“The Savior, our dear Evangelist and Teacher preached to the whole world. There is no man, no nation, no religion, and no worldly evil that can resist his fire. We are to carry the sparks into all the earth, and many will catch them.” -Count Zinzendorf
In the midst of a harrowing storm at sea, John Wesley found himself on a ship thinking he and all those on board were about to die. He was heading to America as a missionary but those hopes had begun to perish in his mind. As he looked around the deck, people were screaming hysterically and going crazy. There was one group though, he noticed, who were calmly singing a hymn together. Wesley would later write in his journal:
“The sea broke over, shook the ship violently, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship in debris and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards; ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked: ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly: ‘No, our women and children are not afraid to die.’”
These German men and women who, in Wesley’s words had evidentially “been delivered from the spirit of fear”, were Moravian missionaries.
The early 1700s saw the rise of a humble Christian community in Germany comprised of refugees known as the Moravians. Bound together by their leader, Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf, the Moravians would go on to become the world’s first Protestant missionary movement.
Only a few years after their community was established, the first missionaries were sent in 1732: two men sold themselves into slavery in order to bring the gospel to the lost on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean.
The ensuing multiplication of the Moravian church was beyond impressive: within fifteen years, they had sent over two hundred missionaries and had established churches on every continent. In the next fifteen, five hundred additional missionaries were sent across the globe.
Having survived the storm and arriving safely in Georgia, Wesley spent three years failing miserably as a missionary before he sailed back to England in 1738. He nearly died in another storm on the return voyage, and was so distraught about it his only conclusion was that he wasn’t even saved himself. He didn’t have a true faith in a mighty God and wrote, “I went to America to convert the Natives, but oh, who shall convert me?”
Back in London, one evening he was invited to attend a Christian gathering of none other than a group of Moravian missionaries, who had just arrived in London a day earlier and were en route to America.
The pastor of this group was a 26-year-old gifted man, Peter Boehler. At the meeting, as John Wesley listened to the Word of God being powerfully preached, he finally experienced salvation. He said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Boehler went on to lead the Moravians in South Carolina, where he preached the gospel to slaves, Native Americans, and white settlers in the colonies. He was instrumental in reconciling large groups of enemies under the banner of Christ, and continued to mobilize many more Moravians to sail for the American mission field.
John Wesley went on to become one of the greatest preachers and church leaders the world has ever known. After his conversion, he spent a year with the Moravians in Germany studying the way they trained and multiplied leaders. He wrote of his time, “The spirit of the Brethren is above our highest expectations, young and old; they breathe nothing but faith and love at all times in all places. This is a happy place; I would gladly have spent my life here. Oh, when shall this Christianity cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea? I was constrained to take my leave of this happy place, but my master is calling me to labor in another part of his vineyard.”
Wesley returned to America where he spent most of his life, preaching over 40,000 sermons, training two hundred pastors, and seeing 43,000 Americans saved. He became the founder of the Methodist denomination and helped ignite the Great Awakening in the late 1700s.
“This Christianity”, that had so profoundly transformed Wesley, had become second nature to the Moravians. In their minds, to be a Christian was to be a missionary--there was no other way to live.
The Moravians developed a militant spirit to bring the good news to a dark world. They were aggressively apostolic. In the first ten years, seventy-five missionaries had died of tropical diseases in the Caribbean. Heated discussions and divergent opinions arose about the effectiveness of the mission that came at the cost of so many young lives. After several days, the conclusion was to maintain the uncompromising consensus to keep sending harbingers of the good news to “the least of people.”
Multiplying their church across the globe had become a natural expression of the Moravian Christian life and obedience. They joyfully accepted the call of the Great Commission and their church became a global movement, sending a thousand missionaries in just sixty years. Their astonishing multiplication had a momentous effect on the modern era of missions by directly affecting large areas of the globe with the gospel, but perhaps had an even larger impact indirectly, as their story has influenced thousands of other men and women to take up arms as missionaries.