: “The heart may know what the mind cannot understand.”
For our purposes, this gives us context to next discuss the music of the Moravians- what they did, and when and why. Now, this is obviously far from a comprehensive history; if you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend looking up Nola Reed Knouse, a prominent authority on the history of the Moravians and their musical traditions. She has written several informative and accessible articles on the subject, including “Moravian Music: Introduction, Theme, and Variations” in the Journal of Moravian History, Spring 2007. Her 2008 book The Music of the Moravian Church in America is a fully comprehensive history and analysis of Moravian music, and is essential to fully understanding the phenomenon of Moravian music. We’ll get into some of these musical traditions next, and then delve into the impact that their music and theology, hand in hand, had on the Wesley brothers’s development of Methodism.