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MarkerQuest: Moravian Cematary, Bethlehem

June 6th, 2018 |

Written by Laura Klotz for Marker Quest

By popular decree – meaning that I polled people on the Facebook page and this won by a landslide – my second post will cover the Moravian Cemetery in Bethlehem! The Moravian quarter is, of course, one of the most famous historical areas in the region; the Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites organization is working on getting Bethlehem declared a UNESCO historical site because of this. That will be pretty awesome if it happens.
 
The cemetery and this sign are
situated on West Market Street,
just off of historic Main Street
 
Now, I could just do this all by myself, but sometimes in a video game, it’s good to have a companion. So I’m bringing in the first guest star party member of this adventure – my good friend Rachel Durs, a former Bethlehem tour guide. She’s moved out of state, but recently came home for a visit, and since this blog was in the preparatory stages at that point she offered to share all her knowledge with me regarding this cemetery, also known as “God’s Acre.”
 
The site was chosen and consecrated by Nicolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf, a very important figure among the Moravians. He didn’t live in Bethlehem, but made a celebrated visit beginning in 1741. (I won’t go into too much detail about him because he appears on a lot of markers and I’ll be telling you more about him in the future.) What happened was that in 1742, a young man named Johann Mueller came from New York to join the Moravians, having been inspired by a missionary he met. Unfortunately, he came down with a fever and died, leaving his new acquaintances at something of a loss about what to do with him. It cemented the fact that they needed a cemetery for their growing settlement, and so the good Count headed into the woods and picked out the spot. He consecrated the cemetery and performed the funeral rites for Mueller soon afterward.

God’s Acre is the oldest perpetually maintained cemetery in the United States, and is a popular visitation spot, whether you’re doing research or just want a quiet place to think. The paths are dotted with benches, and the whole thing is shaded by several different kinds of native trees. It’s remarkably peaceful, even by cemetery standards. Historic downtown Bethlehem is just that kind of place.

See what I mean? This is the view of the cemetery from West Market Street.

Rachel may have been, as she insisted, a little out of practice with guiding tours through the Moravian sector, but she very obviously still knew her stuff. For Moravians, she explained, death was something to be celebrated – they were going home to be with their Savior, something they had anticipated all their lives. At the time of death, a specific hymn was played on the trombone as a way of announcing the death to the world; the Moravians were a very musical people, and trombones were an essential part of all celebrations. Moravian funerals processed along a path from the old chapel to God’s Acre, usually accompanied by trombone music. Men and women walked separately, and if the deceased was a woman, the pallbearers were also sometimes women.

 
 
“You can see that all the grave markers are flat,” Rachel told me, indicating how the view was unobstructed by pillars or ornamental headstones. “The idea was that everyone was equal in the eyes of God and they were equally important in the cemetery.” She pointed out the area seen here, the plots closest to Market Street, known as the “Stranger’s Row.” Basically, anyone who needed to be buried and was not actually a member of the Moravian church was permitted to be buried there; this included people visiting from out of town, as well as some figures associated with the Revolutionary War. The Moravians turned away no one. Others buried in God’s Acre were slaves and Native Americans who had converted to the Moravian religion; the Moravians were very big on reaching out to both of those groups, and were able to successfully convert large numbers by employing kindness in their evangelism. In particular, many Native Americans in God’s Acre were victims of a smallpox outbreak which hit in 1746.

“There are a lot of children buried here,” Rachel observed. Many of the graves lack names, indicating the burials of children who died before they could be baptized. There are a lot of markers around Bethlehem related to the Moravians, so in future posts I’ll be talking more about their way of life, including how children were raised. Short version, they had a very unique view of the world.

There were a couple of particular graves Rachel wanted to show me. One was Julianna (Haberland) Nitschmann, the wife of Bishop John Nitschmann, who was known as the “Mother of Pennsylvania” because of her early leadership in the fledgling colony. She was such a significant figure in the early Moravian church that when she died, they buried her in what was at the time the absolute center of the cemetery. A hundred years later, her gravestone was replaced with one that pretty well spelled out her biography. Her husband is not buried with her; Moravians were very segregated in the sense that men and women were kept separate most of the time, including in the cemetery. But the good bishop is still remembered by the local populace – one of the Bethlehem middle schools is named in his memory.

The other was that of Anna (Demuth) Lawatsch, one of the most influential people in the early Moravian church. In particular, she taught many of the younger church members, somewhat akin to what today we’d call a Sunday School teacher. According to Rachel, when Count von Zinzendorf made his visit to Bethlehem, he wanted to hear her teaching because he was curious about how she was able to influence so many young minds. After listening to her, so the story goes, he fell on his knees and asked her to please allow him to preach beside her because she did so much good. She helped to found the town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, and later conducted a pilgrimage to North Carolina; specifically, her stone observes that she “led couples to NC.” 
 
“The Moravians wanted to spread Christianity, of course,” Rachel explained when I questioned this, “so they sent groups of missionaries all over the place – it’s why they came to North America in the first place. Anna Lawatsch and her group went to establish a missionary settlement in North Carolina, kind of like Bethlehem.” The Moravian settlement established by Anna and her companions eventually became the city of Winston-Salem.
 
Burials in God’s Acre ceased in the early 20th century, simply because the cemetery had no more room and no opportunity for expansion. With more than 2,000 graves, the cemetery serves as the resting place of individuals from throughout United States history. The city around it has grown sprawling and noisy, watched over by an electrical star on the nearby mountaintop. But this quiet acre remains exactly as it was intended almost three hundred years ago.
 
Sources and Further Reading:

HistoricBethlehem.org

Whelan, Frank. “At Rest in God’s Acre.” The Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call, May 28, 1995.

God’s Acre in Bethlehem on LehighValleyHistory.com

Moravian Cemetery at FindAGrave.com

Shuman, Sue Kovach. “Escapes: Moravian rites of death in Bethlehem, PA.” The Washington Post, September 28, 2012.
 
Digital Collection Spotlight #12: God’s Acre.” Moravian Church Archives, October 27, 2020. (Added November 4, 2020, with sincere gratitude to the Moravian Church for their link to my work!)

Moravian Cemetery at the Historical Marker Database
 
 
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