OLD SALEM — When most people think of the Moravian Church, they think of sugar cake, spice cookies, trimmed candles, stars and Christmas Lovefeasts. But it’s the quiet yet resilient faith of Moravian believers embedded in the foundation of early American religious life that has withstood the test of time and remains vibrant today. Perhaps the most notable, yet often forgotten contribution the Moravians have instilled in our country’s earliest religious traditions is that of the Easter sunrise service. Indeed, this year marks 250 years since the Moravians, who settled the community now known as Old Salem, awakened in the wee hours of Easter morning 1772 to greet the rising sun in celebration of the empty tomb.
In fact, the very first sunrise service according to historical accounts, originated with the Moravians living near Herrnhut, Germany in 1732. The early Moravian settlers clearly considered this an important tradition to incorporate into their religious life in America, as a group of Christian brothers gathered in God’s Acre (their congregational cemetery) just before the sun rose on Easter morning in the same manner of the women who came to Jesus’s tomb to find it empty. It was there amongst the equal white headstones that they held a simple service as the sun rose, following the night’s watch, to rejoice in the resurrection of their Savior. In the years that followed, the Moravians developed a liturgical service to accompany the night’s watch followed by the sunrise service that concluded with the joyous break of dawn at God’s Acre. While the earliest service of this type in America occurred at Bethabara Moravian Church just outside of what is now Winston Salem in 1758, the neighboring town of Wachovia or Old Salem established their own service in 1772 that has been handed down for over two centuries.
The Salem Congregation, made up of 12 congregations in the area, welcomes more than six thousand worshipers each Easter and is the longest standing continuous service in America. Every year, worshippers both near and far travel to Old Salem and gather outside in front of Home Moravian Church in the town square to worship together in song and liturgy to proclaim the Resurrection of their Savior. The tradition includes the Moravian band, made up of over 500 brass instruments, which breaks into smaller choirs that play at different points throughout historic Old Salem hours before dawn. Around 6a.m., the final hymn selection, “Sleepers, Wake!” calls worshippers to gather with these words in mind:
a voice astounds us,
the shout of rampart guards
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Rise up, and give us light;
the Bride-groom is in sight.
Alleluia! Your lamps
prepare and hasten there,
that you the wedding feast
Once gathered, the worshippers move in silent procession to the historic graveyard, “God’s Acre.” As they process, the brass choirs play hymns with increasing vigor and triumphant as they draw closer to God’s Acre. Once in the cemetery, the throngs of worshippers join in triumphant unison with a liturgical call and response interwoven with Moravian hymns specifically written for the service. “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand,” is often the concluding hymn as it calls worshippers to look to Christ’s ultimate return.
Ten Thousand times ten thousand
In sparkling raiment bright,
The armies of the ransomed saints
Throng up the steeps of light:
‘Tis finished, all is finished,
Their fight with death and sin;
Fling open wide the golden gates,
And let the victors in.
The impact of the Moravian sunrise service is an integral part of countless Easter morning traditions throughout our country today and in fact, throughout the western world. From the Hollywood Bowl to the Garden of the Gods to the Lincoln Memorial to the smallest country churches, sunrise services will take place all across our nation this Easter morning to both remind those of their salvation as well as to offer the hope of the glory and triumphant to come.
When and where
The 250th Easter Sunrise Service will be held on Sunday, April 17, 2022, beginning at 6:00 AM and will be led by The Rev. Ginny Tobiassen, pastor of Home Moravian Church. This year, the service will include worshippers at the St Philips Second Graveyard.
What to expect
Worshippers are invited to gather in Salem Square before the service – best to arrive early! Boy Scouts will be posted at various points to hand out the liturgy leaflet. The service will begin shortly after 6:00 am. After the initial liturgy, the congregation will process in prayerful silence to the Salem Moravian Graveyard, “God’s Acre.” There the service will conclude among the equal stones of generations of Moravians as participants celebrate and proclaim the resurrection.