God’s Acre, one of the oldest colonial cemeteries in America, has long been a destination for visitors. Over the years, it has provided a pleasant, peaceful spot for walks or meditation. Poplar, Locust, Maple and Dog-wood trees line the well tended paths.
Bethlehem God’s Acre was consecrated when Nicolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) selected a spot in the woods behind the Gemeinhaus. John Mueller, who died on June 26, 1742 was the first to be buried there. Mueller was a young man who had arrived in Bethlehem a few weeks before his death. He was born in Rhinebeck, New York and had accompanied the missionary Christian Henry Rauch and a group of Mohicans to town. Christian Froehlich, Moravian missionary, dug this first grave for Mueller. The northwest portion, along Market Street, is the oldest section of the graveyard.
The name “God’s Acre” is a translation of the German term “Gottesacker”, from Gott (god) + Acker (field). The suggestion is that the deceased are sown in the field in hope of resurrection. It is the traditional name for graveyards used by the Moravian Church and does not refer to a specific measurement. Bethlehem’s God’s Acre is a little over three acres. The first Moravian God’s Acre was laid out in Herrnhut, Germany, in 1730. Most Moravian graveyards are situated on hilltops. Bethlehem’s God’s Acre at one time offered a view of the Lehigh Mountains. The view is now blocked by the surrounding buildings. There are God’s Acres established in other Moravian communities, such as Nazareth, Emmaus and Lititz.
The unusual appearance of God’s Acre is created by the sameness of the small, white marble grave markers. Each marker, about 18 by 24 inches, has been inscribed with minimal information; name, age and birthplace of the deceased. A married woman’s grave is inscribed with her maiden name. Occasionally you find a quotation from the Scriptures, selected by the deceased's family. The markers lie flush to the ground in neat rows.
The the location of a burial was determined by the next open space, with no indication of the importance of the individual. This reflected the Moravian belief that everyone was equal. The deceased were buried within the area dedicated to their choir. A choir was a group within the congregation of the same gender, age and marital status. The separated groups were single men, single women, young boys, young girls, widows, widowers, and infants. In the early years of the settlement, married couples lived a part but were allowed to meet once a week for private visits. The graveyard is divided by a walkway that separates males from females.The only exception is the grave of Juliana Nitschmann, the wife of Bishop John Nitschmann. As a sign of great respect, her grave was located in the center of God's Acre.
It was an Moravian custom that the trombone choir announce the death of a congregant from the belfry of the Central Moravian Church by playing the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. A second chorale was played that identified the choir of the deceased. The deceased was then placed in the “Corpse House” or Leichen Kappelchenor. A fellow congregant, sat by the body, night and day until the burial. The body was prepared by washing and wrapped in a white shroud. A church service preceded the burial which ends with the reading of a memoir or “Lebenslauf” of the departed. The memoir is either autobiographical or written by a loved one. The practice was instituted so that the deceased might have a voice at their own funeral. The congregation then sang hymns and formed a procession to the “Corpse House”. The body in a casket was carried to the graveyard. Surrounding the grave the congregation’s singing and trombone choir playing intertwined in beloved Moravian chorals. A love feast was the usual conclusion to the funeral service.
At sunrise on Easter morning the trombone choir would lead the entire congregation to God’s Acre. This is a scripted event that has been carried out in the same manner since 1732 in Germany and since 1744 in Bethlehem (the oldest Easter sunrise service in the U.S.) The service begins in the church and ends in the graveyard just as the sun is rising. The idea of a sunrise Easter service was so inspiring that it was adopted by other denominations.
As Bethlehem’s population continued to grow it became obvious that space would run out in the old graveyard. In 1850 the church elders selected Nisky Hill as the site of new cemetery. It took until 1912 for the last internment to be buried in the old cemetery, making it 2,716 graves. However, Nisky Hill came into use as early as 1864. Bethlehem Moravians left some of their traditions behind when they switched to the Nisky Hill Cemetery by opting for family plots and more ostentatious tombstones.