Go and dance! Go, look at the girls! Go to the tavern, for once, and be normal!”

Five serious young men looked at the village Burgomaster and said nothing. What could they say? Deep in Roman Catholic Moravia in 1724, deeply convicted to follow Christ, they could not obey the man, even though he meant his advice well—and even though he was Johann Töltschig’s father (Johann being one of the five).

The boys saw nothing but conflict, more threats, and danger ahead. When Johann’s father forbade them under pain of severe punishment to meet again, they knew they had only one option. At ten o’clock the following evening David Nitschmann and Melchior Zeisberger—like the Töltschigs of German Waldensian background—joined Johann to flee. Hastily made plans worked. Once out of earshot they knelt to sing the old Unity hymn, “Blessed be the day when I must roam, far from my country, friends, and home,” and struck out for Leszno in Poland.

On the way to Poland they stopped to see the Moravian refugees at Herrnhut, in Germany. The sight that met their eyes disappointed them. The grain looked poor. Large families lived in makeshift houses. But when a group gathered to lay the cornerstone for a school and orphanage (they happened to arrive at Herrnhut on May 12, 1724), their disillusionment turned into amazement and joy.

Brother Ludwig prayed at the laying of the cornerstone. “Dear Lord, if what we are doing is at all useful to you, bless it. But if this is nothing but the product of our own schemes and actions, destroy it at once. Do not let us go on with anything but what you have in mind.”

Inspired with such humility before Christ, and such a surrender of plans and wills, the three young men decided to travel no further. They stayed at Herrnhut and after the awakening of 1727, Johann was one of the first to hear the call of Christ to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.”

With Wenzel Neisser and David Nitschman, Johann set out for England in 1728. Carrying little with them but a burning desire to preach Christ, and to share with others the blessings they had received, the young men ran out of money in the Netherlands and one of them nearly got sold as a bond servant to the East Indies. But Christ came to their rescue. Money appeared, and at the home of a Dutch merchant in London they met two seekers, John and Charles Wesley.

No Choice But To Go

While Johann Töltschig visited seekers in England and Ireland, and other believers travelled through Poland to Latvia and Russia, to Denmark, Switzerland, and beyond, all of Herrnhut prepared itself for the road. German authorities had turned hostile. Disturbed by Herrnhut’s rapid growth, they exiled Brother Ludwig in 1736 and took measures against the refugees around him.

Far to the west, in the valley of the Wetter River—the “Wetterau” between Frankfurt am Main and the Taunus highlands—an indebted nobleman, the Count of Ysenburg-Wächtersbach came to their aid. His fields destroyed by a long history of war and neglect, lay in weeds. His castle, the Ronneburg, stood in disrepair. No matter what the Moravians believed, the count welcomed them onto his estate with an eye on their willingness to work and technical skills.

The first refugees from Herrnhut entered the old Ronneburg with sinking hearts. Animals had slept in the place. No door or window closed properly. No stairs were safe to use. Rats scampered off into dark cobwebby corners, and a strange collection of tramps, drunkards and gypsies slept among garbage on the grounds. But the love of Christ soon transformed the cheerless place. Working with their children and visitors from far and near, the Moravians cleaned and repaired the castle and planted the fields around it. They began a free school for the children of the area and gave their ragged neighbours clothes. The Lord blessed their work and as fast as pilgrims went out to preach Christ, new seekers came to join the community.

Not long after their arrival in the Wetterau, the Count of Ysenburg-Meerholz let the believers move into the much homier and better cared for castle of Marienborn, nearby. But the movement grew so fast that all buildings on the grounds filled up and by 1738 the third heir of the Ysenburg family, the Count of Ysenburg-Büdingen, gave them land on which to build a new community however they desired.

Widening Horizons

Working with boundless zeal and joy, the brothers and sisters built the choir houses, the Saal, and the circle of barns and outbuildings that became the new community of Herrnhaag (the Lord’s refuge). Contacts with seekers in Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and throughout Germany and Scandinavia brought a stream of new residents until several thousand lived under careful management there. Its fields and workshops, tended to by many willing hands, prospered. Within a few years the brothers could loan money to their landlord counts, and more became available all the time to send Pilgrims out with the Word.

Peter Böhler, a young German believer sailed to England the year of Herrnhaag’s founding. No sooner could he communicate in English than he found himself speaking to crowds of one to four thousand people, sometimes as many as twenty times a week. In spite of the persecution of wealthy and powerful people, the brothers founded new communities they named Grace Hill (Gnadenberg) and Lamb’s Hill (Lammsberg, renamed Fulneck) in Yorkshire, and Ockbrook in Derby. Johann Töltschig moved on to Ireland and many seekers found Christ and one another there.

Protestant leaders resented the Moravians’ arrival in England. They distrusted their communal order, their refusal to bear arms, and above all their “blood fanaticism.” Under growing pressure the English government passed a law forcing all young men attending Moravian meetings into military service, while at Swindon in Wiltshire an angry crowd drenched the English convert, John Cennick, with water from a fire engine. At Stratton they sprayed him with blood saved up from the butcher, and angry cries of, “Lamb, Lamb,” followed Moravian Pilgrims wherever they went. But by 1749, King George II granted them the privilege (like the Quakers) not to swear oaths or bear arms.

For several years a Moravian community—Pilgerruh, the “Pilgrims’ Rest”— existed in the north German province of Schleswig. Some from Herrnhut settled in the Hanseatic city of Reval (now Tallin, Estonia), and in the Netherlands on the estate of Heerendyk in the barony of Ysselstein. After a number of years they moved from there into an old castle at Zeist. Wherever they travelled, or wherever they found lodging for a time, they kept their transience clearly in mind. Brothers and sisters, especially those of the Pilgergemeine, moved continually further until twenty-five years after Johann Töltschig left for England they had reached more than a million people around the world with the Gospel—in forty-three languages. Even then, a hymn-writer at Herrnhut wrote:

Unknown land, barren wilderness! God’s hand will yet be praised in you! So many dark places where the torches of faith have long burned out . . . Unknown land, infinite is the seed that shall yet come out of you! In you the pious shall be seen, a holy city. You who still sit in darkness, dirty with false teaching . . . Infinite shall be the seed of God’s grace in you!

Wonderful light! Light you have never heard of in your unconverted state, shall break in upon you like shining rays of the sun. Dark swamps of disease it shall penetrate, dancing in joyfully, opening your face for the first time. Oh wonderful light! . . . The long hidden secret of God’s promise to Abraham is about to be revealed as many become his seed. The world with all its heathen is about to be filled with the glory of God’s grace.1

1 Gesangbuch, 710