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Walk in the Footsteps of Bethlehem’s Single Sisters

The Journey from Bethlehem to Salem will begin at the Single Sisters' House on Church Street in Bethlehem.

Moravian women have always had a lot of grit.

So, it didn’t seem extraordinary, when on October 2, 1766, four Single Sisters and 12 teenage girls set out on a 450-mile backcountry journey from Bethlehem to the fledgling Moravian community of Bethabara in North Carolina. They were accompanied by a preacher and his wife and a married woman returning to her husband, and they were equipped with nine horses and a wagon carrying tents and supplies.

Their course took them along a migration trail over land and rivers from Bethlehem through Emmaus, Reading, and Lititz; south through Maryland and Virginia; and then into North Carolina to Bethabara, near today’s Winston-Salem. Sixteen-year-old Salome Meurer was among that group, and she kept a detailed journal of their journey, which was both joyful and arduous. Her entry for October 3 includes the following: “In the afternoon we went through Reading…The people all came out of their houses and stood watching on the streets, saying, ‘God almighty! Where are so many women going?’”

As they walked, they encountered fellow Moravians along the way who welcomed them into their homes for a meal and a good night’s sleep, but often the group slept in tents in the bush. Their feet became swollen and blistered. They endured torrential downpours, braved river crossings on large rafts, and on several stretches of their journey, the women suffered the taunts and threats of groups of men—both drunk and sober. Still, they pushed forward, lifting themselves through song and faith. On October 31, 1766, they reached their destination.

Five and a half years later, in April 1772, the Moravian community in North Carolina founded a school for girls, appointing Sister Elisabeth Oesterlein its first teacher. Like the Moravian girls’ school in Bethlehem, the institution provided the girls as rigorous an education as the boys received. This school became Salem Academy and College, which will celebrate its 250th anniversary throughout the 2021-2022 academic year.

One of the premiere events of the 250th anniversary celebration is the Journey from Bethlehem to Salem, which will take place between September 28 and October 26, 2021. Participants will recreate the hike undertaken by the Single Sisters, starting in Bethlehem at the Single Sisters House and traveling along the colonial migration trail, which passes through Maryland, continues east of the mountains in Virginia, and turns west in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Organizers divided the route into segments of approximately 20 miles, each one beginning and ending at a hotel. A van will be following walkers to pick up anyone who becomes too tired to continue. Participants are invited to walk the entire journey or join in at any point along the way to walk one or a few sections of this unique expedition.

Not for women only, the Journey from Bethlehem to Salem is open to all adventurers, so gather up your grit and join the journey. For details and to register, go to Journey from Bethlehem to Salem. Registration ends this Friday, August 20!


Linking Bethlehem and Salem

Though separated by hundreds of miles, Moravian and Salem shared a few educators and administrators.

Elisabeth Osterlein (Salem’s first teacher, 1772–1780) and Catherine Sehner (Salem’s second teacher, 1780–1791) were both born in Bethlehem and educated at the Bethlehem Boarding School for Girls. 

John H. Clewell was a graduate of Moravian College and Theological Seminary. He served as president of the Salem Academy and College from 1888–1909 before returning to Bethlehem to serve as principal of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in 1909 and then becoming the first President of Moravian Seminary and College for Women until his death in 1922.

David Weinland was assistant to the president of Salem before becoming President of the Moravian Seminary and College for Women in 1949.

Thanks to Moravian University Archivist Cory Dieterly for providing this information.

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