The city of Winston-Salem is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, and Southern Province Moravians are taking a large part in the celebrations. After all, we Moravians are Winston-Salem’s beginning.
Though on the large scale it is Winston-Salem’s 250th, it more specifically is the 250th anniversary of Salem, the church community that grew to be Home Moravian Church and Salem Congregation of Moravian churches — Ardmore, Bethesda, Calvary, Christ, Fairview, Fries Memorial, Home, Immanuel New Eden, Konnoak Hills, Messiah, Pine Chapel, St. Philips and Trinity.
Truth is, when in 1753 you buy a huge chunk of land in the Colony of North Carolina, you need a centrally located community to manage it all, send missionaries and serve neighbors. That was the thinking of Moravian Church leaders in England almost from the moment John Carteret, the Earl of Granville, offered to sell us 100,000 acres in his vast North Carolina holdings, a deal we couldn’t refuse.
We Moravians named our new land purchase Wachovia. Today Wachovia would be the south central two-thirds of Forsyth County, taking in almost the entirety of Winston-Salem.
The first colony of Moravians arrived in Wachovia from Pennsylvania on November 17, 1753, and began Bethabara. That gives members of Bethabara Moravian Church opportunity to say that the birthday of Winston-Salem should be that date since Bethabara was annexed into the city in the 1960s.
But Bethabara was meant to live up to its meaning, “House of Passage,” and the second settlement in Wachovia, Bethania, was even farther from the center of Wachovia.
For more than a decade the question of where to locate the central city was delayed as Christian Gottlieb Reuter, the church’s surveyor and prolific mapmaker plotted out Wachovia and sent reports back to Europe on the lay of the land, its streams and hills.
In such weighty matters as selecting the site for your chief large city—or for marriage—Moravians at that time put their faith in God’s hands by turning to the Lot. Prayerfully they would draw a positive or negative scripture verse, meaning yes or no, and sometimes a blank was also used, indicating further thought should be given to the matter.
In six meetings the Lord answered no or blank through the Lot to sites that were suggested. Finally on February 14, 1765, the Lot indicated that a north-south ridge above Salem Creek “was the site for the city we had been seeking for so long.” The Daily Text for that day further indicated God’s approval: “Let thine eye be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there.” (1 Kings 8:29).
Work on the new city began the next year, 1766, with the felling of the first trees on Epiphany, January 6. The Text for that day, chosen in Bethabara since Daily Texts had not yet arrived from Europe, was auspicious: “I will defend this city” (Isaiah 37:35).
On January 30 a colony of eight Single Brethren and one married couple arrived at Bethabara as reinforcements from Europe to help build the new city. They also brought its name: SALEM.
Then on February 19, 1766, eight Single Brethren moved from Bethabara to occupy the builders’ cabin (often called the “First House”) and become the first permanent residents of Salem. The Daily Text for the day was again auspicious: “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me (Lev. 10:3).” For many years February 19, and not January 6, has been considered the anniversary date of the founding of Salem.
Events quickly followed as the new town was carved out of wilderness:
- February 20: A preliminary survey was made for Salem Square, the heart around which the town’s principal buildings would be constructed — Brothers House, Gemein Haus, Community Store, Sisters House, Boys School, church, Girls Boarding School.
- June 6: The foundation stone for Salem’s First House was laid on Main Street.
- August 18: For the first time Moravian Sisters visited Salem from Bethabara, and while they were there the first lovefeast in Salem was held in the partially completed First House.
- October 10: The First House was far enough along that Br. Gottfried Praezel set up his loom inside, which marks the beginning of industry in the city of Winston-Salem.
Closing out 1766 for Salem, the Wachovia Memorabilia of notable events during the year had this to say: “This year, for lack of help only one house on the main street could be built and occupied, and two houses away from the street, which were necessary for the housekeeping of the Brethren and for the outside workmen employed. But for this small beginning we thank our Heavenly Father and He will help us further next year.”
From the July 2016 Moravian Magazine