The trombones of Christmas: A story of old Bethlehem
Try to imagine a time quieter than anyone alive today has known. A lone dog’s bark, a musket’s discharge, a swinging ax striking a log, or perhaps the clang of a bell, are loud enough to be heard for miles. Then a profound silence once more prevails. This is the Pennsylvania frontier, the Lehigh Valley in the mid- 18th century.
But in the year 1755, into this world of deep silence, at Bethlehem, a communal settlement refuge of the much persecuted Moravian sect, come rumbles from far across the sea. Armies, in lands the Moravians had fled ruled by absolute monarchs in gilded palaces who waged wars at the whims of titled courtesans, were once more on the march. The contest for empire between England and France was about to arrive at Bethlehem’s doorstep.
As active missionaries to the Native Americans the Moravians were no strangers to the previous wars on the frontier using the Indians as surrogates for imperial gains. And as the Moravians conducted their missions under the protection of the English crown, they had no wish to see victory given to the forces of France’s Louis XV.
As Christmas approached, the holy holiday on which their spiritual leader Count von Zinzendorf had blessed them by founding their community less than 20 years before, it brought reflection.
That summer, the driest they had known since coming to Pennsylvania, had parched them. And at the drought’s height came that horrible July morning. It was a Saturday and the congregation had been entering the chapel, now known as the Bell House, for morning prayers when a faint sound of a horse’s hoofs pounding at an alarming speed broke the quiet.
Only a fool with no respect for his mount would drive it in such heat, only a fool or a king’s messenger bound on an urgent errand for the British Crown. And as he rode into Bethlehem with the royal crest and the words “On His Majesty’s Service” on his saddle bags, there was no doubt that is what it was.
The rider was Nicolas Scull, long known as a minor colonial official. Along with the desire for a fresh mount and guide to the fastest route north to Albany to the army’s general headquarters, he brought chilling news. The crack force of British regulars led by General Edward Braddock had been wiped out in ambush just outside Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh. There was nothing to protect the frontier from French-inspired Indian attacks.
Since the arrival of William Penn in1689 the relations between whites and Native Americans on the Pennsylvania frontier had been relatively peaceful. But now they were about to become horribly bad.
The settlers had come, hearing there were vast lands available for settlement in Pennsylvania, and had risked all to make a new life. The Indians saw more and more of their hunting ground taken and their way of life threatened.
It began with raids on isolated cabins and farms. Indians used tactics and methods that they traditionally used in warfare, ones that often made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The settlers when they captured Indians often responded with equal ferocity.
Despite their missionary outreach and general sympathy for the Native Americans, the Moravians were not immune to the violence that sprung out of the French and Indian war. On November 24, 1755, 11 members of their mission at Gnadenhutten, now Lehighton, were killed in a raid by Native Americans. Three of those killed were converts. Some residents of Bethlehem claimed they could see the smoke from the burning cabins.
What it meant in Bethlehem was a wrenching change from a quiet site of religious refuge to a semi-fortress whose 5 story buildings were mini-castles, nearly impregnable to a Native American enemy without cannon.
That December there were 1,500 people in Bethlehem, a space built to hold 500. Overseeing it all was the community’s leader Moravian Bishop Augustus Spangenberg, a strong-willed cleric whose Prussian roots seemed to make him ideally suited to the task.
Spangenberg’s defenses even impressed Benjamin Franklin, who passed through Bethlehem that December on the orders of Pennsylvania’s Governor Robert Hunter Morris with a militia force.
“The principal buildings were defended by a stockade; they had…even placed quantities of small paving stones between the windows of their high stone houses, for their woman to throw them down upon the heads of any Indians that should attempt to force into them. The armed brethren too kept watch and relieved each other to guard as methodically as in any garrison town,” Franklin later wrote in his Autobiography. .
Despite reports from Moravian Indian converts of a sneak attack being planned on Christmas day, the Moravians were not about to overlook the birth of Christ. They went ahead with their Christmas Eve love feast. And early the next morning the trombone choir climbed out to proclaim the holy day of their Savior’s birth.
Some say that the Indians were not planning an attack that Christmas. Others say they were and that the sound of the trombones scared the attackers away. While it is impossible to prove or disprove a negative, one thing is clear, no attack took place. The Moravians considered it a small miracle and willingly accepted it as such.
With that Christmas moment the extreme tension over Bethlehem seems to have passed. There would be other harrowing times there before the war ended and true peace returned. But the crises of 1755 had been survived thanks at least in part to the trombones of Christmas.
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