Winston-Salem Time Traveler: The Easter City

Winston-Salem is called the “Easter City.” The name does not come from the hustle and bustle associated with shopping for Easter clothing or from the custom of dyeing eggs for the Easter Bunny’s arrival. Winston-Salem is called the Easter City because of an annual event which has taken place in Salem for more than 200 years — the Moravian Easter Sunrise Service.

The sunrise service as we know it has changed little from the original service which took place in Herrnhut, Saxony in 1732. On Easter Sunday, a small group of young men gathered in the graveyard, called God’s Acre, to sing hymns and to meditate upon the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection. As they sang and prayed, the rising sun drove the darkness away from the hills and valleys and made the resurrection more meaningful than ever before. When the Moravians came to Salem, they included the sunrise service in their Easter worship service beginning in 1772.

Salem Congregation (comprised of 12 local Moravian churches) band members assemble early on Easter morning at their home churches for a light breakfast. Then, they walk or board buses to play Easter chorales such as “Sleepers, Awake!” in designated neighborhoods. The chorales remind listeners of the Resurrection and awaken people for the sunrise service. When the bands finish their rounds throughout the city, and it is still dark, the entire Salem Congregation band gathers at Home Moravian Church for a hearty breakfast of ham, eggs, biscuits, sugarcake and coffee. The band members (about 400 strong) also enjoy fellowship as they visit and recognize the service of longtime (50+ years) band members.

Warmed and refreshed from the breakfast, the band assembles near Home Moravian Church as the congregation gathers for the service. As sunrise approaches, the minister comes out of the church and brings the salutation: “The Lord is risen!” The congregation responds: “The Lord is risen indeed!” The band leads in the choral salutation: “Hail, all hail, victorious Lord and Savior, Thou hast burst the bonds of death.”

After the minister delivers the liturgy, the congregation walks to God’s Acre. Some of the bands have already gathered in the graveyard, and they play chorales antiphonally during this solemn part of the worship service until everyone is assembled in God’s Acre. The service continues with the liturgy and more hymns as the sun gradually brightens the sky and the worshipers disperse.

Significant features of God’s Acre are the recumbent stones which symbolize the Moravian belief in the democracy of death and which make it impossible to distinguish between the graves of rich and poor. Members are buried according to “choirs” or station in life, such as married men, married women, etc., rather than by families. In the days before Easter, church and family members clean the stones and adorn each grave with fresh flowers, adding color to the white stones nestled in the green grass.

The Right Reverend Edward Rondthaler, Bishop of the Moravian Church in the South, led the sunrise services for more than 50 years. His voice carried strong and clear across the crowds. For those who could not come to the service, WSJS radio began their broadcast of the services in 1930, the same year that the radio station was founded. Doug Lee was instrumental in starting the radio station and also prepared the wiring to broadcast the service.

B.J. Pfohl became a member of the church band in 1880 when the band consisted of 16 musicians. He recalled playing that year in the moonlight and the mud. In 1890, he became director of the band, a position he held for 55 years. Over the years the band has grown and often consists of multiple generations from the same family — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grandchildren.

Residents and visitors return to the Moravian Easter Sunrise Service year after year because they know it will be simple and beautiful and worshipful. It was so 200 years ago, and it is so today, in the Easter City.

Coming in May: Hattie Strong’s Legacy in Winston-Salem

By Molly Grogan Rawls, author of the Winston-Salem Time Traveler website. Contact Molly at or