“You children of the Most High, how is your love one for another?” an eighteenth century Moravian hymn writer asked, “How do you follow the true impulse for unity? Do you stand tied together as one? Has no division of spirits occurred among you?” In answer to his own questions he wrote:
Our Father in Heaven knows our hearts. Without love we have no reason to call ourselves brothers. . . . But as soon as we are born from above we become brothers and sisters in Christ. We have one Father, one faith, one Spirit, one baptism, one way to heaven that we all travel together in full unity of heart. In our unity we find nothing but sweetness, for all suspicion, hatred, and offences have flown away.
Our Mother that is above [the Holy Ghost] holds us together and baptises us with heavenly fire. No difference finds place among us because humility has united our hearts. Where selfishness, quarrelling and hatred survive we cannot feel the grace of love, neither can we prosper in the choir of foreign thrones.
Zion’s fellowship brings us to leave our earthly kindred and sets our brothers and sisters in Christ in the place of former acquaintances. The one still enchanted by love of the world, even though he wants to have a place in the brotherhood, can in no way be accepted by it until he makes himself small at the foot of the cross. . . . On the other hand, see what a blessing it has been for the redeemed to be counted as brothers! Praise the Father, for he brought it about! Sing to him with united hearts and voices! Do not let one hour pass without love and praise! We stand before the Lord as one in his covenant.
What I am, brother, you are too! Through the Lamb’s wounds and bruises we share our inheritance. With all that we have we struggle toward the same fatherland. The church as one strives toward Christ and we must be ready, brother, to die one for another like Jesus who made us his heirs. One member feels the other’s pain.
Let us remind and point one another to the crown of life! If Babylon thirsts for the blood of the saints, let us stand, watch, and defend ourselves together. The crying of the children will yet be heard and with the force of unity Babylon will be destroyed among us! Who can resist the power of unified spirits?
Let us love and rejoice in our hearts, making life sweet one for another, even though in pain. Let us press into innermost fellowship with Christ, illuminated by the blood. . . . In the world to come it will go even better with us. Our whole brotherhood before the Father, ablaze with love, will rejoice in his blessing. Oh let us give one another our hands and hearts and pray that Zion may soon be rescued to where love knows neither beginning nor end!1
In no other way did those who went out from Herrnhut testify more powerfully to the Saviour’s love, than through their lives in brotherly community. Even though they had settled in places around the world and their influence had spread into all branches of Christianity, they renewed their commitment—at a meeting in Marienborn in 1764—to building Ortsgemeinen (communities at specific locations) as bases from which pilgrims could work. Without the Ortsgemeine, they believed, their pilgrims would have nothing to set before the world as an example. They saw the Ortsgemeine as a continuation of the early Christian community, preserved in part by Catholic orders, but long fallen into ruin, and looked to the Saviour for help in restoring the “little places he has chosen for his people’s special abode, the communities on which his Shekina rests.”
The Ortsgemeine, the Moravians believed, should be a model for all members of the great Church of Christ (seekers of all denominations) to learn from and follow. It should be the prototype of the truly awakened communy, where brothers and sisters “live only by the rule of Christ” and “possess the spirit and understanding required for life together.” As such, the members of the Ortsgemeine enjoy a “special grace that sets them apart from all other children of God,” but only as long as they gave their minds and hearts to the furtherance of the common good.
If a member finds that the pursuit of his career does not contribute to this, he shall not insist on continuing it, but willingly and without resisting forsake even what means very much to him. It must also be remembered that outstanding economic success for one brother easily creates problems for all. Even though he may have been poor and humble, the brother who becomes economically very successful may no longer feel motivated to concern himself with the welfare of all. We must take great care that economic success—even though we must thank those who bring it about—does not distract us from our most important work.2
Genadendaal in South Africa, Sarepta in Russia, Saron in Suriname, Lichtenfels in Greenland, Lamb’s Hill and Ockbrook in England, Friedensfeld on St. Croix, Salem in North Carolina—every Moravian community told the world in its own way what the brothers and sisters believed: “In commune oramus, in commune laboramus. In commune patimus, in commune gaudimus (we pray and work together, we suffer and rejoice together).” But nowhere did the ideal of the Ortsgemeine reach happier fulfilment, or shine brighter in a dark world, than at Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. One who recorded their story wrote:
Every man, woman, and child became part of one household. Everyone worked for the good of the whole. They gave their time and labour, receiving in return shelter, food, and clothing. No one was paid any wages. The church owned all the land, all the buildings, even the tools with which the people worked. Yet no one was forced to surrender his private property. Anyone who disliked the system was free to leave. As it was pointed out, there was no wall around Bethlehem.3
When families moved to Bethlehem (that operated as one household with Nazareth and surrounding settlements) they signed a document releasing everything they owned to the “General Economy” of the church. But when anyone left, the church took it as its Christian obligation to give them back as much as they had brought in.
Because of the risk involved in this arrangement, both for the church and those joining, the believers accepted new members only after careful proving. “Better make the door coming in very small,” they said, “and the door going out very large, than the other way round.” At a meeting in Bethlehem they decided in 1742:
Applicants for membership, even those considered outstanding brothers, and who have spoken publicly in the congregations from which they came, must be tested, examined, and treated in an impartial way. Only if this is done with humility and discernment may the congregation keep itself pure. All denominations and sects strive to grow larger and stronger. But our rule must be to keep the door wide open for everyone wanting to leave, and to be very cautious in letting them in. It is more likely that our church will turn sick from being too large than from being too small.4
Even after newcomers passed the congregation’s approval, the brothers used the lot to discern the Saviour’s will about receiving them. They also made sure that everyone knew, before joining, what to expect. In 1744 they put the rules of their General Economy into writing:
1. The Lord’s people shall serve him in two divisions: the Pilgergemein and the Ortsgemein. The pilgrims shall tell the good news of Christ to all. Those who stay home shall take care of the children, the lands, the buildings, and the livestock.
2. In the beginning, the pilgrims are to have the community at Bethlehem as their home base. But they shall move about like a cloud before the wind of the Lord so that all places may bear fruit. They shall establish small congregations wherever needful and possible.
3. At Bethlehem there is to be a Hausgemeine formed of representatives from every calling and division of labour (the builders, the educators, those who buy provisions, those who prepare food, those who see to the clothing, the sanitation, the record keeping, etc.) The Hausgemeine shall see to the needs of the whole congregation, and in particular the needs of the Pilgergemeine.
4. The single sisters shall have their own dwelling, as well as the single brothers, and they shall be organized in their respective choirs.
5. In America, where getting married is not so complicated, partners shall be found for the young people as soon as expedient.
6. The purchased lands [the Whitefield tract] shall be divided into six agricultural communities: Nazareth, Gnadenthal, Christiansbrunn, Friedenthal, Gnadenhöh, and Gnadenstadt.5 At Bethlehem the brothers shall carry out their trades.
7. The Whitefield house at Nazareth shall become the nursery6 and school of the small children.
8. We shall use no denominational name other than Evangelische Brüder or Brüdergemeine (“evangelical brothers” or “community of brothers”).
9. Our purpose is not to make everyone Moravian. Not everyone we reach with the Gospel shall be expected or even encouraged to join our communities. But if another Ortsgemein takes shape it may follow our pattern.
10. We shall take the Gospel to the Indians in an apostolic way (without regard to denominations). Those who have become baptised into other groups shall be allowed to remain there, and we will concentrate on baptising those who are awakened through our work.
11. The Wyoming Valley shall not be forgotten.
12. The Zusammenkünfte [general meetings like the one held at Theobald Endt’s house in Germantown] shall continue to be open to all Christians. They shall continue to represent the Church of God in the Spirit.7
Jacob John Sessler, a descendant of the first believers in Bethlehem wrote years later:
The only ties that bound them together were their promises, their good will and the sense of a mission that was peculiarly theirs. . . . Members donated their time and labour in exchange for nothing more than food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and their children, and received no other reward than the joy of seeing the Gospel preached and the salvation of their souls. . . . Material reward in the form of wages in such a spiritual enterprise as theirs was for them much beneath the holiness and dignity of their work. They belonged to no man and would accept no man’s wages, for as they said in the Brotherly Agreement of 1754, “We all belong to the Saviour. What we have belongs to him, and he shall dispose of it as pleases him.”8
Enemies of the believers in Bethlehem accused them of living “as in a military academy” and suspected they were “papists” of one kind or another. But as long as the brothers and sisters desired nothing but Christ and loved him, they found their Gemeinschaft a source of continual joy.
Only in true Gemeinschaft (community, fellowship) in Christ, the brothers believed, could true equality become theirs. Everyone equal before the Lamb. Equal in life and death, buried under stones of equal size lying flat on the ground. In equality and community the Saviour’s Gemeine would become visible to all, like Heinrich Antes exclaimed on the day the first sea congregation arrived: “Today, at last, a visible church of the Lord can be recognised in Philadelphia!”
Peter Böhler, when the question of continuing the General Economy arose in 1758, declared:
Our communal housekeeping does more to promote the Saviour’s cause than any gold mine he might have given us. If every one that takes part in it serves Christ, then it is for us an inexhaustible treasure. . . . I do not know whether our people would have held out against the spirit of worldliness if the Saviour had not counter-attacked it with our communal housekeeping. Considering this, you may easily guess how I feel about seeing it continue.9
Community: Body and Soul
Making no distinction between their fellowship in the Spirit, and their daily work together, the Saviour’s Kreuzgemeine (Community of the Cross) at Bethlehem handled both with great seriousness. A committee of brothers decided what to build and who worked where. Other committees decided what to eat, where and what to buy, how to make their clothes, who should care for the sick, and how to keep the settlement clean.
The believers worked seriously, but heaven and earth touched one another at Bethlehem. Worship flowed into work, and work into worship. With extra-ordinary joy the single brothers’ choir celebrated the “Festival of the Tree Cutters” soon after their arrival. Following their love feast, eaten together, they marched to the music of trombones, axes on their shoulders, into the snowy woods. In a few years they cleared seven hundred acres and had most of it under cultivation. By the late 1750s nearly two thousand five hundred acres of cultivated fields surrounded Bethlehem and Nazareth.
The builders and carpenters, likewise set to work with music and a love feast, built seventeen community dwellings (some of them with dozens of rooms on three or more floors), forty-eight farm buildings, five schools, twenty manufacturing shops and stores, five mills, and two inns in a little over fifteen years. Every spring the farm brothers celebrated the Feast of the Sowers, and on the first day of harvest the whole community gathered before dawn for the Reapers’ Love Feast. Those in charge handed out sickles and forks, then all marched in formation—to the music of a full brass band—to the fields. All day long they cut, tied, and stooked the grain while some played music, others shared Scriptures in breaks for rest and prayer, and the children brought water from the spring. Harvest days ended with young men playing trumpets, leading the singing congregation home as the sun went down.
Frequent feasts throughout the year celebrated the work of the spinning sisters (the grandmothers of the congregation), the dairy brothers, the smith and cart making brothers, the cooks and the washing sisters, and whoever else, from the oldest to the youngest at Bethlehem, took part in the General Economy. Every feast called for new songs, fitting decorations, and messages from those in charge. At the celebration of the stable brothers they sang:
May you be praised Jesus Christ, the Lord we love! We praise you for becoming man, you set over all things by God. You lay in a stable at Bethlehem, not only for Shem’s chosen race, but for cursed Ham and Japheth’s tribe as well.10
Brother Josef wrote a song especially for the sisters:
Know sisters, the blessing of your ceaseless work for Christ. Driven by love, you spin and weave. You sew and wash with vigour. Now may the Saviour’s grace and love, be yours in joy forever! You Christ, mover of hearts, the ones who milk, who wash, and reap, look to you. They wait on you and long for the blessing from the wound in your side. While milking, washing, or reaping, all they can see is you! We live for you on earth. We spend our time working for you, day by day, until we may go to see you!11
Jacob John Sessler wrote:
As they made no distinction between secular and religious education, so they did not distinguish between secular and religious work. All work was religious. A religious spirit was put into the most menial tasks. Milking, spinning, washing, knitting, and all other occupations were services unto God, because the purpose of them was not to accumulate wealth but to support the itinerant preachers, teachers, and missionaries. As the apostle Paul worked with his hands that he might preach the gospel without cost to others, so the home congregation was diligent in its task as the chief servant of the pilgrim congregation. The stable caretaker was on a mission for the Lord as well as the missionary among the Indians.
Another reporter of life in the believers’ community wrote:
At Bethlehem the brothers counted it an honour to chop wood for the Master’s sake, and the fireman, Spangenberg [Brother Josef] said, felt his post as important “as if he were guarding the Ark of the Covenant.”12
Visitors to Bethlehem marvelled at the order in which everyone found something to do that fitted him or her exactly. Old men and boys, and sometimes women, herded cattle. A visitor in 1761 reported waking up in the morning to the sound of two sisters driving “a hundred cows, a number of them with bells, a venerable goat and two she-goats, down the street.” And all young people learned trades that transformed Bethlehem into a model of industry on the Pennsylvania frontier. A little Dresden perhaps? Or a Leipzig? Only ten years after the founding of Bethlehem its residents practised two hundred and twenty-seven different trades. They wove linen, taught school, baked bread, dyed and bleached cloth, shoed horses, bound books, tanned leather, butchered cattle and pigs, and made soap, nails, barrels, hats, shoes, clothing, furniture, pots, and nearly everything else a frontier settlement might need. Jacob John Sessler wrote:
Each trade had its masters and apprentices. They held regular meetings to control the quality of their products, to regulate prices, meet outside competition, and provide training. When outsiders came to buy wares, there was to be no bickering about prices. On the contrary, the prices set at the tradesmen’s meetings were to be strictly observed.
The General Economy had become a bee-hive of activity. The brothers wore clothes of fabric their own hands and machinery had woven, among which were to be found eleven qualities of linen. Their large pottery, the products of which were in great demand by outsiders, became famous. . . . Three sawmills converted rough-hewn timber into building materials. . . . The sisters did work suited to their abilities, such as baking, weaving, spinning, dyeing and tailoring. Since the economy was one large family the united strength of the group was exerted where the need was greatest. In busy seasons on the farms, some of the tradesmen left their shops to help in the harvest fields. And when members of the Pilgrim Congregation were not engaged, or were home for a while, they had to work wherever they could be of assistance.
Conscious of the Saviour’s presence among them, the believers at Bethlehem worked hard and kept an honest record of what they did. Every pound of butter, every egg, every leg of beef used in the choir houses got recorded. So did every bushel of grain harvested, and the number of lambs born in the spring. One visitor observed:
They mix the Saviour and his blood into their harrowing, mowing, washing, spinning, in short, into everything. The cattle yard becomes a temple of grace they conduct in a priestly manner.13
Brother Josef wrote:
In our economy the spiritual and the physical are as closely united as a man’s body and his soul, and each has a strong influence upon the other. As soon as all is not well with a brother’s heart we notice it in his work. But when he is rejoicing in Jesus’ wounds, and his love to the Lamb is tender, one takes note of it in his conduct immediately.
Community: The Human Element
“Everyone shares the spring house at Bethlehem,” one visitor wrote. “Each family has its shelf, and even though they place no watch there and the door is not locked, everyone is sure to find his plate of butter or his bowl of milk exactly like he left it when he comes back.”14
That the believers at Bethlehem, united through the Saviour’s blood, should treat one another kindly, could be expected. But not everything took place automatically. Some needed little reminders to keep relationships pleasant, as these announcements made at community meetings show:
No one shall dig through Adolf Meyer’s medicine cupboard when he is not around. . . . Whoever uses tools shall put them back where he got them. All brothers should try to use the tools more carefully. . . . The cows should be brought in early. The night watchman shall wake little Hans Tannenberger to be sure he gets up on time. . . . Sisters shall take off their stockings before coming into the Saal for footwashing. The way they do it now is not modest. . . . Brothers who sleep in Singstunde will get a written reminder from the choir leader.
Animals, the brothers agreed, should all be kept in fences, and they allowed only a few dogs in the community “as needed.” Brothers took turns cleaning streets. No peddlars could come to Bethlehem. No one had permission to stay out late, or loiter in the street. Parents were to keep their children at home and clean their chimneys regularly.
Every choir had its rules. Boys and girls should not mingle freely. No one should enter another’s room without a good reason, and two should never be in a room alone without a light. Idle talk, too much laughing, every sign of straying from Christ met with the prompt concern of brothers or sisters—usually those in charge. If their kind admonitions did not bring results, offenders appeared before the whole congregation to repent of their deeds or else (depending on how the lot fell) to say goodbye.
Within a year of their arrival at Bethlehem the brothers already had to deal with Matthias Hoffman for making vulgar remarks. “It was the brothers’ opinion that he should leave for a time,” the diary reports, “because he did not appreciate the advantages of living in the Saviour’s community enough.”
Even though outsiders thought it looked like “popish confession” the brothers and sisters at Bethlehem considered their monthly interviews one of those advantages. Living in responsibility one to another led them into freedom and peace. It propelled them outward with the good news of Christ and filled them with song. One writer described what happened:
Music was a must. The children in the choir houses ate their dinners off wooden trenchers, but they learned at an early age to play the violin, the viola da gamba, the flute or French horn, and to sing in a chorus. This was quite as important as the three R’s and even more so. The first settlers brought musical instruments with them. On January 25, 1744, a pinet, brought over on The Little Strength from London, reached Bethlehem. “In dulce Jubilo” was sung at a love feast on August 21, 1745, in thirteen different languages: Czech, German, Latin, Greek, English, French, Swedish, Dutch, Wendish, Gaelic, Welsh, Mohawk, and Mohican; and there were three persons there of three more nationalities, Danish, Polish, and Hungarian, who did not sing.15
The Wheel and the Hinge
Exulting in the harmony of their diversity, and with no greater desire than to please the Lamb by bringing more souls to him, the believers at Bethlehem appointed brothers to leave on regular excursions in every direction—like the spokes of a wheel. The Pilgerrad (Pilgrim Wheel) they called it, and looked forward to the day when every branch congregation established through it (like Schoeneck and Lititz toward Lancaster, Bethel in Berks County, and Hebron in Lebanon County) would become the hubs of new wheels. Eventually, they hoped, wheels upon wheels would cover all America, as in Ezekiel’s vision.
At the same time, the community at Bethlehem saw itself as only one leaf of a hinge. All believers, its pilgrims taught, hinge on Jesus Christ, the “nail in the middle” of his church that holds it securely and around which every congregation must revolve. With this in mind they “wandered far and wide through the American colonies, reaching isolated parts of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia no Christian minister had ever been seen. They penetrated the Alleghenies. They went as far north as Canajoharie in New York and Broadbay in Maine. They visited New Haven, Newport, Long Island, Staten Island, and nearby New Jersey.”16
“Concerning these pilgrims,” the Bishop Christian Friedrich Cammerhof wrote:
every one must be ready for service at all times. If our Saviour tells one of them to get up at 3:45 and go joyfully on his way, he must do so without hesitation. Nothing should keep him back from doing the Saviour’s will. On the other hand, if the Saviour tells any one to stay home and care for the farm, we thank him that he has chosen brothers to that work too. Their work and calling is a noble one too. The pilgrims’ work calls for a crossbearing character. They must be driven by nothing but the love of Christ. They must be ready to give up all other interests and economic pursuits for their calling.
Here in Bethlehem we cannot help but lay down our bodies, souls, and everything we have for the joy of Christ. We work on the foundation of what we feel in our hearts—a desire to do everything to serve the Lamb and his people. For this reason one sees so many busy hands in Bethlehem—in the blacksmith shop, at the wagon maker’s, in the carpenter’s shop, in the tannery, in the stables, and in countless other buildings and corners around the place. No one thinks, “I am doing this for me.” Even for the Indian brothers and sisters among us it would be a great punishment were we to tell them to work and live for themselves. Yes, and if anyone among us should think, “If I would work this hard in the world I could live a comfortable and prosperous life,” he would have to be out of his mind and crazy.
If only you could be here and see what is happening! One week you would see the tradesmen deep in their work and with nice operations going. Several weeks or a month later you would ask: “What happened to the master tanner?” Oh, he has gone to Muddy Creek! “Where is the shoemaker that did such good work?” Out beyond the Susquehanna! “Where is the master weaver?” He has gone to Maryland and Virginia! “What are they doing there? Are they studying to improve their professions or have they gone to earn more money?” No, instead of that they are using up our money to go among totally unknown people to tell them the Lamb of God bled and died for them.
This last winter, right when we had the most weaving to do, Leonhard Schnell (our master weaver) suddenly left for a three hundred mile journey on foot to Canahojarie, not even knowing whether he would get to preach there or not. Right before harvest, Joseph Powell, our assistant farm director, left for Shamokin on the Susquehanna to build a house and blacksmith shop among the Indians. And we gave him our blessing with a thousand joys.17
Two hundred and fifty-one years later I visited Shamokin again. . . .
1 Gesangbuch, 886
2 Marienborn Synod, Protokolle der Sitzungen 4. August, 1764
3 Fredric Klees, The Pennsylvania Dutch, pg. 99
4 Diarium Bethlehem, 31. Oktober, 1742
5 The last two of the six were never developed.
6 Children, after they turned eighteen months old, spent the day in nurseries, supervised by teams of sisters. When the congregation saw that this was not the best, the practice was discontinued and parents again assumed full responsibility for their own.
7 From the rules of the General Economy, adopted in 1744.
8 Jacob John Sessler, Communal Pietism
9 March 9, 1758
10 Auf ein Liebesmahl der Stallbrüder in Bethlehem, 31. Dezember, 1753
11 L. T. Reichel, The Early History of the Church of the United Brethren . . . in North America, Nazareth, 1888
12 Helmuth Erbe, Bethlehem Pa., eine Kommunistische Herrnhuter Kolonie des 18 Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart, 1929
13 Uttendörfer und Schmidt, Die Brüder, Gnadau, 1914
14 Isaac Weld, 1796
15 Fredric Klees, The Pennsylvania Dutch, pg. 103
16 ibid. pg. 98
17 Cammerhof an Wilhelm Zander in Berbice, 21. Januar 1747