Nicholas Ludwig, Count Zinzendorf, was born in Dresden in 1700. He was very much a part of the Pietist movement in Germany, which emphasized personal piety and an emotional component to the religious life. This was in contrast to the state Lutheran Church of the day, which had grown to symbolize a largely intellectual faith centered on belief in specific doctrines. He believed in "heart religion," a personal salvation built on the individual's spiritual relationship with Christ.
Zinzendorf was born into one of the most noble families of Europe. His father died when he was an infant, and he was raised at Gros Hennersdorf, the castle of his influential Pietistic grandmother. Stories abound of his deep faith during childhood. As a young man he struggled with his desire to study for the ministry and the expectation that he would fulfill his hereditary role as a Count. As a teenager at Halle Academy, he and several other young nobles formed a secret society, The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed. The stated purpose of this order was that the members would use their position and influence to spread the Gospel. As an adult, Zinzendorf later reactivated this adolescent society, and many influential leaders of Europe ended up joining the group. A few included the King of Denmark, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Archbishop of Paris.
During his Grand Tour (a rite of passage for young aristocrats) Nicolas visited an art museum in Dusseldorf where he saw a Domenico Feti painting titled Ecce Homo, "Behold the Man." It portrayed the crucified Christ with the legend, "This have I done for you - Now what will you do for me?" The young Count was profoundly moved and appears to have had an almost mystical experience while looking at the painting, feeling as if Christ himself was speaking those word to his heart. He vowed that day to dedicate his life to service to Christ.
Zinzendorf married Erdmuth Dorothea von Reuss, a cousin, and assumed his duties as a young noble in the courts of King August the Strong. In 1722, he was approached by a group of Moravians to request permission to live on his lands. He granted their request, and a small band crossed the border from Moravia to settle in a town they called Herrnhut, or "the Lord's Watch." Zinzendorf was intrigued by the story of the Moravians, and began to read about the early Unity at the library in Dresden. His tenants went through a period of serious division, and it was then in 1727 that Zinzendorf left public life to spend all his time at his Berthelsdorf estate working with the troubled Moravians. Largely due to his leadership in daily Bible studies, the group came to formulate a unique document, known as the "Brotherly Agreement," which set forth basic tenets of Christian behavior. Residents of Herrnhut were required to sign a pledge to abide by these Biblical principals. There followed an intense and powerful experience of renewal, often described as the "Moravian Pentecost." During a communion service at Berthelsdorf, the entire congregation felt a powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, and felt their previous differences swept away. This experience began the Moravian renewal, and led to the beginning of the Protestant World Mission movement.
In 1731, while attending the coronation of Christian VI in Copenhagen, the young Count met a converted slave from the West Indies, Anthony Ulrich. Anthony's tale of his people's plight moved Zinzendorf, who brought him back to Herrnhut. As a result, two young men, Leonard Dober and David Nitchmann, were sent to St. Thomas to live among the slaves and preach the Gospel. This was the first organized Protestant mission work, and grew rapidly to Africa, America, Russia, and other parts of the world. By the end of Zinzendorf's life there were active missions from Greenland to South Africa, literally from one end of the earth to the other. Though the Baptist missionary William Carey is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Missions," he himself would credit Zinzendorf with that role, for he often referred to the model of the earlier Moravians in his journal.
Zinzendorf himself visited St. Thomas, and later visited America. There he sought to unify the German Protestants of Pennsylvania, even proposing a sort of "council of churches" where all would preserve their unique denominational practices, but would work in cooperation rather than competition. He founded the town of Bethlehem, where his daughter Benigna organized the school which would become Moravian College. His overwhelming interest in the colonies involved evangelizing the native Americans, and he traveled into the wilderness with Indian agent Conrad Weiser to meet with the chieftains of several tribes and clans. As far as we have been able to identify, he is the only European noble to have gone out to meet the native American leaders in this manner.
Zinzendorf's theology was extraordinarily Christ-centered and innovative. It focused intensely on the personal experience of a relationship with Christ, and an emotional experience of salvation rather than simply an intellectual assent to certain principles. Dr. David Schattschneider, Dean of Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, says that it is probably the fact that Zinzendorf did not attend seminary that allowed his thinking to be so creative. Zinzendorf cast the Trinity and the believers in terms of a family, referring often to the Holy Spirit as "mother." He accorded women a much more substantial role in church life than was normal for the eighteenth century, and suffered great criticism as a result. He allowed women to preach, to hold office, and to be ordained. Anna Nitschmann, the leader of the Single Sisters and later Zinzendorf's second wife, seems to have functioned as a bishop among the women.
All Zinzendorf's thinking also focused on missionary outreach and renewal. He envisioned the Moravians not as a separate denomination, but as a dynamic renewal society which would serve to revitalize existing denominations and help create new work in mission areas. There are numerous churches in Pennsylvania where Moravians would start a church and school forth settlers and native Americans, and then turn it over to the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church, or whatever denomination they perceived to be the strongest in that area.
Zinzendorf came to know John and Charles Wesley, who had been converted through their contact with the Moravians. The Wesleys later had a split with Zinzendorf, and founded the Methodist Church; however, both retained warm affection for the Moravians throughout their lives.
Zinzendorf died in 1760 at Herrnhut.