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Historic Moravian Bethlehem Story

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Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites invites you to explore the exciting history of Historic Moravian Bethlehem. Our recently designated National Historic Landmark District is one of only eight in Pennsylvania and one of only about 200 in the entire United States.

According to the National Park Service, “this site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America.” In the 18th century, Moravian settlers from Europe established a communal society here as part of an international religious network and social experiment. The surviving buildings and structures are outstanding examples of German Colonial architecture and Moravian town planning.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem National Historic Landmark District constitutes approximately 14 acres in the heart of the City of Bethlehem. It was here in 1741 at the confluence of the Monocacy Creek and Lehigh River that the first Moravians, members of a Protestant denomination, felled white oak trees and began building their community on 500 acres.

Moravian Legacy painting
Moravian Legacy painting

The Moravians eventually acquired close to 4,000 acres in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was to be the principal center for Moravians in the New World serving as both the religious and administrative center for the Moravian Church in North America. From here, they sent missionaries throughout the American colonies and to the West Indies.

The Moravians in Bethlehem lived in a communal society organized into groups, called choirs, by age, sex, and marital status. They also operated under a General Economy where everyone worked for the good of the community and received care from cradle to grave. Based on their societal organization, the community developed large institutional choir houses, superb examples of colonial Germanic-style architecture in America.

Along the Monocacy Creek and the Lehigh River, the community immediately began building their heavy industrial area initially using small log structures for their workshops. Within two years of their arrival in Bethlehem, the Moravians built a saw mill, soap mill, and wash houses; constructed their first grist mill, oil mill, tannery, blacksmith shop and brass foundry.

By 1747, thirty-five (35) crafts, trades and industries were established including a butchery, tawery, clockmaker, tinsmith, nailor, pewterer, hatter, spinning, weaving, cooper, dye house, community bakery, candlemaker, linen bleachery, fulling mill, saddlery, tailor, cobbler, flax processing, wheelwright, carpenter, mason. As the community developed and needed greater output, they replaced the log buildings with larger limestone buildings. The pottery, tannery, butchery, dye house, smith complex, oil mill, and waterworks were built of stone in the period from the late 1740s through the early 1770s.

View of the Monocacy Creek at Bethlehem by Gustav Grunewald

The goal of the Moravians in Bethlehem was to be a self-sufficient community on the colonial frontier in order to provide for themselves and for the missionaries in the field. For a time, they succeeded. The most prodigious period in Bethlehem began with the founding in 1741 until the end of the General Economy in the 1760s. With the coming of the Revolutionary War and the outside influences as a result of the influx of “strangers”, a slow decline ensued. At the time of the completion of Central Moravian Church in 1806, major changes were occurring in the community. Bethlehem was turning away from its founding ideals and becoming a more mainstream American settlement.

The first section of the Single Sisters’ House was constructed in 1744 parallel to the Gemeinhaus along the limestone bluff and facing south.
View of the 1746 Bell House

Moravian buildings, many still standing today, reflect the ingenuity, creativity, and universality of Moravian thinking and philosophy. The Moravians believed that all people, both men and women, should receive the same education; that all people should receive health care; that women should have equal rights with men in the community; and that all people should work together for the good of the community without prejudice regarding race, gender, or ethnicity.

At one time in the mid-18th century, 15 different languages were spoken in Bethlehem. During the first 20 years of the settlement, Europeans, African-Americans, and American Indians lived, worked, worshiped, and went to school together.

Historic Moravian Bethlehem has a high degree of both integrity and authenticity and encompasses excellent examples of the architecture and town planning of the 18th century community. Today, a Moravian from the mid-1700s would feel at home walking the streets of Historic Moravian Bethlehem.

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