Who are the Moravians?

Moravians trace their roots to Jan hus (1369–1415) and his followers, who formed the unity of the brethren or unitas Fratrum in modern-day Czechoslovakia in 1457. The unitas Fratrum had been driven underground during the lifetime of its most famous minister, bishop Jan Amos Comenius (1592–1670), later known as the “Father of Modern education.” But a revival began fifty years after Comenius’s death.

In 1722 Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) allowed a group of Protestant refugees from Moravia to establish a village on his estate in Germany, which they named Herrnhut. Because of the place of origin of the first settlers of Herrnhut, they became known as the Moravians.

From Herrnhut the Moravians spread the gospel to other parts of the world, such as among the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean (1732), the Inuit population in Greenland (1733), and the Native Americans in Georgia. In 1735 the first group of Moravians settled in Savannah, Georgia. By 1740 the Savannah community had disbanded; remaining Moravians moved north to Pennsylvania.

Moravians first came to Nazareth in 1740 at the invitation of English evangelist George Whitefield to establish a school on his 5000-acre property. However, because of differing theological opinions, Whitefield and the Moravians separated and the Moravians needed to find another home.

Photograph of the Whitefield House.
Photograph of the Whitefield House.

On April 2, 1741, William Allen deeded 500 acres at the junction of the Monocacy Creek and Lehigh River to the Moravians known today as Bethlehem. During that time, Whitefield discovered that his finances would not allow him to proceed with his Nazareth plan, and the Moravians negotiated to buy the entire Nazareth tract. On July 16, 1741, it officially became Moravian property.

The First House in Nazareth was built by the Moravians in 1740 as lodging while they constructed the large stone building known today as the Whitefield House. The log structure later became home to the Single Sisters in the Moravian community. The house was razed in 1864 but a stone marker denotes the site where the building stood.

Construction on the Whitefield House began in 1740, but the building known as the “stone house,” and later the Ephrata House, was not completed until 1743. The building housed the first town settlers and was a communal residence for married couples, the first place of worship in Nazareth, the communal nursery for Moravian children, and from 1745 until 1749, the Moravian School for Girls was located in the Whitefield House. It served as a haven for non-Moravian refugees during the French and Indian War, and later became an early home for the Moravian Theological Seminary.

The Moravians constructed the Gray Cottage, the second log structure in Nazareth, in November, 1740, when it was clear that the nearby "stone house" would not be completed for the first winter in Nazareth and the "first house" would not provide enough room. In 1743 the Moravian School for Boys moved into the Cottage. This became the first school in Nazareth. In 1755, it became the home of the widows of Nazareth and Bethlehem, until the Widows’ House was built in Bethlehem in 1768.

A Unique History

When Bethlehem and Nazareth were organized, it was decided that everyone would work for the common good without receiving any pay. In return, the community would provide food, lodging, and clothing. This was called the General Economy. This system enabled Moravians to send out people as preachers and missionaries while others worked the lands, produced goods, and taught the children.

Moravians organized their communities according to choirs. These choirs had nothing to do with musical choirs, but they consisted of people of the same gender and marital status.

Nazareth remained a restricted congregational community for Moravians from 1740 until 1856, when non-Moravians were allowed to own property and live and work in the town.

There are currently 750,000 members worldwide and roughly 178 congregations in the United States and Canada, including 15 in the Lehigh Valley.