Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Whitefield House, Nazareth, Northampton County

It's an unexpectedly balmy day in April, which is sort of amusing. The temperatures lately have been quite up and down, but today they're up for the warmest day all year thus far. 

So, weird confession. Despite it being an entire twelve miles from where I currently live, until very recently I never visited downtown Nazareth. I've been in or through its outskirts, but never in the community proper. A few weeks ago, finding myself with an unexpected afternoon completely free, I made a spontaneous decision to correct this oversight and collect the markers that Nazareth has to offer. There was still snow on the ground, which looks funny to me now as I write this post.

Funny thing about Nazareth - although Bethlehem is the place around here that's always touted as being a big part of Moravian history (and rightfully so), Nazareth also has Moravian origins. Not only that, but Nazareth's Moravian origins are what led to Bethlehem's.

Whitefield House. Begun in 1740 at request of Methodist missionary Reverend George Whitefield as a school for Negroes. Completed by the Moravians in 1743. Served as a communal church-home for 32 newly married German couples brought over in 1744.
The marker sits on South New Street, Nazareth,
directly in front of Whitefield House
Whitefield House is named for George Whitefield, who is indirectly responsible for the fact that Bethlehem exists at all. He was not a Moravian, but an Anglican evangelist, born in England in 1714. He came to North America in 1739 and began preaching in Philadelphia, where even the largest churches could not contain the large crowds who came to see his theatrical sermons; he had to preach outdoors in order to accommodate everyone. He studied at Log College in Bucks County, run by the renowned Presbyterian minister Rev. William Tennant (which will be the subject of a future post). He preached in several locations throughout the country, always with a view of raising funds for an orphanage he had established in Georgia, and also returned to Europe on a number of occasions to preach there. He was one of the most important religious figures of the 18th century, and it's estimated that he preached to some 10 million people in the course of his career. That would be impressive now, with modern telecommunications, but in that time period? Astounding.

George was quite an interesting fellow in many respects; apart from his wild performance-style preaching, he was friends with Benjamin Franklin for many years and, while it wouldn't be fair to call him an abolitionist, he severely condemned the way African slaves were treated. This seems to be the reason, or at least it's the closest thing I can find to a reason, for him purchasing a large tract of land in what eventually became Northampton County, Pennsylvania. He wanted to build another facility, similar to the one he had established in Georgia, to serve as a school for orphaned slave children, and he hired a group of Moravian craftsmen to come from Georgia to construct the building. Exactly why he recruited those people in particular isn't entirely clear, but in any case, north they came.

Construction began in March of 1740. The Moravians also built a small lodging known today as Gray Cottage, in which they could survive the bitter Pennsylvania winter. However, they only got as far as laying the foundation for the actual school building when the Moravians and George Whitefield got into some sort of theological dispute. There doesn't seem to be any real record indicating what the dispute was or why it was so severe, but construction of the school came to a screeching halt as a result. The Moravians packed up and headed a few miles away from Whitefield's property. In 1741, they bought a tract of land from William Allen and established what Count Zinzendorf named the community of Bethlehem.

George Whitefield, meanwhile, continued his preaching. However, the orphanage in Georgia was a continual strain on his finances, and within a couple years of his argument with the Moravians, he was altogether bankrupt. By that time, Bethlehem was already starting to thrive, and the Moravians were in a good position to buy land from George in order to bail him out. He sold them 5,000 acres, including the land containing Gray Cottage and the abandoned school foundation, and they resumed work on the building and completed it in 1743. The completion was well timed, since in 1744 the Moravians welcomed several married couples from England, and they were able to use the new building as a residence. Meanwhile, the rest of the land the Moravians bought was turned into a new settlement and dubbed Nazareth, after the childhood home of Jesus Christ.

Whitefield House was eventually named in honor of its original patron, who died in 1770. It was used variously through the centuries as a house of worship, a boarding school, a nursery, and a place for mission work. It also served for three years as the Moravian Theological Seminary. Today, Nazareth is no longer a Moravian settlement, but the house is still in Moravian hands in a sense; it serves as the administrative offices, historical museum, and gift shop of the Moravian Historical Society. Gray Cottage, pictured at right, has been used as a school, a choir house, and a nursery; it is the oldest surviving Moravian building in North America. The MHS owns the entire parcel of land known as the Ephrata Tract, which included Whitefield House, Gray Cottage, and the First House, a two-story log house which was built in 1740 and demolished in 1864.

Although they, like almost everyone, reduced their open hours due to the pandemic, I was able to go inside of Whitefield House on my sojourn that sunny afternoon. I was the only visitor in the place, and restricted myself to a self-guided tour of the first floor rooms; they have displays of authentic Moravian items, such as these at left, and on the walls are stories of people who lived in Moravian Nazareth and also the nearby single men's community of Christian's Spring (named for Count Zinzendorf's son). I was particularly struck by the way the stories of African slaves pull no punches, and straight-up state that the young men being profiled were kidnapped from their birth countries. The house is open to visitors daily between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m., and there's no charge to access the gift shop or the first floor exhibits, though donations are appreciated; guided tours have meanwhile resumed and tickets can be reserved online.

I was quite tickled to find that on the day of my visit, the friendly young man minding the gift shop was familiar with this blog! He encouraged me to take whatever photos I needed, and I'm just sorry I didn't get his name because he was doing an excellent job of making me feel welcome. I'm looking forward to going back sometime and taking the guided tour. Meanwhile, at the time of this writing, the Society is getting ready for their annual arts and crafts festival in June; so if you're a local artisan, definitely consider renting some space on the sweeping lawn of Whitefield House to sell your wares.

Sources and Further Reading:

Moravian Walking Tour and Guide Book, published by the Moravian Historical Society, 2014

Galli, Mark. "George Whitefield: Sensational Evangelist of Britain and America." Excerpted from 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN. Reproduced by Christianity Today.

Weil, Lorna. "The Whitefield House: Monument to Moravians." The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, December 3, 1987.

Whitefield House (marker) and Whitefield House (original plaque) at the Historical Marker Database

Except where indicated, all writing and photography on this blog is the intellectual property of Laura Klotz. This blog is written with permission of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I am not employed by the PHMC. All rights reserved.

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