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Reading 2: The Choir System

Establishing a missionary center in North America was the primary concern of the Moravians who settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1741. The Moravians believed that to be an effective missionary, that is, one that successfully brings new members to the church, every member's spiritual core needed continual support. They created a strong, tightly knit community to provide that support. In fact, the Moravians came to the colony of Pennsylvania with a strong social organization already in place. During their stay in Herrnhut, Saxony, the Moravians found that individuals who share the same situation often develop a strong bond that provides encouragement and support to all. As a result, they began to organize members into communal living groups called choirs.

Choirs were established according to age, gender, and marital status. Children remained with their parents during infancy, but at the age of 18 months they began to be cared for in nurseries. Boys and girls lived together in the nursery until they turned four, when they became members of the Little Boys' Choir or the Little Girls' Choir. From ages 12 to 19, girls and boys belonged to the Older Girls' Choir or the Older Boys' Choir. From age 19 until marriage, the women belonged to the Single Sisters' Choir and the men belonged to the Single Brethren Choir. Married adults lived in the Married Peoples' Choir.

Members of the same choir ate, worked, worshiped, slept in dormitories, and attended school together. This communal living arrangement strengthened the unity of the society as a whole because members relied on choir-mates for support rather than their siblings or parents. The community was divided into two groups: the missionary or pilgrim group called Pilgermeine, and the home group called Hausgemeine. Under the choir system the missionary group members were free to fulfill their duties without the worry of child care and daily housework.

While Moravians valued hard work, education, and a simple lifestyle, their lives were not all work. Zinzendorf believed that the goals of all men should be the "love of Christ" and the "brotherhood of man." One of the ways he encouraged community closeness was through Lovefeasts, community religious services that incorporated food and drink. Music was another very important part of the daily life of the Moravians, and the singing of hymns occurred on a regular basis throughout the day.

In the Choir system, the entire congregation depended on each other to fulfill the goals of the church as a whole. Rather than receive money for their work, members were supplied with food, shelter, an education, community support, and a place to worship. The members who were missionaries were supported by the labor of the members who lived in Bethlehem year round. Immigrants to Bethlehem even were chosen by church leaders according to the skills they could contribute and the needs of the community.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What was the primary purpose of the Moravian settlement at Bethlehem?

2. What is a choir? Why did the Moravians establish this communal way of life?

3. How do you think the communal lifestyle of the Moravians contributed to their goals?

Reading 2 was adapted from Dr. Hellmuth Erbe, A Communistic Herrnhut Colony of the Eighteenth Century. Elizabeth Bahnsen, trans. (Stuttgart: German Foreign Institute, 1929); Joseph Mortimer Levering, A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: 1741-1892 (Bethlehem, PA: Times Publishing Company, 1903); and W. Ross Yates, Bethlehem of Pennsylvania: The First Hundred Years, 1741-1841 (Bethlehem, PA: Bethlehem Chamber of Congress, 1968).

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