Saturday, 20 July 2024

The 8th Bethlehem Conference on Moravian History and Music

As many of you will know this is a wonderful biennial event which takes place in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the USA, exploring Moravian history and music from the fifteenth to the twenty first centuries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. Such a rich heritage exists, and the conference provides a great opportunity to share current research and strengthen links right across the Unity. This year's conference was able to be held in person as the COVID threat was diminished but there was still the opportunity for presentations of papers to be made by Zoom. The conference spanned three days from Thursday 17th to Saturday 19th August 2023 with a packed programme of presentations interspersed with keynote lectures and special events.

Currently the Moravian communities of Bethlehem (USA), Gracehill (UK), and Herrnhut (Germany) are working together to join with Christiansfeld (Denmark) in becoming a transnational UNESCO world heritage site. Fittingly, these three words were taken as the theme for this year's conference which was addressing aspects of the relationships between Moravians and the World (natural, religious, socio-economic, political, etc.), Moravian Heritage and Moravian Sites (Sights or Cites), each of these perspectives, offering a unique way of thinking about Moravians and their interactions with others. Presentations were varied and fascinating with everything from studies on 'The Band System and Slavery on St Thomas 1736-1746' to 'The Inuit Voice in Moravian Music' and everything in between. These were hosted in the Moravian Seminary lecture theatres, close by to the Moravian Archives which was the attendees base for the conference. Here delegates were warmly welcomed on the first day and returned for breakfasts, lunches and the opportunity to socialise between sessions. Even lunchtimes were 'working round-table events' in that further presentations were given on potential upcoming projects and the potential use of digital technology in cultural heritage.

It was a long-held aspiration of mine to attend the conference and I was delighted this year, to have the opportunity. So, it turned out to be a family affair: David and I along with our youngest, Owen all travelled to the US adding on time for a holiday in Pennsylvania and New York. We did the 'full-fat' version, opting also to present papers, which seemed like a good idea at the time but not so much a couple of weeks beforehand in a very busy run up to the conference.

Also presenting from the British Province were Lorraine Parsons, Archivist at Church House, London, Rev Jared Stephens, Minister Ballinderry and Cliftonville and James Rollo, Open University. The only regret of the conference was that it proved impossible to attend everything as the two sessions ran parallel to each other to accommodate the number of presentations.

This year's keynote lectures were given by Christina Petterson, independent researcher living in Christiansfeld Denmark who is currently scholar in residence at the Center for Moravian Studies and Winelle Kirton-Roberts, an ordained minister in the Moravian Church, Eastern West Indies Province, currently pastor of the Geneva Moravian Fellowship in Switzerland. The subjects addressed were Christina's 'Inner and Outer aspects of Moravian Organisation in Bethlehem' and Winelle's 'Morale, Morality and Moravianism in Trinidad', both fascinating studies; a privilege to hear presentations from experts in their field.

Special events throughout the conference included a wonderful musical recital given by Jewel Smith and Martha Schrempel. I'm really lost for words to describe it, but it was a musical/historical masterpiece and full of joy; very (American) Moravian. This was followed by a balmy outdoor soiree involving delicious salads, pizza, ice-cream and warm fellowship.

The conference's concert was held at Moravian University in their beautiful Foy concert Hall. This was also an inspiring and uplifting experience, showcasing the wonderful Moravian musical tradition which exists here. The Lititz Moravian Collegium performed 'History you can hear' which does describe the evening up to a point, but I would add 'and can also feel'. The energy of the musicians and conductor was palpable, and with the audience invited to join with the hymns in the program, it made for a stimulating and joyful experience! The program was diverse and interestingly featured the serpent, a lesser-known instrument which was contemporary with the pieces.

This was a fitting close to the conference program, but another highlight was attending Central Moravian Church the next day where we were warmly welcomed and felt instantly at home. We were able to bring greetings and present the Minister, Rev Hopeton Clemens with a special chalice carved from historic yew, by one of our own congregation, Br David Ewart.

The conference was a wonderful way to meet with others who have a love of Moravian history and music, and we were also delighted to meet with friends from the early days of the World Heritage journey which, it is hard to believe started two decades ago. We were shown much kindness and generous hospitality wherever we went.

A purchase made from the Moravian Archive bookshop was a t-shirt with the Zinzendorf quote 'We have nothing to do, but to be happy' which was not difficult when attending the 8th Bethlehem Conference on Moravian History and Music!

Sr Sally Ann Johnston

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Church House is the Headquarters of the Moravian Church in the British Province and is located in London at:
Moravian Church House, 

5 Muswell Hill, 
N10 3TJ


020 8883 3409

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