More of the Moravians

Real estate is a tricky business.

They came to America (of course back then it wasn’t exactly “America”) with the hope that Savannah, Georgia would be the perfect place to settle down, spread a religion and raise little Moravians, but there was a bit of a snafu. They were a peaceful people (darn hippies) and refused to fight against the Spanish. They were expelled from the territory in 1739. Most returned to Europe, but a handful remained and made their way to the city of brotherly love along with, by chance, English evangelist George Whitefield who just so happened to own 5,000 acres of land called Nazareth. Georgie-boy invited them to continue their missionary work there by establishing a “school and orphanage for negro children.”

They struggled to build a log cabin and wait out the winter and as time moved on a second structure was built along with the beginnings of a larger stone edifice. Like any soap opera there’s got to be more drama: Whitefield somehow got into a spat with some of the Moravian leaders and decided to rescind his offer. Evicted, again… or were they? Luckily, Whitefield’s finances were for crap. The church was able to take possession of the land and voila! the crazy campaign of pushing their religion onto native people began.

Whitefield’s property was known as the Ephrata Tract and that “stone edifice” was completed in 1743 and still stands today. After completion, the Whitefield House housed 32 couples who came over from England. Over the years the house has served as a place of worship, a boarding school, a place for missionary work, a nursery, and a seminary. Currently, it is home to the Moravian Historical Society.

The Gray Cottage is the oldest surviving Moravian building in North America. Count Zinzendorf, the grand poobah of the movement, stayed here in December 1742. This cottage is the second log cabin they built on the site. It housed the town’s first settlers and served many other functions over the years. A few decades ago it got a makeover restoring the lowest logs of the exterior walls.

“Small museums are great. Big museums are a drag.”

What a charming gallery of local history. When I went I was the only person there and got a personal guided tour by very informative attendant. The main gathering room (the Saal) which was used for worship is adorned with six large oil paintings by John Valentine Haidt. As a former Catholic I am quite used to seeing depictions of the crucifixion, however my guide informed me that, back in the 1700s, that was a big deal. My favorite relics were they musical instruments like the Martin guitar from the 1840s and the 1776 pipe organ once used to entertain George Washington.

Historical marker and some of the heirloom instruments at the Whitefield House.

My visit to the museum gave me a greater education on the settlement of the area by the Moravians and about the Moravians themselves. As I walked the hardwood floors and listened to stories of these early pioneers I couldn’t help but think of them as hippies of the 18th century- nonviolent and caring. Perhaps their mission to impose religious beliefs on others was a bit much, but it’s easy to judge in hindsight (and especially one that’s nearly 300 years old).

I believe local history is important. Knowing what came before us sure as heck gives us a better idea of how to deal with what lies ahead. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth… “Life is divided into three terms- that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.”

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