Though many faiths have come to settle in modern Forsyth County, in the second half of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, the practices and beliefs of the Protestant Moravian faith dominated religious life in the region. The events the Moravians chose to celebrate in the early days continue to resonate in the twenty-first century.
Within hours of the first Moravian arrivals at Bethabara in 1753, Single Brothers of the faith celebrated a “lovefeast,” one of the best-known activities within the Moravian church.
A publication from Old Salem Museums & Gardens explains that “…a lovefeast is a religious service in which Christian fellowship is emphasized. It is primarily a song service during which the congregation partakes of a simple meal: in early Salem this usually consisted of buns and tea or coffee.”
The Old Salem Official Guidebook adds that the lovefeast is “…based on the early Christian agape meal. It combines singing and scripture with a simple meal of coffee or tea and special rolls, which were shared in a spirit of joy and thanksgiving. Among the early Moravians, lovefeasts were held to give thanks and to celebrate important occasions such as a religious holiday, the completion of a new building, the arrival of an important visitor, or a choir’s festival day.”
Though the lovefeast appears less often in the modern Moravian Church, and offers more coffee than tea, many residents experience at least an abbreviated version at Candle Teas and Christmas Eve events in December each year.
Many other traditions wrap around Christmas. Brother Johann Graff brought to Salem a tradition started in Germany in 1747. In 1762, “the giving of a lighted candle to each child in a lovefeast on Christmas Eve” began. In 1907, at Home Moravian Church, the practice expanded to include adults.
A Single Brother teaching at the Salem Boys’ School, Francis Hagen, age 21, set a German poem by Johann Scheffler to music. In 1836, the song was first performed by the little girls who attended Salem’s school for town girls (as opposed to outsiders). By the time Reverend Hagen died at age 91 in Lititz, Pa., the tune “The Morning Star” â€“ translated into English in 1885 â€“ was sung, especially at Christmas time, in churches far and wide.
“For the Moravians, Christmas was a religious celebration that focused on Jesus’ birth rather than gift-giving.” Even today, “decoration includes greenery and often a putz, displaying a nativity scene.”
Another significant gathering that lives on today is the Easter Sunrise Service. “Early in the morning worshipers gather at the church …to begin reading of the Easter Litany. The bands play ‘Hail, All Hail, Victorious Lord and Saviour’ with the congregation joining in.” (Bands often start very early, playing through the streets to call the faithful to the service.)
The attendees then will walk to the graveyard (known as a God’s Acre in Moravian churches) to welcome the sun with the concluding part of the service. (Interestingly, it was too rainy in the first two years, 1771 and 1772, to proceed to the God’s Acre at Salem.)
The church will also often be decorated with cornucopia, squash and other symbols of a successful harvest as part of the annual Thanksgiving services. After Christmas, three services are usually held on “Watch Night” (December 31) before trombones announce the arrival of the New Year at midnight.
The Moravians of Salem were also known to be the first North Carolinians to officially celebrate the Fourth of July, in 1783. After years of uncertainty, they were quite pleased to have a “Day of Solemn Thanksgiving to Almighty God,” as the Governor decreed, for the restoration of peace. A more traditional celebration of the Fourth â€“ especially the young men firing off their guns or, later, fireworks â€“ was discouraged by the staid Moravians until 1810.
But these celebrations of the Moravian Church live on in today’s Forsyth County, well-established and steeped in history.
The Moravians and Their Town of Salem, Dept. of Interpretation, Old Salem Inc., 1997, p. 8.
My Name Shall Be There: The Founding of Salem (with Friedberg, Friedland), C. Daniel Crews, Moravian Archives, 1995, pps. 4-5, 49-50.
Through Fiery Trials: The Revolutionary War and the Moravians, C. Daniel Crews, Moravian Archives, 1996, pps. 51-53.
“The Man Who Wrote ‘The Morning Star’,” Frances Griffin, The Three Forks of Muddy Creek, Volume VI, Old Salem Inc., 1979.
Old Salem: The Official Guidebook, Penelope Niven and Cornelia Wright, Old Salem Inc., 2000, pps. 13, 54-55, 73.