A RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY WHOSE FOUNDERS WERE TRUE PATRIOTS
The Unitas Fratrum or Church of the Brethren arose in the fifteenth century in Bohemia and Moravia. In 1727 intolerance led its leaders to begin to plan an emigration to America. A colony was sent to PennsyIvania in 1734, while a second colony went to Georgia in 1735. Late in the year 1740 the remnant of the emigrants to Georgia joined forces with the Pennsylvania contingent, and settled on five thousand acres of land in the ” Forks of the Delaware,” as the locality just within the confluence of the Delaware River and the Lehigh or ” West Fork of the Delaware ” was called. The object of the settlers was to preach to the Indians, and they began at once to win the confidence of the Delawares.
The first house was built in 1741. This was twenty by forty feet, one story high, with sleeping quarters for a number of persons in the attic under the steep pitched roof. The cattle were kept in a portion of the house partitioned off for them. The common room in which they lived was also the place of worship for more than a year. The site of this house is marked by a memorial stone, which was put in place in 1892.
The foundation for the Gemeinhaus, or Community House, was laid in September. For many years this was to serve as home and hospice, manse and church, administration office, academy, dispensary, and town-hall. As ” The House on the Lehigh,” it became known through, all the countryside.
The event of the year 1741 was the coming of Count Zinzendorf. The Community House was not yet finished, but two rooms in the second story were hurriedly prepared for the guest.
No name had yet been given to the settlement, but on Christmas Eve, after Zinzendorf had celebrated the Holy Communion in the building, the only fitting name suggested itself. Bishop Levering of the Moravian Church tells the story:
” This humble sanctuary, with beasts of the stall sharing its roof, brought the circumstances of the Saviour’s birth vividly before their imagination. . Acting upon an impulse, the Count rose and led the way into the part of the building in which the cattle were kept, while he began to sing the quaintly pretty words of a German Epiphany hymn which combined Christmas thoughts and missionary thoughts. . . . Its language expressed well the feeling of the hour.. . . The little town of Bethlehem was hailed, its boon to mankind was lauded. . . . With this episode a thought came to one and another which gave rise to a perpetual memorial of the occasion. . . . By general consent the name of the ancient town of David was adopted and the place was called Bethlehem.”
The chapel of the Gemeinhaus was used by the congregation for nine years. During this period many of the Indians were baptised there. In 1752 and again in 1753 councils were held here with the representatives of the Nanticoke and Shawnee Indians from the Wyoming Valley.
The second place of worship was an extension of the Gemeinhaus, completed in 1751. Here congregations gathered for fifty-five years. Here the gospel was preached by some of the most eminent ministers of colonial days, while the records show that famous visitors sat in the pews. Among them were Governor John Penn; Generals Washington, Amherst, Gage, Gates, and Lafayette; John Hancock, Henry Laurence,
Samuel and John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and many other delegates to the Continental Congress.
During the Revolution there were no more earnest patriots than the members of the Moravian Community at Bethlehem. At one time the Single Brethren’s House was used for eight months as a hospital, and no charge was made, though in 1779 a bill for repairs was sent which amounted to $358.
A letter from David Rittenhouse, received on September 16, 1778, caused great excitement, for he told of the despatch to Bethlehem of all the military stores of Washington’s army, carried in seven hundred wagons. This was done because Washington’s army had been compelled to fall back on Philadelphia. It was also thought wise to send the bells of Christ Church and of Independence Hall to Allentown, by way of Bethlehem. The wagon on which Independence Bell was loaded broke down on descending the hill in front of the hospital, and had to be unloaded while repairs were being made.
The most distinguished patient cared for in Bethlehem was the Marquis de Lafayette, who was brought from Brandywine, and was nursed by Sister Liesel Beckel.
Twenty years after the close of the war it was decided that the time had come for the building of a permanent church. The first estimate was made in 1802. At that time it was thought that the total cost would be $11,000. ” It is interesting to note how very modern they were in underestimating the probable cost of a church,” Bishop Levering says. The actual cost, including the organ, was more than five times the estimate.
The excavation for the building was made in March, 1803, by volunteer laborers, to whom the residents of the Sisters’ House furnished lunch. The work was completed in two weeks. Then the great foundation walls were laid, six feet thick, the services of consecration, held from May 18 to May 26, 1806, six thousand people gathered in the village of five hundred inhabitants. On the first day, ” at five o’clock in the morning the jubilant note of trombones, trumpets, and other wind instruments from the belfry of the church broke the stillness of the awaking village with a musical announcement of the festival day.”
The Moravian Community at Bethlehem has grown. But those who worship in the old church are animated by the same missionary enthusiasm that characterized those who founded the institution so long ago.