The Hundred-Year Prayer Meeting
Throughout church history, we often find prayer, awakening, and missions movements clustered together. God seems pleased to use concerted efforts of prayer to spur and maintain spiritual awakenings, and then to use those awakenings to send his people across cultures with the gospel. Few stories, however, demonstrate these connections as clearly as a story from the early eighteenth century, when a group of Christians called the Moravians began a prayer meeting that just wouldn’t stop.
Out of the Mouth of Babes
In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty-Years War, when Catholic and Lutheran states warred against each other for control of what remained of the Holy Roman Empire. With the war’s end, most of the small states in the region defaulted to the religion of their respective nobility. Catholic nobles ruled Catholic lands, while Lutheran nobles controlled Lutheran lands. It was said that the religion of the prince was the religion of the people. This was true everywhere except in Silesia, which included parts of present-day Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. In Silesia, the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty ruled over both Catholics and Lutherans.
For a couple of generations, the Hapsburgs extended some religious freedom to Lutheran subjects, but that began to change around 1700. In a response to Hapsburgs’ efforts to demand conformity to Catholicism, many Silesian Lutherans resisted. They had been influenced by the Pietist movement, which emphasized biblical authority, the new birth, discipleship, and faith-based activism. In 1708, children in southern Silesia began holding large outdoor meetings that included prayer and singing. They called these events camp meetings, a term that was adopted by American Methodists about a century later.
Revival soon broke out, centered in the town of Teschen. There, a camp meeting led to the founding of Jesus Church, which eventually attracted as many as ten thousand worshipers every week and conducted services in German, Polish, and Czech. Under the leadership of a Pietist minister named Johann Adam Steinmetz (1689–1762), Jesus Church became a center for spreading Pietist spirituality all over Europe. Historians often point to the Teschen Revival as the beginning of the eighteenth-century transatlantic awakenings that soon spread from Continental Europe to the English-speaking world.
Steinmetz’s admirers included Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and the Wesley brothers, each of whom corresponded with him as similar revivals broke out in their respective contexts. Another Steinmetz admirer was Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760).
Rich Young Ruler
Count Zinzendorf was a Pietist who was also a member of the German Lutheran nobility. He was a protégé of August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), the leading Pietist theologian in Europe. Francke taught at the University of Halle and served as a pastor in that city. Drawing upon the insights of earlier Pietists, especially Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), Francke believed the key to local church renewal was to establish small groups that focused on Bible study, prayer, and accountability. He was also an entrepreneurial leader who founded several institutions, including an orphanage, a hospital, a newspaper, and a religious printing press.
Like Francke, Zinzendorf was deeply committed to Pietism and building institutions. He was also an eccentric figure who had some significant flaws: Zinzendorf could be heavy-handed in his leadership style, there is evidence that he was not an attentive husband, and he embraced some mystical tendencies that some other Protestants considered to be too Catholic in flavor. But Zinzendorf was deeply committed to personal evangelism, spiritual formation, and global missions. These three priorities became part of the DNA of the movement he led.
Zinzendorf owned a large estate in Saxony called Herrnhut, which he opened to Protestant refugees from all over Europe beginning in 1722. Herrnhut attracted believers from Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia, many of whom had been influenced by the Teschen Revival. The largest group of refugees were Moravian Pietists, who fled their homeland after efforts to forcibly convert them to Catholicism. Five years later, around three hundred Moravians were living at Herrnhut, with Zinzendorf as the de facto leader of the community. Increasingly, the term Moravian referred less to the ethnicity of the refugees and more to Zinzendorf’s emerging denomination.
Pray Without Ceasing
In the spring of 1727, during a season of internal turmoil within the community, some of the Moravians began praying for fresh revival in their midst. By the late summer, almost fifty Moravians had committed to pray for one hour a day, one after the other, for 24 consecutive hours, seven days a week. Spiritual awakening soon came to the Moravians, causing their little group to grow and drawing more refugees from all over Europe.
“As amazing as it seems today, the Moravians kept up their round-the-clock prayer ministry for over a century.”
As is so often the case in church history, the onset of revival only deepened the Moravians’ commitment to the power of prayer. As amazing as it seems today, the Moravians kept up their round-the-clock prayer ministry for over a century. In fact, it has become known as the Hundred-Year Prayer Meeting. While no other known group of Christians has replicated the Moravians’ century-long prayer event, countless churches and other ministries, often inspired by the example of the Moravians, have hosted 24-hour prayer meetings for revival, missions, or some other priority.
One important fruit of the prayer revival was a missionary awakening among the Moravians. At the time, virtually no Protestants were involved in cross-cultural missions. Only a very few read Matthew 28:18–20 or Acts 1:8, raised their hand, and answered God’s call to global disciple-making. The Moravians became the tip of the spear for evangelical global missions.
“The Moravians became the tip of the spear for evangelical global missions.”
Beginning in 1732, dozens of Moravian missionaries took the nearly unprecedented step of leaving Europe to spread the gospel to other lands. Early mission fields included the West Indies, Greenland, Turkey, West Africa, South America, and the English colonies of Georgia and Pennsylvania. In the latter two fields, the Moravians evangelized Native Americans. Zinzendorf himself became a missionary in Pennsylvania, where he founded the city of Bethlehem in 1741.
By 1791, around three hundred Moravian missionaries had been sent out from Herrnhut. That number was equivalent in size to the total number of Moravians when the round-the-clock prayer ministry first began in 1727! The Moravian missions awakening, though little known by Christians today, predated the so-called modern missions movement by two generations.
The Moravian missionaries not only spread the good news, but they also spread the Pietist emphasis on the new birth, small accountability groups, and evangelism and missions. Moravian missionaries to Georgia played a key role in John Wesley’s conversion and subsequent revival ministry. After later connecting with Moravians in London, the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield introduced several Pietist emphases into the emerging Methodist movement, including a commitment to praying for global spiritual awakening.
A generation later, a shoe cobber turned Baptist pastor named William Carey (1761–1834) became known as the father of the modern missions movement. In 1792, Carey published a treatise titled An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Carey argued that the Great Commission is a binding command on every Christian in every generation. His treatise became a manifesto for global missions among English-speaking evangelicals.
Carey was keenly aware that he was actually standing on the shoulders of earlier missionaries. In his Enquiry, he highlighted a number of missionary pioneers whom he believed his fellow evangelicals should emulate, including the Moravians. When Carey helped found the Baptist Missionary Society in 1793 and left later that year to serve as a missionary to India, he understood he was doing what hundreds of Moravian missionaries had done before.
Prayer, Revival, and Missions
The story of the Moravians and their legacy reminds us that prayer, revival, and missions are often intertwined. The Moravians dedicated themselves to prayer for spiritual awakening, and God was faithful to answer that prayer. They also prayed for global missions, and in God’s providence, he called upon hundreds of Moravians to become the answers to their own prayers! The Moravians spread the gospel to unbelievers, spread evangelical emphases to other believers, and inspired generations of Christians to obey the Great Commission.
It could happen again. God still answers prayers, promising that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16 CSB). God still visits his people with spiritual awakening, reviving cold hearts and stirring dormant affections. There are still billions of people globally who do not know Jesus Christ as their King and Savior. Join me in praying that God would bring about a new prayer-driven missionary awakening among his people, for his glory and for the sake of global disciple-making.