This article looks at the history of mission from 1500-1800. The Moravians and the Herrnhutters are discussed.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1993. 4 pages.

Protestant Mission – The Beginnings

Evangelical missionary societies have recently celebrated an important anniversary. In October 1792 William Carey, a cobbler and preacher, founded the English Baptist Missionary Society, and in January 1793 – 200 years ago – he was appointed missionary to India. He arrived in November and would stay in India until his death 40 years later.

Carey if often called “the father of modern mission.” As we shall see, this description is not altogether correct: he could look back upon a vital missionary tradition. It is true, however, that Carey stands at an important turning point in the history of missions. His work provided an impulse for large-scale protestant missionary work all over the world. It also coincided with a widespread revival in missionary zeal. In the decades following his appointment missionary societies and Bible societies sprang up in practically all protestant countries, and missionary activity exploded. Although much work had been done in the 18th century, the great modern missionary wave belongs to the 19th. And it was Carey who set the tone for that development.

We have good reasons, therefore, to remember William Carey. I want to give an overview of the missionary work that was done before Carey came upon the scene. Beginning with the impact of Columbus' discovery, we will pay special attention to missionary endeavours that took place in the 18th century. And in that century, as we will notice, the German Pietists and Moravians take pride of place.

After Columbus🔗

The opportunity for overseas mission came, with Columbus' discovery of America 500 years ago. Shortly after Columbus sailed, the Reformation took place. Most of the overseas missionary activity during the two centuries following Columbus was the work of Roman Catholics, however. There were reasons for that. Spain and Portugal, two countries that would be little touched by the Reformation, were the first to engage in exploration and colonization. Generally speaking they took their missionary task seriously. Especially during and after the Counter Reformation. Jesuits and other orders made often heroic efforts to win the newly discovered lands for the church.

Protestant mission overseas did not begin until long after the Reformation. This was not so, as some have asserted, because the Reformers or their immediate followers were opposed to foreign mission. They were not. Foreign mission was not a priority for them, however. It could not be. As had been the case in the early Middle Ages, when all energy was devoted to the evangelizing of Europe proper, so it was in the period immediately following the Reformation: all available resources had to be invested in protecting and expanding the protestant churches in Europe. The urgency was the greater because of the persecutions, the internal struggles, the setbacks caused by the Counter Reformation, and the many religious wars, which lasted well into the 17th century.

Protestant Beginnings🔗

By the middle of that century, however, Protestantism had become established in various areas of Western Europe. Moreover, protestant countries such as England and the Netherlands were by that time well on their way to becoming major colonial powers, so that the opportunity for large-scale overseas mission existed. That opportunity was used, but not with the alacrity that we will notice in the 19th century.

Part of the difficulty was the role of the Dutch and English East India Companies, which controlled much of the two countries' colonial empires. Although the Dutch East India Company stated that one of its objectives was to bring the gospel to its overseas territories, it was often so busy with pacifying the colonies that little time was left to meet its missionary aims. The English Company did not even mention missionary work and frequently opposed it. Its leaders were afraid (and so, often, were their Dutch peers) that missionary activity might cause unrest and interfere with the Company's political and commercial goals.

This does not mean that mission was ignored altogether. The Dutch Company sent out clergymen to its possessions in the East Indies and Ceylon. Although their primary task was to attend to the needs of the Dutch living there, they were also instructed to work among the natives. Not all of this work bore fruit, but Christian churches were established in Java, Ambon, Taiwan, and Ceylon, and as early as 1688 the New Testament was translated into Malay. It was the first Bible translation into any south-east Asian language. Even the English Company encouraged mission in some of its possessions, notably in those parts of South-East India where German missionaries, in the employ of the King of Denmark, had worked with considerable success.

Much good work was also done, both in the late 17th and in the 18th centuries, among the Indians and the Negro slaves in North America. Outstanding in this field were men like the Presbyterian John Eliot (d. 1690) who translated the Bible into one of the Indian languages, and David Brainerd (d. 1748), a friend of the well known Presbyterian theologian Jonathan Edwards, who himself promoted mission work among the natives.

Compared to the protestant mission of the 19th century, however, the work remained fragmentary. And the blame cannot be placed on the East India Companies only. The missionary zeal of the official churches also lagged. Especially in the 18th century, economic prosperity, combined with the advance of secularism began to affect these state churches. Some turned to Arminianism and even to Deism. Others stuck to the doctrines of the Reformation, but their orthodoxy turned into orthodoxism. Doctrine was no longer alive, nor was it translated into Christian life. And the great missionary commandment was treated as something that no longer applied. It had, some church leaders argued, been addressed to the Apostles only, not to the church as a whole.

Pietist Awakening🔗

There were exceptions to this bleak picture of externalized religion and dead formalism. Already in the 17th century, but especially in the 18th, we notice revival movements or “awakenings” in many protestant countries, and even in some Roman Catholic ones. Among these movements was the Pietist one, which affected the Netherlands and England, and became especially strong in Lutheran Germany. It began there with the Lutheran minister Spener (d. 1705), who called the church to a return both to Bible and confessions and to a Christian life devoted to the service of God and neighbour. He was succeeded by August Herman Francke (d. 1727), who would become one of the century's great missionary leaders

The Pietist movement had weaknesses as well as strengths. In course of time Spener's emphasis on both life and doctrine (Bible and confessions) was ignored. Instead, the stress came to lie more and more on the believer's religious experience. Doctrine was subordinated to life. Subjectivism was rife, as was moralism. The tendency was ever present to preach the need for sanctification apart from the gospel of justification. Instead of resting in the work of Christ, the Pietist ran the danger of legalism, of depending on his own efforts to reach the required level of holiness. Furthermore, the increasing disregard for right doctrine would weaken Pietism's defences against the advancing rationalism and secularism of the period.

These weaknesses would, in course of time, lead to Pietism's decline. In its high tide, however, it acted as a beacon, displaying a faith and love and spiritual vitality that put the established churches to shame. Great things were accomplished in those parts of Germany where the movement exerted its influence. The centre of Pietist activity was Halle. Here a university was established, as well as an orphanage, a hospital, schools and colleges, workhouses, and various other institutions. The care of the poor and disadvantaged was one of Pietism's concerns. Another was the evangelism and foreign mission that the official churches had tended to ignore.

The Pietists began their missionary activity early in the 18th century. Under Francke's leadership the University of Halle became the training centre, and the first missionary enterprise was undertaken in cooperation with Denmark. The king of Denmark, Frederick IV, wanted to send missionaries to a Danish settlement in South-East India, but could not find them in his own country. In 1705 he approached Francke's university, which indeed provided volunteers. This Danish-Halle project began a tradition of Pietist missionary activity that would become global in scale.

Zinzendorf and the Moravians🔗

The tradition would be strengthened by the work of the German Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and by that of the Moravians, whom he introduced into Pietist Germany. Zinzendorf's father, who died shortly after the boy's birth, had been a Pietist. So was his grandmother, who greatly influenced the boy's religious upbringing. It was from her that he would later buy the Berthelsdorf estate, which became the centre of a second missionary enterprise.

The main participants in that enterprise were the Moravians, also known as the Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren) and, later, as the Herrnhutters. These people, who hailed from present day Czechoslovakia, traced their roots to pre-Reformation reform movements, especially to that of John Hus of Bohemia. They had been severely persecuted throughout their history, and in the early 18th century a remnant, under the leadership of the carpenter Christian David, began the search for a place where they could live in freedom. They met with Zinzendorf, who offered them the estate he had bought from his grandmother. They named their community Herrnhut (meaning: the Lord's protection).

Like the Pietists, the Moravian Brethren had their strong and weak points. Their greatest weakness was their unbiblical ecumenism – a trend that was reinforced by Zinzendorf, who spent much of his energy attempting to draw believers of all stripes and traditions into the Moravian community, and who long dreamed of a union of all protestant churches. In the early years there was also a tendency among the Moravians toward unhealthy mysticism and sentimentalism.

On the other hand, both Zinzendorf and the Herrnhutters were fully evangelical in their insistence upon the gospel of sola fide and sola gratia. They expected their justification and sanctification from Christ alone. On this point they parted company with traditional Pietism. The Herrnhutters were also people of prayer, convinced that their efforts in God's Kingdom would remain fruitless without His blessing. Their missionary undertakings were prepared and supported by persistent, methodical intercession, both individual and communal.

The Moravians' trust in God's protection (“Herrnhut”!) explains their quiet cheerfulness even in the most dangerous circumstances, a cheerfulness that impressed all those who met them. And lastly, like the original Pietists, they took the church's missionary mandate to heart. For them the Lord's Great Commission was the most important mandate left to His followers, and they were convinced that the task belonged not simply to trained clergymen and missionaries, but to the community as a whole.

Moravian Mission🔗

In order to explain how the Herrnhutters got involved in the work of foreign mission, we have to move back briefly to Zinzendorf's youth. He had been educated at Francke's university at Halle. There, as a young boy, he established a club known as “The order of the Mustard Seed,” which had evangelism as its main goal. Halle had an excellent reputation and attracted students from the highest circles in Europe. One of these students was the son of the king of Denmark whom we met earlier. This boy, the future Christian VI, became a friend of Zinzendorf and joined “The Mustard Seed.” He was crowned king in 1731. Zinzendorf, who had been invited, met on this occasion two Eskimos from Danish Greenland and a Negro slave from the Danish colony of St. Thomas in the West Indies.

This encounter was the impulse for the great Moravian missionary era. Separately or with their Pietist brethren the Moravians would, within the span of only a few decades, bring the gospel to the slave population of St. Thomas and neighbouring St. Croix, to Greenland, Surinam, the Gold Coast, South Africa, and the North American Indians. As Charles H. Robinson writes in his History of Christian Missions, within twenty years the Moravian Brethren had started more missions than all the protestant churches combined during the preceding two centuries. At the time of Robinson's writing (1930), they had sent out nearly 3,000 missionaries, and the proportion of missionaries to communicant members was 1 in 12.


The cost was high. Praamsma relates in his church history, De Kerk van alle Tijden, that the first years of this missionary activity have been called the time of The Great Dying. The missionaries and their families were in danger of the seas, of dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever, of wild animals and wild men, of arctic cold and tropical heat. In the mission to the West Indian islands alone 22 people died within the first two years. Yet there were always more than enough Herrnhutters to take their place.

Praamsma also relates the story of the first missionary efforts in Greenland. At first there was virtually no response among the Eskimos, only hostility. Then a miracle happened. While trying to translate the gospel into the native language, a missionary was interrupted by the visit of a number of protesting Eskimos. Rather than entering into an argument with these people, he began to read in their own language the story of Christ's suffering in Gethsemane. The visitors paid close attention, wanted to hear more, and from that moment the seed that had been sown began to take root. Henceforth growth was rapid. The mission had started in 1733. In 1758 there were 400 baptized Eskimos, and by the end of the century Greenland had been fully christianized.

By that time Carey had moved to India, and the 19th-century missionary wave began.

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