Nikolaus Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf and Pottendorf was born at Dresden, into one of the most noble families of Europe. His ancestors belonged to Lower Austria, but had taken the Protestant side in the Reformation struggle, and settled near Nuremberg. His parents belonged to the Pietist circle and the lad had Philipp Jakob Spener for his godfather.
His father died six weeks after he was born. His mother married again when he was four years old, and he was educated under the charge of his pious and gifted grandmother, Catherine von Gersdorf, who did much to shape his character.
As a teenager at Halle Academy, he and several other young nobles formed a secret society, The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed. The stated purpose of this order was that the members would use their position and influence to spread the Gospel. As an adult, Zinzendorf later reactivated this adolescent society, and many influential leades of Europe ended up joining the group. A few included the King of Denmark, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Archbishop of Paris.
His school days were spent at Halle amidst Pietist surroundings, and in 1716 he went to the university of Wittenberg, to study law and fit himself for a diplomatic career. Three years later he was sent to travel in the Netherlands, in France, and in various parts of Germany, where he made the personal acquaintance of men distinguished for practical goodness and belonging to a variety of churches.
He had rejected the invitation of August Francke to take Baron von Canstein's place in the Halle orphanage; but he resolved to settle down as a Christian landowner, spending his life on behalf of his tenantry. He bought Berthelsdorf from his grandmother, and selected John Andrew Rothe for pastor and John George Heiz for factor; he married Erdmute Dorothea, sister of Count Henry of Reuss, and began living on his estate.
He intended to create a Christian association the members of which by preaching, by tract and book distribution and by practical benevolence might awaken the somewhat torpid religion of the Lutheran Church. The "band of four brothers" (Rothe, pastor at Berthelsdorf; Melchior Schaffer, pastor at Gorlitz; Francis von Wattewille, a friend from boyhood; and himself) set themselves by sermons, books, journeys and correspondence to create a revival of religion.
Zinzendorf began to think that true Christianity could be best promoted by free associations of Christians, which in course of time might grow into churches with no state connexion. These thoughts took a practical turn from his connexion with the Bohemian or Moravian Brethren. Zinzendorf offered an asylum to a number of persecuted wanderers from Moravia, and built for them the village of Herrnhut (= The Lord's Watch) on a corner of his estate of Berthelsdorf.
Zinzendorf devoted himself to them. He lived in Herrnhut and brought Rothe with him. He had hard work to bring order out of the confusion. He had to satisfy the authorities that his religious community could be brought under the conditions of the peace of Augsburg; he had to quiet the suspicions of the Lutheran clergy; and, hardest of all, he had to rule in some fashion men made fanatical by persecution.
Gradually Zinzendorf was able to organize his refugees into something like a militia Christi, based not on monastic but on family life. He was able to establish a common order of worship in 1727, at age 27, and soon afterwards a common organization, uniting Bohemian Protestant refugees into the Moravian community of "Unitas Fratrum" (united brotherhood).
Zinzendorf died, aged 60, at Herrnhut.