Our historical connection with the stern and spare German pietists might lead you to guess that the Moravians practice a Christianity unadorned by ritual or symbol. On the contrary, the Moravian Church is rich with traditions, rituals and customs that symbolize our faith. Visual symbols, such as the Moravian Seal and the Moravian Star, are displayed in the church building. We have a longstanding, worldwide reputation for distinctive music. Many Moravians practice customs which grow out of an aspect of our ethnic heritage, such as the Christmas putz. We have special services of worship, with elements unique to our tradition, on Easter Morning and Christmas Eve. A Moravian Lovefeast service can be held any time of year! Find out more below.
Heritage ... and the Singstunde
Easter Traditions including Holy Week and Easter Sunrise Service (with procession to graveyard)
Christmas Traditions such as the Putz, the Advent Star, the Illumination, and the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Decision by Lot
Moravians settlers brought with them from Europe a rich musical culture, especially the German tradition of amateur musical organizations. The Moravian settlements in America in the 18th and early 19th century were well known for the high quality and rich diversity of their musical craftsmanship. Moravian composers wrote for capable amateurs; virtuosic displays would have been unseemly as well as impractical.
The use of bands and instrumental soloists is traditional in Moravian worship and continues today. Trombone bands (sometimes including other brass instruments) are a distinctive traditional feature of some Moravian worship services, especially the Easter Dawn service. Moravian liturgies, used each Sunday, intersperse hymns or chorales between the prayers and affirmations, and additional hymns are sung at other points in the worship service. Moravians emphasize congregational participation in music, from the straightforward singing of hymns in unison, to antiphonal "call and response", to instrumental accompaniment.
The Singstunde or hour of song, is a service consisting almost entirely of hyms stanzas specifically chosen and put in a deliberate sequence. Moravians 200 years ago had memorized many hymns, and would simply follow along as the pastor began singing each verse. Today the verses are printed out, and someone other than the pastor may serve as song leader. As in the past, the theme of the service is revealed through the selected verses, sung by each to all.
For more information about the musical heritage of the Moravian Church, you may wish to visit the website of The Moravian Music Foundation.
A Lovefeast is a service dedicated to agape, or Christian love, considered the greatest of virtues. A Lovefeast seeks to remove social barriers and strengthen the spirit of unity and goodwill among all people. The first Lovefeast was served in Germany on August 13th, 1727, following the Renewal of the Moravian Church. The Lovefeast is not the sacrament of Communion. It is styled after the common meal partaken in love and fellowship by the early Church (described in the Book of Acts) prior to their celebration of the Lord's Supper (Communion).
The traditional American Lovefeast consists of a sweetened bun and coffee, but the food and drink may vary considerably. It is served to the participants in the pews by Dieners (German for servers). After all have been served, a table grace is said, and then all partake together. During the meal, music may be offered by the choir, the organist or others, or participants may be asked to pray in love for one another, or people may speak quietly with their neighbors about their spiritual journey. Other than the common meal, the Lovefeast is a service largely of music, chiefly the singing of hymns of love and fellowship. It is a Singstunde which incorporates a simple meal.
During the week preceding Easter, called Holy Week, Moravians have a "service of the Word" each evening. These services consist solely of readings from the Gospels (the four books of the bible that tell of Jesus) and of singing of hymns. The readings are arranged according to the events of each particular day in this last week in the life of Jesus before His Death and Resurrection. On Maundy Thursday the readings tell of the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the sacramental meal of communion; accordingly, communion is offered on that night.
In the old Moravian centers of North Carolina, you might be awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. on Easter Morning by church bands playing chorales announcing the Resurrection. Despite the farm heritage of the midwest, our trombonists just don't get up that early. However, Moravian Churches all over the country continue the tradition of the Easter Sunrise Service. Just before dawn the congregation assembles for worship. The pastor opens the service with the historic words of the Easter Morning greeting, "The Lord is Risen!" The congregation responds,"The Lord is Risen Indeed." Then follows a hymn led by the church bands and choirs and a brief liturgical service. The congregation now moves to the graveyard, walking when possible, or driving if necessary. Traditionally, a trombone choir plays as the congregation clusters near the grave of the member most recently buried. When all have assembled, the pastor leads in the concluding liturgical service, which is actually our Christian confession of faith. This sunrise service is followed by a breakfast at the church building.
A "putz" is a scene using figures (usually smaller than life) and landscaping props to depict the story of Jesus' birth. The word putz comes from the German word putzen which means to decorate or clean. A putz is usually more than a simple manger scene; it can fill a whole room, though most are more modest. Isaiah's prophecy; the annunciation to Mary; Joseph's dream; Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist; the journey to Bethlehem; the family in the stable, with the baby Jesus in the feedbox; the annunciation to the shepherds; the visit of the magi from the east; and the flight into Egypt are all scenes which may be included in a putz. One of the traditional ways the putz is displayed is to illuminate each scene separately as the verses of scripture to which the scene corresponds are read aloud.
The 26-pointed Moravian Advent Star, lit from within by an electric bulb, is beloved by Moravians all over the world. The Star stands as both a symbol of awaiting the promised coming of Christ during the Advent season, and of Christ himself, the light of the world and dispeller of darkness, at Christmastime.
Thought to have originated as an exercise in geometry in the German Moravian boarding schools, the stars were first offered for sale at Peter Verbeek's bookstore in Herrnhut, Germany around 1880. These original stars were paper, and were assembled and disassembled each year in a sometimes vexing Moravian Christmas tradition. Now there are Moravian Stars available in many different materials and sizes, made both in Herrnhut and in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
The Illumination is another Moravian Christmas decorating custom. A lighted candle (or a modern day facsimile thereof) is placed in each window of the Moravian home after dark. Historical sources indicate that Moravian settlements on Christmas Eve looked to neighboring villages in Germany almost as if they were ablaze .
This beautiful service, now adopted in one form or another by many Christian denominations, originated in a Moravian children's service. During this service of song and scripture readings, handmade beeswax candles decorated with a red paper frill are distributed to each worshiper. The beeswax candles have been variously described as symbolizing the purity of Christ, the sacrifice of Christ for humanity, the humanity, divinity and atonement of Christ, the flame of love, and Christ as the light of the world. The candles are lit while the worship space is darkened except for a large illuminated Moravian Advent Star. Led by a child, we sing the antiphonal hymn, Morning Star, O Cheering Sight". In some congregations, after the last hymn, the worshipers carry their lighted candles out into the dark world.
The tradition of having dozens or hundreds of congregants, young and old, often in an old building, holding lit candles while managing a hymnbook entails another tradition in some localities - the annual battle with the community fire marshal. Nevertheless, this cherished traditional service will likely continue for another several hundred years.
The Moravian Daily Texts are a devotional guide that has been published in a new edition each year for over 250 years. The entry for each day includes a "watchword", a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) for one to meditate and consider on that day in particular. To this day, the watchwords are chosen by the drawing of a lot in Herrnhut, Germany. The drawing is done from a large collection of scripture verses. The daily entry also includes verses from the New Testament, which are selected deliberately for that day after the watchword has been drawn. In the North American edition, hymns are chosen and prayers are written by Moravian clergy and laypersons from the United States and Canada. Each month is prepared by a different person or couple, reflecting the great diversity in the Moravian Church.
The origin of the Moravian Daily Texts goes back to the great spiritual awakening of our Moravian forefathers in Herrnhut in 1727. At that time, the watchword provided a theme for discussion for the community member who was appointed to do visiting that day. Today the Daily Texts are available in over 50 languages and dialects, as well as by email subscription.
A traditional Moravian burial ground is called "God's Acre". The God's Acre is laid out in a way reminiscent of the old Moravian "choir" system; that is, separate sections for married men, for unmarried men and boys, for married women, and for single women and girls. This layout allows burial "in the next open grave". The location of the grave is marked with a simple flat stone laid even with the ground and inscribed with the person's name, dates, and perhaps a verse of scripture. These customs were meant to emphasize the equality of all the dead in Christ. Although many Moravian churches today either do not have access to a traditional "God's Acre", or have varied from the old traditions, the theology of equality in Christ continues to undergird Moravian practices.
Although decision by lot has not been in common use since the 1890s, it is an intriguing historical tradition. Moravians used this method to determine God's will when a decision about a matter was required, but the best deliberative efforts of the church board of elders had failed to produce a clear conclusion. Two or three outcomes, or Lots, were written on slips of paper; these might be "yes", and "no", or one choice might be described, and the second slip contain its alternative. Sometimes scripture verses indicating a particular approach to the problem were written on the slips. A blank slip was usually included as well. After prayer, one of the slips would be chosen from a bowl. If it was blank, the elders would try again to decide the issue; if one of the alternatives was drawn, that course of action would be pursued.
Moravians do not bear any special relationship to the aquatic, carnivorous mammal that may first have crossed your mind. The Moravian Seal is the emblem of the Moravian Church, and you will find many different versions of it decorating Moravian buildings and stationery all over the world. The Seal represents Jesus Christ as the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) carrying a flag bearing a cross. The words "Our Lamb has Conquered; Let Us Follow Him" encircle the image. It is, of course, death and sin that Christ has conquered. The war metaphor of the image and words may not be what the Moravian Church would choose were we creating our seal today; nevertheless, as our historic emblem, the Seal remains an important Moravian symbol.
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Last updated on December 2001