Old Salem: An Inner Foundation and an Outstretching Mission
“The Bishop raised his candle high and asked the children to do the same. After every candle was lifted, the church was filled with warm golden light. Anna had never seen such a glorious sight! ‘Jesus Christ is the light of the world,’ the Bishop said. ‘…Children let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’” (Smith 16)
Though this brief passage comes from a fictional account of a child’s experience of Christmas in a Moravian community, the experience is similar for many participants in this community’s distinctive Christmas ritual. Though many religions have some degree of continuity across time, how is it that a tiny, unassuming community of Moravians from Germany survived almost two and a half centuries of travel and turmoil intact both in practice and in spirit? Following the teaching and passion of martyred Reformer Jan Hus, a community of Moravians formed in Europe, eventually migrating to the American colonies for greater religious freedom in the middle of the 18th Century. Thus begins the history of the town of Old Salem—pioneers eventually forming a physical community of Christian work and worship in Wachovia, North Carolina. The beginning of the Moravian community consisted in inward unity of faith in practice and outward connection with surrounding peoples through dedicated labour. To understand the community of Old Salem at any given point, one must gaze back to the form of this original community.
The story of the Moravians begins not in North Carolina, but in Europe where the continent was “gory with the blood of battle, scourged by pestilence, bitter with strife between those who claimed to be the leaders of the Church of God” (Fries par. 2). Coming out of the Reformation, Moravian community and practices are intrinsically tied to the Reformers’ theology, practices, and emphases. Thinking of the Protestant Reformation probably summons an image of Martin Luther, as legend claims, nailing his 95 Theses to the large doors of Wittenberg Castle Church. The dissension, however, had been stirring for some time before 1517. As John Wycliffe was translating the New Testament into English, a young priest named Jan Hus began his own reform movement, eventually being excommunicated and later burned at the stake in 1415 (Findley 819). In a move as political as it was religious, a unified group of Protestants began the Hussite wars between Catholics and Protestants in Bohemia and Moravia in retribution for this murder, definitively breaking from the Roman Catholic Church in 1467 by ordinating their own priests (Fries par. 6-7). Catholics, however, defeated this group named the Unitas Fratrum (The Unity of the Brethren) in 1620 and the tradition went mostly underground, not reemerging in Germany until 1722. Traditions were held in secret and passed down within each family until the episcopate was reorganized in 1727 from the remnant of the early community (Clewell 311).
These early events in Moravian history defined the spirit of the community. From the beginning, “[l]ike Hus these men cared less for dogma than for doing” — the focus was and continues to be on practical religion (Fries par. 7). Notably, the Moravian church sprung not primarily out of doctrine, but, rather, from a desire for “pure, earnest, and united Christian living” (Rondthaler 301). As opposition to the Unitas Fratrum and the community’s desire for evangelism simultaneously increased, Count Zinzedorf, their patron, decided to fund a settlement in newly discovered North America — specifically in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (James 2). Moravians were ideal for populating this nobleman’s large tracts of land, as they were known for their “thrift and industry”, so they crossed the Atlantic (Clewell 1). A few years after settling, one of the proprietors of Carolina gave land to Bishop August Gottlieb Spangler, who, in 1752, set off to found an exploratory missionary colony in the South (Clewell 6). Along the journey, driven by his sense of God-given purpose and trust in God’s care and direction, the Bishop penned this hymn:
Who waits until the Saviour leads,
Will see the joy intended;
No anxious questions will he need
With difficulties ended.
(Fries, The Spangenberg… )
The early community in North Carolina was to be one founded on a gospel of love, friendship, and harmony — a community to be Christian in work and worship (Clewell 1). The journey to North Carolina already had tested the resolve of the group, but Spangenberg writes, “we are… under the wings of the Almighty,” acknowledging the deep spiritual convictions tied up with even the founding of this backcountry town (qtd. in Findely 826). Notably, the first corporate event deemed worthy of community record was a Moravian “love-feast” in 1754—an emulation of the agape meals described in the Acts of the Apostles from the New Testament (Clewell 23). The community established its own joyful colour of Moravian ritual as the town grew and became more structured.
Almost from the very beginning, superior industry was the dominant reputation of Moravians in North Carolina. When the North Carolina assembly held a competition to encourage craftsmanship in the colony, Moravians were intentionally excluded so as to level the playing field (Findley 829). The combination of unified religious fervor and a Protestant work ethic enabled the Moravians to lay firm foundations for a town. Since the good hunting was scarce, the settlers cleared almost fifty acres for raising cattle and planting crops. (Clewell 24) Trade records note that shops began to emerge for the carpenter, shoemaker, tailor, potter, blacksmith, tanner, and others (Clewell 25). For a community beginning with only twelve men, the considerable diversity of industry is remarkable, and Moravians credit the success to the common Christian framework. One twentieth-century Director of Education and Interpretation for Historic Old Salem says of the early Moravians “They believed that anything worth doing was worth doing well… that the Lord was equally concerned with all aspects of life noble or humble” (qtd. in Findley 829).
Beyond general industry, the residents of the community were notably unified across lines of age and gender. Approximately 350 years before the Women’s Liberation movement, the town opened a school for girls almost a year before one for the boys (Findley 828). This school was highly successful and went on to become Salem Academy and then Salem College, a college still existing today (James 20). Religious practice, though men sat apart from the women and children, was fully open to each person, as the Moravian Lovefeast and other rituals included the entire community. Education removed barriers to the worship of God, and even the details of the rituals were oriented to enable full community participation. Though children might not fully understand Moravian theology, the candles, bread, and other physical symbols allowed younger minds to connect faith with familiar, tangible objects. In An Old Salem Christmas 1840 Karen Cecil Smith writes about a fictional young girl’s experience of a Lovefeast, particularly describing how the food, music, and ritual actions allowed her to fully experience Moravian Christianity. No person was excluded on the basis of gender or age from participation in community life.
Music, in addition to symbolism, was a necessary part of the unity of Moravian religious ritual. Journalist Rowe Findley Moravian experienced Moravian music on an unforgettable 1970s Easter Sunday where almost 20,000 participants came to hear 500 musicians “make the gray dawn vibrate with the throbbing triumph of Beethoven’s ‘The Heavens are Telling’” (Findley 837). Even within the hard first year in North Carolina, trumpet and flute accompanied the singing of hymns (Clewell 30). Old, standard hymns unified the community with Moravian history, and new hymns composed for particular occasions commemorated events in the life of the community (Clewell 30). Moravian society itself was divided into “Choirs” that were groups of Moravians of similar age and sex best suited to improve one another’s spiritual state — a musical model of community (James 7). Music was much of the essence of the community.
Though Moravians were deeply united in faith and working within the community, this did not preclude connection and trade with neighbouring communities. In fact, settling the infrastructure of work and worship in an internal system of guilds allowed the Moravians to engage better with neighbouring communities in commerce and evangelism (James 5). The town quickly became a noted site of various goods, as most of the surviving early records detail trade (Clewell 26). Residents of the Hans Wagner Hut wrote that they occasionally needed to sleep under North Carolina’s winter skies to provide enough hospitable lodgings for visitors (Clewell 26). Moreover, the first “stranger’s house” in all of Wachovia was built in what was to become Old Salem, as there were 103 visitors in one three-month period, 52 of which stayed the night (Fries Bethrabara Diary). Revolutionary War soldiers later would gather in the town due to its reputation of having “all sorts of things to sell” (qtd. in James 5). Even beyond the economic market, outsiders saw the benefits of the Moravian educational system for girls and boys and would send their children among the Brothers and Sisters (James 20).
In 1902, after Old Salem had been in North Carolina for almost one hundred and fifty years, a Moravian historian and clergyman asked “What is the condition of the Moravian Church after the lapse of many years?” (Clewell, 296) His conclusion at the time was that the church had indeed remained faithful to its goal of cohesive Christian community and involved outreach in work, worship, and community. Whether or not the same remains true at this present day is a question predominately for theologians, but it is also for those who choose to experience Old Salem. If the current community reflects what we have seen of the early community, one will probably encounter John Clewell’s ideal description: “The true student will find that the day of enlarged work for the Master is now dawning for the Moravian Church of Wachovia. Its pure doctrine, beautiful customs, its inspiring history… its consecrated ministry, its devoted membership… point forward to a bright and successful future” (emphasis added) (Clewell 297)
Clewell, John Henry. History of Wachovia in North Carolina. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1902. Print.
Findley, Rowe. “Old Salem, Morning Star of Moravian Faith.” National Geographic. Vol 138, No. 6. Dec. 1970: 818-837. Print.
James, Hunter. Old Salem Official Guidebook. Winston Salem: Hunter Publishing, 1977. Print.
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina. Fries, Adelaide L. et al., ed. The Colonial Records Project: Out-of-Print Bookshelf. North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 31 September 2001. Web. 25 February 2011.
Smith, Karen Cecil. An Old Salem Christmas 1840. Bebe Phipps, illustr. Boone: Parkway Publishers, 2008. Print.
About the Author
Nathan Tilley is a first-year undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Philosophy and Religious Studies. Nathan was raised in Greensboro, NC, just a stone’s throw from historic Old Salem.
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