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Salem Congregation photo, 2011. Click image for bigger picture.

The first Moravian Easter Sunrise service took place in 1732 in the Moravian congregation at Herrnhut in the Upper Lusatian hills of Saxony. It was initiated by the Single Brothers:

“We agreed among our band [group] of young men that this Easter morning we were to go up the Hutberg [the hill above the town where the God’s Acre was located] early before the rise of the sun. This happened … early before 4 o’clock. After we had spent 1 1/2 hours with singing we returned to have a prayer meeting, during which we sang several hymns and read the third chapter of Peter’s first letter.”

The next year, the entire congregation joined in the service. Soon, the Moravian Easter sunrise service would be spread by their missionaries to many parts of the world.

Even today, young people in the Oberlausitz, the region where Herrnhut is located, stay up the night before Easter, singing or making noises with firecrackers.

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Herrnhut, ca 1760

The first known service in North America was held at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. in 1743 the Bethlehem congregation met at 4 o’clock in the morning. The next year the service included a visit to the graves:

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1867 Bethlehem, PA trombone choir, l-r: Charles Beckel, Jedidiah Weiss, Jacob Till. The empty chair is for their recently deceased colleague, Timothy Weiss.

“The congregation arose at four o’clock in the morning and assembled in the Saal. Following the hymn Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bonds, we all proceeded in pairs, with music playing, to the graves of our brethren, sang and played to the glory of our risen Lamb, and rejoiced that He lives and that we shall live with Him and that death has no power over us. From there we returned after sunrise to the Saal, singing as we went.”

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Bethlehem trombone choir wakes the congregation, Harper’s Weekly, 1888

The Salem Congregation in North Carolina, began its Easter Sunrise service in 1772. It is the best known sunrise service in the USA.

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Salem service, 1885

Beginning several hours before sunrise, brass choirs from some dozen Moravian congregations fan out across the city to play hymns summoning the people to the service. Eventually, the bands come together at Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. After a breakfast of ham and eggs and delicious Moravian coffee, they separate into four large groups, playing antiphonally to serenade the worshippers as they arrive for the service.

Just before sunrise, the congregation moves to the God’s Acre, where, as the first rays of the sun peek above the eastern horizon, the Bishop intones “The Lord is risen…” and the congregation replies “The Lord is risen indeed…”

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Bethania service, 1950

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Bethabara service, 1938, with the 18th century Gemeinhaus in the background

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Bethabara service, 1938. The God’s Acre is located at a beautiful site atop a hill across the creek from the church.

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Salem service, c 1920, with Cedar Avenue in the background.

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Home Moravian Church band, 1903.

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Bishop J. Kenneth Pfohl, at right, conducts the 1938 service in Salem.

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