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Reading 3: Moravian Town Planning

The Moravian's belief system produced a closely knit community structure that dictated the way people lived, studied, worked, and worshiped. Every member recognized that they belonged not only to the Bethlehem community, but to the larger Moravian community around the world. The town of Bethlehem was not founded or settled by chance. In fact, the planning for all Moravian settlements took place at the headquarters in Herrnhut and included plans for individual settlements as well as plans for the larger network of all of the settlements in a specific area.

Bethlehem was designed to be "the nerve center of the North American empire" and the industrial center. As the nerve center, the community of Bethlehem had to provide economic support for the headquarters in Herrnhut as well as spiritual and economic support for the outlying missions. As the industrial center, Bethlehem's residents worked at crafts and industries that turned raw goods into finished products for themselves and the nearby agricultural Moravian settlements of Nazareth, Nain, Lititz, Emmaus, Lebannon, and Hope. Each community was an important part of the larger network laid out by the Moravian headquarters.

The design for Bethlehem reflected Moravian religious beliefs. Streets, residences, community buildings, and industrial sites were carefully located according to their function. Allowances were made for growth as well as accommodations for the traveling missionaries and visitors. Bethlehem, like Herrnhut, was organized around a central square (Der Platz), which was intended to remain as open space. The first buildings in Bethlehem were constructed of wood because timber was readily available, and it was necessary to provide shelter quickly. Imitating a practice found in Germany, the first log structure was built to house the settlers as well as their animals. Within a short time, work began on the Gemeinhaus, one of the largest log structures ever erected in the country. A gemeinhaus, or community house, was a central part of 18th-century Moravian settlements.

Built in 1744, the original Single Brethren House was the first individual choir building as well as the first stone building in Bethlehem. Almost all buildings after this were constructed out of local stone. The structure exhibits features typical of Moravian architecture in America such as red brick window arches, small windows, herringbone patterned wood doors, and roof dormers. In 1748, the Single Brethren moved into a larger building, and this structure became the home of the Single Sisters' Choir.

While most Moravian communities in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia, produced agricultural products, Bethlehem produced finished goods. In 1750, almost one half of the labor force worked at an industrial craft, while only about a quarter worked in farming. The importance of industry to the Moravians in Bethlehem was readily apparent in the priorities for building construction--industrial buildings such as the tannery were built at the same time as the first residential buildings. By the 1750s, approximately 40 different types of crafts and industries operated in Bethlehem including a blacksmith, locksmith, millwright, tailor, carpenter, clockmaker, cabinetmaker, and tanner.

From 1741 to 1762, Bethlehem operated as a cooperative, communal society referred to as "The General Economy." Under this system, individuals did not own their own land or businesses. After 1762, members were allowed to operate their own businesses and build family homes by leasing land owned by the church. In 1844, the lease system was abolished, and church land actually could be purchased.

The tranquil, isolated lifestyle of the Moravians in Bethlehem was occasionally interrupted and eventually altered permanently. During the American Revolution a temporary hospital was established there for the wounded from battles at Morristown, New Jersey, and Brandywine Creek. British prisoners were housed in Bethlehem for several months during the war. In 1829, the Lehigh Canal opened and traffic in coal began. Soon bridges were built over the Lehigh River and south Bethlehem began its growth as an industrial center, first with a small iron factory and then with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. The town grew when production rose during World War I, and newcomers began to dilute traditional Moravian society.

Today, Bethlehem remains the northern seat of the Moravian community in the United States. Although many of the industrial buildings later erected along Monocacy Creek were destroyed by fire or demolished in the 19th century, four of the original structures survive and are being, or have been, restored to their original appearance. The original church and choir buildings not only exist but have been in continuous use since their construction.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What responsibilities did the settlement at Bethlehem have to the larger Moravian congregation?

2. How did the Moravians' belief system affect the way they planned their communities?

3. What type of economy determined the organization and planning in Bethlehem? How was this different from other colonial towns?

4. List some of the external events that affected the Moravian community in Bethlehem.

Reading 3 was adapted from Gilliam Gollin, Moravians in Two Worlds: A Study of Changing Communities (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967); Joseph Mortimer Levering, A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: 1741-1892 (Bethlehem, PA: Times Publishing Company, 1903); William J. Murtagh, Moravian Architecture and Town Planning (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967); Ralph Grayson Schwarze, Bethlehem on the Lehigh (Bethlehem, PA: The Bethlehem Area Foundation, 1991); and T. Vadasz, The History of an Industrial Community: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1741-1920 (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1975).

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