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History's Headlines: Nazareth's Gray Cottage Welcomes Visitors

VIDEO: History's Headline; Nazareth's...

Nazareth’s Gray Cottage is not your average Abe Lincoln-esque log cabin. With its high peaked roof, closeable shutters and almost cute little dormer, it looks like it would be more at home in a wooded part of Germany’s Black Forest than a clearing in Kentucky. “It feels more like a hug,” says Megan Van Ravensway, the director of the Moravian Historical Society, which has owned the cottage since 1978.

The reason is simple enough. It was built by Moravians, immigrants from 18th century central Europe. It holds the unique distinction, having been built in 1740, of being the oldest existing building erected by Moravians in North America. “They were the Swiss and German folks, the millwrights and carpenters who were sent out first, “says Van Ravensway. “They picked out the white oak that the cottage was made of because they knew it would endure.”

Over the last 277 years Gray Cottage has managed to survive. And starting this month it is re-opening for tours. This year is also the 160th anniversary of the MHS, which was founded in 1857, making it the third oldest historical society in the state.

These are new “behind the scenes” tours of Gray Cottage. For now, they are being planned for the MHS’s Second Saturday of the Month Event. More may be added later. “Watch our website for more information,” says Van Ravensway.  

Some people might view the Gray Cottage and imagine it as it appears today: a peaceful dwelling away from the turbulence of the outside world. And time and distance did make for a quieter world in that way. But a survey of Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, the closest thing to an accurate news source that the colony had in 1740, suggests that it had its share of troubles and problems. Some of them in a part of the world the Moravians knew well. That August the paper ran a long article about the possibility of a general European war brought on by the warrior monarch Frederick the Great of Prussia against Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. He objected that as a woman she had no real right to rule. The strong-willed empress begged to differ.

That December Frederick’s attempt to seize Austria’s province of Silesia sparked a war that lasted eight years, brought in England, France and Spain and spelled over into America, where it was known after the English king as King George’s War. Closer to home a notice appeared in the paper that year trying to recruit men for a privateering expedition, “for attacking and plundering the most valuable part of the Spanish West Indies.” England and Spain had gone to war a year before over trading disputes in the Caribbean. Among those listed as doing the recruiting for the “plundering” expedition in Bucks County, of which the Lehigh Valley was then a part, was Nathaniel Irish, an agent for William Allen. Allen had extensive shipping interests in the Caribbean, including illegally trading Pennsylvania flour to slave owners in what is now Columbia. A year later Irish would act as the contact in selling the Moravians Allen’s land that became Bethlehem.

The biggest news in the northern colonies in the fall of 1740 was the arrival of English evangelist George Whitefield from Georgia. The Gazette reported crowds that numbered in the thousands at Newport, Rhode Island greeted his arrival and powerful preaching.  “He entertained a vast Numbers of People who flock’d from All Quarters both in Town and Country…many of them could not refrain from shedding tears,” the paper noted. In Boston, Whitefield filled a church to overflowing and crowds spilled out on Boston Common, estimated by the Gazette as 8,000.  Franklin, who later became friends with Whitefield for his good works to the poor if not his rigid Calvinist theology, estimated, by attending a prayer rally in Philadelphia, that the evangelist’s powerful voice could be heard by slightly over 30,000.

Franklin also took a personal interest in at least one of Whitefield’s projects, helped in the collection of money for it and perhaps donated some funds to it himself. Sometime in 1740 the following advertisement appeared in his newspaper:

“The Rev. Mr. Whitefield, having taken up 5,000 acres of Land on the Forks of the Delaware, in the Province of Pennsylvania, in order to erect a Negroe School there and to settle a Town thereon with his Friends; all Persons who please to contribute to the said School, may pay their contributions to Mr. Benezet Merchant, in Philadelphia, Mr. Noble in New York, Mr. Gilbert Tennent in New Brunswick, New Jersey or to the Printer of this Paper (Franklin).”

It was to build the school that Whitefield had brought the Moravians to this property, the future site of Nazareth. They had arrived in the newly formed colony of Georgia only to find themselves caught in a dispute between its founder Gen. James Oglethrope and the Spanish governor of Florida. He claimed Georgia could not become an English colony because it was part of the Spanish colony of Florida. When the Moravians refused to join the forces Oglethrope was gathering to take on the governor, they were attacked as disloyal.  Whitefield agreed to re-locate them to land in Pennsylvania.  By the summer and fall of 1740 they were already at work on buildings on the site including the Gray Cottage.

These were far from easy times. The dry winter and spring had been followed by a wet summer and fall, making building difficult. As if these problems were not enough, Whitefield’s arrival in Philadelphia unexpectedly added more. A strict believer in the doctrine of predestination, that from all eternity God had condemned some people to heaven and others to hell, Whitefield was shocked to hear that the Moravians did not see things that way. An argument followed that led to the evangelist ordering them off his property. It was Irish’s appeal to Whitefield that allowed the Moravians to stay on the property until spring. It was during this time in October/November 1740 that the Moravians built both First House, their first space in Nazareth and the Gray Cottage. The following spring the Moravians purchased the land on which Bethlehem was founded. On July 16, 1741, Whitefield, on the verge of bankruptcy and needing money to support some other religious ventures, sold all his Nazareth property to the Moravians.

From 1743 to 1745 the Gray Cottage was a boys school. From 1745 to 1749 it offered living space for students at a girls school. And from 1755 to 1768 it was home to Moravian widows.  During the French and Indian War the Gray Cottage also offered shelter to refugees fleeing the fighting. “At the time buildings were surrounded by a wooden stockade,” says Van Ravensway. From 1858 to 1889 the Cottage was a privately owned and eventually became housing for retired missioners. In the 1970s and 80s repairs and preservation work was done on the building and a kitchen and plumbing were added.

First House had a good long life but finally fell apart in 1864. Whitefield House, a stone building also begun by the Moravians in 1740 was not completed until 1743. Today it is the home of the MHS’s museum.

Van Ravensway is hoping to use some recent grant money to restore the Gray Cottage. “It is my vision to see it being used by school children as a place to learn history,” she says     

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