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Moravians: History & Overview

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

In this lesson, explore the history and spiritual views of the Moravians, a minority religious group from Germany who believed in spiritual equality for all believers. Discover how this small religious group grew from one community in Germany into an international religious community.

A Bloody Beginning

During the early 1400s, a small group of German peasants in the province of Moravia began to follow the teachings of Jan Hus a popular local priest. Although Hus was trained in Catholicism the established religious faith of Europe at the time, he believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible themselves instead of relying on the interpretation of the clergy. He also encouraged his parishioners to engage in an emotional form of worship that was at odds with the more formal traditional Catholic Mass. His views were popular, but the Catholic Church was not receptive to his views and he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.

This image from an illuminated manuscript published in 1500 shows the burning of Jan Hus
This image from an illuminated manuscript published in 1500 shows the burning of Jan Hus

His followers, who had become known as the Moravians, for the province they originated in, were forced to stop their religious services and return to the Catholic faith. Although many Moravians appeared to have given up their religious views, in secret, Moravian families continued to practice their religious beliefs.

Despite the bloody end of Hus and the early Moravian community, other individuals slowly began to question the practices of the Catholic Church. In 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther, unintentionally started the Protestant Reformation, a series of religious splits that led to the development of many new religious churches, separate from the previously dominant Catholic Church.

The Moravians, or Moravian Brethren as they were often called, resurfaced in the modern Czech Republic, hoping to finally be able to practice their religious beliefs freely. Unfortunately, like many early Protestant groups, they faced intense persecution from their Catholic neighbors until they found a safe haven with a religiously tolerant ruler. This ruler, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was fascinated by the Moravian's emphasis on an emotional form of spiritual expression and their acceptance of all who wished to join their faith. Count Zinzendorf granted the Moravians land to build a village on and defended their right to practice their faith freely.

Establishing a Church

With their new home finally secured, the Moravians began to codify and formalize their religious views. Like many modern churches, Moravians wanted their religious services to provoke strong emotions and help the faithful to connect with God. Moravian preachers made emotional appeals in their sermons and tried to make connections between the will of God and their parishioner's daily lives. Moravian religious services also featured trombone choirs, which were highly unusual for the time period. The trombone choirs became a well-known feature of Moravian life and many converts recorded that they were first enticed to Moravian services by the sound of heavenly horns.

In order to join the Moravian church, one had to undergo an intense conversion process and develop a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship required near constant prayer and a strict social code, including the separation of the sexes during most religious services. This code also included the ban on swearing oaths of allegiance to secular rulers and bearing arms in battle.

Photograph of Moravian church in Stockholm taken in 1917
Photograph of Moravian church in Stockholm taken in 1917

Despite the intense conversion process and restrictive rules, the Moravians did gain many converts and the Church continued to expand. People were attracted to the faith by the emotional nature of Moravian religious services and by the well-ordered and closely knit Moravian community life. The Moravian missionaries traveled throughout Europe, preaching and emphasizing the need for people to have a personal connection with Jesus Christ. When opportunities for colonization in the New World opened up in the 1600s, Moravians established new church communities in the American colonies. Missionaries went on to establish Moravian communities in Africa and South America as well.

Image of Moravian religious services, 1735
Image of Moravian religious services, 1735

Minorities in the Moravian Church

In most religious faiths of the 1600 and 1700s, women were not allowed to be active participants. Typically women were restricted to attending religious services presided over by male religious authorities. The Moravians, in contrast, believed that women and men were spiritually equal and women in the Moravian faith were expected to be full participants in religious services.

Women were allowed to teach and preach to one another, and were expected to act as spiritual leaders. This acceptance of female spiritual equality enticed many women to join the Moravian faith and in some cases resulted in religious communities that were nearly entirely run by women. While they were generally restricted in terms of political power by the social norms and laws of most nations in this period, within the church women could enjoy an equal position with men and true spiritual power.

Painting of a Moravian Girl by John Valentine Haidt
Painting of a Moravian Girl by John Valentine Haidt

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