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Sunrise Service

Every Easter morning multitudes of Christians gather at dawn to await the rising of the sun. For Christians this commemorates that day almost 2000 years ago when Jesus was raised from the dead. Christians have gathered this way for hundreds of years, but how many hundreds of years? And who began the practice? For the answers we have to meet Count Zinzendorf and a group of Christians who once lived in present-day Czech Republic.

Count Kikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) owned a large tract of land in what today is eastern Germany. His land was just north of Bohemia and northwest of Moravia, today known as the Czech Republic. Living in Germany, he followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther and was a Protestant. He even studied law at the University of Wittenberg from 1716 to 1719, at the village where Luther had lived. Yet, like Luther, his great desire was not law but spiritual matters.

Across the border in Bohemia and Moravia lived a people known as the Unitas Fratrum (Latin, "society of brothers"), or also as the Bohemian Brethren. Although also Protestant, they were few in number and, following the Thirty Years War (1618-1648; a series of religious and political wars which, among other things, decimated Bohemia), were increasingly alienated. Because of this, they sought out a safe haven.

Zinzendorf agreed to allow these Christian immigrants to move to his land; they built a village there and named it Herrnhut. Herrnhut became a magnet for others who were oppressed due to differing Protestant ideas. Strife soon arose among the different groups. Yet amongst this bickering, a communion service held on August 13, 1727 was accompanied with such spiritual power that it produced the miraculous feat of bringing the community together.

Due to Zinzendorf’s influence, they immediately began to send out missionaries. Thus this group, now known as the Moravians, was mission-minded from its inception. Within two decades missionaries had been sent to places as far away as Greenland, South Africa, Georgia (to work with Indians), and the West Indies (to work with black slaves). Herrnhut became such a widely recognized center of Christian missions that even John Wesley visited in 1738.

Five years after this communion service, part of the community gathered early in the morning in 1732 at the town’s cemetery (known as God’s Acre). They gathered to watch the sun rise and celebrate the rising of Jesus from the dead. And so the Easter Sunrise Service was born. The early Moravians continued this celebration. Later they added the practice of meeting at 2 AM (I have not figured out why specifically 2 AM) and gathering in bands of joyous music throughout the village in anticipation of the sun. Once again they would go the God’s Acre for a worship service while the sun rose and, afterwards, gather for a community breakfast.

Those who had gone out as missionaries continued this practice. The groups in the West Indies and Georgia eventually traveled to Pennsylvania, founding the city of Bethlehem. And the Moravians in newly-established Bethlehem celebrated Easter in 1741with the first Easter Sunrise Service in America. This celebration currently occurs yearly at Old Salem in Winston-Salem.

©2004 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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