Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 1741-1844
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was founded in 1741 by a group of Moravians, members of a church that traces its heritage to pre-Reformation fifteenth-century central Europe. The first Moravians on the North American continent immigrated from their community in Herrnhut, Saxony (Germany) and arrived in Savannah in the new British colony of Georgia in 1735. Missionary activity among the Native American population of the colony was the primary goal of these settlers; however, efforts to establish a permanent settlement in Georgia were stymied. The pacifist Moravians were expected to engage in military maneuvers to prepare for the threat of incursions by the Spanish from the south and possible attacks by the surrounding hostile natives. Unsympathetic officials and suspicious neighbors prompted the Moravian group to seriously question their initial settlement selection.
In 1740 the evangelist George Whitefield invited the remaining Moravians in Georgia to accompany him to Pennsylvania where he intended to establish a school in Nazareth for the orphan children of slaves. On May 30, 1740 the small group of Moravian travelers arrived in Nazareth; however, due to theological differences, the Moravian-Whitefield partnership was short lived. Although Nazareth would eventually become an important community for the Moravians, it was clear that Whitefield no longer welcomed them as part of his venture. Again, the group was forced to investigate an alternative settlement.
On April 2, 1741, William Allen deeded 500 acres at the junction of the Monocacy Creek and Lehigh River to the Moravian Church. The setting was ideal. It had fertile soil, ample lumber, and a plentiful water supply. Continued Moravian immigration and careful planning of the community is evidenced in the rapid growth of the settlement. By 1761 the settlements inhabitants erected over 50 buildings, maintained nearly 50 industries, and cleared over 2000 acres of Bethlehem-Nazareth land. Much credit for this early success can be attributed to the communal system in which these early settlers lived.
The disciplined, communal life of the settlers served a dual purpose. They were able to survive and thrive in a back woods location, as well as maintain a high standard of moral behavior by associating closely with those of the same spiritual convictions. A regimen of worship and work sustained early development in their new and sometimes hostile environment. The first years, 1741-1762, were based on a communal economy where all individual labors were directed toward the betterment of the community and support of its growing itinerancy and missionary efforts.
The close spiritual ties were maintained by living arrangements that divided the community into "Choirs" in which each person lived with others of like circumstance. Men, women and children were divided into groups based on their sex, age and marital status. These groups participated in common work and worship within their "Choir." These arrangements would alter when it became clear that Bethlehem was a self-sustaining community whose growth dictated change.
In 1762 the communal system was abandoned for a more family oriented settlement. This is not to say that the close bonds of community were loosened. Many aspects of the original organization remained with the major change being the move from a communal to a cash economy. Businesses were established when the Church-owned and operated enterprises gave way to individual operations. Although the Moravian Church continued to hold the vast majority of the land in Bethlehem, the land could be leased from the Church and used for homes or private businesses. This organization remained in place until 1844 when the community was opened to non-Moravians.
For over one hundred years Bethlehem was exclusively Moravian; however, it was not an isolated community. Bethlehem was an active, mutli-cultural center for trade and industry. Through its original purpose as the mission base in the New World to its social, political and economic adaptation, Bethlehem's history is intertwined with the history of a colony, a state and a nation.
Julia Maynard Maserjian