Ever since Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt with their new-born child, religious refugees have played key roles in the Christian story. Early Christians fleeing Jerusalem to escape persecution planted the first Gentile congregation in Antioch.
In 1722, illegal religious immigrants settled the village where this weekend we paused on our Continental Heritage Tour. They had survived the hazardous border crossing from Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic) into neighbouring Saxony, close to the German-Polish border today.
This modest village the refugees called Herrnhut was destined to become a major catalyst for the Protestant missionary movement, inspiring other history-makers like John Wesley and William Carey. The Herrnhutters daring and expansive mission adventures to the Caribbean, Greenland, Africa, India, and North America in the early 18th century contrasted sharply with the general lack of mission vision or activity in Protestant circles. By 1760, when their patron and leader Count Zinzendorf died, some 260 missionaries had gone out from Herrnhut to the remotest parts of the world, drawn from the original refugee settlers and their children.
As a young Anglican clergyman, fresh from ordination, Wesley first encountered these Moravian missionaries on board a sailing ship headed for the North American colony of Georgia when the ship ran into a severe storm. Wesley was terrified of drowning, and was struck by the calm faith of these fellow passengers who simply told him, ‘Brother, our times are in his hands.’ Eventually the future revivalist would come to the same personal faith after further contact with Moravians both in Georgia and back in London. In 1739, Wesley made his own visit to Herrnhut, writing in his journal that ‘these Moravians are the finest Christians in the world – next to the Anglicans’.
Some 50 years later, Carey challenged his fellow Baptist pastors to follow the apostolic model set by Moravian missionaries. That exhortation led directly to the birth of the Baptist Missionary Society, and in turn other denominational missions.
Earlier last week, we visited the grave of Jan Amos Comenius in Naarden, near Amsterdam where the Czech educationalist had spent the last decade of his life, also as a religious refugee. Here in Herrnhut we picked up more of his story as the last bishop of the Ancient Moravian Church, founded by followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus. Comenius too had led a bunch of illegal refugees across the border from Moravia into Poland, pausing to pray that God would watch over the hidden seed in that land which one day would yield fruit to bless the world.
Herrnhut was clearly an answer to that prayer.
In Herrnhut’s white-painted Grosser Saal, or church sanctuary, the Sunday morning service saw a number of visiting Moravians from North America occupying the traditional white wooden benches. They represented some 1600 Moravian churches today in over 35 countries with a membership of over one million, all spiritual descendants of the original straggling band of survivors who chopped down trees to build the first houses of Herrnhut nearly 300 years ago.
The guest speaker, a Moravian professor and leader of the American visitors, reflected in his sermon on the two Josephs in the Bible. Both of them were ‘dreamers’ and ‘refugees’. In both cases, God was working out his sovereign purposes in ways foreign to human reasoning.
God works on a different schedule. He often uses detours. He is not in a hurry. He will use for good what Satan means for evil. Joseph dreamed of ruling over his brothers, but only after the harrowing experience of human trafficking and unjust imprisonment was the dream fulfilled–through Pharoah’s dreams.
Zinzendorf himself had dreams he expected to be fulfilled through Lutherans. But God chose illegal immigrants to be the instruments for his dreams to come to fruition.
Sometimes it is hard to see God’s hand in world events. This weekend a friend wrote from the Middle East: “There is so much chaos in the world, I find I cannot process it mentally, spiritually or emotionally.
“Last year’s dramatic, mud-slinging US election, fake news, identity politics, narcissistic selfie culture. Incredibly savage barrel bombs, suicide attacks, human shields, chemical warfare, improvised roadside bombs, killing and maiming every day hundreds of totally random children, women and men, in Aleppo, Damascus, Kabul, Baghdad, etc etc…… Thousands and thousands of kidnapped Christian and Yezidi women and children STILL missing in Syrian and Iraq.
“All the while thousands of refugees drown while crossing from North Africa and Turkey to Greece and Italy, right here under our noses, trying to escape from Syria, Iraq and Africa’s jihad, political chaos, extreme poverty, and hopelessness.”
Yet somehow God will use for good what Satan means for evil. He works on a different schedule. He is still sovereign.
Till next week,