Moonlight fell in shafts between the iron bars of the window. It lighted up David Nitschmann’s features as he lay sleeping on the paving stones. I couldn’t help wondering at the peace on his face.
Only the day before, the soldiers had come for us. We had known it might happen, of course. But there seemed no way to flee. Enemies watched and waited for us to make a wrong move. And duty seemed to demand that we stay with the work God had given us.
But what now? Our wives and children were left alone, and we could no longer work for God. We might well rot in this disgusting place – if our enemies didn’t torture us to death first. How could all this be God’s will? There, alone in the blackness, my soul wrestled with despair. All the others seemed to be sleeping. Was I the only one whose faith was so weak?
How did Nitschmann rest so serenely? Disaster after disaster had fallen upon our peaceful people. It seemed, the fate of our ancient church hung in the balance. And how much we needed young David Nitschmann’s forceful, courageous leadership! His loss would be a blow to the poor scattered flock.
Was it to be the end of the truth handed down from the brave and noble Huss? Was the darkness of compromise and error to triumph finally over the church he had planted and watered with his own blood? The iron heel of oppression seemed ready to extinguish its last vestige in Moravia.
The chains on my legs clattered against the stones as I sank on the floor and buried my face in my arms. I poured out the bitterness of my discouragement to a pitying Saviour. How long I lay there praying I do not know. I do know that it seemed as if He stood there beside me, as if He were gazing at me in tenderness and understanding. I must have made more sounds than I knew, for I felt a hand on my arm.
“Brother?” It was David Nitschmann’s voice. “Brother, how is it with you this night?”
Even in the dim light I could see the compassion on his face. I told him of the fear, the struggle, but of the Saviour’s presence too.
“How well I understand,” he sympathized.
“With faith like yours, how can you understand? You sleep so peacefully without a fear or doubt, while I wrestle the devil and his hosts.”
“And where do you think the faith and courage in my heart came from?” he asked. “It came from nights like yours, nights of pouring out my fears and burdens to Him who is able to bear them all. It came from hearing Him say to me, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.’ There is faith for you as well as for me in Him.”
“Pray with me,” I pleaded. And so we spent most of that night in prayer while the others slept. And before the dawn broke over Moravia, the sunshine of courage and faith began to flood my soul. At last Nitschmann and I fell into peaceful slumber.
It was far into the day when I awoke. The others in our little cell had saved me some of the meager meal the jailer had brought. Their concern touched my heart. We were all quite hungry because of the small amount of food that we had received.
My heart still sang with the blessing of God. I shared with them my experience of the night before, and we spent the day as Paul and Silas had done so long ago-praising and blessing God. Nitschmann repeated to us again and again the promises of the Word.
More and more I could understand why the apostles praised the Lord that they had had the opportunity to suffer for His sake. Yet an urgent desire to preach the gospel disturbed me. How could I be content to remain here when so much needed to be done? David Nitschmann and I discussed this matter quietly.
“I feel just as you do, Brother Schneider,” he said. “I could be content to remain here and suffer if God so wills it, but I feel that He needs our labors at this time. If this impression is really true, He will make a way of escape for us.”
We prayed together, then Nitschmann rose and looked at the other men. “I have thoughts of leaving you this night,” he told them. “I feel that God wants me to go and that He will open the way.”
“And I too,” I announced, springing to my feet. “I mean to go with you.” My own reaction amazed me. How could we go anywhere, chained in irons as we were? Yet somehow I had no doubt that it would be so.
We waited until eleven o’clock in the evening. Then Nitschmann drew out a little knife. “I’ve managed to hide this,” he said. “Perhaps it will help us get the irons off our feet.”
As he picked up the padlock, hoping to unlock it, it fell open in his hand. He looked at me with tears in his eyes. “Now I see for certain it’s the will of God that we go!”
The padlock on my chains fell open at a touch as well. Removing the irons from our feet, we bade a fond farewell to those we must leave behind. Scarcely daring to make a sound, we encouraged them to trust in God.
Our cell door was not locked. Slipping out in absolute silence, we searched the courtyard for a ladder so that we might go over the wall, but found none.
After puzzling for a few moments about what we should do, Nitschmann decided to try the door into the main passage. He discovered it unlocked. There was no one in sight in the courtyard or the corridor. Breathlessly we tiptoed through the darkness of the passageway. Sure enough, the door at the other end stood unlocked as well.
We were outside the castle.
Nitschmann lived just across the garden from the castle. Keeping in the shadows, we reached his front door. The door was barred, but he tapped with gentle persistence until his wife opened it. She took one look at us, her face went white, and she fell fainting into his arms. He caught her, and we entered the temporary refuge of the little cabin.
After he laid her on the bed, she stirred as he bent over her, and he put his finger on his lips.
“David!” she whispered, reaching out a hand to touch him. “David, how did you get away?”
“God set us free, Sarah. We must escape quickly to Herrnhut. Count von Zinzendorf will protect us. But as soon as we can we’ll send for you and the children and Brother Schneider’s wife. We won’t have time to see her, but you tell her to be ready to leave as soon as the messenger arrives. Someone will guide you both to Herrnhut.”
They bade each other a touching farewell, and we escaped into the darkness of the night. Since it was many miles to safety, we needed to make good speed. We fled by night and slept by day, huddled under bushes and as nearly buried in leaves as we could manage.
A few days of such travel brought us to our destination. A great welcome awaited us at Herrnhut. Our beloved brethren who had made their escape before us greeted us with open arms. And Count Zinzendorf was extremely kind. We found a thriving little community of the brethren flourishing under his protection.
But for a time we couldn’t find anyone to guide our wives to safety. About two weeks after our arrival a man came walking into the little settlement one day, dusty and weary from a long journey. With a leap of the heart I recognized our dear friend and brother, David Hinkel. I called at once to David Nitschmann, “Brother Hinkel is here!”
We were delighted to see him, but it was plain that he was at the point of collapse. It was necessary to swallow our impatience and give him food and rest before we could ask him what had happened after we left. When he had sufficiently recovered, we waited anxiously for him to tell us his story.
“The authorities were furious when you escaped,” he reported. “They could not understand how you got away. Calling your wives in, they threatened to arrest them if they didn’t send someone after you to bring you back.
“Your wives asked me to overtake you and tell you of their problem. I followed but couldn’t find any trace of you. I could have made my escape, but I feared the authorities would take out their anger on your wives; so I returned and reported my failure.
“The judge had me arrested and put into prison. He said that I should be hanged for helping you escape. I told him that would be as God willed it. If He did not purpose it, it would not be.
“They put me into a dark hole without food or water for three days. I thought I would die of cold and thirst. Then the judge called me before him and demanded what I knew of you. I told him again and again that I knew nothing. At last he ordered me put into a warmer cell. They gave me a little bread and some dirty water. The judge gave strict orders to the jailer to watch me carefully. This brought to my mind the charge given to the Philippian jailer before Paul’s deliverance. I thought, ‘Perhaps God is telling me that He wants me to escape.’
“So when they had left me alone for a little while, I opened the door softly and looked out. Two guards stood outside, but they didn’t see me. Then I realized that I could pass them without being observed. I walked out through the back gate and the garden in broad daylight. Once free, I urged some of the brethren to help your wives escape immediately, then set off in haste to join you here.”
Nitschmann and I listened to his amazing account with joy and thanksgiving. David Nitschmann took Hinkel’s hand in his own. “I can see,” he told him, “that God has set His hand to deliver many of our people and bring them out safely. We may suffer much for His sake, but the light of truth will not go out. By His grace and our earnest labors it will shine to the ends of the earth!”
NOTE: David Nitschmann became the first bishop of these so called Brethren who escaped. He and the other Brethren not only kept the light burning, forming the Moravian Church, but they became missionaries to the ends of the earth. Their influence set John Wesley on fire for God, thus kindling Methodism as well.
Many of us seem to be hopelessly chained by circumstances. But praise God He can deliver us just like He delivered those Christian in Moravia! No situation is too hopeless for God to save us from.
God can work miracles for us today!