One of the treasures of the Moravian Museum in Bethlehem, Pa. is the Nain-Schober House. It is the only surviving structure from an important, but little known, chapter in American history. And this month, recent renovations to help restore its original appearance will be unveiled, helping the building continue to tell its story.
A link to the past
The Nain-Schober House in Bethlehem is a direct link to the heroic and tragic history of the Moravian mission to Native Americans and serves as a reminder of a fleeting glimpse of a different possible outcome for the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers in American history.
One of the major reasons the Moravians came to America in the 1700s was to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Native Americans. This was dangerous work. Not only were many of the native peoples justifiably suspicious of all white people, especially preachers, but also colonists were upset that Moravians were impeding their efforts to take land from the native inhabitants. Moravian missionaries were different from other Protestants because they did not insist that the Native Americans adopt European clothing, language and lifestyle before they could be baptized. Instead, Moravian evangelists learned the languages and the customs of the tribes of the Six Nations of the Iroquois.
John Christopher Pyrlaeus opened a language school in the Brethren’s House in Bethlehem in 1744 where David Zeisberger and others learned to communicate with the first people in America. Missionaries were sent out from Bethlehem to live among and minister to “brown Brethren” in several villages in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. Hundreds of indigenous people joined the Moravian Church and were welcomed as brothers and sisters through baptism and the Kiss of Peace.
Caught in cross-fire
Although the Moravians and their converts were pacifists, they were often caught in the cross-fire between colonists and natives, especially during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). In 1755 a war party attacked the Moravian mission at Gnadenhütten on the Mahoning Valley north of Bethlehem, killing all but three of the residents.
The Moravians feared for the safety of their “brown Brethren” and tried to protect them from retaliation by white settlers. Zeisberger and other missionaries roamed the forests to gather the scattered flock and first brought them to Nazareth for safety. Because Nazareth was overcrowded, the Moravian elders provided for a new settlement to be built close enough to Bethlehem for safety but far enough away for the inhabitants to live by hunting and fishing.
Moravian Indians built the village of Nain about a mile west of Bethlehem in 1758 in hope of Native Americans and Europeans living side-by-side in peace and friendship. The settlement was located in the area now known as West Bethlehem, roughly between 10th and 14th Avenues, on land purchased by the Moravians.
Nain had a square with houses on three sides, and on October 18, 1758 the Moravians dedicated the chapel to the village. Before long, the population grew to over a hundred people, almost a quarter of the size of Bethlehem itself. Most of the residents were members of the Delaware (Lenape) and Mahican tribes. The village was so well-organized that even though over 40 people caught smallpox during an epidemic, none of them died from the disease.
Sadly, violence between Europeans and Native Americans escalated in the 1760s. In the wake of Pontiac’s War, settlers in Pennsylvania grew increasingly hostile to indigenous peoples. In December 1763 a mob called the Paxton Boys murdered an entire village of Conestoga Indians, including seven children. Less than a decade after Nain was settled, the colonial authorities in Pennsylvania forced the Native Americans to abandon their thriving village and move away from the white people.
The government instructed the Moravians to bring their Indian brothers and sisters to Philadelphia for their protection. The residents of Nain walked for days to Philadelphia where they were protected from violence but subjected to miserable conditions and disease. When the crisis was over, the Moravians decided to build a new village for their Native American brothers and sisters on the banks of the Susquehanna River near the present-day town of Wyalusing.
They named it Friedenshütten, or Houses of Peace, but they were not safe for long. Soon Zeisberger was forced to lead his flock out of Pennsylvania completely. They settled along the Tuscarawas River in eastern Ohio and named their new village Gnadenhütten in memory of the earlier mission.
Moved to Bethlehem
Eventually the buildings in Nain were taken down, but some of the houses were moved to Bethlehem. One of these became a home for Andreas Schober and his family. In 1906 the Nain-Schober House was saved from demolition and moved to its present site on Heckewelder Place near the Moravian Museum. The house was a residence until 1992 when the Moravian Museum purchased it as a way to preserve and interpret the history of Nain.
Over the years, the house has been renovated and remodeled to keep up with the needs of the time, but much of the original Indian structure remains underneath these later changes.
In 2012, architect Jeffrey Long supervised the renovation of the Nain-Schober House exterior to make it look the way it did in the 1780s after it was moved to Bethlehem. The exterior walls were given historically-appropriate parging, a clay tile roof was installed and the doors were replaced with new ones with an authentic herringbone pattern. The house still has some of the original white oak logs with dovetail joints hewn by Native American builders, making it a rare historical artifact.
Not only is the Nain-Schober house beautiful, but also it connects modern visitors to those Moravians who lived in Nain over two and a half centuries ago.
The Moravian Museum will celebrate the renovation and rededication of the Nain-Schober House on September 17, 2012.
The Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood is director of the Center for Moravian Studies and a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary.
From the September 2012 Moravian Magazine