The tradition has been observed – with few changes and regardless of weather conditions – in this same spot since 1772. This year, it will begin when visitors and congregants gather in front of Home Moravian Church and the grounds of Old Salem Museums & Gardens as the Rt. Rev. Lane Sapp, pastor of Calvary Moravian Church, officiates.
The services are organized and sponsored by the Salem Congregation, a group of 13 Moravian Church in America-affliated houses of worship in Winston-Salem.
The world’s first Moravian sunrise service was held in Herrnhut, in eastern Saxony, Germany in 1732. Moravians fleeing religious persecution eventually migrated to the North Carolina foothills and settled on land known as the Wachovia Tract.
On the Saturday before Easter, hundreds of church members scrub each of the 7,000 grave markers, all the same size and measurement, as Moravians believe all come into the world equally and depart the world equally. Fresh flowers are added at every marker in the cemetery. Some churches also host Saturday night music services.
For the musicians, Easter activities begin between 2 and 4 a.m. on Sunday morning. Small groups of brass band members rouse local neighborhoods, playing chorales on the street corners. “Sleeper’s Wake” is a popular selection.
“We started using a police escort for this so we’d have traffic control,” explains Moravian Dick Joyce, who has played in the band for 50 years. “There’s often someone new in the neighborhood that doesn’t understand the tradition.”
The service lasts for 35 to 45 minutes before sunrise. Only a few spotlights illuminate the pastor at the podium, as he or she reads scripture and leads a short service.
Then, the musicians, positioned on hillsides surrounding God’s Acre, are cued to play antiphonally: one band on a hill starts a hymn, and another band answers in time, all the while walking to their final destination where all 400 musicians play together in the heart of God’s Acre. Thousands of attendees follow the band into the cemetery to greet the rising sun with the triumphant sounds of trumpets, trombones and French horns.