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St. Philips: An Extraordinary History

This late 1800s photo features the St. Philips African Moravian Church, recognized by its white steeple.

This late 1800s photo features the St. Philips African Moravian Church, recognized by its white steeple. Today in Winston-Salem, the St. Philips African Moravian Church celebrates its 150th Anniversary. It is the oldest standing African-American church building in North Carolina, and its congregation dates back to 1822. The history of the church, especially its formation, draws attention to the social evolution of the state's Moravian community. A quick primer on Moravians: This Protestant denomination began over 500 years ago in the present day Czech Republic. They migrated to North Carolina in the 1750s, and they settled the town of Salem in 1766. Enslaved but Integrated In the 18th Century, the Moravian Church had no issue with the concept of slavery. "They thought the Bible was a pro-slavery document," says Jon Sensbach, a History professor at the University of Florida. "They thought that Christianity and slavery went hand-in-hand." The church actually owned slaves that it would lease out to the members, because it condemned its congregation from owning slaves individually. This reasoning was not based in morality, however. It was more about maintaining a strong work ethic. According to Moravian archivist Daniel Crews, the church believed its members, "might get used to the idea that somebody else does the work." Sensbach adds that Moravians also believed that it was a godly duty to treat a slave with Christian kindness. Therefore, the Moravian slaves were an active, accepted part of Salem. They learned the Moravians' German language, became members of the local church, worshipped alongside the white parishioners, and were buried in the white cemetery. Like whites, they were addressed as "Brother" or "Sister." "It was a very unusual case of baptized, black Christians being integrated into this German-American immigrant community," says Sensbach. Segregation in Salem In the early 1800s, segregation became more and more prevalent in the region, and the Moravians adopted that same attitude. "That was the creeping in of what was considered politically correct thinking at the time," says Crews. In 1816, they prohibited blacks from being buried in their cemetery. By 1822, the Moravians fully segregated the church and funded the formation of the St. Philips congregation, a group of mostly enslaved black Moravians.