For days the Neissers and young Michael Jäschke followed Christian David through the wilderness. Danger still surrounded them. Silesia, through which they had to pass, was also Roman Catholic. But weary, faint, and excited, they eventually arrived on the young landowner’s estate at Berthelsdorf in Germany.
The sight that met their eyes left them speechless. The young landowner, Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was not home. The man who came to show them where to settle took them to a low-lying wilderness behind the village. Parts of the land stood in water. Dense brush and brambles covered the rest.
Martha Neisser sat down. “Where in this wilderness shall we find bread?” was all she could think to ask.
But even before she asked, the Lord had prepared bread for them—and more.
The landowner’s grandmother, the baroness Henriette Katherina von Gersdorf, sent them a cow. With great vigour, Christian David and the brothers from Moravia set to work felling trees, building shelters, and clearing land so the women could plant grain and vegetables.
Then Ludwig came.
Just turned twenty-two, Nicholas Ludwig, the young count of Zinzendorf and Pottendorf could not have grown up in a setting more unlike that of the Moravian settlers on his land. Used to nothing but fine food and clothes, he lived in the manor house with his grandmother until she sent him to a “Pietist” boarding school in the German city of Halle.
As long as he could remember, Ludwig had known serious-minded Pietist brothers. At his grandmother’s invitation (his father had died and his mother married a Prussian general when he was four) they had conducted prayer meetings in her manor house at Grosz Hennersdorf (not far from Berthelsdorf). From them he first heard Johann Arndt’s simple lessons in godliness. He learned to sing with them the great Lutheran hymns, and above all he learned to pray.
As a very young child, Ludwig prayed earnestly to Christ. He wrote “letters to Jesus” and tossed them out the window of his upper storey room. During the Swedish invasion of 1706 when plundering soldiers burst into the manor house they stopped and turned back at the sight of Ludwig, a six-year-old, on his knees in prayer.
From his Pietist teachers, Ludwig learned to view contemporary Protestantism—to which he, as a German Lutheran, belonged—with deep mistrust. But he also learned not to go the way of the “sectarians.” The Pietists held the concept of ecclesiolae in ecclesia (little churches within the Church) as their ideal. They believed that through personal conversions, prayer meetings, and Bible study, they could build the “real church,” the mystical, spiritual body of Christ, far above the realm of institutional religion.
All this had appealed to Ludwig, and he “thought like a Pietist” until the school at Halle left him deeply disillusioned. Its teachers, fanatical in their zeal for holiness, harassed the students to no end—while the students, all pious prayers and songs notwithstanding, were a mob of fiends. That is, most of them. A few, like Georg Wilhelm von Söhlenthal, Anton Heinrich Walbaum, Johannes von Jony, and a Swiss boy, Friedrich von Watteville met with Ludwig to read the Bible and pray. They formed a society, the “Order of a Grain of Mustard Seed,” and pledged themselves to serve Christ all their lives together.
In spite of his disappointment with the school, Ludwig learned well. By the time he turned sixteen he spoke Latin freely. Then his family transferred him to the University of Wittenberg, and his days under Pietist influence came to an end.
At first Ludwig felt strange in the “worldly” atmosphere of the university—deep in the study of law, with lessons in fencing, riding horses, and dancing. But as time passed, he began to view his strict Pietist childhood more critically. He began to wonder who was the holiest—the “regular” Lutherans at Wittenberg who trusted entirely in grace to save them, or the works-conscious Pietists at Halle, forever at odds one with another on how to be a little more sanctified.
Determined to find the truth of the matter, Ludwig spent an hour every morning and another one, every evening, in prayer. He studied the Bible carefully, from cover to cover, in Latin and now also in Greek. Then the time came for him to finish his studies abroad.
In France, Ludwig witnessed the work of Catholic religious orders among the poor. The thought of remaining celibate to serve Christ appealed to him. But when he met a godly and gracious young woman, Theodore von Castell, in southern Germany, and she returned his attention, he proposed marriage. Everyone, on both sides, gave their consent. Ludwig was happy. But shortly before the wedding, he made a discovery. On his way to see Theodore, his carriage broke down near the estate of one of his best friends, Heinrich von Reuss. Stopping to make the necessary repairs, Ludwig learned that Heinrich had been interested in Theodore, but had given her up for his sake.
Ludwig felt terrible. “I will not take her away from you!” he declared. “Let us go and ask which one of us she prefers.”
It did not take long for Heinrich to get ready—nor for Ludwig to discern the truth. When he saw Theodore and Heinrich truly in love, he freely released her from the engagement. And even though it cost him an inner struggle, he served as best man and composed a song for the wedding.
This experience, and a visit to an art museum in the city of Düsseldorf on the Rhine, permanently changed Ludwig’s life. Even though he had “believed in Christ” for years, things did not fall into place for him until he stood before a painting showing Christ flogged, mocked, wearing a crown of thorns, and set by Pilate before the people. When Ludwig read the words underneath the picture, “I have done this for you. What have you done for me?” his heart broke. Overwhelmed before the Saviour of the world, he repented of all things human and surrendered his life to him. Far beyond self-righteous Pietism, far beyond Lutheran presumptions of free (or cheap) grace, far beyond anything he had known or felt before, Ludwig felt his soul transported into the presence of Christ. And even though he did not know it yet, out of this experience, his life’s vocation was born.
For the time being, it resulted in a German poem:
Bridegroom of the soul, Lamb of God! Prove my motives and discover where they begin. Is my will sincere? Oh so let it be! Let me be crucified to self and sanctified to you. Purify my inner ways. If I go astray on dark paths, shine on me and guide me back! If the cross and sorrow trouble me, give me patience. Set my sights upon the goal. After war, victory and peace will come. The world holds little joy. Its pasture is dry. Only in Zion shall we drink undiluted wine!
Jesus walk before me, on the way of life. I will hurry after you. Take me by the hand, to our Fatherland. Order my steps, Beloved One, as long as I live. If you lead me on rough trails, watch out for me. At the end of the way, open the door into what is yet to come!1
On September 7, 1722, Ludwig married Heinrich von Reuss’s sister Erdmuth Dorothea. Three months later, on the way to Berthelsdorf to see a new house being built for them on the family estate, he noticed a strange settlement beside the road. “Who lives here?” he asked.
“The Moravian refugees you gave permission to settle on your land!”
Before his surprised companions knew what was happening, Ludwig halted the carriage, found his way down the muddy trail and entered the first of the low shelters where women in simple peasant dress hastily picked up their babies and men came running to greet him.
Within minutes, all were kneeling on the floor to thank Christ for bringing them together.
1 Gesangbuch der Evangelischen Brüder, 415