Unitas Fratrum is the ancient name by which the Moravian Church was first known. It is a Latin phrase meaning, “Unity of the Brethren.” Worldwide, it is still our official name. We are called Moravians because the church got its start in Moravia and Bohemia.
The History of the Moravian Church is usually divided into the time of the Ancient Unity, and to the time of the Renewed Church.
The Ancient Unity sprang to life in Moravia and Bohemia in the mid-15th Century after the martyrdom of John Hus. Hus was a Catholic Priest and the Dean of the Chapel at the University of Prague. He was immensely popular because he preached the simple Gospel of Christ in the language of the people. Unfortunately, when Hus began to speak out against the immorality of the clergy and other inconsistencies in the Church of his day, he made enemies in high places. Charged as a heretic and condemned by the Council of Constance, Hus was burned at the stake on July 6th, 1415. It is often said that the Moravian Church “grew-up out of the ashes of Hus.” The church was officially founded in 1457. The Ancient Brethren’s Church flourished for a time, but was persecuted almost out of existence during the 30 Year War. Bishop John Amos Comenius—also known as “the Father of Modern Education,” prayed that “a hidden seed” might be preserved until an appropriate time.
The Renewed Church flourished in Germany in the third decade of the 18th century after a party of religious refugees found a safe haven on the estate of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. In Herrnhut, a small village on the Count’s estate, the Renewed Church put down roots and then quickly put out branches that would ultimately reach around the world.
Moravians became leaders in the Protestant Mission Movement, sending missionaries to peoples as diverse as the African slaves working on the plantations of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and the Eskimos in Greenland.
In Germany the Moravian Church formed solid ties with the Lutheran Church. The relationship was an enduring one, and even today the Moravian Church in America has a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that provides for a mutual recognition of ministry, and an orderly exchange of clergy. In the 18th century, much of the movement in the world was from Europe to America. It was quite natural that the Moravians would follow suit. Since the American colonies were largely under the government of Great Britain, Zinzendorf sought to establish ties with the Church of England. In 1749 the British Parliament declared the Moravian Church to be “an Ancient Protestant Episcopal Church, most similar in doctrine to our own.” In coming to the New World, the Moravians first traveled to Georgia where they made initial contact with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley was greatly influenced by the Moravian understanding of faith. Today, Moravians and Methodists still have much in common. From Georgia the Moravians went to Bethlehem and other settlements in Pennsylvania. The Georgia settlement was short lived, but Moravians thrived in Penn’s Woods. Today Bethlehem is the home of Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary.
In 1753 Moravians traveled south into North Carolina. Bethabara, meaning “house of passage,” was the first settlement in our state. In 1756 Bethania was established, and then, in 1766, Salem. A visit to Historic Bethabara Park, Bethania, or Old Salem is a great way to learn about Moravian history. It is a wonderful window into early American life.
The desire to spread the Good News about Jesus Christ carried the Moravian Church literally around the world. Today there are over eight hundred thousand Moravians in more than a dozen countries including Canada, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, Germany, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, South Africa, Surinam, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the United States.
For more about Moravian History and Beliefs visit the Moravian Church in North America website.