The Moravian Story

The settlement of Bethabara in what is today Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was founded on November 17, 1753 when fifteen Moravian brethren arrived after walking from Pennsylvania. The Moravians, or Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), were German-speaking Protestants. As followers of Jan Hus, a Bohemian heretic who was burned at the stake in 1415, the Moravians are acknowledged as the first Protestants, pre-dating the Lutherans by 100 years. Bethabara became the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina. It was the beginning of a series of Moravian settlements on the 100,000-acre tract that the Moravians had purchased on the Carolina frontier.

Bethabara ("House of Passage") was a center for religion, governance, trade, industry, culture, education, and the arts. The Moravians constructed over 75 buildings during the first 20 years of the settlement's existence. During the French and Indian War (1753-1762), Bethabara and its two forts served as defensive centers for regional settlers and a supply depot for the Catawba allies of the British.

Historic Bethabara Park was incorporated as a not-for-profit Museum in 1970. The mission of the museum is "to preserve, acquire and interpret the (Moravian) past in order to make a better future." The City of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County share administrative operating support for the Museum.

The 1788 Gemeinhaus is the last surviving example of an 18th-Century German-American church with attached living quarters remaining in the United States.

The Park is designated as one of only two local Historic districts and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service named Historic Bethabara Park a National Historic Landmark in 1999. It is recognized by the North Carolina Resource Commission as a WILD Education site.

in the fog

And so it goes:

"We hold arrival Lovefeast here in Carolina Land,
A company of Brethren true,
A little pilgrim Band,
Called by the Lord to be of those
Who through the whole world go,
To bear Him Witness everywhere,
And naught by Jesus know."

The verse celebrates the arrival of the Moravian settlers to this wilderness in Piedmont North Carolina....November 17, 1753. It was composed and sung as the fifteen colonists prepared to settle into an abandoned cabin at the end of a six-week journey down the great wagon road. They were a long way from their homes and families in Pennsylvania. Following a simple meal, the men prepared a lovefeast, a traditional Moravian ceremony of sharing bread or cake and coffee, wine or tea.

" While we held our lovefeast, the wolves howled loudly, but all was well with us and our hearts were full of Thanksgiving to the Savior who had so graciously guided us and led us."
Reverend Bernhard Adam Grube, first Moravian Minister in Bethabara, November 17, 1753.

The spiritual journey for the Moravian brethren into the North Carolina wilderness began in 1722 when the religious reform leader Count Nicholas Louis Von Zinzendorf offered refuge on his state in the Saxony region of Germany to a group of religious dissidents from Moravia. The Unity of the Brethren eventually lived in the town of Herrnhut, Germany. Since many came from Moravia, their neighbors described them simply as "the Moravians."

Moravians traced their roots to John Hus, martyred in 1417, 100 years before Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation.

The denomination was almost wiped out during the religious wars of the 1600s. After their rebirth under Zinzendorf's leadership, they became the first Protestant missionaries. In the 1730s Moravian societies were established in Holland, England and Denmark....as well as such far away places as Greenland, Surinam, Zanzibar and in the new world. Their first mission in the British Colonies was in Savannah, but they eventually traveled north to Pennsylvania where the church had bought two tracts of land. They founded Nazareth and Bethlehem and as those towns prospered, the brethren wanted to spread the Gospels to an area without churches...and they wanted a large tract of inexpensive land on the frontier to find the freedom to practice their religion in peace.

The Moravians eventually decided on almost 100 thousand acres owned by Lord Granville along the banks of Muddy Creek in Piedmont North Carolina.

August Gotlieb Spangenberg, the Moravian Bishop in America, led the exploration to this area in 1752...about nine months before the first settlers arrived.

"The land on which we are now encamped seems to me to have been reserved by the Lord for the Brethren."
August Gottlieb Spangenberg. January 8, 1753.

It was called Der Wachau, or creek along the meadow, after an estate in Austria that had been in Zinzendorf's family. The Latin form, Wachovia, was later adopted. The Church paid about 35 cents an acre for the Wachovia tract...an area that now comprises most of Forsyth County. The church mission was to found a religious community where everyone contributed according to ability and took according to need, not unlike the cooperative communities of the early Christians. The new settlers set to work immediately in November 1753. They were a diverse group. A doctor, minister, carpenters, farmers, tailors, shoemakers and millers. These skills would be needed to carve a settlement out of the wilderness.

"Nathaniel and Jacob Loesh measured off eight acres of land, which is to be cleared at once so that wheat can be sown. Others began to gather the dead wood and build bonfires."
Moravian Diarist, 1753

The settlement was called Bethabara, meaning House of Passage, because it was meant to be a temporary settlement until the central town could be established. It wasn't long before others on the frontier learned of the wealth of skilled tradesmen available in the new settlement.

"Brother Kalberland's fame as a doctor is spreading. Patients are coming to him from as much as eighty miles away and he has been called to others at points nearly as distant. Work is beginning to come to the craftsmen."
Jacob Loesch, August 14, 1754.

Life on the frontier was difficult and lonely. It would be almost a year before the next large group of settlers would arrive in Bethabara.

"They arrived toward evening on November 4th and were heartily welcomed. There were seven married couples, ten single brethren and five drivers for the wagons. The Single Brethren were lodged in the old dwelling house and the married people in the first story of our new Brothers House. We are much crowded."
Moravian Diarist, November 4, 1755

Within three years this small band had grown to 65 people and their first isolated single cabin had become a thriving village.

drawing bethabara 

"We are especially busy with the building of the new Gemein Haus and the mill for which certain Brethren were detailed to make boards and shingles."
Moravian Diarist January 1756

But these early years were also trying times. The French and Indian War spread across the southern frontier in 1756. Travelers passing through Bethabara told of wandering bands of Cherokees murdering nearby settlers.

"It was decided to protect our houses with palisades. For if the settlers were all going to retreat, we would be the last left on the frontier and the first to be attacked. All who were not busy with the harvest went to work the same day, and by the 23rd,
the palisade was finished except the gates."
Moravian Diarist, July 1756

"Our brethren keep a constant watch, which is necessary and also good for the country, for many neighbors have come to them with all their movable possessions as well as wives and children."
Bishop Spangenburg, letter to Count Zinsendorf, June 11, 1760

A settlement sprang up close to the brethren's mill which was used to grind corn and meal by farmers from as much as fifty miles away. It was the largest mill in the Carolinas backcountry. The local economy between the first Moravians and their neighbors was becoming a regional economy for trade and security, with Bethabara as the center.

During the French and Indian War, neither the Shawnees nor the Cherokees attacked the Moravian settlement.

"Bethabara stands in good credit with them and is widely known as the Dutch fort where there are good people and much bread."
Bethabara Diarist, August 22, 1758.

Sickness claimed more lives than the Indians did. A fever epidemic rampaged through the crowded refugee huts near the mill and through Bethabara. Eight Moravians and several in the settlement near the mill died. After her new husband, Dr. Hans Martin Kalberlahn, died in the epidemic, Sister Anna Catharina began caring for one of the newly-orphaned children. Thus began a life of service to Bethabara, until she died in 1816. Her 90 years of life was symbolic of the importance the Moravians placed on the full participation of women in community life and on the education of their children.

The second of the villages of Wachovia, Bethania, was laid out in 1759, in part to deal with the crowded conditions brought on by refugees. After only 13 years in the wilderness, some 166 people lived in the two communities. Even in these difficult times the Moravians never lost sight of their master plan for Wachovia. They saw the surrounding forest as a friend, not as any enemy to be pushed back. Johann Christian Reuter, a surveyor, was appointed forester to oversee the cutting of trees. Today we would call him an environmental planner. He drafted an inventory of plants and animals.

"Dogswood is so called because it stinks. It grows around the valleys, does not become large, but is hard and is good on the turning lathe. Muskrats are water animals like young fat poodle dogs. Brown like a beaver; smell like musk. The skins are generally sold for young beaver."
Johann Christian Reuter, 1761

"The first week of May a panther and a number of wolves were troublesome.
Brother Reuter took advantage of the quiet to proceed with his survey of Wachovia,
which he would like to finish this year. "
Moravian Diarist, 1761

mill site drawing

Trade was essential.

"People gathered from 50 and 60 miles away to buy pottery, but many came in vain, as the supply was exhausted by noon. We regretted no being able to supply their needs."
Moravian Diarist, 1761

The Moravians reached out beyond their regional markets to the Atlantic market with Europe.

"Our wagon and Mr. Hamilton's wagon left for Charlestown, taking three thousand pounds of deerskins, some butter and beaver skins." 
 Moravian Diarist, March 3, 1763

Bethabara reached its high point of development and population by 1766.

Work soon began on the most ambitious undertaking...the founding of Salem, which was to become the central congregational town.

"Monday, a dozen brethren took a wagon and went to the new town site were they cut down the trees where the first house was to stand."
Movian Diarist, February 1766

Settlements began in other parts of Wachovia... Friedburg in 1773, Hope in 1776 and Friedland in 1780. Salem became the focal point of Wachovia trade and religious life. It was completed in 1771 and the Wachovia administration moved from Bethabara in 1772. A new Gemeinhaus, or congregational church, still standing today in Bethabara, was built in 1788. But Bethabara as a town had ceased to grow and expand. It was but one of several agricultural villages in Wachovia, with a tavern, church, and a few tradesmen.

After a fire in 1802, the distiller's house was reconstructed. As the years passed, Bethabara became less of a town and more of a farm. Its purpose was to provide food for the residents of Salem. A black slave, Johann Samuel, was named the farm superintendent in 1788. Samuel was granted his freedom in 1801 and allowed to rent land here from the church. The closed local shared economy, with everything owned and controlled through the church, had come to an end after nearly 50 years. Throughout the 1800s, Bethabara continued to decline. By the early 20th century, most of the structures had fallen to ruin, their foundations filled in to expand the farmland. The great mill, after 100 years of use had been abandoned... its original timbers used to build a lumber company in the bustling industrial town of Winston located just to the north of Salem. By the mid 1900s, the frontier settlement was buried beneath a cornfield, the potter's and brewer's houses were private residences. The 1788 church was abandoned for a newer structure nearby.

Today, the sun shines as brightly as when those first crops were planted with a homemade plow. With a great deal of community support and generosity, it is a time capsule; an exceptional park and history and archaeology museum... maintained by the City of Winston-Salem, with the administration costs shard by the city and the County of Forsyth. Many structural foundations have been excavated. Two historic buildings, including the 1788 Gemeinhaus, have been restored, another serves as a craft shop. The palisade fort has been recreated. The garden laid out in 1759 has been reconstructed and is the only documented colonial community garden in the United States.

This tract, between the millsite and the town, is being reclaimed, using bio-engineering techniques to restore the landscape, preserving unusual flora, and creating a wildlife preserve for some of the same types of animals listed by the Moravians in 1764. Traces of the great wagon road, the path through the wilderness the Moravians trekked to found Wachovia, have been preserved. The Moravians improved the road through present-day Forsyth County and thousands of settlers followed them from Pennsylvania in the 1750s and 60s. Guides give visitors to Historic Bethabara Park a sense of what living on the colonial frontier really meant. Special event weekends throughout the year spotlight Bethabara's relationship with the rest of the young country of America. The character of the Moravian brethren, the enthusiasm of those first men, is the seed that grew to what Winston-Salem prides itself on today. 

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