Very soon after I had moved to Pennsylvania to serve as an assistant pastor, my senior pastor took me to visit a couple and their newborn baby. My pastor decided to show me around the area as we went, and he pointed out, as we drove past, a Moravian church in the town of Lititz. He talked about a pair of shoes from the Revolutionary War that had been discovered in the attic of their main building (it was used as a hospital during the war), of famous people who had stayed on the grounds, and of a museum and tours that gave more information about the Moravians. The details were interesting, and I remembered a few vague facts about the Moravians from church history, but I didn’t think much more about it. I failed to realize how much history was waiting, basically in my own backyard.
The Moravians were originally followers of Jan Hus, a man who protested the abuses of the Catholic church decades before Martin Luther. He was offered safe passage then burned at the stake for his convictions by the Roman Catholic Church. His followers, called Hussites, continued meeting under threat of persecution. A powerful German noble, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, learned of these Hussites when he met an immigrant Hussite laborer named Christian David in 1722. Zinzendorf had been heavily influenced by the Pietist movement, a movement which stressed the importance of genuine Christian faith evidenced by spiritual fruit. Zinzendorf believed in living out his faith, and he took compassion on these persecuted believers, inviting them to come live on his estate. These settlers became known as Moravians, and you can still visit their original village of Herrnhut (meaning “God’s shelter”) today in Germany.
Because Moravians also believed in the importance of evangelism, they eagerly took part in settling the New World. They accomplished much for the cause of Christ. It was through witnessing the unflinching faith of Moravians on a boat bound for Savannah, Georgia that the Wesley brothers began their journey to true faith in Jesus Christ. Zinzendorf wrote a hymn many churches still sing today, Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness, as he encouraged the spread of the gospel in the West Indies. Indeed, the Moravians became famous for their sincere, exuberant corporate singing. They often held Love Feasts (not the same as communion) where congregants would partake of sweet bread and coffee or tea between congregational singing. But they didn’t want the music to stop, so the choir would sing while they ate and drank. Their worship service would often continue, unbroken, for 45 minutes (think mega-hash chorus!).
18th century cello and viola in the archives of the Lititz Moravian Museum
The Moravians eventually settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, just an hour and a half away from where I now live. “By 1757, the city had a sophisticated musical establishment, fully European in its tastes, standards, and repertoire with its centerpiece the famed collegium musicum. The same instrumental ensembles and choirs provided music for Moravian worship. Bethlehem’s musical activity would reach its height in quality and quantity in the decades between 1780 and 1850. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin visited the city and came away impressed with its music” (Ogasapian, 64-65).
Artist’s rendering of Bethlehem, PA, as it would have looked when settled by the Moravians.
The musical contributions of Moravians in American are incredible. Much more could be said. But for now, we would do well to remember the simple truth that ignorance is not always bliss. We may miss out on a wealth of fascinating history, and the lessons that come with it, if we fail to be curious. We need to appreciate the local history that surrounds us. I, for one, have a few trips I need to take in the near future to Lititz and Bethlehem. Who’s with me?
The Diary of Samuel Sewall and Congregational Singing in Early New England by David. W. Music, The Hymn 41:1 (October 1990).
Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).
Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).
A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).