The Stories of Bethabara’s Enslaved
“With a Congressman from Georgia there was an opportunity to talk about our mission to the Negroes in the West Indies, and to tell him that in our experience the Negroes who accepted the Gospel served their masters more faithfully than formerly.”
– Salem Diary, August 31, 1802.
Eighteenth century Moravians believed God created an ordered universe where everything had a certain role or place. It was with this order, along with the Biblical story of Ham, that the 18th century Moravian Church rationalized that a life of servitude was the rightful place for African and Afro-Caribbean people. Addressing a group of enslaved men and women at a Moravian mission in Saint Thomas in 1739, Count Zinzendorf instructed them that God “made everything himself—kings, masters, servants, and slaves. And as long as we live in this world, everyone must gladly endure the state into which God has placed them.” Moravians in the 1700s believed Africans and those of African descent could be educated about Christianity, and thus “civilized,” but should remain enslaved so they did not disrupt God’s order.
“From James Blackborn, on the Town Fork, Br. Gammern has hired a negro woman, to serve as maid in the Tavern for three years.” — Bethabara Diary, August 22, 1763
The first enslaved person in Wachovia was a woman named Franke who was rented to work in the Bethabara Tavern. Although we know her name and where she worked, we know very little about her story. Historical records from the 18th and 19th centuries reveal very little about the lives of enslaved people. Many are referred to in censuses and other historical documents like wills and bills of sale only by their age and sex. It was not until after the Civil War, in the 1870 census, that African Americans were individually listed with first and last names, ages, vocations, and places of residence.
Soon after Franke arrived to work in the tavern, the Moravian Church rented several enslaved men to work in the tanyard and stockyard. When the rental agreement for 19-year-old Sam neared its close in 1769, the young man asked the Church to purchase him, expressing “a desire to learn to know the Saviour.” This sparked a debate among Church elders as to whether or not they should purchase Sam. In the end, they put the question to the lot, and the “yes” slip was drawn, making Sam the first enslaved person purchased by the Moravians in Wachovia.
Bringing enslaved people permanently into the community meant Moravian men and women would be living and working side-by-side with “strangers” (non-Moravians) every day. The Church’s long-held concern over the corrupting influence of strangers, regardless of skin color, drove them to devise several safeguards. First, the Church itself, rather than individuals, would purchase enslaved people, with a few exceptions that were subject to Church approval. Church elders judged the character of each enslaved person in hopes of only purchasing those they felt would not impair their vision of a perfect society.
“Br. Blum shall be told to be more strict with his Negro, Peter, and not allow him to overstep the lines. Br. Praezel shall speak with the Negro himself, and shall tell him that unless he obeys the rules laid down for Negroes we shall be obliged to try to sell him.”
— Minutes of the Salem Boards, Aeltesten Conferenz, December 22, 1787
The Church expected enslaved people to obey strict rules in the town. On June 1, 1779, an enslaved man named Caesar, who worked in Bethabara’s tavern, “behaved very badly” and was “whipped and sent away from the tavern.” The Moravians transferred Caesar to the distillery, where he lived apart from his wife for one month. While we do not know why Caesar was punished, the following entry from the Bethabara diarist gives the impression it may have been due to a domestic dispute: “June 30: The negro Caesar, who has worked at the still-house for nearly a month, was allowed to return to the tavern, he and his wife both asking for it and promising to get along together nicely.” A little over a month later, an enslaved man named Jacob who worked in Salem’s Single Brothers House, sought freedom and escaped from the community. The diarist claimed that Jacob wanted “to escape punishment for his bad conduct of various kinds.” Retribution for his disobedience would be more permanent than Caesar’s.
If an enslaved person challenged the Moravian community, he or she would be sold. When Jacob was caught and whipped, the diarist recorded, “Jacob is full of wickedness and malice, and we will try to sell him and the sooner the better.” While white Moravians could also be expelled from the Church for their wrongdoing, they had a say in where they went next. For an enslaved person, any sign of defiance meant being sold to an unknown enslaver, their future entirely in the hands of others.
“We must not be ashamed of those Negroes who belong to our community and, as has happened before, let them sit all by themselves in congregation worship and even during Holy Communion…They are our Brothers and Sisters and different treatment of them will degrade ourselves to the rank of ordinary people and will be a disgrace for the Community.” — Congregation Council, December 6, 1792.
Throughout the 18th century, the Church worked to not only control the enslaved people they purchased, but also the way their townspeople interacted with them. Although the Moravians clearly treated enslaved people as inferior in their society—the mere fact that they were in bondage, separated from their families, unable to earn their own wages or start independent lives, whipped and corporally punished for “bad behavior” proves this point—the Church viewed them as “equal” in their congregation. Enslaved people wishing to join the Church were taught to read the Bible. They sat next to white Moravians and worshiped together.
This inclusion would rapidly change by the turn of the 19th century. New generations of Moravians, influenced by Southern race relations, held strongly segregationist views regarding race and slavery and challenged the Church’s views on congregational equality.
The Story of Johann Samuel
“The negro Sam, who has been for some years in service at Bethabara, and who has expressed a desire to learn to know the Saviour, was bought by permission of the Lord.”— Wachovia Memorabilia for Bethabara, 1769
Johann Samuel came to Bethabara when his enslaver, William Ridge, rented him to the Moravians in 1765. Assigned to work in the stockyard, he supervised the cattle while a white hand took charge of the calves. After living with the Moravians for four years, the Church purchased Johann Samuel after he “expressed a desire to learn to know the Saviour.” His baptism took place in the newly constructed Gemeinhaus in the fledgling town of Salem in 1771.
Johann Samuel continued to work with livestock in Bethabara, and gained responsibility as teamster, taking the wagon out to gather supplies for the town. In 1780, he married Maria, an enslaved woman who worked in Salem’s tavern, and in 1781 they had their first child. Four of their seven children survived to adulthood: John, Christian, Jacob, and Anna. Johann Samuel paid annual school fees so that all four could be educated in Bethabara.
“The Bethabara farm is suffering under John Holland’s bad management. It seems possible to divide the work, allowing Johann Samuel to superintend the farm, Sr. Stach to look after the calves and swine, and Sr. Magdalena Blar to take care of the fowls and do the cooking, so John Holland shall be told to consider what he will wish to do next.”— Salem Board Minutes, March 13, 1788
In 1788, Church elders assigned Johann Samuel as superintendent of the Bethabara farm after learning how poorly Brother John Holland managed it. However, in the 1790s the Church reevaluated the communal farm as well as the ownership of enslaved people in Bethabara, noting both practices’ drain on the congregational treasury, and began phasing both out. In 1799, the Salem Board Minutes note: “We wish that the farm in Bethabara could be given up entirely, and that Johann Samuel could be established to earn his own bread. The latter is difficult, as he would have to be declared free by act of assembly.” The North Carolina general assembly granted Johann Samuel his freedom in 1801, and he and his family moved to a piece of land outside the town limits of Bethabara that they rented from the Church.
Johann and Maria Samuel gave their most productive years to the Moravian Church while enslaved; now older, they struggled to make enough money to pay the rent and support their four children. In 1804, the Church agreed to remit their rent after Johann Samuel put a new roof on his house, but it wasn’t enough. In February 1813, the Bethabara Diary records “This afternoon there was a most unpleasant incident. The Negro family Samuel, to the dishonor of this congregation to which they belonged, have been stealing from Br. and Sr. Strohle, and were arrested, tried, and sent as prisoners to Germanton.” In March, Samuel was arrested a second time for not paying his rent, and his land lease was canceled. His property was put on public sale, but Church officials purchased most of the livestock and farm tools and lent them back to him.
The family settled on a farm near Bethania, no longer members of the Church and the community they served for many years. In 1821, Br. Wolle of Salem, “went to a neighboring plantation and held the funeral of the married Negress Maria Samuel, who passed out of time yesterday; she had dropsy. Formerly she and her widowed husband, Johann Samuel—who is suffering from consumption—belonged to the congregation of Bethabara, and helped with the farm work there.” When Johann passed away a few weeks later, the man who had worked in Bethabara for 50 years of his life, was remembered with one line in the Church diary: “The Negro Johann Samuel died in our neighborhood.”
Enslaved People in 18th century Bethabara
This list is incomplete due to the limitations of primary sources: if the enslaved person was not named in the Bethabara diaries, they are lost to history.
Franke– rented to work in tavern in 1763
Cate– rented to work in tavern in 1767
Ben– hired hand 1770–74
Sam/Johann Samuel- teamster, farm supervisor
Maria Samuel– purchased for tavern, married Johann Samuel
Anna, Jacob, Christian, and John Samuel– children of Johann and Maria Samuel
Moses– purchased in 1779 to farm, teamster
Stephan– cattle driver
David– rented to work in Bethabara, returned to owner in 1784
Caesar– an elderly man who worked in the tavern, was moved to the tavern in Salem in 1782 along with his wife
Peter Oliver– assistant to potter Rudolf Christ
Frank/Christian– born in West Africa, worked in the store and joined the Church in 1780, married to Anna and buried in Bethabara’s God’s Acre
Anna– born in West Africa, married to Christian, joined the Church, worked in the store for several years but was later banished to Hope
Susy– purchased for the tavern in 1771
Cathy– daughter of Susy, worked in the tavern, became a Moravian on her deathbed and buried in Salem’s God’s Acre in 1777 at the age of 16
Benjamin– eleven years old, educated in the Bethabara school
Benjamin– trained in blacksmith’s shop
David/Christian– bought by the Moravian Church in 1805 to work in Bethabara’s distillery