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Everyday Religious Questions: Roots of Moravian Church go back 1,000 years

Everyday Religious Questions: Roots of Moravian Church go back 1,000 years

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Q: I know that Winston-Salem is closely associated with the Moravian Church. Can you tell us more about Moravians?

Answer: In the mid-9th century, influenced by two Greek Orthodox missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, the regions of Moravia and Bohemia converted to Christianity.

The church eventually became a part of the Roman Catholic Church, but Moravians wanted to use their native language and rituals in worship. Their leader was John Hus, rector of the Prague Cathedral. He had been greatly influenced by John Wycliffe, who also influenced the Protestant Reformers.

Hus was summoned to Rome where he was accused of denying the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

While in prison, he wrote, “The Body of Christ” affirming his belief in Christ’s real presence. Still, he was condemned and burned at the stake in 1415 AD.

A rebellion ensued, and in 1457 the Moravians constituted a new church called Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren) in Kunvald, Bohemia. Eventually it became known as the Moravian Church, the first Protestant Church. Its founding was sixty years before the Lutheran Reformation.

In the 18th century, a group of Moravians migrated to Germany. A settlement called Herrnhut was established on the estate of Nicholas Von Zinzendorf.

From Germany, some Moravians moved into England; and in 1735, a few undertook a trip to Savannah, Ga.

It is interesting that John Wesley, father of Methodism, was aboard the ship. During a storm, he observed the quiet nature of the Moravians and wrote in his diary, “I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, and would receive no pay, saying, ‘it was good for their proud hearts and their loving Saviour had done more for them.’

“And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were struck, or thrown down, they rose again; but no complaint was found in their mouth.

“There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’”

I found Wesley’s account to be insightful into the nature of the Moravians.

A suggestion for readers is the “Diary of the Moravian Journey” probably written by a man named Brother Grube. The document can be found in Moravian Church Archives here in Winston-Salem. It gives a daily account of the journey to North Carolina.

These Moravians were dedicated to their religion, their purpose, and each other. A diary entry for Nov. 21, 1753, reads, “Finally we partook of the Sacrament for the first time in North Carolina. Our hearts were deeply moved by His grace, as we sang an appropriate hymn, and our love for one another was strengthened. Then we spread our blankets, and lay peacefully down in our little church — as the cabin seemed after the service.”

The Moravians founded a settlement called Bethabara and, six years later in 1759, the town of Bethania, the oldest town in Forsyth County.

Salem, or what locals refer to as Old Salem, was established in 1766.

Two events speak for the Moravians.

The first 4th of July celebration was held in Old Salem.

Presently, on that date the area is darkened with only candlelight from the windows of the houses and a rather quiet reenactment takes place for a thoughtful celebration of our country’s independence.

The Moravians did not participate in the Revolutionary War, but they offered food and medical care to both sides.

The other event is the moving Sunrise Service at Easter with people of all denominations gathering to celebrate the Risen Christ.

I asked Bishop Lane Sapp, who pastors Calvary Moravian Church, to comment on the role of the Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.

He feels that Moravians can play a role in bringing our divided culture to unity. Moravians believe in brotherhood and unity; and they say, “Grow in faith, live in love, share in hope as we journey with Jesus.”

Earl Crow taught religion and philosophy at High Point University. He has pastored churches and still performs weddings, preaches and offers seminars. He majored in religion at Duke University and attended the Duke Divinity School and has studied at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and received his doctorate from the University of Manchester, England. His column is published Saturdays in the Journal If you have questions about religion or faith, email Earl Crow at


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