The Moravians who settled Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1742 were committed to a society centered around missionary work. To free their missionaries from the need to earn a living, they formed a communal economic organization in which all workers gave their labor to the community in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing. To encourage each individual's religious development, family ties were deemphasized and members of the same sex, marital status, and age slept, worked, and worshipped together.
After 20 years, the worldwide Moravian Church, facing a financial crisis, ordered Bethlehem to reorganize into a traditional community of nuclear families. It was hoped that, under this more conventional arrangement, Bethlehem could be expected to help pay the huge debts of the parent church.
In The Transformation of Moravian Bethlehem, Beverly Prior Smaby traces the effects of this change on Bethlehem's Moravians, demonstrating how it altered even the most intimate aspects of their lives. She analyzes the unusually accurate marriage, birth, death, migration, and census records to assess the demographic response to institutional change. She traces change in cultural norms through unique technical analyses of biographies which were read at a variety of Moravian gatherings.
Within 100 years, Smaby asserts, Bethlehem grew from an egalitarian communal society of symbolic Brothers and Sisters into a privatized community of socially stratified families whose cultural ideal was no longer religious service but usefulness to family and society.
Scholars of American history and folk life will find this book a valuable addition to literature on community history, social change, and historical methods. Church historians will benefit from its in-depth study of secularization on a personal level, and it will be of keen interest to members of the Moravian Church.
Beverly Prior Smaby taught American history at the University of Maryland.