The Moravian Church

The Moravian Church traces its origins to followers of John Hus, the Bohemian martyr who was burned at the stake in 1415, and dates its formal beginning from 1457, when one group of the Hussites took the Latin name of Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren*. Persecuted for many years in central Europe, in the 17th century they were reduced to meeting in secret and handing down their faith to their children as part of the family tradition. Under the influence of Christian David, and inspired by the pietist movement, a group of families moved from Moravia to Saxony in 1722, where they found refuge on the estate of a young Lutheran nobleman, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, and founded a religious village which they named Herrnhut ("protected by the Lord"). The church was formally reorganized there in 1727. In 1735 an American settlement and mission to the Indians was begun in Georgia, but was abandoned after five years because of irreconcilable differences with the local government. Settlements in northeastern America were begun in 1740, and the congregation town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1742. It remains the church headquarters today. In the 1740s and 1750s the church brought several shiploads of settlers to Bethlehem and the other congregational communities, the so-called "Sea Congregations", who assembled in Europe and traveled together to America.

Although Zinzendorf himself and the early church leaders favored an ecumenical, interdenominational ministry, the church in America made many converts among the Pennsylvania Germans, who were mostly from the Rhineland. Meanwhile the Herrnhut community attracted additional members from various parts of Europe. Thus "Moravian" denotes a member of this religious group, and probably does not reflect geographic origin in Moravia.

The Wachovia Settlement in North Carolina

In the fall of 1752, Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg and an accompanying party of five men traveled by from Bethlehem PA to the east coast of North Carolina and then inland to select and purchase a tract of nearly 100,000 acres from Lord Granville. The first settlers arrived in November, 1753, a group of eleven single men selected to provide the necessary skills for establishing a new community. Four others accompanied them on the journey but returned to Pennsylvania soon after. The tract was named Wachau or Wachovia, for the ancestral home of the Zinzendorf family near the Wach River in Europe.

Additional settlers arrived beginning in 1754 and 1755, including the first women. The first community established was Bethabara, initially a stockaded fort protecting the neighboring farms. Never much more than a farming community in the early days, it is now within the city limits of Winston-Salem, on the northwest side of the city center. Researchers will find records for two different graveyards in Bethabara, the Moravian one and a second one, often called Dobbs Parish, which was used for "outsiders."

In 1759 the site was selected for a village, Bethania, about three miles northwest of Bethabara. The first houses were built in the summer of that year, just before an epidemic of typhus broke out that killed ten of the settlers. Bethania had its own church, still an active congregation, and graveyard or God's Acre, and supported the surrounding farms with basic goods and services. Families particularly associated with Bethania in the early days include Binkley, Conrad, Grabs, Hauser, Spainhour, Strub, Transou, and Volck.

There was a strong need, however, for a larger, central town. After several years of planning and construction, beginning in 1765, Salem came fully into being in 1772. Most of the Bethabara residents moved there. Salem was the southern counterpart of the congregation town of Bethlehem, organized with boys' and girls' schools and communal residences for single men and women. Although individuals could own private property, the church leadership provided strict control over who could live there, and on how each person served the community. New residents were attracted to Salem from all of the surrounding communities, as well as from Pennsylvania and even Europe. Thus the family names associated with Salem do not follow geographic divisions to the extent that they do in the other communities. Nevertheless, some families are notable Salem inhabitants, especially the craftsmen or merchants who handed down their trades for several generations. Salem was the commercial center for a wide area, selling goods to many outsiders and providing lodging to travelers. It merged with the non-Moravian town of Winston, the Forsyth county seat, in 1913 to form the modern city of Winston-Salem. Many of the original buildings of Salem have been restored to their original appearance, and are open to the public, together with a museum and shops.

A number of German families had settled in the 1740s along the South Fork of Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Yadkin River near the present-day Davidson/Forsyth county line. Some had come there from Monocacy, Maryland, where they had been acquainted with the Moravians, and families from this settlement took refuge in Bethabara when threatened by Indians in 1756. Moravian ministers often came to the South Fork settlement to hold religious services, baptizing babies and conducting funerals as the need arose. By the early 1760s the settlers had asked the Moravians for a formal affiliation, but it was several years before this finally came to completion, following prolonged discussion and negotiations. A meeting house was completed in 1769, by which time a Moravian minister was holding regular monthly services, and the settlers organized themselves into the Society unter der Ens, or South Fork Society, in 1770, giving their meeting house the name Friedberg. This group remained somewhat autonomous, and the members did not always adhere to the rather strict guidelines imposed in Salem regarding marriage, property, and other community matters. The original Friedberg families include Boeckel, Ebert, Frey, Greter, Hanes, Knauss, Pfaff (also later in Bethania), Rothrock, Spach, Tesch, and Walk.

There were also English-speaking settlers living in this area who found an affiliation with the Moravians. In the 1760s, Moravian ministers held services in English in the home of John Douthit, who together with Christopher Elrod and others organized Hope Moravian Church in 1780. The Hope community included a number of English settlers who arrived from Maryland in the 1770s, among them the Boyer, Butner, Hamilton, Markland, Peddycoard, and Padgett families.

A group of Moravian families came to North Carolina from Broad Bay, Maine, in 1770, encouraged in this move by the minister George Soelle. They settled southeast of Salem in the Friedland community, which like Hope and Friedberg was organized as a country congregation. This settlement included the Rominger, Seitz, and Vogler families from Broad Bay. Most of these families had come to Broad Bay originally from the Baden Durlach area of Germany in 1742. John Lanius also settled there, as did others from Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

*This is not the same as the Church of the United Brethren or other "Brethren's" denominations. There seems to be frequent confusion on this subject in posts to the internet. The Moravians have remained a separate denomination throughout.

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© Elizabeth H. Harris, 1997