Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, I learned at a young age that many of the neighboring town names were also found within the pages of the Bible. To our west sat towns like Akron and Ephrata (spelling changed slightly from the biblical Ephrathah), and to the north sat places with names such as Emmaus and Nazareth. Probably the best-known biblical town name in the state, however, is Bethlehem (now also called “Christmas City”), whose beginnings go back to a Christmas Eve during Colonial times.
|Moravian Bethlehem (courtesy of the Moravian Archives)|
In 1741, on the banks of the Lehigh River not far from the Monocacy Creek, a small group of Moravian missionaries began clearing the land on five hundred acres they had purchased. They were a missional people who had previously worked among the Mohicans in New York, and planned to now minister to the Lenape tribes in Pennsylvania. On Christmas Eve of that year, Moravian leader Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf christened the town Bethlehem in a stable while the people sang “Jesus, Call Thou Me,” a hymn that includes the lyrics “not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem.”
Bethlehem became a thriving Moravian community, with members living in separate quarters depending on their age, gender, and marital status. By 1747, the Moravians had established thirty-five crafts, trades, and industries, supporting themselves and all the missionaries they sent out to work among Native American tribes. They then purchased 5,000 acres four miles north of Bethlehem and began building a second community, Nazareth, and went on to found more missionary communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. Bethlehem remained their headquarters, and to this day is a stronghold of the Moravian church, although members no longer live communally.
Bethlehem is now widely known for its steel production (Bethlehem Steel was America’s second-largest steel company and largest shipbuilder from 1904 until 2001), music festivals, and very popular Christkindlmarkt, but its historical sites cannot be overlooked. Historic Moravian Bethlehem National Historic Landmark District encompasses fourteen acres in Bethlehem, and includes many buildings that have stood for two hundred and fifty years. Tours, exhibits, and places to visit abound, all celebrating a people whose beliefs—that women and men should have equal rights; that boys and girls should receive the same education; and that everyone should work together for the community’s good, with no prejudices toward gender or ethnicity—would take centuries to become societal norms.
|Bethlehem's star (from an undated newspaper article courtesy|
of Bethlehem Area Public Library)
Still today, a lit star forged of Bethlehem steel sits high atop South Mountain, shining down on Bethlehem. As a child, I remember looking for it as we returned home at night from my cousins’ house in nearby Allentown, and it still evokes an emotion response to this day. May it forever be a reminder to all of Christ’s birth, at Christmas and every day.