December 24, 1741: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is founded

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

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

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

BbethlehemIn 1741 a small group of the “Unitas Fratrum” settled on the banks of the Monocacy Creek near the Lehigh River in Eastern Pennsylvania. The settlers were part of a German speaking sect which had been founded by followers of John Hus, who had been burned at the stake 100 years before Martin Luther for trying to reform the Catholic Church. They called themselves “Moravians” because many of the founders came from the province of Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic.

The Moravians had been sent out from their homeland 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 “Unitas Fratrum” promoted what they called the “theology of the heart”. They tried to focus on the essential relationship between Christ and the believer rather than being overly concerned about doctrinal differences between churches. Christianity was defined as faith in Christ, love for one another and the world, and hope for the future.

The community they were founding was above all to be joyful. Daily life should be marked by joy in the presence of Christ in every activity. They would live 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. They 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, the Moravians’ 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.

Joseph Mortimer Levering’s History of Bethlehem sets the scene:

“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. One who was present wrote long afterward: “The impression I there received is yet fresh in my memory, and will remain until my end.”

With this episode a thought came to one and another which gave rise to a perpetual memorial of the occasion, signalizing it as peculiarly historic and enhancing its romantic interest. No name had yet been given to the settlement.

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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