Salem Congregation History

Salem Church c.1900

An overview of the history of Salem Congregation:

Salem was planned as the administrative center of Wachovia, the 100,000 acres of land the Moravian Church purchased in 1753. Count Zinzendorf himself selected the name, Salem, Shalom — Peace. The site was chosen on February 14, 1765, and the first tree felled on January 6, 1766. In five short years a veritable town had arisen out of the surrounding wilderness, including six dwelling houses, several industries, the Brothers House (north section) on the Square, and a tavern for strangers at a suitable distance down Main Street. Last to be completed in that first burst of building was the Gemein Haus, the congregation meeting house, which was consecrated on the day Salem, now also called Home Moravian Church, was organized as a congregation, on November 13, 1771, the festal day of the Chief Elder of the Moravian Church. The following spring the Provincial administration was transferred from Bethabara to Salem, completing the plan for a central administrative community for Wachovia.

A part of that plan was that Salem would be a Moravian “settlement congregation,” where the residents of the community were expected to be members in good standing of the church as well. There was no civil government of mayor and board of aldermen, as we are accustomed to today. Rather, the church attended to all the affairs of the town. Salem’s Gemein Rath or Congregation Council first met on April 12, 1772, and its order of business was to elect the Aufseher Collegium or Board of Supervisors, which organized on April 13, 1772, and held its first formal meeting two days later. The Aeltesten Conferenz or Elders Conference began meeting in Salem on April 14, 1772. The Aeltesten Conferenz shepherded the spiritual or inward affairs of the community, and the Aufseher Collegium tended to the material or outward affairs. All major decisions, from grading of streets to penning cows out of the Square to arranging a marriage to whether the night watchman should sing a hymn on his rounds or merely blow his conch shell, were the concern of the Salem congregation boards. Though the Aeltesten Conferenz tended to spiritual matters and the Aufseher Collegium to material or financial matters, the two worked in close harmony together. This mutual cooperation is the pattern today of their successor organizations, the Central Board of Elders and Central Board of Trustees of Salem Congregation and the Board of Elders and Board of Trustees of Home Moravian Church.

The organizing of Salem was completed on May 12, 1773, when the Brethren of the community signed the “Brotherly Agreement and Contract of the Evangelische Brüder-Gemeine at Salem in North Carolina.” The Agreement established the rules and regulations for the governance of the settlement congregation of Salem. Among other things, it provided for the operation of the Brothers House and Sisters House, called for the proper education of the congregation’s children, and sought equitable regulation of trades and businesses in the community, all “according to the Mind of Christ.” That document is the basis for the structure and workings of Salem Congregation and Home Church today.

To provide farm and forest land for Salem, a town lot of 3,159 acres was surveyed out of Wachovia in 1771 and rented from the Moravian Unity to the congregation. This rectangular town lot stretched from Seventh Street on the north to about Silas Creek Parkway on the south, and from beyond Peters Creek on the west to a little before Winston-Salem State University on the east. The rental arrangement continued until 1826, when Salem Congregation purchased the town lot from the Unity. By then some of the land had been sold, leaving 2,485 acres, which Salem Congregation bought for $2,795.625, or a little more than $1 an acre of what today is central Winston-Salem. Because Salem Congregation was not yet incorporated, it could not hold title to the land. Rather, title was held in trust by a church official known as the “Proprietor,” who also held title in trust to all the other church lands in Wachovia, since the Province also was not incorporated.

Following the Revolutionary War, Salem flourished and quickly outgrew its 1771 Gemein Haus. A new house of worship, one large enough to serve far into the future, was erected and first used on November 9, 1800. This building is the Home Moravian Church today. Over its two centuries it has undergone numerous renovations, the one in 1912 and 1913 being the most extensive and leaving the church pretty much as it is today with its stained glass windows, curved pews and balcony, and chancel for the organ and choir loft.

As a settlement congregation, Salem did not sell property in the town, but rather rented it out in what was called the lease system. Individual church members owned the houses or other improvements they built on home sites, but the land itself remained church property. It was the church’s ultimate means of retaining control of affairs in the town. If someone no longer wished to live under church discipline or proved unsuitable, the lease would not be renewed, though reimbursement was guaranteed for improvements made to the property. Business affairs were also regulated, and the congregation itself operated several enterprises, including the grist mill, pottery, tannery, community store (now called T. Bagge by Old Salem, Inc.), and tavern. Gradually, though, business after business became unprofitable and had to be sold, though the land itself was retained by the church. The grist mill business was sold in 1818, the community store in 1837, the pottery in 1829, the tannery in 1839, and finally the Salem Tavern in 1850. Regulation of private business affairs also came to an end in 1849.

Finally the last vestige of the settlement congregation concept came to an end when on November 17, 1856, Salem’s Congregation Council voted an end to the lease system. It was eighty-five years and four days since Salem had been formally organized as a settlement congregation. The North Carolina General Assembly was petitioned, and the town of Salem was incorporated. A mayor and town commissioners were elected on January 5, 1857, instituting civil government in the town which formerly had been governed by Salem Congregation. On March 12, 1857, the congregation sold the first lots in the town.

Salem Town Acts of Incorporation, 1856

With the change in governance of the town, a reorganizing of the church boards was called for. Already at the beginning of 1857 the minutes of the Congregation Council, Aeltesten Conferenz, and Aufseher Collegium were being kept in English. In May 1859 new Rules and Regulations of Salem Congregation were adopted in which the old Aeltesten Conferenz was now called the Board of Elders and the Aufseher Collegium the Board of Trustees. The transition was completed in 1874 when Salem Congregation was incorporated as “Congregation of United Brethren of Salem and Its Vicinity” and could hold title to its property. On July 10, 1874, Emil A. de Schweinitz as Proprietor transferred title of the remaining Salem land to Salem Congregation with the exception of Provincial properties and the Salem Female Academy, which also remained with the Province.

The rise of Sunday schools and the work of Salem Congregation members led to the formation of a number of other Moravian churches. East Salem, later known as Fries Memorial, was begun in 1876, followed by Centerville (forerunner of Trinity), Calvary, Christ, and Fairview. All of these initially were Sunday schools, and it was in the Sunday school that the Salem church was first called “Home” in 1878. In less than 10 years the congregation itself was being called the “Home Church.”

As the Sunday schools achieved independent church status within the Southern Province it became necessary to reorganize the umbrella organization of Salem Congregation. The state charter of incorporation was amended in 1909 and the Rules and Regulations were rewritten. The Boards of Elders and Trustees were renamed the Central Board of Elders and Central Board of Trustees. Member churches of Salem Congregation now had their own organization. The Salem church, by now for almost a quarter of a century known as the Home Church, held its first Home Church Council on July 15, 1909, and elected the Home Church Board of Elders and Board of Trustees, which in turn had their first meetings on July 19, 1909.

Congregation Council of Salem Congregation still consisted of individual church members who had signed the Rules and Regulations or Brotherly Agreement. Congregation Council did not include women except for rare meetings of all communicant members, for example in 1870 to discuss a proposed renovation of the Salem church, or in 1903 to establish committees that are familiar to us today for spiritual growth, music, decoration, church dues, ushers, etc. All that changed, though, on the heels of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. The next year Salem Congregation amended its charter to accept women as voting members of Congregation Council. The first woman to sign Salem Congregation’s Brotherly Agreement was Mary Rondthaler, wife of Bishop Edward Rondthaler, on October 10, 1922.

With the addition of more churches as members of Salem Congregation and the consequent increase of individual members, the concept of a congregation council grew unwieldy. Yet another substantive organizational change was called for, the latest one to date. Both the charter and Rules and Regulations were amended in 1981. The cumbersome name of “Congregation of United Brethren of Salem and Its Vicinity” now gave way to simply Salem Congregation. Individual members were now represented through the Central Elders and Central Trustees elected at congregation councils of the member churches. At the last Congregation Council of Salem Congregation on March 17, 1981, the Brotherly Agreement of 1859, which had superseded the Agreement of 1773, was signed for a final time. Among those signing was C. Daniel Crews.

Today Salem Congregation consists of 12 member churches: Ardmore, Calvary, Christ, Fairview, Fries Memorial, Home, Immanuel-New Eden, Konnoak Hills, Messiah, Pine Chapel, St. Philips, and Trinity*. It serves a vital role in the ministry of the Moravian Church through its union services, including the Watchnight, Great Sabbath Service of Music, Easter Sunrise Service, and anniversary Lovefeast. It has stewardship of the properties entrusted to it. Most of the old Salem Town Lot has been sold, but Salem Congregation still holds title to Salem Square, the Brothers House, old and new Boys Schools, the Community Store, old St. Philips, the Archives House, and God’s Acre, the Salem Moravian Graveyard. In addition it holds title in trust to the land on which its member churches are located, including the old Salem church, now known for well more than a century as Home Moravian Church.

* – A thirteenth member, Bethesda Church, closed December 31, 2017.

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