George Washington, rock star? Well maybe the father of this country is not the first name you think of after Elvis, but in the America of 1782, when Washington stopped at Bethlehem’s Sun Inn, he was very popular with a lot of patriot folks in the country.
So it is understandable why, when a Moravian lady, as we might say today a “fan,” asked him for lock of his hair, it was a request he was glad to oblige.
That errant lock from Washington, carefully preserved, has for a long time been at home at the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth’s Whitefield House, a space he society has occupied for a long time.
Founded in 1857, when Pennsylvanians were celebrating the election of favorite son James Buchanan of Lancaster to the White House, the society has managed to survive, keeping its Moravian heritage intact and preserving a remarkable collection of items. Among them are the heartfelt religious paintings of 18th century Moravian master artist John Valentine Haidt, who once gave painting lessons to Benjamin West, America’s first internationally known artist, and artifacts related to Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, the Moravian church leader who founded Bethlehem.
Megan van Ravenswaay, the current director of the society’s museum, who took over last January after having worked for the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, notes that the scale of collection is mind-boggling. “When I walk into our collection area my jaw drops,” she says. “We have the oldest clavichord (a small keyboard instrument with a soft tone that was one of the many predecessors to the piano) in the country, and the oldest violin. The Moravians really were at the cradle of the American Revolution and so much of the art and culture of the time.”
Since 1871 the Moravian Historical Society has been housed in a beautiful park like setting at the Whitefield House, the oldest existing Moravian site in North America.
Built between 1740 and 1743 it takes its name from George Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher of the 18th century who for a time worked with the Moravians but had a falling out with them over theology. It was apparently one of those hair-splitting debates right out of the Middle Ages with university trained academic theologians throwing Latin phrases at each other.
Originally called simply the “stone house,” Whitefield housed the 33 newly married couples who founded the Moravian settlement of Nazareth. It later served as a girls school and refuge for frontier settlers fleeing the violence of the French and Indian War in the 1750s.
John Jordan Jr., vice president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, purchased the building in 1870. He extensively remodeled the interior, which included constructing the present main entrance and stairway. The first floor was to be used for the Moravian Society for Propagating the Gospel, a missionary group. Jordan stipulated that its second floor be turned over to the historical society for use as a museum.
In 1907 the Whitefield House was given indoor plumbing and electric lights. The property was turned over to the society in 1978 and when the Whitefield House’s last tenants moved out in 1990, the entire building became museum space, which was extensively renovated in 1995.
At first the Moravian Historical Society’s museum was like many 19th century museums. When people did not know what to do with something that had been gathering dust in the attic they decided to give it to the museum. Thus the collection grew beyond things that had any links to the Moravian Church or Moravian history. Apparently this is what led to the museum ending up with lock of Washington’s hair and pieces of the catafalque that bore the body of Abraham Lincoln. As much as this practice added to the society’s extensive collection, it tended to make people think of museums as musty spaces that were for dull, musty people. Even the elite Smithsonian Institution in Washington came to be known as the “national attic.”
Today many museums still battle with this image problem. And van Ravenswaay admits that in the current tough environment for museums it is crucial that change comes to places like the Moravian Historical Society’s museum. “The days when museums could house exhibits that never changed with staff people running around hushing visitors are over,” she says. “I want to see the museum full of children and laughter. I want to open the doors and share what we have with the Lehigh Valley and the country.”
In order to do this van Ravenswaay notes that the museum has joined forces with the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem. She notes that she works closely with Paul Peucker, Archives director and internationally known Moravian scholar. “We maintain separate collections and separate books,” says van Ravenswaay, “but we decided that since we are only 10 miles away and are geared toward the same audience it made sense to share staff and resources.”
In keeping with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Moravian Historical Society’s current exhibit is titled “United By God, Divided by Man: The Moravian Struggle During American Civil War.” The War Between the States split the Moravian Church as it did many denominations with national memberships. Arguments for and against the Union and the subject of slavery led literally to brother fighting against brother. The exhibit looks at the stories of soldiers, the church’s role in the war effort and the sacrifices made by many.
On June 9th the society will be holding its Arts and Crafts event that will include fun for all ages. “We want history to be both educational and fun and want everyone to join us. Moravian history is American history and it is for everyone.”