Visiting my daughter in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, gave me a chance to learn more about the Moravians, who founded Bethlehem in 1741 as their American headquarters. They made me think: there is more than one way of being a sect.
The Moravians were founded on the preaching of John Hus, a Czech priest who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his heterodox ideas, such as worship in the local language instead of Latin. His followers were persecuted—sometimes a lot, sometimes a little—for the next 300 years until some of them found protection from a German nobleman, Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf. He let them build a community on his land, and eventually they began to send out missionaries. Some went to America to reach native Americans and unchurched colonists, and Bethlehem was established. The Bethlehem Moravians carry on today: the town features their denominational college and seminary and their mother church, built to seat 1,500 even when there were only 500 residents of the town.
They weren’t the only sect in the neighborhood. Pennsylvania was founded on a tradition of religious tolerance, and many sects came there from Europe—Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and other less-known groups such as the Harmonists and the Dunkers. Most had experienced persecution because of fiercely held beliefs, and as a result they didn’t mix. For example, the Quakers, who have become such a sympathetic group, would shun not only those who married outside the Quaker meeting, but anybody who attended the wedding. They were sharply separatistic, as sects often are.
The Moravians were as “different” as any of these groups. They shared all possessions in common and lived in “choirs” based on gender and age, so that even married couples lived apart, and children were raised communally. Yet the Moravians’ distinctives were not ends in themselves, but (what they believed to be) practical approaches to their mission. They had come to America to share the good news of Jesus, and therefore reached out to their neighbors—all their neighbors. As I walked through their cemetery, laid out by Count von Zinzendorf in 1741, I saw many graves for African-Americans and native Americans mixed in with all the rest. I do not think you would find that in any other colonial graveyard in America.
Usually, groups that are open to outsiders gradually merge with the rest of society. It is fear of assimilation that keeps them from opening the doors too wide. Surely that is true today, not only for immigrant sects but for all groups that want to maintain their distinctive beliefs and character. The Moravians, whatever their faults, sought a distinctive life that was open. That is a trick I would like to master.