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Moravians, Methodists and Mormons: A Legacy of Ludwig von Zinzendorf

compiled by Gerold N. Davis,
Emeritus Professor of German, Brigham Young University

In the Spring of 1840 near the little farm community of Eldersfield, which lies on the border between Gloucestershire and Hertfordshire in South-Central England, Thomas Oakey, a preacher for a religious group that calls itself the United Brethren stands in one of their meetings to deliver a sermon, a thing which he had done many times, but instead of preaching he startles the congregation by announcing: "No, I haven't the authority. I will never preach again until I have the proper authority given to me." Thomas Oakey is married to Ann Collett and they have three small children. He is twenty seven years old.

At this same time some eighty miles to the north, another preacher stands in a religious meeting and startles his congregation with the announcement: "This is the last meeting I will hold with you for some time. The Spirit of the Lord has said to me, 'Go south'." His name is Wilford Woodruff. It is his birthday. He is 33 years old.

Wilford Woodruff records in his Journal:

I traveled eighty miles; went into the south of England. As soon as I arrived, I met John Benbow. It was clearly made manifest to me why I had been called thither. I had left a good field, where I was baptizing every night in the week. When I got to this place, I found a people - some 600 of them - who had broken off from the Wesleyan Methodists and formed themselves into a sect called the United Brethren... I saw that the Lord had sent me to them. They were searching for light and truth, but had gone as far as they could, and were calling upon the Lord continually to open the way before them and send them light and knowledge, that they might know the true way to be saved. I went to work amongst them and ultimately baptized their superintendent, forty preachers and some 600 members. (JD 21:315)

Among those baptized by Wilford Woodruff were the preacher Thomas Oakey and his wife Ann Collett. These baptisms were, for me* at least, among the most fortuitous baptisms in the early history of the Church, as I will explain shortly.

*Garold Davis & Clay Gorton are cousins. The Thomas Oakey descendants herein applies to Clay Gorton.

Before I explain the importance of these baptisms to me personally, however, I would like to give a partial answer to the questions: What made these people so immediately receptive to the message of Wilford Woodruff? What theology was there in the religion of the United Brethren that allowed the Spirit to testify to them so strongly of the truths Wilford Woodruff brought? I belief an answer, at least a partial answer, is to be found in the statement that these people had broken from the "Wesleyan Methodists." And to understand the theology of the Wesleyan Methodists we need to look at the conversion of the founding father of Methodism, John Wesley.

On Sunday, January 25, 1736, John Wesley and his brother Charles were on board the sailing vessel Simmons bound for the English colony of Georgia to take up their first major employment as recent graduates of Oxford University and as newly-ordained ministers of the Church of England. Charles had been appointed Secretary to the governor of the colony, Mr. Oglethorpe, and John was to be a missionary to the Georgian Indians. The events of this day at sea changed the direction of their lives forever. I quote from John Wesley's Journal:

At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one's hold of anything, nor stand a moment without it...

At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, "It was good for their proud hearts," and "their loving Saviour had done more for them." And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness, which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, "Was you not afraid?" He answered, "I thank God, no." I asked, "But were not your women and children afraid?" He replied mildly, "No, our women and children are not afraid to die."

From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.

"The Germans" to whom Wesley refers were a small band of Protestant pietists who had a few years earlier migrated into Germany (under religious persecution) from Bohemia and Moravia. They traced their origins to the martyr John Hus and originally called themselves the Bohemian and Moravi. They had settled in Herrnhut, a small village just over the Czech border, at the invitation of a rich count who owned extensive land in the area. This was the Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf held religious orders from the great school of theology at Halle University, and since they had settled on his land, Count Zinzendorf added to his many titles that of Bishop. They became known as the Moravian Brethren or the Unitas Fratrum, and Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf became their Bishop and their spiritual and ecclesiastical leader.

John Wesley's attraction to this group of pious Germans continued during the voyage. He tells us "I began to learn German, in order to converse with the Germans." He was a good scholar. Not having the books he needed he wrote his own. He compiled a German-English dictionary and wrote his own German Grammar. While in Georgia he translated and published several German hymns, and by the time he returned to London two years later he could understand and preach sermons in German. His education at the hands of the Germans was not only linguistic, however. It soon took a more religious turn.

Shortly after arriving in Georgia Wesley had an interesting conversation with Mr. Spangenberg, one of the pastors of the Germans. It became a sort of catechism. Wesley records in his Journal (Feb 7, 1736):

I asked [Mr. Spangenberg's] advice with regard to my own conduct. He said, "My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?" I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" I paused, and said, "I know he is the Saviour of the world." "True," replied he; "but do you know he has saved you" I answered, "I hope he has died to save me." He only added, "Do you know yourself?" I said, "I do." But I fear they were vain words.

With this conversation begins the interesting conversion of Wesley, a minister of the Church of England, to a body of new doctrines which were, if not hostile, then seriously at odds with his own ecclesiastical training. It is not a matter of knowing Jesus to be the Savior of the world. You must have the "Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit." You must have a personal revelation. The pastor Mr. Spangenberg went on to tell Wesley of his own spiritual journey which had taken him from dryness of the official Christian teachings at Jena University to Herrnhut and to Count Zinzendorf. The reformation in Germany and elsewhere had become moribund in ecclesiastical rules and authoritative administration, but Zinzendorf, Spangenberg, and other leaders of these Moravian Brethren were attempting to reintroduce a biblical Christianity which included personal salvation through personal revelation of the Holy Ghost.

Wesley stayed just over two years in the New World and then returned to his native England. On his arrival in England he records this interesting comment in his Journal:

It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country, in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity: but what have I learned myself in the mean time? Why, (what I the least of all suspected) that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God. (29 February, 1738)

His religious education from these German pietists was far from complete, however. Shortly after his return he resumed this association in particular under the tutelage of one of their ministers, Peter Bohler.

I found my brother [Charles] at oxford...and with him Peter Bohler; by whom (in the hand of the great God) I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved. (With the full Christian salvation.)

Immediately it struck into my mind, "Leave off preaching. How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?" I asked Bohler whether he thought I should leave it off or not. He answered, "By no means." I asked, "But what can I preach?" He said, "Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith." Accordingly, Monday, 6, I began preaching this new doctrine, though my soul started back from the work.

Charles Wesley was not so thoroughly convinced at what he called "the new faith" but with continued instruction from Peter Bohler he, too, soon followed his brother John. John Writes:

My brother [Charles] had a long and particular conversation with Peter Bohler. And it now pleased God to open his eyes; so that he also saw clearly what was the nature of that one true living faith, whereby alone, "through grace, we are saved."

Looking back it is easy to see the spiritual father of these doctrines as none other than Martin Luther himself. It was an ongoing German reformation. Or, more correctly, a return to the major principles of the original German reformation.

John Wesley concludes this comment about his brother Charles with an enthusiastic tribute to their German friend: "Peter Bohler left London, in order to embark for Carolina. O what a work hath God begun, since his coming into England! Such a one as shall never come to an end, till heaven and earth pass away."

Following the suggestion of Peter Bohler, John Wesley now began preaching the necessity of personal revelation, that testimony comes only from the Holy Ghost, and that salvation comes by faith. The reception of his preaching, by the officials of the church in any case, was less than enthusiastic. Again, from John Wesley's Journal:

Sunday 7 May, 1738. I preached at St. Lawrence's in the morning; and afterward at St. Katherine Cree's church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both; and was, therefore, the less surprised at being informed, I was not to preach any more in either of these churches.

Tuesday, 9 May, 1738. I preached at Great St. Helen's to a very numerous congregation... My heart was now so enlarged, to declare the love of God, to all that were oppressed by the devil, that I did not wonder in the least, when I was afterward told, "Sir, you must preach here no more."

Sunday, 14 May, 1738. I preached in the morning at St. Ann's, Aldersgate; and in the afternoon at the Savoy chapel, free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprized, that at St. Ann's, likewise, I am to preach no more.

Friday, 19 May, 1738. I preached at St. John's Wapping, at three, and at St. Bennett's, Paul's Wharf, in the evening. At these churches, likewise, I am to preach no more.

John Wesley's rebuffs at the hands of the established clergy for preaching his new doctrine of salvation by faith and the testimony of the Holy Ghost did not go unrewarded, however. Peter Bohler had advised him to preach faith until he had it. On the 24th of May John Wesley had an experience that has been often recorded as the foundation experience of Methodism. The following entry from Wesley's Journal has even been recorded in bronze and the monument can be seen at the end of Aldersgate Street in London, very near the Barbizon theater:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.

And so John Wesley is now launched on a preaching career that will eventually separate him from the main stream doctrines of the Church of England which he officially represents. His preaching, and the expected results, continues.

Sunday, 28 May. I was roughly attacked in a large company as an enthusiast, a seducer, and a setter-forth of new doctrines.

This day I preached in the morning at St. George's, Bloomsbury, on "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith;" and in the afternoon at the chapel in Long Acre, on God's justifying the ungodly;-the last time (I understand) I am to preach at either.

John Wesley does not appear to be overly discouraged by his rejection from the church he officially represented. It is reported that his brother Charles was asked: "Are you not afraid that the church might excommunicate your Brother John?" To which Charles is reported to have replied: "No, but I am much afraid that my Brother John might excommunicate the church."

Neither happened. Instead, John spent that summer of 1738 on a long tour of Germany and made the pilgrimage to Herrnhut to see, as he says, "the place where the Christians live." In Herrnhut John was received and hosted by a Mr. Hermsdorf whom he had met in Georgia. From the entries in his Journal he seems to have been highly gratified with his trip and thoroughly converted to the living habits as well as to the doctrines and theology of the Church of the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren. On his return to England he again associated himself with the Germans and for two years they met and worshiped together in a small group they had formed which they called the Fetter Lane Society. It seems from subsequent references to this group that they had also taken on, at least in the public mind and in the press, the name of Methodists, a title that had been attached to John and Charles Wesley while they were students at Oxford. But then a rupture took place between these Wesleyan Methodists and the United or Moravian Brethren that was neither theological nor cultural, it was personal. The seeds of this rupture were planted, I believe, during Wesley's travels through Germany.

John Wesley was a cultured and educated English gentleman, but he was also a down-to-earth plain-spoken practical man who seems to have been humble enough to enjoy Christian hospitality with all classes of people. He was a man of much common sense. He was somewhat put off, therefore, by two things he encountered among the Germans: their love of pomp and their officious bureaucratic formality. I have time for only two examples. The first is from his visit to Meissen. The Journal entry is dated Friday, 28 July, 1738:

I was greatly surprised at all I saw there: at the costliness of apparel in many, and the gaudiness of it, in more; at the huge fur caps worn by the women, of the same shape with a Turkish turban; which generally had one or more ribbon's hanging down a great length behind. The minister's habit was adorned with gold and scarlet, and a vast cross both behind and before. Most of the congregation sat, (the men generally with their hats, at the prayers as well as sermon,) and all of them stayed during the Holy Communion, though but very few received. Alas, alas! What a Reformed country is this!

The second complaint Wesley makes concerns his treatment at the hands of the bureaucrats. There is some irony in this because Wesley suffered the same treatment in Dresden my wife and I suffered in Dresden when we were serving as missionaries in the German Democratic Republic in 1989, two hundred and fifty years later.

At two in the afternoon we came to Dresden, the chief city of Saxony. Here also we were carried for above two hours from one magistrate or office to another, with the usual impertinent solemnity, before we were suffered to go to our inn. I greatly wonder that common sense and common humanity (for these, doubtless, subsist in Germany as well as England) do not put an end to this senseless, inhuman usage of strangers, which we met with at almost every German city, though more particularly at Frankfort, Weimar, Halle, Leipsig and Dresden. I know nothing that can reasonably be said in its defense, in a time of full peace, being a breach of all the common, even Heathen laws of hospitality. If it be a custom, so much the worse; the more is the pity and the shame.

The reason I find these entries in Wesley's journal significant (in addition to being quite humorous) is that they seem to have formed the background for a formal break that took place between John Wesley and Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Wesley, as I mentioned, was a common, plain-speaking Englishman. Zinzendorf was a German count, and apparently represented in his personal bearing and behavior the German traits that Wesley most disliked. After about two years of meeting with the German Moravians in London at their Fetter Lane Society, there appeared in the London Daily Post these entries. The first is by Count Zinzendorf and seems to be nothing more than a clarification:

Whosoever reckons that those persons in England who are usually called Moravians and those who are called Methodists are the same, he is mistaken. That they are not the same is manifest enough out of the declaration of Louis, late Bishop and Trustee of the Brethren's Church.

This advertisement was soon answered by John Wesley who was not as concerned with the declaration as with the author of the declaration:

The Methodists, so-called, heartily thank Brother Louis for his Declaration; as they count it no honour to be in any connexion either with him or his Brethren. But why is he ashamed of his name? The Count's name is Ludwig, not Louis; nor more than mine is Jean or Giovanni... Was there ever such a Proteus under the sun as the lord Freydeck, Domine de Thurstain, etc, etc.? For he has almost as many names as he has faces or shapes. Oh when will he learn (with all his learning) "simplicity and Godly sincerity"?

And so, it seems, the Moravian Brethren went their way, spreading the gospel of salvation by faith throughout England and the English colonies in the New World, and John Wesley went his way, spreading the gospel of salvation by faith throughout England and the English colonies in the New World. And with this background I will now return to what I have called a fortuitous meeting between Wilford Woodruff and Thomas Oakey.

The success of Wilford Woodruff's missionary work among these people has become legendary in the Church. Of importance here is that Thomas Oakey and the other United Brethren were a breakaway group from what Wilford Woodruff calls "Wesleyan Methodism." Knowing what we do now from this short outline of John Wesley's own conversion from the doctrines of the Church of England to that of these German protestant pietist who called themselves the Moravian Brethren, we can understand much about the theology of Thomas Oakey and the United Brethren, a theology that made them immediately receptive to the message of Wilford Woodruff.

They relied very heavily on the Bible. They believed in direct communion with God through the Holy Ghost, and that they could receive forgiveness of sins through this communion. They believed that the Holy Ghost would communicate a feeling of peace and salvation to their souls. They believed that Jesus Christ had died to save them, personally, and that this salvation came by faith and by grace, with no intermediaries. They believed in personal revelation. There was but one thing they felt a lack of, at least Thomas Oakey felt a lack of, and that was the authority to administer the ordinances and to preach.

This worry about the absence of authority had been spreading through German protestant theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was something that was "in the air" so to speak. There was a strong sense that the true authority of God was not on the earth and that man must wait for the restoration of this authority. How broadly these doctrines and ideas might have spread into the eighteenth century pool of common beliefs in England is a matter for better historians. (but I have always wanted an opportunity to mention this idea and this might be my very last chance.) I will give two examples of this belief common among some of the German theologians.

One of the most influential of these sixteenth century German theologians was Sebastian Franck. He writes:

I am fully convinced [by a study of the early Church Fathers] that, after the death of the apostles, the external Church of Christ, with its gifts and sacraments, vanished from the earth and withdrew into heaven, and is now hidden in spirit and in truth, and for these past fourteen hundred years there has existed no true external Church and no efficacious sacraments. (This quotation is from the book by the Quaker scholar, Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, pp 59-60.)

Another was Caspar Schwenckfeld who writes:

We ask where in the world to-day there is gathered together an external Church of the apostolic form and type... But the time is coming when once more there will be in the world an apostolic and completely reformed Church of Christ, His living body and the organ of the Spirit, with divine gifts and powers and commission. In the interim let the chosen children of God rejoice and comfort themselves in this that their salvation rests neither in an external Church, nor in the external use of sacraments, nor in any external thing, but that it rests alone in Jesus Christ our Lord, and is received through true and living faith. (Jones, 85)

When Wilford Woodruff arrived at the Benbow farm and announced that the true apostolic authority had been restored to the earth directly by heavenly messengers, the final obstacle to their faith was removed. They could be baptized at the hands of a living apostle.

Clay Gorton at the pond on John Benbow's farm

One of the first persons baptized from this group was Elizabeth Bromage Collett, mother-in-law to the preacher Thomas Oakey. This was on the ninth of March, 1840. On the 5th of April Wilford Woodruff baptized the preacher Thomas Oakey himself, along with his wife Ann Collett Oakey. Four days later Ann's sister and brother, Elizabeth and Daniel were baptized with their spouses. Now, armed with the authority to preach he had been seeking, Thomas Oakey began preaching again and baptizing others. He was shortly appointed leader of the small branch of the Church at Frogsmarsh, a small community near Eldersfield. On the 25th of November that same year he baptized his father-in-law William Collett. And what became of Thomas and Ann Oakey?

Ann's brother Daniel and his wife Esther Jones left England very soon after their baptism and settled in Nauvoo. They encouraged the rest of the family to join them. Sadly, the Mother, Elizabeth Bromage Collett, the first of the family to have been baptized by Wilford Woodruff, died in Eldersfield one year later, 24 May 1841. Before the others in the family could make the trip to America the Saints had fled Nauvoo and Daniel and Ester were now writing from Salt Lake City encouraging the rest of the family to come there. In the meantime, however, Thomas and Ann Oakey's family had grown to eight living children: Ann Collett (22), Charles (19), Jane (16), Heber Thomas (15), Joseph Lorenzo (12), Rhoda Rebecca (11), Ruben Hyrum (9), and Sarah Ann (4). Two children had died young. Thomas was a hired farmer and had no means to purchase passage for such a large family from England to Salt Lake, and remained on the farm in Eldersfield.

Early in the year 1856, however, the word was sent to England that inexpensive travel to Salt Lake City was possible through the Perpetual Emigration Fund if the emigrants would travel from Iowa City with handcarts. Ann's father William Collett who was 76 years old felt himself too old for the journey. He wanted to stay where his wife was buried. But with their small savings and help from the PEF, the Thomas and Ann Oakey family in the spring of 1856 left the green pastureland of Eldersfield, left Father Collett, and began their momentous journey to Zion.

Their funds provided for train passage to Liverpool, where they met up with many other Saints from all over England and also a group of Saints from Denmark. Together they all boarded the ship Thornton for New York City, then took train and steam-boat passage from New York to Iowa City. In Iowa City they helped construct handcarts and sew tents for their family. The leader of their company had been with them from Liverpool. He was returning from a four-year mission in England. His name was Captain James Willey.

The story of the Willey handcart company is well known. After leaving the lush farmlands of Eldersfield in the spring, the Thomas and Ann Oakey family found themselves in the high plains of Wyoming in October, buried in snow and struggling for their lives. They survived, with one exception. On the morning of the 9th of November, on Little Mountain, one day from the end of their journey, their eleven-year-old Rhoda Rebecca died. They received permission to carry her body into Salt Lake where they buried her in the Salt Lake Cemetery the day of their arrival, 9 November 1856. Rhoda Rebecca Oakey was the last death on the trail of the Willey Handcart Company.

The family was reunited with Ann Collett's brother Daniel. They settled for a few years in Lehi and were then called to help settle the Bear Lake area. Thomas Oakey the preacher of the United Brethren who had been baptized by Elder Wilford Woodruff was ordained a patriarch by President Wilford Woodruff.

A gold seeker from Ohio named William Wilson Sterrett came into Salt Lake City in 1849 and was converted to the gospel. He did not go on to California. He later settled in the Bear Lake area and married the youngest of the Oakey family, Sarah Ann. They had four children. Their second son, Simeon Ralph Sterrett, married Emma Arminta Harris and they had eight children and settled in Soda Springs, Idaho. Their fourth child, Sarah Dorleska married a young man named Rees Dubois Gorton, who's father, a faithful Presbyterian, had worked his way west on the intercontinental railroad. Sarah Dorleska, known to everyone as Dot, was the mother of H. Clay Gorton (b. 7 Mar. 1923) and his two sisters, Gayla (b. 23 Jan. 1925) and Leah Patricia (b. 30 May 1928). Their great grandmother, Sarah Ann Oakey Sterrett, lived up in Paris, Idaho, She died at age 96 on July 2, 1947, while Clay was on a mission in Argentina.

Last year members of our family found the site of the unmarked grave of Rhoda Rebecca and placed an appropriate marker on the grave. On the 6th of June, during a family reunion in the Salt Lake Cemetery, Clay had the honor of rededicating her grave.

Salt Lake City Cemetery