It is important we not forget where we have come from and who has gone before us… ...who of our personal as well as our spiritual ancestors.
They have much to teach us about heroic living; much to remind us of what is truly important; about what is worth living for … and dying for. Their voices come to us now as echoes of love and human grandeur, and as reminders of how small we can become in the name of the One who bids us to walk as He walked, to love the person even if we cannot accept their views or behaviors.
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.
While the government of France was the only European “ally” nation to willingly cooperate with Nazi Germany, a remarkable region of small villages in southeast France chose a different course. The foremost of these villages was Le Chambon, a community somewhat larger than 3,000. Through the course of World War II, they harbored 5,000 Jews destined to be deported to Germany and ferreted them to safety. When queried a generation later as to their extraordinary risk and sacrifice, to the person, they shrugged it off as simply the right, or human, thing to do.
They, and the region round about, came from Huguenot stock (and before them, the Waldenses). In fact that area holds the last remnant of practicing Huguenots. Many sited this ancestral kinship with those who had suffered because of who they were and what they believed as reason for their ministry to the Jews in the war.
The history of Christianity is riddled with persecution, more often than not coming at the hands of the “believing” rather than the pagan world. Catholics and Protestants exterminated each other by the millions over the span of 3 or 4 centuries. Waldensians and their geographic descendants, the Huguenots, were persecuted and destroyed solely because those in religious dominance disagreed with some of their beliefs about a personal relationship with Christ. Though all believed in Christ Jesus, divergent views on fundamental but lesser issues were not tolerated. The result was persecution, torture and death.
Because those in the quiet farming region of Le Chambon did not forget who they were and where they had come from, one of the great works of God in World War II came through their unassuming hands.
Of all the religious groups, perhaps the most persecuted were the Anabaptists. Spiritual ancestors to the Baptists, Mennonites and the Brethren, they were the first to revive Pacifism early in the Reformed movement and argued that the Christian is called to share in Christ’s suffering love for his enemies. A larger proportion of Anabaptists were martyred for their faith than any other Christian group in history, including even the early Christians, on whom they modeled themselves. The following letter written in the 1500’s by a young Anabaptist mother to her infant daughter testifies to great hearts who have gone before…a part of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us today and watch and wonder.
“My dearest child, the true love of God strengthen you in virtue, you who are yet so young, and whom I must leave in this wicked, evil, perverse world.
Oh that it had pleased the Lord that I might have brought you up, but it seems that it is not the Lord’s will. Even so it has now gone with your father and myself. We were so well joined that we would not have forsaken each other for the whole world, and yet we had to leave each other for the Lord’s sake. We were permitted to live together only half a year, after which we were apprehended because we sought the salvation of our souls. Be not ashamed of us; it is the way which the prophets and the apostles went. Your dear father demonstrated with his blood that it is the genuine truth, and I also hope to attest the same with my blood, though flesh and blood must remain on the posts and on the stake, well knowing that we shall meet hereafter.
Hence, my dear Janneken, do not accustom your mouth to filthy talk, nor to ugly lies, and run not in the street as other bad children do, rather take up a book and learn to seek there that which concerns your salvation. And now, Janneken, my dear lamb, who are yet very little and young, I leave you this letter, together with a gold real which I had with me in prison, and this I leave you for a perpetual adieu, and for a testament. Read it, when you have understanding, and keep it as long as you live in remembrance of me and of your father. Be not ashamed to confess our faith, since it is the true evangelical faith, another than which shall never be found.”
The young German nobleman lived at a time when tolerance of differing views was practically non-existent and beliefs at odds with the established church often resulted in imprisonment or death. So Puritans, Separatists, Quakers, Lutherans and many others became religious refugees in search of safe harbor. When 27-year-old Nicolas Zinzendorf became aware of the plight of these Believers, he felt a burden for the oneness of Christians.He purchased a large estate that included the village of Berthelsdorf, Germany, and turned it into a refuge for oppressed Christians of every doctrine and creed.Though the first and most substantial wave of emigrants came from Moravia and were known as the Moravian Brethren, many other denominations followed and soon over 300 people of every persuasion made their home at “Herrnhut.”Zinzendorf’s dream to “plant a pleasant garden of the Lord” quickly turned into a briar patch of doctrinal rancor and divisions. More than once, discord threatened shipwreck at this “safe harbor.”
“It seemed that every wind of doctrine and division blew through Herrnhut…any unity in the Settlement was a thing of rags and tatters…”
On May 12, 1727, after five frustrating years, Zinzendorf addressed his prickly people for three hours on the blessedness of Christian unity.The community was deeply moved and in sorrow confessed their past quarreling.Before God they committed to live in love and simplicity and to belong entirely to the Savior.They desired to become poor in spirit and “each one wished to be taught of the Holy Spirit in all things.”The result was a “golden summer” in which Herrnhut became a living community of Christ working together in peace and love. A Prayer Watch On August 13, as they prepared spiritually for the Lord’s Supper, they became aware of their own sinfulness and need.During the service as they prayed for their continued unity and for fellow Christians still under persecution, the Holy Spirit came upon them as at Pentacost.Two weeks later, 24 men and 24 women committed to pray hourly for God’s blessings upon them and their witness.In teams of two, unceasing prayer was offered 24 hours a day 7 days a week.This commitment to prayer at Herrnhut lasted 100 years!Within days of its beginning a group formed, burdened with taking the Gospel to the forgotten people of the world.Herrnhut’s first missionaries were two young men who were willing to become slaves if necessary to reach the slaves in the West Indies.Eventually, hundreds of Moravians went out into the forgotten places of the world.
A Spiritual Slumber
The century of their unceasing prayer saw America and Europe both awaken from a deep spiritual slumber.John Wesley bemoaned the state of religion in England.“What is the present characteristic of the English nation?It is ungodliness….Ungodliness is our universal, our constant, our peculiar character.”In America Jonathon Edwards found the people “very insensible to the things of religion.”The emergence of the Half Way Covenant reflects the depth of this spiritual decline.Previously, only those who could testify to a saving experience of Christ were admitted to church membership in America.With the Half Way Covenant “persons not scandalous in life” could be included.Moral respectabilityrather than spiritual rebirth had become the criterion.“We are fallen into as deep a sleep as ever,” lamented a Boston preacher in 1730. Not only their prayers but their “witness” which they had asked the Lord to bless, was a critical instrument in the changing of the world.It was a change needed before God could make America into the nation He had destined it to be.
Moravian Impact on Leaders of the Awakening
On the voyage to America to evangelize the Indians, John Wesley had noticed the group of men, women and children, also intent on ministering to the Indians, whom fellow voyagers treated harshly.Their apparent cowardice in not defending themselves when personally assailed brought scorn and ridicule.In the midst of a great storm when all the brave souls trembled for their lives, the Moravians sang hymns.They were neither afraid for themselves nor for their children. In Georgia, Wesley was challenged repeatedly about his personal relationship with Christ by a Moravian, named Spragenberg.Upon his early return to England, Wesley reflected upon these encounters:“I can talk well…when no danger is near.But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled…I went to America to convert Indians, but oh, who shall convert me?”That person was another Moravian,Peter Boehler.Shortly after the Wesleys’ return to England they met with Boehler.First Charles and then, three days later, John received Christ as their personal Savior.By all accounts, that moment was the “turning point,” … the “most vital stimulus” of the Great Revival in England.Wesley was soon to visit Zinzendorf at Herrnhut and would later write:“…they are all partakers of one Spirit, the spirit of meekness and love which uniformly and continually animates all their conversation… I would gladly have spent my life here….Oh when shall THIS Christianity cover the earth…?”
The great spiritual awakening of the 18th century in Europe and America came on the heels of an amazing century of prayer by the Moravian community in Herrnhut, Germany and spearheaded in England by John and Charles Wesley. The stirrings of revival began in America in Northampton, Mass. in 1733. The following year the “Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in …” Jonathon Edwards wrote in his journal. “Souls did come by floods to Jesus Christ…. This town was never so full of love nor so full of joy….” In 1735 George Whitefield, the great preacher of the American Awakening was converted in England. In 1740 he came to America from England and the Great Awakening in the Colonies reached its peak with Whitefield’s New England preaching tour where 20,000 heard his farewell sermon. Revival continued for 18 months in which 150 churches were affected from New England to Virginia, and the great Missionary movement to the Indians began. “Christianity acquired such a hold that it expanded with the American frontier and ensured that the independent nation would rest on a reliable foundation.”
Keswick Convention England’s Spiritual Legacy from a Vibrant Century
In 1875 Hannah Whitall Smith (The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life) and her husband Robert, along with a few others, established the Keswick Convention, a five-day conference just north of London for the purpose of teaching the deeper life in Christ. This yearly convention continues to this day with preparations in full swing for their 130th gathering in Keswick, England this month. The Keswick Convention is legendary for its spiritual impact not only in England and Europe but also throughout the world. It was a driving force in what would become the great worldwide missionary endeavors of the late 1800’s, particularly in China, Japan and India. Hudson Taylor, who began the Inland China Mission in 1853, spoke at one of the first Keswick conferences. As a result of hearing him there, Amy Carmichael went to Japan and on to India (where she served for 54 years) and Oswald Chambers went to Japan and eventually ended in ministry to the troops in World War I in Egypt. Vast numbers of others responded and a great wave of missionaries spread throughout the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As those in attendance answered the yearly challenge of the Keswick Convention to a deeper, sold-out life with Christ, it became the signal force in fueling the spiritual energy that carried England into the 20th century.
It was British atheist Bertrand Russell whose influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries fueled the ascension of intellectualism that ultimately sabotaged the spiritual vitality of England. He married Alys Smith, the daughter of Hannah Whithall Smith, and eventually drew her over to his intellectual atheism. None of Hannah Smith’s surviving children professed Christ by the end of her life in 1911. A seminal figure in changing the spiritual landscapes of both America and Great Britain, Hannah Smith eventually found the enemy in her own camp, an enemy which not only ambushed her own family, but which thwarted much of the spiritual momentum she had helped create for an entire nation.
America Birthed from the Marriage of the Renaissance and the Reformation
The Renaissance (1300 – 1500’s) ushered a rebirth of knowledge reminiscent of the golden ages of Greece and Rome. Emphasizing classical learning in every academic discipline, it produced achievements in art, science, literature and thought that transformed the world. Inventions, discoveries and explorations of new lands emerged and political and religious thought began to demolish the boxes they had occupied. Renaissance humanism celebrated the individual. Writings about the balance needed between state authority and individual rights emerged. From these thinkers came Englishman John Locke who went further than all others in declaring the equality of all people and the necessity of the state to protect the rights of the individual. From his pen, more than from any other, came the great political and social thinking of our founding Fathers that forged our Constitution and Declaration of Independence and carved out the Bill of Rights; a governing framework that was and is the wonder of the world. Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence on individual rights and the obligations of government to protect them is the signature of the Renaissance and of Locke’s refining influence.
America is the only child of the Renaissance. It is the only nation conceived and birthed from the womb of the Reformation. As these two great rivers converged in the New World they created something never before seen: a nation based upon individual freedoms with guaranteed protections of those who openly disagree with it; and founded upon an abiding belief and acknowledgment of God.
Unlike the Renaissance, the Reformation emphasized community. It required signal figures to risk their lives but such risk was for the body of Christ. Though separate from the Renaissance, the Reformation was stirred by it. In the latter part of the 14th century, Wycliff pushed for reform of the Catholic Church in England as did Zwingli in Switzerland. John Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 for beliefs that opposed those of the Catholic Church. A century later Luther broke from the Church and the floodgates of reform and separation, of persecutions and martyrdom ensued.
[Though other like figures preceded him, Erasmus (1467 – 1536) was a seminal blend of Renaissance Humanism and reform Catholic. As such this Dutch Clergyman became the signal figure that bridged the Renaissance and the Reformation. Known as a Christian Humanist, he greatly influenced Zwingli and other Reformers. His writings challenged both the excesses of the Catholic Church and Luther’s theology.]
The New World beckoned beleaguered pilgrims with possibilities of freedom, though the quest for personal religious freedom often did not extend to others who worshipped differently. European persecutions not only pushed the religious to our shores, it drove many who valued free expression of individual thoughts and ideas. It was these – more of the Renaissance than of the Reformation – that wove freedom of religion and expression into the fabric of our lives. In America, Renaissance individualism and the community of Reformation created a tapestry of faith and freedom unique in human history.