Moravian traces its origin to a girls’ school founded in May 1742 by sixteen-year-old Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf. The young countess, on an eighteen-month visit to the Moravian settlements in the New World with her father, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, was following a Moravian tradition that was already old in her time.
The roots of the Moravian denomination go back to the Bohemian Protestant martyr John Hus, who died at the stake in 1415. In 1457 the denomination was formally organized under the name Unitas Fratrum, “the Unity of the Brethren.” The Brethren (later called the Moravians in the New World) gave to the world the pioneer educator John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), who was one of their bishops.
Called “the father of modern education” for his revolutionary educational principles, Comenius was a man of his time in thinking of education in religious terms. He viewed education as an instrument of salvation (because the soul had to be trained to search for truth and to recognize it when it was found). Since the Moravians considered every human soul a potential candidate for salvation, every human being had to be educated. Comenius wrote in 1632 that “not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school.” The Moravians therefore considered schools secondary in importance only to churches.
Following a period of intense persecution, during which the struggling church was threatened with extinction, the Brethren in 1722 were given asylum on the Saxony estate of an ecumenical-minded Lutheran nobleman, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, who became their leader as well as their benefactor. In 1732 settlers from Germany and Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) came to the New World. On Christmas Eve 1741 they founded the community of Bethlehem in what was then wilderness, sixty miles north of Philadelphia. Count Nicholas and his daughter were there for the occasion.
Benigna von Zinzendorf’s school was the first girls’ boarding school in America. It gained such a distinguished reputation that George Washington, during his second term as president of the United States, personally petitioned the headmaster for the admission of two of his great-nieces. The Bethlehem Female Seminary, as the school became known, was chartered to grant baccalaureate degrees in 1863, and in 1913 became Moravian Seminary and College for Women.
A boys’ school was established in Bethlehem in July 1742, and another in nearby Nazareth in 1743. These schools merged in 1759 to form Nazareth Hall, an institution which survived until 1929. In 1807 a men’s college and theological seminary was established as an extension of Nazareth Hall. That institution, Moravian College and Theological Seminary, moved to Bethlehem in 1858 and was chartered to grant baccalaureate degrees in 1863, the same year as the women’s college.
In 1954, after two centuries of separate development and growth, the women’s and the men’s institutions were combined to form a single coeducational college. Moravian Theological Seminary maintained a closely related but academically distinct identity as a graduate school of theology. As a result of the merger, Moravian College became the Lehigh Valley’s first coeducational institution of higher education.