Even though a thick blanket of snow lay on the Adlergebirge along Moravia’s northern border and hoarfrost shimmered in the morning sun, the winter of 1707 was a dark time for the villagers of Neutitschein, near Sehlen. The light of the Unity of Brothers had almost gone out.
Three hundred years earlier, or perhaps even before then, Waldensian families from Brandenburg had come to live at Neutitschein. After several generations they had joined the Unity of Brothers (Unitas Fratrum) a Czech movement of similar convictions. Where wisps of smoke now rose from their wooden houses among snow-covered haystacks, they had lived simply in the love of Christ. They had done good to their enemies. They had worshipped Christ around bread and wine in their meetings. They had prayed much and worked hard. But the Lord had allowed them to be tried as by fire and after three hundred years, only a few families guarded the last embers of faith in secret meetings in their homes.
First the Hussites (Protestant followers of John Huss) had persecuted the Unity of Brothers. They drove them from their homes and forced them to hide in the forest or in mountain caves. They tortured the brothers on the rack, beheaded them, and burned them at the stake. Then, as if that were not enough, one of the leaders among the brothers, a Czech named Lukas, apostatised and led thousands astray. Dark times and confusion followed until apostate brothers, taking up arms to defend themselves, fought with the Hussites against Roman Catholics, and miserably lost in 1620. After that, Roman Catholic troops had entered Moravia with a vengeance, to hunt out and kill whoever would not join them.
Only in a few villages in Bohemia, and in the forested mountains of Moravia, did a few families dare to keep on practising what they believed. They held meetings by night. Of German Waldensian background, the families of Melchior Kunz, Johann and David Zeisberger, Andreas Beyer, and Matthäus Stach, met in the Martin Schneider home at Zauchenthal. Sometimes the Nitschmanns of Mährisch-Kunwald, the Grasmans of Senftleben or the Jäschke family of Neutitschein near Sehlen joined them.
Old Georg Jäschke of Neutitschein loved Christ. He loved to attend the secret meetings, and he loved his children—most of whom were actually his grandchildren. (Judith, a daughter from his first wife had married Georg Neisser. They had five sons. But old Georg had married again and with his second wife, had a little boy they named Michael.)
Now, in the winter of 1707, George’s six-year-old Michael, the five Neisser boys, his daughter Judith and her husband, stood around old Georg’s bed. He was sick, eighty-three years old, and expected to die.
Georg told everyone to stay with Christ no matter what happened. Then he said:
Our days of freedom are over. Many of our people have given way to a worldly spirit and the Papacy devours them. It may seem as though the Unity of Brothers has come to an end. But listen to me children: I believe you will see a great deliverance. A remnant will be saved! I do not know for sure whether deliverance will come in Moravia, or whether you will have to “go out of Babylon.” But I believe it will come in the not too distant future. I tend to think an exodus will take place and you will be offered a refuge where you may serve the Lord without fear.
When the time of your deliverance comes, be ready! Watch out that you do not get left behind.
After telling them of his hope and faith, old Georg Jäschke placed his hands on the heads of his son and each of his grandsons in turn. “Remember what I told you,” he said, “and that Michael belongs to Jesus. I commend him into your keeping. Take care of him, and when you depart from this place, take him with you by all means!”
Soon after Georg Jäschke died, a boy from Senftleben in far southeastern Moravia found a job with a carpenter. His name was Christian David and his new boss, Michael Ranftler came from a family that had belonged to the Unity of Brothers.
Christian David could not read. He had spent his childhood herding goats on the mountains and knew little about God. His parents had taught him a prayer to Saint Anthony, but it did nothing to quiet the unrest in his heart. When he saw Michael Ranftler’s eight-year-old son reading on winter evenings by the fire, he asked to learn the alphabet. Then, under the eaves in his attic bedroom, he found what would change his life: a little book written by the Unity of Brothers.
Night after night Christian David read from the book. In it he learned about Christ and prayer. He learned about repentance and life without end. Every word fell on fertile soil. Christian David could not contain his enthusiasm for what had come to him, but no one dared talk much with him about it. “It is too dangerous,” they said. “Be quiet or you will get a short haircut (you will get beheaded) too!”
Desperate to find a place where believers could openly live for Christ, Christian David struck out on foot across the mountains to Protestant Slovakia. But the people there did not trust him and gave him a cold shoulder. Then he found his way through Schlesien into southern Germany.
In Germany Christian David met great disappointment. German Protestants, even though they spoke about Christ and correct doctrine made fun of him for taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. They laughed at his convictions and told him to go join the army.
For several years Christian David wandered about in Germany, disillusioned, confused, and wondering if anyone on earth still knew or loved Christ. Then the town of Görlitz in Oberlausitz burned. Four hundred houses lay in ruins and Christian David found work cleaning up and rebuilding.
Working at Görlitz Christian David met the first Germans in whom he discovered a joyful love for Christ. Some of them—under the influence of Philipp Jakob Spener and Jean de Labadie—met in homes to pray. They studied the Scriptures and sang songs. For the first time in his life Christian David could freely share his inner convictions. His gratefulness to God knew no bounds, especially after he found a wife—Anna Elisabeth Ludwig—among believers in the nearby village of Niederwiese.
Christian David’s new-found happiness might have been complete, had not the thought of his friends in Moravia, languishing in darkness and fear, touched it with sorrow. Then he met a young landowner, Nicholas Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf—newly converted—who wanted to turn his estate into a Christian community. “I will bring you brothers and sisters,” Christian David told him. “If you supply the land, I will supply the people!”
Only three months after his marriage Christian David returned to Moravia on foot. He returned across the mountains alone, and at risk of his life. (Moravian authorities caught and killed anyone they suspected of teaching “heresy.”)
Christian David returned to the hidden descendants of the Unity of Brothers he had known. He visited Senftleben and found his way to Mährisch-Kunwald and Zauchenthal. Here and there frightened people consented to talk with him, but only in secret, and when he spoke of fleeing to Germany they shook their heads.
“We could not evade the police,” the people told him. “And even if we could, our wives and little ones would not survive the trip.”
Wherever Christian David went he met doubts and fears. No one dared leave Moravia, and even though some believers thanked him for the invitation, they told him he should be quiet and return quickly to Germany or else he would lose his head.
Then he came to Neutitschein near Sehlen.
In a secret meeting in the home of Agustin Neisser (one of old Georg’s grandsons) Christian David presented his daring plan. He begged the ones gathered with him to pack up in faith and join him to build a congregation for the Lord in Germany. “Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters, or father or mother or children or fields for Christ’s sake,” he told them, “will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
The Neissers looked at one another. They remembered, as clearly as if it would have happened the day before, old Georg’s last instructions. Was this what he had seen?
“Let us think and pray,” they told Christian David.
A decision did not come easily. To leave Moravia meant forsaking everything but what they could carry on their backs. It meant leaving in utmost secrecy, at the risk of capture, imprisonment, and quite likely death. But when the little cluster of believers at Neutitschein thought of God, of old Georg’s challenge, and of what would happen to them if they stayed in Moravia (almost all of their friends had already renounced the faith and become Roman Catholic again), they knew they could do only one thing. All that remained was to decide, who, when and how.
None of the neighbours dare notice a difference in activities. No packing or food preparation dare take place openly.
On the moonless night of Wednesday, May 27, 1722 Agustin and Martha Neisser, Martha’s niece Susanna Dürlich, Jakob and Anna Neisser with their children Wenzel (6), Anna (3), twins Joseph and Juliana (13 weeks), and old Georg’s son, Michael Jäschke (by now twenty-one) left Neutitschein, praying no dog would bark. Up through the woods into the Adlergebirge they found their way on silent trails. They carried bundles, and the little ones on their backs. After days of walking and camping in the wilderness, guided by Christian David, they returned to civilisation in the German province of Schlesien. Dangers still surrounded them. Schlesien was Roman Catholic. But weary, faint, and excited, they eventually arrived on the young landowner’s estate in Oberlausitz.
The sight that met their eyes left them speechless. The young landowner, Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was not home. His grandmother sent them a cow to provide milk for the little ones, but the place shown to them where they could live was an utterly forsaken wilderness. Parts of it stood in marshes and reeds. Dense brush and brambles covered the rest.
Martha Neisser sat down. “Where in this wilderness shall we find food?” was all she could think to ask.
Christian David, the Neisser brothers, and Michael could waste no time thinking or talking. With great effort they set up shelters, cleared plots for gardens, and made a fence for the cow. With time, help came. The Lord blessed their work and they began to feel at home. Then Christian David returned to Moravia.
As word about a place of refuge in Germany spread, more and more descendants of the Unity of Brothers dared to pack up and flee. First dozens then hundreds came. The new community, named Herrnhut (the place of the Lord’s care) grew rapidly. In spite of constant adversities it soon became a lighthouse of Christian faith that shone far beyond the borders of Oberlausitz.
Hundreds of families lived at Herrnhut in orderly co-operation. Sisters in long dresses and with white head coverings did their washing and baking together. The men made furniture, bound books, tanned leather, took care of animals, and worked in a wide variety of handcrafts during the winter. Every evening they met to worship and pray. Within a few years, the Spirit of Christ moved them to send messengers (including numerous descendants of old Georg Jäschke) to Greenland, St. Thomas in the West Indies, Suriname, South Africa, Pennsylvania, Egypt, Russia, Ceylon, and numberless other places to bring in the “firstfruits of the Kingdom.”
In a time of great darkness an old man dared to believe. He challenged a handful of people around him. Millions, in the body of Christ, will reap the fruits of his faith, forever.
Main source: De Schweinitz, Edmund Alexander, The history of the Church Known as the Unitas Fratrum, or the Unity of the Brethren, Moravian Publication Office, Bethlehem PA, 1885