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Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf

Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf
Born May 26, 1700
Flag Kurfuerstentum-Sachsen bis 1806.jpg Dresden
Died May 9, 1760 (aged 59)
Flag Kurfuerstentum-Sachsen bis 1806.jpg Herrnhut
Occupation theologian, priest, Bishop of Moravian church
Spouse(s) Erdmuthe Dorothea, († 1756)
Anna Nitschmann, († 1760)
Zinzendorf monument in Herrnhut, Germany

Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf, Imperial Count of Zinzendorf and Pottendorf, (May 26, 1700 – May 9, 1760), German religious and social reformer and bishop of the Moravian Church, was born at Dresden.

Zinzendorf had a naturally alert and active mind, and an enthusiastic temperament that made his life one of ceaseless planning and executing. Like Martin Luther, he was often influenced by strong and vehement feelings, and he was easily moved both by sorrow and joy. He was an eager seeker after truth, and could not understand men who at all costs kept to the opinions they had once formed; yet he had an exceptional talent for talking on religious subjects even with those who differed from him. Few men have been more solicitous for the happiness and comfort of others, even in little things. His activity and varied gifts sometimes landed him in oddities and contradictions that not infrequently looked like equivocation and dissimulation, and the courtly training of his youth made him susceptible about his authority even when no one disputed it. 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 His projects were often misunderstood, and in 1736 he was even banished from Saxony, but in 1749 the government rescinded its decree and begged him to establish within its jurisdiction more settlements like that at Herrnhut.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 on May 9.


Formative years

His ancestors belonged to Lower Austria, but had taken the Protestant side in the Reformation struggle, and settled near Nuremberg. His parents belonged to the Pietist circle and the lad had Philipp Jakob Spener for his godfather. His father died six weeks after he was born. His mother married again when he was four years old, and he was educated under the charge of his pious and gifted grandmother, Catherine von Gersdorf, who did much to shape his character.

His school days were spent at Halle amidst Pietist surroundings, and in 1716 he went to the university of Wittenberg, to study law and fit himself 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 Nuremberg 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 of Reuss.

Call to God

Zinzendorf 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 Erdmuth Dorothea,Countess Reuss-Ebersdorf, sister of Count Heinrich XXIX of Reuss-Ebersdorf, and began building on his home.

His intention was to carry out into practice the Pietist ideas of Spener. He did not mean to found a new church or religious organization distinct from the Lutheranism of the land, but to create a Christian association the members of which by preaching, by tract and book distribution and by practical benevolence might awaken the somewhat torpid religion of the Lutheran Church. The "band of four brothers" (Rothe, pastor at Berthelsdorf; Melchior Schäffer, pastor at Görlitz; Friedrich von Watteville, a friend from boyhood; and himself) set themselves by sermons, books, journeys and correspondence to create a revival of religion, and by frequent meetings for prayer to preserve in their own hearts the warmth of personal trust in Christ. From the printing-house at Ebersdorf, now in Thuringia, large quantities of books and tracts, catechisms, collections of hymns and cheap Bibles were issued; and a translation of Johann Arndt's True Christianity was published for circulation in France.

Protestant family order

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, the revelation of the Father. He seems also to have doubted the wisdom of Spener's plan of not separating from the Lutheran Church, and began to think that true Christianity could be best promoted by free associations of Christians, which in course of time might grow into churches with no state connection. These thoughts took a practical turn from his connection with the Bohemian or Moravian Brethren. Zinzendorf offered an asylum to a number of persecuted wanderers from Moravia and Bohemia, (part of Czech Republic today), and permitted them to build the village of Herrnhut on a corner of his estate of Berthelsdorf. The refugees who came to this asylum (between 1722 and 1732—the first detachment under Christian David) from various regions where persecution raged, belonged to more than one Protestant organization. Persecution had made them cling pertinaciously to small peculiarities of creed, organization and worship, and they could scarcely be persuaded to live in peace with each other.

Zinzendorf devoted himself to them. He, with his wife and children, lived in Herrnhut and brought Rothe with him. He had hard work to bring order out of the confusion. He had to satisfy the authorities that his religious community could be brought under the conditions of the peace of Augsburg; he had to quiet the suspicions of the Lutheran clergy; and, hardest of all, he had to rule in some fashion men made fanatical by persecution, who, in spite of his unwearied labours for them, on more than one occasion, it is said, combined in his own house to denounce him as the Beast of the Apocalypse, with Rothe as the False Prophet. Patience had at last its perfect work, and gradually Zinzendorf was able to organize his refugees 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. These communities, such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, were designed for the sole purpose of serving Christ, who also was considered to be the community leader. Zinzendorf was also able to establish a common order of worship in 1727, and soon afterwards a common organization. He was consecrated a bishop at Berlin on 20 May 1737 by Bishops David Nitschmann der Bischof and Daniel Ernst Jablonski.


Zinzendorf preaching to people from many nations
Zinzerdorf`s waistcoat in Lititz Moravian Archive and Museum

Zinzendorf took the deepest interest in mission, sending out missionaries among slaves in the Danish-governed West Indies and the Inuit of Greenland. His personal relations to the court of Denmark and to King Christian VI facilitated such endeavours. He saw with delight the spread of this Protestant family order in Germany, Denmark, Russia and England. He travelled widely in its interests, visiting America in 1741-42 and spending a long time in London in 1750, engaged in establishing a community at Lindsey House in Chelsea. 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, 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." In 1742 he advocated Saturday Sabbath keeping among the German speaking Christians in Philadelphia citing the use of that day by the Ephrata Cloister. He also used Sunday for preaching the Gospel.

Sexual theology

Zinzendorf's theology was sometimes controversial to contemporaries. He encouraged followers to visualise Christ's wounds in great detail, and his sermons included exhortations to imaginitively ‘enter into’ these wounds and drink from them. This was tied to his wish to overcome the traditional shame which was attached to sexual organs and acts:

What in the Bible is mentioned an hundred, and more than an hundred Times, but on Account of the Fall, by Reason of Deprivation, is call'd by the hideous name Pudendum; this he (the Saviour) has changed into Verendum, in the proper and strictest sense of that Word: And what was chastised by Circumcision, in the Time of the Law, is restored again to its first Essence and flourishing State; 'tis made equal to the most respectable Parts of the Body, yea 'tis on account of its Dignity and Distinction, become superior to all the rest; especially as the Lamb would choose to endure in that Part his first Wound, his first Pain...[1]

Some modern writers have seen something pathological in Zinzendorf's intense psychoerotic meditation on the wounds and the body of Christ, while others have pointed out that such practice ‘allowed the members of the society to sublimate a variety of personal drives and fears to the mystical realm for the good of the Gemeinde [community] and its mission’.[2] At any rate it is clear that for Zinzendorf the fact of intercourse, properly entered into between husband and wife, was a transcendent act and an important religious symbol which prefigured the union of a sinner with the Saviour.

It was his son, Christian Renatus von Zinzendorf who took his father's teachings on the relationship between sexuality and spirituality to their logical extreme. Christian Renatus lived at a special community built by Ludwig east of Frankfurt/Main, Germany, called Herrnhaag, The Lord's Grove, where he led the Single Brethren's Choir comprised of the unmarried men in the Congregation. Ensuing scandal and near-financial ruin forced Ludwig to chastise his son, bringing him to England. Casimir Count of Isenburg-Buedingen demanded the submission of the Moravians of Herrnhaag to himself, and that they reject their allegiance to the elder Zinzendorf. The enitre community rejected this demand, leading to the closure of Herrnhaag beginning in 1750-53.

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 Nicholas 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 Erdmuth Dorothea, who had been his counsellor and confidante in all his work. Zinzendorf remained a widower for one year, and then (27 June 1757) contracted a second marriage with Anna Caritas Nitschmann (24 November 1715 – 21 May 1760), with whom he had been very close for many years, on the ground that a man in his official position ought to be married. 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.


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 and G. Burkhardt (Leipzig, 1900).

See also


  1. ^ Cited in Marsha Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs Blake Cried, Pimlico 2007, ISBN 9781845951283, p. 40
  2. ^ Craig Atwood, cited in Schuchard, ibid. p. 43

Further reading

  • Phillip Anderson, "The Lord Of The Ring", 2006, ISBN 9781842913260. A journey in search of Count Zinzendorf.
  • Marsh Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs Blake Cried: William Blake and the Erotic Imagination, 2006 (Pimlico 2007, ISBN 9781845951283). Chapters 1-3 in particular are concerned with Zinzendorf.
  • Wikisource-logo.svg " Zinzendorf, Nicholas Lewis". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1889.  
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.) references:
    • H. Romer, Zinzendorf's Leben und Werken (Gnadau, 1900)
    • B. Becker, Zinzendorf im Verhältniss z. Philosophie u. Kirchenthum seiner Zeit (Leipzig, 1886)
    • F. Bovet, Le Comte de Zinzendorf (Paris, 1860; Eng. tr. A Pioneer of Social Christianity, by T. A. Seed, London, 1896)
    • Ludwig von Schrautenbach, Der Graf v. Zinfendorf (Gnadau, 1871; written in 1782, and interesting because it gives Zinzendorf's relations to such Pietist rationalists as J. K. Dippel)
    • A. G. Spangenberg, Leben des Grafen von Zinzendorf (Barby, 1772-1775)
    • "Zinzendorf" by J. Th. Muller in Hauck-Herzog's Realencyk. für prot. Theologie u. Kirche.

External links



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