The Moravian Legacy: Discovering the Group's Southern Stronghold

Posted on: September 25th, 2013 by David Robert Weible 3 Comments

Bethabara Moravian Church also known as the Gemeinhaus. Credit: Jeanette Runyon, Flickr
Bethabara Moravian Church (also known as the Gemeinhaus) in Winston-Salem, N.C.

In this fall’s Itinerary department of Preservation magazine, three locals provide a virtual tour of historic Bethlehem, Pa., and the surrounding Lehigh Valley’s industrial ancestry and Moravian heritage. But for a better understanding of who these Moravians really are, we thought we’d share a bit more of their story, along with an outline of another area where their history and influence can be explored.

As it turns out, the Moravians are a sect of the Protestant Church that originated in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia (hence the name) in what is now the Czech Republic. Though originally under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, many of the area’s inhabitants, led by the reformer John Hus, converted to Protestant views in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Though Hus was burned at the stake in Prague in 1415, by 1457 (60 years before Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, mind you) the Moravians had organized. Though heavily persecuted in Europe, the group had its first permanent American presence in Bethlehem, Pa., by 1741.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the Moravians began expanding into North Carolina. Though the area they originally settled in was known as Wachovia (yep, like the bank), today it is known as Winston-Salem.

Old Salem Museum and Gardens. Credit: Sknowite, Flickr
Old Salem Museums and Gardens

Here are some must-sees for Moravian history should you find yourself in Winston-Salem:

  • Any trip to Winston-Salem should start at the city’s Historic Bethabara Park, the site of the Moravians’ first settlement in North Carolina in 1753. Today, the National Historic Landmark sits within a 183-acre wildlife preserve. The site features a fully restored 1788 Moravian church, archaeological ruins, a reconstructed village, and costumed tour guides.
  • Your next stop is Old Salem Museums and Gardens, a town of living history where, thanks to meticulous Moravian records, more than 100 of the town’s original structures have been restored or reconstructed, including three of the area’s four National Historic Landmarks. Enjoy plenty of hands-on activities, including demonstrations on historic 18th- and 19th-century Moravian trades, like Scherenschnitte, an intricate paper-cutting craft used to create traditional Moravian stars. There are also puppet shows for the kids.
  • While you’re in Old Salem, be sure to tour the Single Sisters’ House, the oldest remaining building of Salem Academy and College. Recognized as one of the nation’s most historically important places for women’s education, and originally built in 1785 as housing and work space, the structure was enlarged in 1819 and remained in use until 1991 when a 14-year restoration project began.
  • To get a better understanding of how the Moravians organized their communities during the French and Indian Wars on the American frontier, stop at the town of Bethania. The only remaining continuous and independent Moravian settlement in North Carolina, the 1759 town and National Historic Landmark was designed after those from Medieval Germany with its residential lots clustered in the center of town and ringed by orchards for security. The 500-acre historic district is packed with 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century structures.

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David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Preservation Magazine, Travel

3 Responses

  1. Mary Means

    September 25, 2013

    My Jamaican-American partner and I visited Old Salem in September, 2013. We are Unitarian Universalists, a liberal religious faith that shares roots with Moravians.

    My partner’s Jamaican family had benefited from the leadership of Moravians, who brought water, sewer and schools to rural Mandeville. At Salem, we were interested in how Moravians related to people of color, for like ours, their doctrine is founded on all being equal. How did they deal with slavery all around them in NC? If equal, why the St. Philips African Moravian Church and the 1823 African Moravian Log Church? We had to interrogate the docents to learn that the first Moravian settlers in NC lived their beliefs in equality. But successive generations, influenced by non-Moravians around them and in need of labor to build their utopian community, gradually came to believe in segregation and some even owned slaves. Having visited Old Salem in the 1970s, when my chief interest was buildings and architecture, this time I found myself far more interested in the stories of their builders’ aspirations and struggles.

    As an historic site, Old Salem could benefit from providing visitors with sufficient context to understand a complex place where OSV sites, Salem College buildings, Moravian church buildings, and private homes are side by side in a 5-6 block area. OSV seemed more tuned to their numerous shops of trinkets than enabling their visitors to learn and explore questions highly relevant to our own lives. We shouldn’t have had to interrogate docents to reveal fascinating stories.

  2. Richard Jarvis

    September 25, 2013

    I used to work next to Old Salem, and would frequently walk through there during my lunch breaks. I worked at and architecture firm as a preservationist, so there could really be no better backyard as far as inspiration goes, especially when the projects I was working on were far from inspiring. Now I am in Ohio working near a faked “new” historic village c. 1985 that is a very poor substitute.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    I believe that Old Salem has been working on more fully representing the past immoral mistakes the Moravians, as well as most Christians in general, made with regards to slavery. North Carolina was a very Quaker state during that era, so all Christians in the area did not support slavery.

  3. Terrence Downs

    September 25, 2013

    Appreciate the write up on this sect of religion, as I am Moravian as were my wife’s family back to the point of Jan Hus’ execution (bloodline showed followers of the faith of Hus/Moravians). Belonging to the oldest congregation west of the Susquehanna River in York PA (touted First Capital of the U.S., 1777-78 where Articles of Confederation were adopted), many aging Moravian congregations are failing not promoting their heritage and contribution to the development of America (York PA First Moravian included). Moravians were quite instrumental in education and industry. It also is stated that the Moravian Church (1457) is the oldest Protestant Church, preceding Lutherans. Thanks Mr. Weible for presenting your story. I regret I’ve not made it to Bethabra/Winston-Salem, but intend to do so!