History's Headlines: Historic Moravian Bethlehem gets place on national landmark map
Founding father John Adams didn’t think much of any place in America that was not in New England, and particularly anything not in his beloved Boston. But sometimes Adams made an exception and Moravian Bethlehem was one.
On his way to Philadelphia in 1774 to attend the Continental Congress, he stopped there and, in a letter to his wife, noted Bethlehem’s order, neatness and public utilities- particularly its ingenious waterworks.
During a visit in 1777 Adams noted the beauty of its orchards and well-tended buildings, the tallest in the thirteen colonies north of Philadelphia. But being Adams he could not help adding a “crack” in his diary that the Moravian women, when gathered in prayer in their white caps, resembled rows of cabbage heads.
Today roughly 240 years after Adams' visit, the federal government officially recognized the patriot leader’s view.
On October 17th the heart of Moravian Bethlehem was named a National Historic Landmark District under a National Park Service program. It is usually partnered with the better known National Register of Historic Places. But the National Historic Landmark designation, of which there are about 2,500 in the country, is even more exclusive than the National Register which has 85,000 sites nationwide. Among other Lehigh Valley National Landmark sites is the home of Declaration of Independence signer George Taylor in Catasauqua.
Historic Bethlehem Partnership’s president Charlene Donchez Mowers described herself as “floating” at the news, which will add status to the historic district and perhaps make it easier to compete for grants for future preservation projects.
The story of Moravian Bethlehem’s birth began in the early 18th century when a wealthy and religiously pious German nobleman named Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf decided to revive a religious sect known as the Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brethren. During the religious wars of the 17th century they had almost been wiped out by violence and intolerance.
Forbidden to practice their beliefs, they went underground until revived by Zinzendorf. It was his idea to create a communal colony for them in America in order that they might be missionaries to the Native Americans and unchurched German settlers of the New World.
After several attempts that were unsuccessful, Zinzendorf set his eyes on founding a city for his sect in William Penn’s religiously tolerant colony of Pennsylvania.
Because they had not been in America long enough they could not buy land, so for the task they selected Henry Antes, a non-Moravian but a close friend of the church’s leadership. Dealing with Nathaniel Irish, the agent for William Allen, the region’s largest land owner, Antes brought 500 acres of land for the Moravians to settle on. Along with acquiring property Antes may have played an even larger role of helping to design many of the early buildings of Moravian Bethlehem.
Antes' roots went back to a noble family in the German state of Rhenish Palatinate that had lost its property and title. He left Europe in 1720 but not before acquiring the skills of millwright, builder and master carpenter. Antes established himself in the 1730s, on a property in what is now Frederick Township, Montgomery County.
Here he built a home where he lived with his wife and 11 children, 9 of whom survived into adulthood. Although he had no interest in joining any particular church (he believed in tolerance for all faiths), Antes, who had read deeply on the subject, enjoyed many a lively conversation on theology with the Moravians. It may have been the fact that many of them, like him, were self-educated tradesmen, that made them so interesting to him.
Over the years some scholars have come to believe that it was actually Antes who designed and built many of Moravian Bethlehem’s buildings. In 1967 historian William Murtagh wrote that Antes “seems to have masterminded many of the building activities of the Moravians.”
Tim Noble, a historian-preservationist with the Goshenhoppen Historians who has studied Antes' work closely in both Europe and America, is convinced that Antes built the Moravian buildings. If he did so it is interesting to note that art apparently ran in the blood- his grandson was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was widely recognized as America’s first professional architect.
Whoever built the Moravian buildings, it is the history behind them that makes them important. On a hot July morning in 1755 a colonial rider name Nicholas Scull surprised the Moravians at prayer in the Bell House with the shocking news that the British army of General Braddock had been wiped out following a surprise attack by Native Americans. It is widely recognized as the start of the French and Indian War.
That December Moravian Bishop Augustus Spangenberg, a Prussian by birth, turned the Single Brethren House into a castle to protect the community from possible Indian attacks over the winter. At the Sun Inn, now a skilled reconstruction of the original, the elite of colonial America- from John Adams and his rival Benjamin Franklin to French noblemen serving the cause of Independence- came to spend the night.
Although the stirring times of the American Revolution ended in 1783, the buildings continued to be a focal point of community and religious life. And the elegant Federal style Central Moravian Church in the early 19th century added yet another splendid structure to the community.
Over the years much changed around them. Some like the Sun Inn were so altered in the 19th century they were virtually unrecognizable as colonial buildings.
Although never wholly neglected, Bethlehem’s Moravian buildings are better cared for today than ever. Inhabiting a park like setting it is easy to understand why it was placed on the list of national landmarks.
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