Best Practice in Church Leadership Succession: the Early Moravians


Church history rightly remembers Nicholas, Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) as a significant figure.  He was a religious and social reformer, founder of the Christian community and mission centre at Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, from which grew today’s Moravian Church. Under his leadership, missionary teams carried the gospel everywhere, from the Inuit of Labrador to the Zulus of South Africa.

It was a phenomenal achievement. What is far less known is how near the whole movement came to collapse, and how it was rescued and restored. In many ways, we will find here a model of good practice in leadership succession and generational transition in a church. The largely unsung hero was Zinzendorf’s successor, August Spangenberg (1704-92).

He had been a theology lecturer but threw in his lot with the Moravians, aged 29. He became the movement’s theologian, apologist, statesman and corrector – for sixty years! At first, he was an assistant to Zinzendorf, who sent him to Pennsylvania to establish churches, communities and schools – and to address opposition from other denominations. Zinzendorf sought Spangenberg’s tutoring when he was preparing for his own Lutheran ordination. If the count was the visionary of the Moravian movement, Spangenberg was his interpreter and enabler.

August Gottlieb Spangenberg

August Gottlieb Spangenberg

However, all was not well in the church. Zinzendorf was more of a visionary than a practical administrator. Under his leadership, the church’s expansion was funded by personal loans. By the 1750s, expenditure was out of control and the church had over-extended itself. This precipitated a spectacular crash in the church’s credit rating and reputation. Detractors used the opportunity to attack them. One major objection was to Zinzendorf’s devotion to the wounds of Jesus, which some saw as too Catholic, others as plain weird.

Zinzendorf died in 1760 with the Moravian church in a precarious position. Spangenberg was recalled from America and, although Moravian leaders saw themselves as equals, Spangenberg was clearly first among them. Under his leadership, the church felt compelled to turn inwards for a season, to address very real issues. They looked at what was central to their call and the way it had hitherto been expressed, and realised that some realignment was necessary.

  • They took responsibility for the debts and introduced financial controls. They avoided bankruptcy and achieved financial stability.

  • They apologised for any extra-biblical teaching, admitting that some of the contentious areas had been Zinzendorf’s “private opinions”, which church members were not required to endorse.

  • They reiterated their commitment to the Bible and to mission.

A sketch of the Herrnhut community in 1765

A sketch of the Herrnhut community in 1765

These reforms worked, much to Spangenberg’s credit. With disasters averted and unhelpful trappings removed, the vibrant church life and gospel endeavour initiated by Zinzendorf flourished. The Moravians concentrated on what they did best: community and mission. Their fruit was remarkable and highly esteemed. While the Great Awakening won souls in ‘Christian’ Britain and America, the Moravians reaped a harvest among the unconverted in other lands. As the 18th century ended, the Moravians had been successfully rehabilitated as the model of a missional church.


1. The Moravian Church teaches that it has preserved apostolic succession. In Berlin in 1735, several Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut received episcopal ordination from the two surviving bishops of the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites). They considered it important to preserve the historic episcopate.

2. In their earlier years, the Moravians took literally Acts 1:26, the drawing of lots, to determine the will and guidance of God. Their covenant of 1727 included the stipulation that at any time, there should be 12 elders leading the church, all appointed by ‘the lot’. Thereafter, ‘the lot’ was used to help decide key matters like the election of elders, or whom to send on mission. Once the lot was consulted, the decision was seen as binding, since God’s Spirit had spoken.

The usual method was to place two pieces of paper in a box, one with “The Saviour approves” written on it, the other with “The Saviour does not approve”. After corporate prayer, a member of the elders’ council then pulled out one of these papers.

‘The lot’ came to be mistrusted. Some feared leaders could manipulate the lot by rewording and redrawing it until they got the answer they wanted. Others, influenced by the Enlightenment, suggested that God was too rational to use such a haphazard system and that the lot was just a matter of luck. By 1800 it was no longer being used in the Moravian churches.

For further insights, see Nigel Tomes, After the Founding Fathers; Historical Case Studies.


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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

7 responses to “Best Practice in Church Leadership Succession: the Early Moravians”

  1. george fruitful says :

    A very interesting blog that does show how even the most effective charismatic leader can have human flaws, and need the corrective influence of other respected leaders. Most movements by necessity need to make adjustments after the first pioneering leader has passed on. The opportunity to take stock is one that needs to happen for the movement to be relative to a new generation, however with the risk of fragmentation is higher if leaders do not carry forward the core distinctives with the same level of commitment.

    • sch0larly says :

      Thank you for these valuable thoughts, George. A number of churches are choosing to take the line of apologising to all those whom it has hurt by past leadership style, leadership mistakes, etc. It is a humbling and very painful path, but surely the right one.

  2. John MacArthur says :

    I wonder how this might work in your particular context? Bugbrooke began as a unique and sovereign intervention, and, as they all do, changed over the years. It suggests that every move of God has permanence and development potential in its original form. What if it didn’t? More often than not, once we get our hands on it and start fiddling with it, like an old clock that has to be kept working at all costs, it becomes a shadow of its former self and at the very least, the first few letters of ‘ichabod’ have been written on the wall. I wonder what your take might be on that?

    • sch0larly says :

      I agree that this is pretty much endemic, John. The New Testament epistles show that, even in the first flush of the Church’s golden age, problems abounded, some leaders “preached out of jealousy”, others brought in novel interpretations and unsanctioned practices. Yet somehow, God loves the church and keeps her moving on. He can teach her lessons through failure; make her hungry for Himself through times of barrenness; awaken intercession through hardships and attack. When then emerges may well be different from the original but could (theoretically) be just as valid and just as good.

      In the Jesus Fellowship we walk a tightrope between fears that the new generation will “muck it up” and hope that visionary young leaders, free of the trappings accrued by the pioneers, can lead the church forward in the spirit and power of the original.

  3. Aidan says :

    I’ve heard it said that in Acts 1 the 11 remaining disciples drew lots because they hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit. After Pentecost Acts 15 then has them saying “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

    • sch0larly says :

      That’s certainly how I’d see it, Aidan. The lot also has links to the OT high priests “consulting urim and thummim” (e.g. 1 Samuel 14:41). So maybe, just maybe, we have in the Acts passage an embryonic understanding of the Priesthood of All Believers”?

      • Aidan says :

        Well, the priesthood of the apostles, anyway, especially as they were trying to get back up to the full number of twelve, a significant number for rulership.

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