On 17 June 1722, carpenter Christian David, an emigrant from the Czech Unity of Brethren, felled the first tree at the foot of Saxony’s Hutberg to start the construction of the town of Herrnhut. This happened in a property owned by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who eventually became a spritiual leader of the community.
This was the beginning of the Herrnhutian movement, or the renewed Unity of Brethren. During the rest of the 18th century, this religious community spread all over the world. In 1729, under the leadership of Christian David, it reached Vidzeme (a northern region in modern-day Latvia). Serfdom reigned here: most Latvians were peasants with the consequences of the Great Northern War – hunger and war damages – still being endured. Thousands of peasants gathered at Herrnhutian meetings leading to what became known as the 'Great Awakening'.
In Vidzeme the Herrnhutian movement caused considerable social turmoil. Herrnhutian preachers addressed the Latvian peasants as equals, encouraging them to repent and lead better lives. The way they explained the Christian faith – emphasising how it is experienced in emotional and subjective terms – deeply resonated in a Latvian society oppressed by war and serfdom.
Initially, many of the landed gentry and Lutheran pastors also supported the Herrnhutian movement. Magdalena Elisabeth von Hallart was of particular importance as she established a teachers’ seminary dedicated to Herrnhutian theology.
However, seeing the Herrnhutian movement competing with the Lutheran Church began to raise concerns among some of the landed gentry. In 1743, Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia officially banned the Unity of Brethren, but it continued its activities underground and what is known as 'the silent march' began. The Herrnhutians built meeting houses with their own funds, established small organisations for the social and spiritual care of parishioners, and raised their level of education.
In 1817, Russian Emperor Alexander I legalised the movement. Despite facing restrictions and being misunderstood by outsiders, the Herrnhutians, became a movement that reinforced the self-assurance of the rural working communities.
The Herrnhutian phenomenon became noticeable. It was observed by educated elites that, among the Herrnhutians, peasants were more hardworking and pious, education and prosperity were increasing, and a kind of 'peasant aristocracy' was being established. Those who previously attended church services only formally now became true Christians. They attended regular saiešanas (meetings), celebrated religious festivals together, and felt themselves to be a strong and independent community.
However, those who observed the Herrnhutian movement from the sidelines probably had no idea of the extent of one of their most popular activities: writing The written word was extremely important to this movement. All kinds of handwritten texts circulated among congregation members. Texts transcribed in one peasant’s home travelled to the next, where they were read and re-written for safe-keeping. In Herrnhutian areas, literacy had increased to 90% by the end of the 18th century.