My Pennsylvania

Moravian Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Religious and Colonial Beginnings

October 23, 2016

I was raised in the Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one of America’s most beautiful and unique colonial settlements. Immensely proud of my hometown, I thought I would share its religious and historic origins.


Let’s start with the most basic of all questions Bethlehemites are asked.

Who are the Moravians?

The name Moravian identifies the fact that this historic church had its origin in ancient Bohemia and Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic. The movement that was to become the Moravian Church was started by Jan Hus in early 14th century Bohemia. Hus objected to the corruption of the Catholic Church. There are some similarities between Hus’s and Martin Luther’s ideologies. Hus’s big issue was when church doctrine differed from the bible, he would not follow that doctrine, adhering instead to the bible, which caused him to be perceived as a heretic.  Hus paid the price for his reformational beliefs with his life as he was burned at the stake in 1415.

The Moravian Church, or Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), began with Hus’s followers who organized the church. Persecuted like Hus and often operating in secret, they grew to number enough members to make three distinct branches in Moravia (the Czech Republic), Poland, and Bohemia. Part of their growth stems from the Moravian belief in the value of education. They were among the first to use the printing press to create their hymnal and catechism.
 Events in the region curtailed their religious practices and growth as they were affected by the Thirty Years War and several civil wars. By the 18th century, religious persecution and civil unrest had some Moravian families fleeing to Saxony where they were offered refuge by a sympathetic Count with Pietistic leanings. They moved to Nicholas von Zinzendorf’s estate in 1722 and built the community of Herrnhut. This new community became the haven for many more Moravian refugees.
Zinzendorf gave the Moravians the push (emotional and financial) to begin mission work and the first Moravian missions embarked to the West Indies in 1732.  In 1735, Moravians left for the America in an invitation extended by Governor Oglethorpe in Georgia. Although it never became a thriving colony, they did influence a young John Wesley, especially with their pacifist practices. By 1741, the Moravian established a presence in Pennsylvania, purchasing the land now known as Bethlehem from George Whitfield (also spelled Whitefield) an English Anglican cleric who was one of the founders of Methodism and the Evangelical movement.
The Northern Province of the Moravian Church in America, headquartered in Bethlehem, PA, counts more than 21,000 members in 93 congregations in 13 states in the U.S. and two Canadian provinces. The Southern Province, headquartered in Winston-Salem, NC, includes nearly 16,000 members in 58 congregations, which are located primarily throughout the Southeast. Moravian congregations can be found in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington DC, along with congregations in Alberta and Ontario, Canada.

The worldwide Moravian Church consists of 19 provinces with more than 1 million members, half of which live in Africa.US membership is lower than the rest of the world, attributed to the result of the Moravian emphasis on missionary work. They see their calling as bringing the good news of God’s infinite love to the poorest and most despised people of the world. This is a very condensed overview. Detailed information can be found here.


This painting, “First Fruits” (1747) by German Colonial artist, Johann Valentin Haidt depicts 21 people standing around Christ in heaven. These are images some of the first Moravian converts from around the world.

The Beginnings of Bethlehem

By Christmas eve of 1741, the Moravian settlement was large enough to include a two room building (with one part for individuals and one part for livestock). Perhaps inspired by a biblical stable or the Moravian hymn, “Jesus Call Thou Me,” Zinzendorf christened the new town, “Bethlehem.” (You can hear the instrumentals of the hymns and see beautiful building representations). The first house is no longer standing but there is a really interesting video researched by Bethlehemite Ric Rupnik all about the property and location.

Bethlehem thrived in the colonial era. The Moravians initially lived in one large building, the Gemeinhaus. This was not only a church but also a meeting place, school, and minister’s house for the settlement. It is the only German colonial church with attached minister’s living quarters remaining in the United States.


The Bell House at Christmas. Note the buttresses on the sides of the building to add stabilization and keep the buildings from sinking in limestone rich soil

Everyone had a job in the new community. Children lived apart from their parents and educated which left the parents free to work. Unmarried young men and women were housed together (in separate building by gender). No one was unemployed. The Gemeinhaus also included a chapel called the Saal, which was the first worship space for the burgeoning village. Here is some additional information on the 275th anniversary of the Saal.


Saal interior

Like other Pennsylvanians of the era, the Moravians were a pacifist sect, including the Quakers of Philadelphia and the Anabaptists of Lancaster County. Founded by Englishmen William Penn in 1681, Penn Sylvania or Penn’s Woods was originally designed as a haven for Quakers who believed that everyone had to seek God in his or her way. Penn viewed his new colony as a “holy experiment” offering religious acceptance and stronger governments. Other English thinkers in the 1600s shared these ideas, but in Pennsylvania, religious tolerance became law. Penn welcomed settlers from all faiths.  Each of the other American colonies had established an official church, but Penn did not.  He sought out religious groups suffering in Europe and invited them to his colony.  Tolerance did not commensurate to equal rights.  Only Christians could vote or hold political office.  All settlers, however, could take part in the social and economic life of Pennsylvania.
Renowned for their industrial development (employing the first pumped water in the colonies), their beautiful buildings and their educational institutions (the first boarding school for women in the settlements.  Many colonial notables to include John Adams sent their daughters, nieces, etc. to Bethlehem. This school is still in existence today although it has transformed from a Seminary to an Academy.

Bethlehem’s Colonial Industrial quarter contained a tannery, a grist mill, a water works, a linseed press among other buildings

The Moravians were also known for their love of music and sophisticated use of composition and instrumentals in worship.Moravian composers – also serving as teachers, pastors, and church administrators – were well versed in the European Classical tradition of music, and wrote thousands of anthems, solo arias, duets for their worship services, for voices accompanied not only by organ but also by string orchestras supplemented by woodwinds and brasses. Also, these musicians copied thousands of works by the best-known and loved European composers of their day. A 1995 compilation by Martin Perlman and the Boston Baroque, the Lost Music of the Early Moravians showcases some of their works. They are also known for their trombone choir whose songs often were coded for the community to mark life passages and convey news. There is also a story about how a trombone choir scared off an Indian attack, as the Native Americans allegedly thought it was the voice of god telling them to turn away.
By the Revolutionary War, Bethlehem had expanded. In addition to the communal buildings, there were small farms dotting the area by the Monocacy creek. They had build a home for young men (the Brethren’s house) which served as a temporary hospital during the war. (As Pacifists, Moravians did not serve in the Continental Army but supported its efforts by housing the injured and ill).

View showing the Brethren’s House (far left), the rebuilt Blacksmith Shop (bottom) and the Waterworks (right).

The Liberty Bell also had a brief stay in Bethlehem when the wagon transporting it away from the King’s forces broke down on its way to Allentown. A thriving hotel, the Sun Inn, still exists today (though no longer in use as a lodging. (They have terrific ghost tours during October for the brave hearted)


The Moravians increased in number. They outgrew the Saal; then they built what is now called the Old Chapel in 1751. Finally constructed in 1803, the current worship space, Central Moravian Church is still in use. The Moravians also increased their settlements adding new towns in Pennsylvania (Nazareth, Emmaus, Lititz among others) and the Southern Headquarters of the Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC (1766). The Winston-Salem Moravians were the first to observe the Independence Day holiday celebrating it first in 1783.


Two houses of worship, the Old Chapel on the left and Central Moravian on the right

Incredibly diverse, the Moravians continued their missionary traditions in the colonies. The worked with the local Delaware nation to convert the Native Americans, establishing  congregations at the Indian town of Shekomeko (New York) and Nain, Pennsylvania. They established missions to the then-frontier of Ohio. Polly Heckewelder, allegedly the first white child, born in Ohio is depicted in an iconic doll still handcrafted by church women. Bethlehem’s Moravian cemetery, God’s Acre, includes the graves of free men and women of color, Native Americans, as well as immigrants and converts to the church. The graves are flat and without much adornment as they believed that all men are equal in death.

I hope you have enjoyed this very brief overview of Colonial Bethlehem and the Moravian church. If you have more interest, consider checking out these links:

Here is a very interesting overview to Bethlehem’s history .

Just for fun and in the spirit of Halloween, I added a very haunting photo of Central Moravian’s belfry.


Special thanks to Ric Rupnik, Nancy Rutman and all the members of the “You Know You’re From Bethlehem” Facebook group for their critical read of this post and collective expertise.


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[…] you would like to learn more about the history of the Moravians, you can read my post on Colonial Bethlehem. If you can, don’t miss a trip to our beautiful city over the holidays (or any other time of […]

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