At the nation’s first official Independence Day celebration, there were no fireworks, no sparklers, and no rowdy parties. The parade was solemn, with reverent music and the call-and-response singing of two choirs. Songs were sung in German.
Those marking the nation’s hard-won independence at that first celebration had not participated in the long and bloody war, and they were not celebrating the newly free nation’s victory over the British oppressors at Yorktown. They were thanking God for peace.
That subdued celebration was on July 4, 1783, in the Moravian village of Salem, now part of the hyphenated city of Winston-Salem in Piedmont North Carolina. On January 20 of that year, a preliminary peace agreement in Paris had signaled the end of the Revolutionary War, even though the Treaty of Paris would not be signed until September.
Ecstatic over both victory and peace, Alexander Martin, the governor of the new state of North Carolina, proclaimed July 4 a day of public thanksgiving. The governor’s order was not widely heeded. Some of the more backwoods areas of the state didn’t even hear about it until the designated date had passed. But Governor Martin, on his way to somewhere else, stopped in the thriving settlement of Salem on June 30 and mentioned the proclamation.
Despite the short notice, Salem and the other Moravian villages that made up the Wachovia settlement scrambled to put together suitable observances. All the villages celebrated at least a little, by ringing bells or attending church. But the grandest, most extensive celebration was at the settlement’s main town, Salem. That, plus the Moravian fondness for documenting everything, gives Salem its claim to the first-ever Fourth of July celebration.
“Moravians kept meticulous records and wrote everything down,” said Tyler Cox, the manager of community relations for Old Salem Museums and Gardens. The Salem Diary for July 4, 1783, details the day’s events. Since no one else has produced similar proof, “We think we can pretty safely say the first celebration was here.”
Apparently, the Moravians in Salem got the jump even on their brethren who lived near Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1776. The Moravians, a Protestant group in what is now the Czech Republic, had sent missionaries to establish the settlement of Bethlehem, Pa., in 1741.
A little more than a decade later, Moravians bought land in the North Carolina hills and began the Wachovia settlement. Salem was established as its center in 1766, with five outlying congregations. The Moravians were an industrious, inventive, highly organized, devout people who valued education for all. Their way of life can be observed today at a living museum.
They also had a strong pacifist tradition, dating to their founding amid the religious struggles of the 15th century as a “peace church.” Members were forbidden to serve in the military. They lived by the teachings in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
It’s little wonder that by 1783, the Moravians in Salem were thrilled that the battles were over. During the Revolution, both British and rebels harassed them, collected fines, and even attacked them physically. Some young men hid in the forest to escape being pressed into service. A few did join with the rebels; the church forgave them later.
Too, the Moravians, despite their reluctance to bear arms, were pleased to be part of the new country, now that it was at peace. They heeded the governor’s proclamation. And eight years later, in 1791, they welcomed President George Washington for a two-day stay and tour of the settlement.
The 1783 Independence Day celebration, as documented in the Salem Diary, started with trombone music, of which Moravians were fond. At 2 p.m., there was a Love Feast, a Moravian tradition that is more a celebration of community than a sacrament. People gathered in the church for a service that included a simple meal (usually coffee heavy with cream and sugar, plus a sweet bun).
As Moravians have long made music central to their worship, the service also included the singing of a “Psalm of Joy.” That gives the Moravians at Salem some claim to having come up with the first patriotic song celebrating the nation’s freedom. (This was years before Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”) Johann Friedrich Peter, who was the chief scribe and keeper of the Salem Diary, also served as composer-on-call, whipping something up whenever the occasion called for a new hymn or a celebratory opus. Some accounts say he wrote the cantata “Psalm of Joy” for the occasion, but Richard Starbuck, assistant archivist at the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, said that the composition wasn’t entirely new. Pressed for time, Peter adapted a piece he’d written celebrating the end of the Seven Years War.
The cantata, often described as “challenging,” was sung entirely in German.
Later in the day, the Moravians assembled for more hymns and walked joyfully though solemnly down the main street and around the square. The diary entry reads in part: “… Hearts were filled with the peace of God, evident during the entire day and especially during the procession, and all around there was silence, even the wind being still.”
The Moravians skipped Fourth of July celebrations for a few years after that, but they soon revived them. This year, as for several years now, the day will get started at 10 a.m. with a naturalization ceremony for new U.S citizens on Salem Square, where that first celebration was held. At 2 p.m., there will be a performance of “Psalm of Joy” at Home Moravian Church, with organ, an orchestra and a 35-member chorale. Members of the congregation will join in hymns during the performance. Most of the singing is still in German, although English translations are provided.
And at 4:15 p.m., today’s Salem Moravians will lead a re-enactment of the procession around Salem Square celebrating peace, just as their forebears did 231 years ago.
Linda C. Brinson, former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, is a freelance writer and editor and an adjunct faculty member in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.