August 13 marks a historic anniversary.
In 1727 the villagers in Herrnhut, Saxony, experienced a spiritual awakening that was so broad sweeping it lead to the official birth of the movement that would come to be known as the Moravian Church.
Much has been written about the communion service that marked this moment of renewal. It took place on a Wednesday morning, at the Lutheran Church in Berthelsdorf. Spiritual renewal is almost always the outcome of a process of struggle, reflection, and preparation. In this case the struggle came into a constructive focus through the role of the children of the village who creatively combined prayer with peaceful protest.
Elizabeth Vierling, a 10-year-old girl, is credited with starting the protest in early May. By then the adults of the village of 600 had become deeply divided by theological arguments. Herrnhut had been established five years earlier as a safe sanctuary for Protestant religious groups seeking asylum from religious persecution. The spiritual predecessors of the Moravians made up the single largest group, but represented a third of the population. Many efforts to resolve the division had failed.
The town had a well at the center, where Elizabeth would be sent daily to fetch water for early morning chores along with other children of the village. One morning she decided to invite her friends to join her in praying in silence for God to move the adults. Much like a sit-in, this protest was a peaceful demonstration centered in prayer for God’s peace and unity to come upon the adults.
Herrnhut as a village was part of the German State church system of Saxony. Each Sunday morning the villagers would walk nearly a mile to the Lutheran Church at Berthelsdorf for traditional worship. But each evening they gathered in a community space for vespers – an informal service of prayers and hymns led by laity around 5 p.m. Something amazing happened on August 10 at the vesper gathering.
One of men spoke up to confess his role in feeding the division with gossip and ill will toward a fellow member of the community. When he concluded his public confession, the member he was apologizing to followed with confessing the same role in the division. Typical of the Moravians, they sang a hymn thanking God for this spirit of forgiveness.
The influence of the summer-long prayer-protest had worked! God used it to soften the hard hearts in the division.
What happened next was even more amazing. A vesper service normally lasted an hour. This continued for many hours, concluded after midnight as one by one the members of the community confessed their personal roles in the division and the desire to find real and lasting forgiveness.
When news of the service reached Berthelsdorf the next day, leaders decided to hold a special communion service at the Lutheran Church on Wednesday, August 13 to thank God for the new spirit of unity. The same outpouring of love and unity took place. It literally became the starting point for the modern Moravian Church as all the villagers of Herrnhut made a pledge to move forward as one consolidate community known as the Moravians.
On the following Sunday, August 17, the first official Moravian Lovefeast was held to give thanks to God for the way God moved through the children to bring about their newfound unity.
Moravians throughout the world continue to hold a special communion service on the Sunday nearest August 13 to remember the work of the Holy Spirit in each community. Many also hold a Children’s Lovefeast on the third Sunday of August to celebrate the ministry of children in our midst.
I remain grateful for how God continues to seek unity and cooperation through all who call upon God’s Spirit, and the mighty way God often chooses to lead us through the children.
Dr. Neil Routh is pastor at Grace Moravian Church.