The Moravian Church considers itself to be the oldest Protestant denomination and has its roots in the teaching of the Reformer John Hus. The Moravian Church was founded in 1457 in the Czech Republic by a small group of Hussites desiring more radical reform of the church. They established a community called the Unity of the Brethren (or, in Latin, Unitas Fratrum) in Kunwald. In 1467 they established a priesthood/episcopacy and divided into three branches: Moravian, Polish, and Bohemian.
The Moravian Church has long been associated with cross-cultural missionary activity. In the 1720s Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Germany accepted Moravian refugees onto his estate. They signed a Brotherly Agreement and formed a community called Herrnhut (“The Lord’s Watch”), which was led by Zinzendorf. In 1732 missionaries from Herrnhut went to St. Thomas Island. Missions efforts expanded to the rest of the Caribbean (largely to the African slave population there), Greenland, Labrador (to the Inuit people), Surinam, Guyana, South Africa, and North America (to the native tribes). The pioneering efforts of the Moravians in spreading the gospel were responsible for untold thousands of people coming to faith in Christ. It was through the testimony of the Moravians that John Wesley experienced conversion.
Moravian missionaries came to the United States during the colonial period. The Moravians gained a permanent presence in Pennsylvania by 1741. The Moravian Church now has about one million members, mostly in eastern Africa, but also in the Caribbean basin; South Africa; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The Moravians are sometimes known as “God’s happy people.” They stress the importance of community, commonly calling one another “Brother” or “Sister.” Some early critics objected to Moravian settlements because the Moravians affirmed “ordinary” people: they accepted members of all races, nationalities, and social classes; allowed women to hold positions of leadership; and emphasized the spiritual lives of children. The community of Herrnhut promoted the “theology of the heart,” centering more on the believer’s relationship with Christ than on doctrine.
Moravians believe that faith is completed in love and that the ability to live in loving community is a sign of true faith. They attempt to avoid legalism while also striving to live ethically and in loving service to others. Church services are a blend between free church and liturgical, but music is central in Moravian life and worship.
The Moravian Church practices infant baptism, which is seen as entry into a covenant of grace rather than a cleansing of original sin. Infants who are baptized undergo confirmation to become adult members of the church. However, membership in the church is not a requirement to partake in communion. Baptized children who have been prepared for communion by talking with a pastor and members of other Christian churches are all invited to partake.
Communion in Moravian churches includes what is known as the Right Hand of Fellowship. Both before and after the consecration and partaking of the elements, congregants shake hands. The first handclasp is meant to show oneness in Christ and a desire to be at peace with one another. The second is for renewed dedication to service of Christ and signifies unity of purpose. In a similar vein, communion is viewed as a reminder of social responsibility—receipt of Christ’s love, forgiveness, and new life so that partakers may in turn proclaim the gospel and share God’s gifts with others. Practically, Moravians understand themselves called to reach out to the poor, homeless, persecuted, and sick, inviting all to the feast of God’s gifts, both visible and invisible.
Moravians also celebrate lovefeasts, usually on church year holidays, congregational anniversary days, or the like. Moravians say that lovefeasts originated in the gatherings of the early church after Pentecost when believers broke bread together, often in tandem with the celebration of communion. The Moravian Church began the practice of holding lovefeasts in 1727 when, after a communion service, congregants were reluctant to return home; so Count Zinzendorf provided food so they could remain and participate in religious conversation, prayer, and singing. Lovefeast services today are mainly song services. Food is distributed to the congregation, usually a sweet bun and coffee or lemonade. The only requirements for the food being distributed are that it be simple and easy to hand out. Often, lovefeast services attract many visitors.
The Moravian Church worldwide (called the Unitas Fratrum or the Unity) is divided into provinces governed by Provincial Synods. Individual congregations send delegates to the synod, which meets once every three to four years. The synods elect members of the Provincial Elders Conference. Local congregations are governed by a Board of Elders, which is elected by the membership. Pastors are accountable to the Board of Elders and the Provincial Elders Conference. Leadership offices also include deacon, presbyter (essentially a senior deacon), and bishop (elected from among the presbyters by the synods and ordained). Bishops serve the Moravian Church worldwide rather than a particular province. They do not hold any administrative authority but function as a pastor to the pastors.
The Moravian Church views itself as Christocentric with a special emphasis on community and love. They often like to say, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”