September 25, 2013

The Moravian Legacy: Discovering the Group's Southern Stronghold

  • By: David Weible

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.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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