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A Brief History of the Ancient Moravian Church

The Moravian Church is a mainline Protestant denomination with more than five hundred years of history. Founded before the Lutheran, Anglican, or United Church of Canada, Moravians have long focused on faithful living and Christian unity. They are encouraged to live their faith out through service to those in need, and their mission work has concentrated on the poor and the powerless. An early motto of the denomination is followed to this day: "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. But in all things, love." Their name derives from the fact that most early members of the church came from the province of Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. Most Moravians in western Canada are the descendants of German-speaking emigrants from 19th-century Russia, predominantly Volhynia.

 

The Moravian church traces its beginnings to the pre-reformation teachings of Jan Hus, a Czech reformer and philosophy professor at the University in Prague. He led a protest movement against certain doctrinal positions of the Roman clergy and hierarchy and was accused of heresy, tried and burned at the stake in 1415. But his followers gathered on an estate in eastern Bohemia and organized this church in 1457-60 years before Martin Luther began his reformation.

 

By 1517 the Moravian numbered at least 200,000. Using a hymnal and a catechism of its own, the church promoted the Scriptures through its printing presses and provided the people of Bohemia and Moravia with the Bible in their own language. Moravians were also early in their emphasis on educating women as well as men, and they were pioneers of the Protestant mission movement.

 

The Moravian Church was bitterly persecuted in its homeland, and as a consequence spread to Poland where it grew rapidly. There was more persecution during the Thirty-Years' War, but in the 18th century the church saw a renewal through the patronage of Count Nicholas of Zinzendorf, a pietist nobleman in Saxony. Some Moravians fled from persecution in Bohemia and Moravia and found refuge on Zinzendorf's estate in 1722 where they built the community of Herrnhut (Lord's Watch). Zinzendorf encouraged them to take the gospel to the far corners of the globe. In 1732 the first missionaries were sent to the West Indies. In 1735 the Moravians came to America and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a Moravian settlement in Georgia, but soon after settled in Pennsylvania. Other settlement congregations were in New Jersey and Maryland, and later in North Carolina.

 

Settlement in Canada

The Moravians also came to Canada and established missions in Labrador between 1752 and 1771; over time, congregations were established in Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville, Happy Valley, and Northwest River. Today, only Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik remain on the coast, along with Happy Valley/Goose Bay. Moravian congregations exist still in Labrador's Inuit communities. Distinctive Moravian buildings, once characteristic of all the mission stations, survive at Hopedale and Hebron under the care of Parks Canada.

 

Settlement in Alberta

The Bruderheim community was started as a Moravian settlement by German-speaking emigrants from Volhynia, Russia, in 1894. The Moravian congregation was officially organized under lay pastor Andreas Lilge in 1895. He had served as a teacher and lay-leader in Volhynia from 1878 to 1892 and planned to bring Volhynian Moravians to Canada where religious freedom was guaranteed and Christian communities could be formed on land made available by the government. About 100 families responded to the invitation, and in May and June 1894, the first immigrants arrived. In 1895 the Bruderheim Moravian Church was established in her present location (it is still standing, but no longer in active use). The congregation numbered 44 adults, 16 youths and 51 children. One month later, in South Edmonton, in present-day Mill Woods, the Bruederfeld Moravian Church was established. In 1896, Moravian work also began in Heimthal, south of Edmonton. Groundwork was also laid in Beaver Hills on which other denominations would build. In 1896, the first pastor, the Rev. Clement Hoyler, arrived; he was joined by a co-pastor, the Rev. William Schwarze.

 

The Moravian community was among the first Protestant congregation in Western Canada. To serve the multilingual immigrant population that had settled in the Edmonton region, worship services from the beginning were conducted in the vernacular of the various groups, e.g., in German, English, Norwegian, Russian, and Ukrainian. Gottfried Henkelmann, like Lilge a former teacher in Volhynia, joined the Bruederfeld congregation and was the resource person for Russian and Ukrainian ministries.

 

An Explanation of Moravian Beliefs

The Moravian Church (www.moravian.org) is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the world. Fifty years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a door in Wittenberg, our ancestors formed a Unity of the Brethren. We trace our roots back to John Hus who was burned at the stake for speaking out against the corruption and abuse of the church and state of his day.

 

Moravians changed as the world changed, but through all the changes we can still perceive a number of core Moravian values. These values continue to influence who we are and how we relate to society. Many of our deepest values are shared by most Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Like many other communities of faith, we try to live by the principle that it is always better to do the right thing rather than the easy thing. Sometimes this has been painful and forced us into exile.

 

We believe in God as Creator; and as One who calls all people to be stewards of the earth. For Moravians this means that we make every effort to clean up any messes we make in order to leave the next generation with a wholesome world. We also share the common vision of the children of Abraham that one day swords will be beaten into plowshares and God's people will no longer learn to wage war. We believe in the Bible's teaching that all people are created in the image of God and should be treated as images of God.

 

We believe that God calls people to live by certain basic laws and to respect the rights of all people. To do this, Moravians believe that we should educate children to be people of good character. The famous Moravian bishop and educator, John Amos Comenius, taught that educating children without concern for developing their characters was like sharpening the knife of a madman. We try to teach integrity, honesty, self-control, peacefulness, and decency to our children. These have been cardinal virtues for Moravians for generations. In fact, we are one of the few churches that incorporate fundamental ethical principles in our statements of belief. We stress the need for people to be honest and fair in their business dealings; diligent and incorruptible in their public service; and faithful and true in their friendships. We strive to conserve these values.


As Christians, Moravians share much of the same beliefs as other Christians, and try to emphasize those points of agreement rather than disparity. We believe that the good news of Jesus Christ is a message of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than judgment and rejection of others. We believe that the best way to show our love for our Jesus Christ is by following Christ's own commandments to love our brothers and sisters, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even to love our enemies. We also believe in the Spirit as the dynamic presence of God in many forms. We believe that the Spirit comforts, guides, and nourishes us, moving among and within to deepen our sense of joy, peace, and community. These are the spiritual gifts for which we pray and sing. (Link: www.moravianmusic.org) These are part of our distinctly Christian convictions.

 

Beyond these beliefs and values that we hold in common with others, Moravians for five hundred years have stressed the importance of community. Our church began with a group of young men and women who formed a separate community in the wilderness of Moravia in Central Europe. They dedicated themselves to living as closely as possible to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They did not "parade their piety before [others]," but instead supported and challenged one another. They tried to put into practice Paul's instruction "to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." Despite often intense persecution, these brothers and sisters remained committed to their Unity.

We try to take that same spirit of reconciliation and gentleness into the world. It is not uncommon for Moravians to have friends in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe because of our worldwide unity (link: www.unitasfratrum.org) Today, there are far more dark-skinned Moravians than light-skinned Moravians. Whether African or European, Caribbean or American, we still call each other brother and sister and open our homes and hearts to one another.

 

Moravians for centuries have stressed cooperation rather than competition. One reason the Moravian Church is so small in America is that we have never fully come to terms with the American free enterprise approach to religion where churches compete for members. We find it confusing that people try to convert us to their church when we have made it clear that we are Christians trying faithfully to follow the way of Christ. It is rare that a Moravian tries to convince a member of another church to abandon their community of faith and join ours. That is not our way.

 

The Moravians have also understood that the premise of the TV show Survivor is wrong. We do not survive by voting people off the island. We survive by caring deeply about the survival of each one of us. We survive by helping one another live with dignity, making sure that each has food and clothing and shelter. We survive by coming together to plant crops for the next year's harvest, trusting in the goodness of God. We survive by leaving a fruitful, healthy and beautiful land (www.vanescamp.com) for our children to raise up a new generation.

 

Indeed, Moravians try to preserve what is good. We have also quietly, persistently, and faithfully promoted the common good. It is important to remember that a time when the US Constitution declared that people of African descent did not have human and civil right, Moravians in North Carolina were sharing the kiss of peace with black brothers and sisters. At a time when the US government ruled that native peoples could not be citizens and would have to relocate to reservations, Moravians were educating Cherokee women and children. Moravians walked with the Cherokee people when they were forced to move west in a trek that has come to be known as “the trail of tears”. At a time when it was illegal in many places in the US for women to speak publicly, Moravians allowed women to sit on their governing boards and hold important offices in the community. During many times of conflict and hatred, Moravians raised a voice for peace and reminded the world of our shared humanity. And we have always shared our own food, money, and clothing with the poor. You will see Moravians today actively involved in local and global organizations helping the poor and doing good in the world.

 

Community, tradition, stability, justice, and mercy are some of the traditional values that the Moravian Church tries to preserve and promote. We know that we are an unusual people and that we are often misunderstood, but we have borne witness to these values through the centuries.

Who are the Moravians?

We are an ancient but progressive group of Christ-followers who seek to live in humility, kindness, and with love for all.