Moravian Story

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Tour guides under founding stone of GemeinhausThe 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 Bethlehem, 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 in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

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

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.

In 1753

The verse celebrates the arrival of the Moravian settlers to the Piedmont North Carolina on 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 began in 1722 when the religious reform leader Count Nicholas Louis Von Zinzendorf offered refuge on his estate 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 Jan Hus, martyred in 1415, 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 American colonies. 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 expand in the colonies. 

The Moravians eventually purchased almost 100,000 acres owned by Lord Granville along the banks of Muddy Creek in Piedmont North Carolina.

August Gottlieb 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's 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. In addition, the Church hoped to this new venture would be an economic success and bring money into the Church. The new settlers set to work immediately in November 1753. They were a diverse group. A doctor, minister, carpenters, farmers, tailors, shoemakers and millers. 

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 commercial town could be established. However, it was not long before word got out to other settlers that skilled tradesmen and a doctor had arrived in the Piedmont.

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.

A year later, the next large group of Moravian settlers moved to Bethabara from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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 the size of Bethabara grew from one cabin to several, and was home to 65 Moravians.

Prospect of Bethabara 1757

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 colonies, becoming a bigger threat to Bethabara beginning in 1756. After a false rumor that the Cherokee had switched alliance and joined the French instead of the British, the Moravians built a palisade fort around their town and mill. 

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

Refugees along the Yadkin River found safety behind the palisade walls of Bethabara and its mill. Many refugees built log cabins at the mill site to stay in during the Cherokee War, when the Cherokee raided homes up and down the Yadkin River. 

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, however, did claim the lives of several Moravians. A typhus 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. 

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 Piedmont, 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

BW Mill Photo

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 central congregation town and commercial center: Salem.

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 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. Over the decades, old buildings were taken down, their foundations filled in to expand the farmland. By the mid 1900s, the original settlement was buried beneath a cornfield, and the potter's and brewer's houses were private residences. In 1950 the Bethabara Church congregation built a new church up the street from the 1788 Gemeinhaus and began to worship there instead. 

Dr. Stanley South arrived in the 1960s to undertake a major archaeological excavation of the original town. Today, you can see the foundations of the original buildings that were uncovered during the dig. In addition, the 1788 Gemeinhaus has been restored to its 18th century appearance. The 1782 Potter's House is in the process of being restored as well. You can visit the 1834 Log House and see the 1802 Brewer's House as they appeared originally. In addition, the 1754 Village, Community Garden, and Medicinal Garden have all been reconstructed so that the area looks as it did in the 1750s. The garden, originally laid out in 1759, is the only documented colonial community garden in the United States.

Tour guides give visitors to Historic Bethabara Park a sense of what living in the colonial Piedmont was like. Special event weekends throughout the year spotlight different aspects of Bethabara's history and the history of the region. To learn how to visit our site, please check out our Guided Tours page.