Faith: Praying with the heirs of Hus

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- In 1.5 million households around the world, including Germany's Presidential Palace, Christians of 50 different tongues began the New Year reading the same text from the Old Testament:

"Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid" (Isaiah 12:2).


This is the motto for 2002 in an astonishing booklet that has been printed year after year since 1731. Its publisher is the Moravian Church, a tiny denomination whose roots reach back to John Hus, the former rector of Prague University, who was burned at the stake in 1415, more than a century before Luther's Reformation.

The little book is called "Losungen" in German, or "Moravian Daily Texts" in English (Bethlehem, Pa.: Moravian Church in America, 96 pages, $11).

"To me it is an important daily companion," said German President Johannes Rau, a fervent Protestant.


It is a calendar of sorts, where every day begins with an Old Testament reading drawn by lot from a selection of 1,800 verses.

To each of the chosen passages the editors in Herrnhut, Germany, add a matching New Testament lesson and a brief meditative text that might be a poem, a prayer, or a paragraph of one of Protestantism's confessional writings. In the North American edition, the readings for each day are supplemented by a stanza from the Moravians' superb hymnal.

The editors of the book's German version that sells one million copies every year keep warning their readers against misusing the Daily Texts as an oracle of sorts. However, during the dramatic months of communism's collapse and Germany's reunification in 1989-1990, some readings seemed providential:

- October 9, 1989. Half a million people marched from Leipzig's main churches to the city center. This peaceful event was the beginning of the end of the East German regime. The lesson in the Daily Texts for that date read: "By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that I shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'" Isaiah 45:23-24).


- November 10, 1989. Shortly after midnight, the Berlin Wall came down. The Old Testament reading was: "For thou hast been the stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the blast of the ruthless is like a storm against the Wall" (Isaiah 25:4).

And the Gospel lesson read on same day: "To him who knocks, it will be opened" (Matthew 7:8).

- December 3, 1989. The Politburo and Central Committee of the East German Communist Party relinquished power. In the Daily Texts, we read: "Surely for naught are they in turmoil; man heaps up and knows not who will gather" (Psalm 39:6).

- July 2, 1990. East Germany, now free, adopted the West German currency, the Deutsche Mark. This was the first step toward reunification. The Old Testament text chosen by lot for that day was: "The Lord makes poor and makes rich" (1 Samuel 2:7). And the New Testament passage read: "Every one to whom much was given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more."

When these verses were chosen in 1987 and 1988, respectively, nobody could have known what would occur in the center of Europe two years later.


In an uncanny way, Old Testament passage drawn by lot for Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, could not have been more appropriate -- and comforting: "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us" (Isaiah 33:22).

The Daily Texts have an amazing history. They have comforted persecuted Christians for more than a quarter of a millennium.

A German count by the name of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) started this series shortly after receiving Protestant refugees from Austrian-ruled Bohemia and Moravia on his estates.

Zinzendorf, a leader in the Lutheran Pietist movement, founded a village for these descendants of the 15th-century Hussites. He named it Herrenhut (protected by the Lord). It is still the spiritual home of the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, as this small denomination then called itself.

To this day, Herrenhut remains the spiritual home of the world's 800,000 Moravians, of whom a mere 7,200 live in German-speaking countries, according to the Rev. Martin Theile, their director.

"Astonishingly, though, we sell more than one million copies of the Daily Texts' German edition," said Theile, who is Swiss.


Thus, this miniscule church has an enormous influence on other Protestants, with who it is in communion. In fact, the Herrnhuters, as the Germans call them, are so highly regarded that Lutherans and Catholics entrusted them with the administration of their forest holdings in the communist East.

In other parts of the world, the Moravians have for centuries wielded influence far beyond their scope. Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, now headquarters of the church's Northern Province in America, is a Moravian creation. In fact, Zinzendorf, then bishop, named this future steel town after Christ's birthplace in 1741.

Moravians number only 50,000 in the U.S. and Canada, the Northern province's President Burke Johnson told United Press International Tuesday.

"Like most other mainline denominations, our membership is stagnating over here," said Burke, whose group is in Communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Church of England.

Elsewhere, though, it is growing. Many of the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, who fought that country's communist regime in the 1980s are Moravians. German ministers sent out by an English mission society in earlier centuries had evangelized their forebears.

And if the Moravian Church in Europe is now growing again, this is due to its members from Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, migrating to the Netherlands.


But almost six centuries after John Hus' death in Constance, the denomination that traces its roots to him is experiencing its most stunning growth in an unlikely corner of the world -- Tanzania.

"More than half of the world's Moravian Christians live there, 411,000 in all," said Martin Theil in Herrnhut. "Mind you, their families grow fast."

Maybe so. But the Moravians in Tanzania are well within a trend. The Anglicans, the Lutherans and others are also doing well in Africa -- so well, in fact, that their theologians are now touring Europe imploring Christians there to return to the traditional teachings of the church.

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