The Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Church, is that branch of the Christian Church which began its distinct life at Kunvald in Bohemia in the year 1457. It was born of the great revival of faith at the close of the Middle Ages, arising from the national revival of religion in Bohemia, in which the writings of Wyclif had great influence, and of which John Hus was the greatest leader. Within the movement Peter of Chelcic represented the traditions of Eastern puritanism and freedom from official control in matters of religion.
Amidst these influences, the Unitas Fratrum was founded, under the leadership of Gregory the Patriarch, with a three-fold ideal of faith, fellowship and freedom, and a strong emphasis on practical Christian life rather than on doctrinal thought or church tradition. The statutes of Reichenau, 1464, contain the earliest statement of this common mind.
Its numbers grew rapidly. This extension drew the attention of the church authorities to the Brethren, who were denounced as heretical and treasonable. They sought to maintain a living contact with the early church, having obtained from the Waldenses the traditional orders of the ministry, including the episcopacy, and thus became an independent ecclesiastical body. The power of the state was then called in to suppress them, but persecution furthered their growth. The impact of the Brethren on the spiritual life in their country and over the boundaries of their homeland far exceeded the numerical strength of membership.
The Brethren were enabled to maintain a living fellowship in Christ with the help of the Bible and hymns in their own tongue, a careful system of discipline and schools for the young. The Brethren met Luther and other Reformers on equal terms, taught them the value of an effective church discipline, and gained from them new insights into the nature of a saving faith.
In the troubles of the reaction against the Reformation, times of persecution alternated with times of comparative calm, until at last in 1620 the Roman Church was placed in power by foreign armies, and the Unitas Fratrum with other Protestant bodies was utterly suppressed. The influence of Bishop John Amos Comenius, who had preserved the discipline of the church, and who had pioneered educational methods, was a great source of strength after the disruption of the church. He never ceased to pray and to plead publicly for the restoration of his beloved church. Strengthened by this faith, a ‘Hidden Seed’ survived in Bohemia and Moravia, to emerge a hundred years later in the Renewed Church.
Between 1722 and 1727, some families from Moravia, who had kept the traditions of the old Unitas Fratrum, found a place of refuge in. Saxony, on the estate of Nicolaus Ludwig, Count Zinzendorf, and built a village which they called Herrnhut. Other people of widely differing views also found there a place of religious freedom, but their differences threatened to make it a place of strife. Zinzendorf gave up his position in state service to devote himself to unite these various elements into a real Christian fellowship. He became their spiritual leader, as well as their patron and protector against interference from without.
By his example and pastoral care Zinzendorf quickened their. Christian fellowship and united them for communal life under the Statutes of Herrnhut (May 12, 1727), which were found to follow the pattern of the old Unitas Fratrum. Through earnest and continued prayer, they realized more and more the power of the Cross of Christ in reconciling them one to another. A profound and decisive experience of this unity was given them in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at a celebration of the Holy Communion on August 13, 1727.
From this experience of conscious unity came zeal and strength to share this fellowship in Christ with other branches of the Church Universal, and joy to serve wherever they found an open door.
In following out this impulse, relations were established with earnest Christians in many lands of Western Europe, in England from 1728, and in North America from 1735, while in 1732 their first mission to the heathen began among slaves of St. Thomas in the West Indies.
In order to secure official recognition for their workers, and to set a. seal upon the links with the old Unitas Fratrum, they decided to continue its episcopal orders, which had been handed down through Bishop Comenius and a line of bishops in the Polish Province of the ancient Unity. In 1735 Bishop Daniel Jablonsky consecrated David Nitschmann as the first bishop of the Renewed Church. The branches of the church thus established on the Continent and in Great Britain and America continued to develop in accordance with the differing opportunities presented to them, maintaining their association and uniting especially in the work of the spread of the Gospel in other lands.
Thus today the Unitas Fratrum, which has asserted throughout its history that Christian fellowship recognizes no barrier of nation or race, is still an international Unity with congregations in many parts of the world.
The Unitas Fratrum cherishes its unity as a valuable treasure entrusted to it by the Lord. It stands for the oneness of all humankind given by the reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Therefore the ecumenical movement is of its very lifeblood. For five centuries it has pointed towards the unity of the scattered children of God that they may become one in their Lord.