The spiritual journey for the Moravian brethren into the North Carolina wilderness began in 1722 when the religious reform leader Count Nicholas Louis Von Zinzendorf offered refuge on his state in the Saxony region of Germany to a group of religious dissidents from Moravia. The Unity of the Brethren eventually lived in the town of Herrnhut, Germany. Since many came from Moravia, their neighbors described them simply as "the Moravians."
The denomination was almost wiped out during the religious wars of the 1600s. After their rebirth under Zinzendorf's leadership, they became the first Protestant missionaries. In the 1730s Moravian societies were established in Holland, England and Denmark....as well as such far away places as Greenland, Surinam, Zanzibar and in the new world. Their first mission in the British Colonies was in Savannah, but they eventually traveled north to Pennsylvania where the church had bought two tracts of land. They founded Nazareth and Bethlehem and as those towns prospered, the brethren wanted to spread the Gospels to an area without churches...and they wanted a large tract of inexpensive land on the frontier to find the freedom to practice their religion in peace.
The settlement of Bethabara in what is today Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was founded on November 17, 1753 when fifteen Moravian brethren arrived after walking from Pennsylvania. The Moravians, or Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), were German-speaking Protestants. As followers of Jan Hus, a Bohemian heretic who was burned at the stake in 1415, the Moravians are acknowledged as the first Protestants, pre-dating the Lutherans by 100 years. Bethabara became the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina. It was the beginning of a series of Moravian settlements on the 100,000-acre tract that the Moravians had purchased on the Carolina frontier.
Bethabara ("House of Passage") was a center for religion, governance, trade, industry, culture, education, and the arts. The Moravians constructed over 75 buildings during the first 20 years of the settlement's existence. During the French and Indian War (1753-1762), Bethabara and its two forts served as defensive centers for regional settlers and a supply depot for the Catawba allies of the British.
The second of the villages of Wachovia, Bethania, was laid out in 1759, in part to deal with the crowded conditions brought on by refugees. After only 13 years in the wilderness, some 166 people lived in the two communities. Even in these difficult times the Moravians never lost sight of their master plan for Wachovia. They saw the surrounding forest as a friend, not as any enemy to be pushed back. Johann Christian Reuter, a surveyor, was appointed forester to oversee the cutting of trees.
Settlements began in other parts of Wachovia... Friedburg in 1773, Hope in 1776 and Friedland in 1780. Salem became the focal point of Wachovia trade and religious life. It was completed in 1771 and the Wachovia administration moved from Bethabara in 1772. A new Gemeinhaus, or congregational church, still standing today in Bethabara, was built in 1788. But Bethabara as a town had ceased to grow and expand. It was but one of several agricultural villages in Wachovia, with a tavern, church, and a few tradesmen.
As the years passed, Bethabara became less of a town and more of a farm. Its purpose was to provide food for the residents of Salem. slave, Johann Samuel, was named the farm superintendent in 1788 and was granted his freedom in 1801, allowing him to rent land here from the church. The closed local shared economy, with everything owned and controlled through the church, had come to an end after nearly 50 years. Throughout the 1800s, Bethabara continued to decline. By the early 20th century, most of the structures had fallen to ruin, their foundations filled in to expand the farmland. The great mill, after 100 years of use had been abandoned... its original timbers used to build a lumber company in the bustling industrial town of Winston located just to the north of Salem. By the mid 1900s, the frontier settlement was buried beneath a cornfield, the potter's and brewer's houses were private residences. The 1788 church was abandoned for a newer structure nearby.