December 24, 1741: First Christmas in Bethlehem, PA

Jesus, call Thou me
   from the world to Thee;
      Speed me ever, stay me never;
         Jesus, Call Thou me.

Not Jerusalem –
   lowly Bethlehem
beth2       ‘Twas that gave us Christ to save us;
          Not Jerusalem.

Favored Bethlehem!
   honored is that name;
      Thence came Jesus to release us;
         Favored Bethlehem!

In 1741 a small group of the “Unitas Fratrum” settled on the banks of the Monocacy Creek near the Lehigh River in Eastern Pennsylvania.

The German speaking settlers had been sent out from their homeland in Moravia to bring the good news of salvation and hope to the heathens. They had reached out to slaves in the Caribbean, the Inuit in Labrador, to natives in Surinam, Guyana, and South Africa, and here in Pennsylvania they would reach out to the Delaware and Mohicans.

The Moravians promoted the “theology of the heart” which focussed on the essential relationship between Christ and the believer, rather than the doctrinal differences between churches. Christianity was defined as faith in Christ, love for one another and the world, and hope for the future.

Their communities were above all to be joyful. Daily life should be marked by joy in the presence of Christ in every activity. They lived communally, the “brothers” in one house and the “sisters” in another. They placed their trust in God to help them, and picked their leaders and even their marriages by lot, and shared a simple meal, a lovefeast, during worship remembering that Jesus ate his meals not only with his disciples but also with sinners.

On Christmas Eve of 1741, their patron, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf arrived from Saxony to visit the new settlement. The brothers and sisters gathered in the two-room log home that they had just built to welcome the Count and to worship and give thanks, while their cattle and horses and pigs and chickens settled in the stable side of the house.

“Their humble sanctuary, with beasts of the stall sharing its roof, brought the circumstances of the Saviour’s birth vividly before their imagination. With the forest about them, stretching away to where heathen multitudes lived in ignorance of Immanuel, the relation between the subject of that holy night and their purpose towards those dwellers in the forest possessed their minds. It stirred the quick fancy of the Count, always keenly responsive to such impressions.

Acting upon an impulse, he rose and led the way into the part of the building in which the cattle were kept, while he began to sing the quaintly pretty words of a German Epiphany hymn which combined Christmas thoughts and missionary thoughts, as suggested by the homage of heathen sages before the infant Jesus, and made conspicuous in the character given the observance of Epiphany among the Brethren in those days of first missionary zeal. Its language expressed well the feeling of that hour, and the place in which it was sung made the vision of the manger seem very real.

The little town of Bethlehem was hailed, its boon to mankind was lauded, the star that guided the magi to the spot and the light of the gentiles there beaming forth were sought, humble supplication at the Redeemer’s feet was uttered in successive stanzas, and then the song ended.

No name had yet been given to the settlement, but that vigil service and that hymn suggested one. By general consent the name of the ancient town of David was adopted and the place was called Bethlehem.”


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