Moravian Church in North America

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Moravian Church in North America
North: Bethlehem, Pa.
South: Winston-Salem, N.C.

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Historic Moravian palisade in North Carolina in need of protection

bethChurch and Fort GJ 2011introMost Moravians immediately recognize the names of the church’s historic congregation towns of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Salem, North Carolina. However, the history of the Moravians in the New World also includes some significant wilderness sites that are recognizable to only a few.

One of these is Historic Bethabara Park, the 1753 site of the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina. The outpost for the Wachovia Tract, which was the grandest project the Moravians had ever undertaken, Bethabara (Hebrew for house of passage) served as a foothold in the nearly 100,000-acres the Moravians acquired from John Carteret, Lord Granville, the last British proprietor of the North Carolina colony.

Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf saw the offer to purchase land from Granville’s vast American holdings as an opportunity to aid the financially strapped church and also acquire enough land to create a secure Moravian community in the New World. He chose August Gottlieb Spangenberg to oversee the acquisition, and in 1752 Spangenberg led a party to secure specific land for the Wachovia Tract. At the suggestion of Granville’s agent in North Carolina he went to the “back of the colony” which was sparsely settled and found land with the rich natural resources and opportunities for trade he sought.

In October 1753, fifteen brethren left Pennsylvania and walked 500 miles in six weeks along the Great Wagon Road, crossing the Shenandoah Valley into piedmont North Carolina. Arriving in November, they found an abandoned cabin and established their base, laying the groundwork for the future Wachovia Tract. Here the Moravians labored to create a backcountry settlement; others would follow to build a central congregational town to be surrounded by church farming communities.

Interpreting the story

bethA View of Bethabara  image from front hallThis story of the Moravians building a home in the Carolina wilderness, their leadership, frontier skills, and compassion for outsiders, is the one the Park interprets for visitors. The French and Indian War (1756-1763) and the response of the Moravians who provided protection for refugees fleeing to Bethabara under threat of Indian attack are central to this tale.

Two years after the Moravians arrived in the Wachovia Tract, an increased Indian presence began to cause alarm and frontier neighbors came to Bethabara to seek refuge. There were reports of attacks and of neighbors moving away because of the fear of Indian attack. In 1756 a visitor from Bethlehem brought news that Moravian brethren there had been slain. Another visitor related that the Indians in Pennsylvania had caused great harm, and that Bethlehem and Nazareth were almost completely destroyed. With no direct word from Bethlehem, the Moravians lived in fear for their Pennsylvania brethren as well as for themselves.

bethBell Tower in Fort in FallIn 1756 local settlers begged that they be allowed to come and stay at Bethabara if the danger increased. At the same time, reports were received of an Indian massacre in Virginia, where a fort built around a settler’s house was attacked and burned and the inhabitants killed. The Brethren decided it was necessary for them to protect their houses with palisades before Bethabara itself was attacked or left as the first line of defense when local settlers fled. With help from neighbors, brethren felled trees and dug trenches to complete the fort in 18 days, surrounding the community with a fortified wall 8 to 10 feet high. The posts were crooked logs of various sizes and kinds of timber from the surrounding woods.

In 1757 about 50 refugees came to Bethabara, a village of only 72 Moravian settlers. In 1758 the war heated up and refugees fled to the fort in greater force, soon outnumbering the Moravian population. With an increase in the number of refugees and the need for more space, the brethren decided to strengthen the palisade and stockade the mill. The palisades were again reinforced in 1760 during the Cherokee War when 200 to 300 refugees sought protection at the village fort and the mill stockade.

Although some hostile Indians infiltrated the area and struck against non-Moravian settlers, Bethabara was never attacked. Moravians provided food for Indians as well as non-Moravian settlers, serving everyone who came through the village and mill site.

By 1762 the end of the French and Indian War was approaching, and peace was officially declared in 1763. The palisade fort was taken down, and the construction of Salem, delayed by the conflict, commenced. The war had significantly changed the lives of the Bethabara Moravians, leading to greater interaction with non-Moravian neighbors and the building of a second town, Bethania, to relieve overpopulation as the number of refugees fleeing to Bethabara swelled.
The Bethabara palisade fort is the only French and Indian War fort in the Southeast reconstructed on the original site. In the early 1960s South Carolina State Archeologist Stanley South, an expert on historic archeology of early fortifications, researched, excavated and reconstructed the fort, uncovering the remains of the first fort during his archeological excavations. Fort posts followed the footprint of the palisades discovered during his excavations. In January 1990 the fort was reconstructed.

A fort in need of protection
bethPalisade Fort Best Gail JonesThe fort that once protected the Carolina piedmont’s Moravian forbearers now stands in need of protection. The fort has deteriorated and many of the posts have fallen, creating gaps in the walls. Others have become unstable. It is time for replacement, and the Park’s Board of Trustees, Historic Bethabara Park, Inc., has initiated a Save the Fort campaign to raise the funds necessary to reconstruct this structure. The project involves the removal of the existing posts, digging new footings, and installing pressure treated, hand hewn posts that will be set in stained concrete with gravel backfill to strengthen the base.

The Moravian community is invited to join in the effort to preserve this important structure and icon of our history. A gift of $65 will replace a single post, and a gift of $1000 will replace and install 15 posts. Gifts may be sent to Historic Bethabara Park, 2147 Bethabara Road, Winston-Salem, NC 27106 (336-924-8191). Online donations can be made through the Historic Bethabara Park, Inc. Trustee website, The Moravian community also is invited to visit.

The Historic Bethabara Park Visitor Center is open from April through December, Tuesday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. A video and tour with costumed interpreters are available. The Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, contains historic buildings from the original settlement, including the Gemeinhaus, an authentically recreated and maintained medicinal garden, wetlands trails, and picnic areas.

Ellen Kutcher is Director of Historic Bethabara Park 
in Winston-Salem, N.C., 
Photos by Gail Jones.


From the October 2012 Moravian Magazine

Moravian Daily Texts


Friday, July 20 — Psalm 88:1–5
Deuteronomy 29:22–31:8; Luke 10:17–24

I will bring them through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. Zechariah 13:9 (NKJV)

Paul wrote: We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Romans 5:3–4

God, sometimes life feels too difficult to bear and we cannot feel you with us. Help us to be more aware of your presence even in the most challenging situations, and strengthen us to face the day. Amen.

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