The Trombones That Saved The Christmas City

Legend holds that music staved off attack on Bethlehem at height of French and Indian War

Editor's Note: This column was originally published on Patch in 2010

As Christmas approached in the year 1755, the Moravian community of Bethlehem appeared to have little to celebrate.

The year had begun with a prolonged drought that by summer had left its mark with a legacy of dry creek beds and wilted crops.

Then on the warm morning of July 19, as the community was gathering for prayers, the sound of pounding hoof beats was heard passing the Single Brethren House. Like a foreboding horseman of the biblical Apocalypse it sent a shiver through the assembled congregation. Community leaders knew it had to be an official courier on urgent business for the Crown. Only he would treat his mount so roughly.

They were correct. Courier Nicholas Scull, on route to Albany, N.Y. from Philadelphia, (after requesting from the Moravians a fresh horse and guide) pulled from saddle bags boldly stamped "ON HIS MAJESTY'S SERVICE" news of war.

On July 9th  British General Edward Braddock's veteran force of English regulars and colonial militia sent to protect the frontier from French inspired Indian raids had been defeated and massacred in a big battle outside Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, by a force of French troops and native Americans. What is known in America as the French and Indian War had unofficially begun.

As Scull rode off the elders pondered his words. Fort Duquesne was far from Bethlehem and they had always stood on good terms with the natives. Still they must have wondered what the future had in store for them.

By fall they knew. Indian raids on the frontier had increased and Bethlehem was flooded with refugees. On November 24th the Moravian mission to the Indians at Gnadenhutten, now Lehighton, was destroyed in a raid by Native Americans that left 11 dead including several Indian converts.

Fearing an attack on Bethlehem Moravian Bishop Augustus Spangenberg, a Prussian by birth began to turn the massive stone communal buildings into strong points with watch towers. To a force without cannon, he reasoned, the five-story Single Brethren House would be almost impregnable.

But while news was rare in Bethlehem rumor was rife. And by mid December a persistent one ran through the refugees. Outside the town, the story went, Indians were massing. On Christmas Day the birthday of the Prince of Peace, they would strike.

On Christmas Eve, Moravians held their traditional service and retired. At dawn, musicians climbed to the roof of the Single Brethren's House. At least one of them carried a trombone, an instrument that had only been introduced to Bethlehem a year before. Then they began to play the joyful, sweet music of Christmas.

No attack came. Were Indians scared off by the music?  That is unknown and unknowable. But the tension was broken and the community awoke to a new sense of itself. Perhaps 1755 was really not such a bad year to be in Bethlehem after all.                  

Karen Samuels December 25, 2012 at 03:54 PM
I love this story!


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