The Moravians of Bethlehem

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The old chapel from 1751

Bethlehem Pennsylvania is most famous for the Bethlehem Steel Company, which was at its peak, the second largest steel company in America. But before big company put its imprint on the city, the origins of the settlement go back to an obscure group called the Moravians. The name Moravian comes from Moravia, which was one of three (Bohemia, Silesia) historic regions that today make up modern Czech Republic. I take special interest in the region because my name Kralovec, is Bohemian, and my ancestor Andreas Kralovec, came to Wisconsin in the late 1800s from what was then Bohemia.

Bethlehem was exclusively Moravian for the first 100 years of its founding on 500 acres  of fertile farm land near the intersection of Monocacy creek and the Lehigh River in 1741. The Moravians were a bit cultish, living in communal groups by age, marital status and gender. They also had a communal socialist economic system which served them well in the early days. It must have been so difficult to clear land and produce food, avoid disease and native American attacks and thrive in the new world. The colony was opened up to others in 1844 and the communal, socialist system was also abandoned.

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My children are fascinated by my historical tour of the communal buildings of the Moravians

The Moravians go back to a Bohemian man named Jan Hus. He is considered the first Protestant reformer, predating the more famous Martin Luther by 60 years. In reading Hus’s complaints against the Catholic church at the time, I pretty much agree with him wanting priests to marry, stop the selling of indulgences (basically bribes to get into heaven), eliminating the idea of purgatory, the mass to be said in Czech instead of Latin and laypersons to receive both bread and wine at communion. He was burned at the stake as a heretic 600 years ago this month (July 6, 1415). John Paul II, the Polish Pope, expressed “deep regret” for the act in 1999.

The Moravians, or United Brethren formed much after the death of Hus in Bohemia. They were persecuted in Catholic Hapsburg Europe but found refuge on the German estates of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in 1722. He greatly influenced the group, setting up a 100-years continuous prayer relay, starting the tradition of the daily watchword Bible study and most importantly for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, sending out groups of missionaries around the world to start colonies. He visited Bethlehem and after a prayer service along the river, the citizens named the colony after the famous Biblical star.

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Today one can visit the preserved early buildings of the Moravians, including the old cemetery.  There is a Moravian College and a Moravian Academy still in Bethlehem today and the Moravian church in America has about 750,000 members. The Moravians are also known for the Moravian star, the multi-pointed lighted star that adorns all Moravian homes. The city of Bethlehem in the 1930s as marketing campaign for tourists, created the lighted Christmas star on the hill of south mountain overlooking the city and named Bethlehem the “Christmas City”. 

I will be learning more about Moravians during my stay here in Bethlehem this summer.

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The illuminated Moravian Star on South mountain overlooking Bethlehem. 

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