The Latest UNESCO World Heritage Site Nominee Is a U.S. Destination You Might Not Expect

This historic district in Pennsylvania was once the hub for the Moravian Church in America.

Exterior of the Smithy from 1750-1761 and the Tannery from 1762 in Historic Moravian Bethlehem

Paul S. Bartholomew

The early Moravians were adventurers, and by some accounts, the world’s first feminists. They left Europe for America in the 18th century and brought their faith, which welcomed people of all backgrounds and gave women and men equal rights (two things that were unheard of at the time), along with them.

The hub for the Moravian Church’s work in the Americas was Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The historic site, which is now called Historic Moravian Bethlehem District, encompasses the community’s oldest surviving buildings and preserves what was once the center of Moravian religious activity. The district, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, is now being nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Exterior of the Tannery from 1761, and the Luckenbach Mill and Reconstructed Spring House from 1869 during the wintertime in Historic Moravian Bethlehem

Paul S. Bartholomew

“Bethlehem became the religious and administrative center of Moravian activities in North America. It consists of religious, domestic, and industrial components, showing the full scope of Moravian community life in a North American context,” reported a National Park Service press release posted on Feb. 17, 2023.

The nomination, which was recently submitted by the National Park Service, will be considered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in the summer of 2024. The nomination is unique in that it includes two other historic Moravian settlements: Herrnhut in Germany and Gracehill in Northern Ireland. If approved by the committee, the three sites will join a Moravian settlement in Denmark (which is already a World Heritage Site) to form a single UNESCO listing for the Moravian Church Settlements.

Interior of the Gemeinhaus Saal from 1741 in Historic Moravian Bethlehem

Paul S. Bartholomew

These settlements, which showcase the spread of the Movarian Church in the 18th century, also protect the Moravian's historic buildings — many of which are still being used for their original purpose. In the Historic Moravian Bethlehem District, there are more original structures than Colonial Williamsburg and the district’s 1741 community house is believed to be the largest 18th-century log structure in continuous use in the United States.

The entire district, which spans around 14 acres in the city of Bethlehem, is a true reflection of the 18th century community. According to the Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites, “Today, a Moravian from the mid-1700s would feel at home walking the streets of Historic Moravian Bethlehem.”

Exterior of the Historic Hotel Bethlehem overlooking the historic district in Historic Moravian Bethlehem

Courtesy of Historic Hotel Bethlehem

If approved and added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Moravian Church Settlements would join iconic destinations like the Taj Mahal in India and the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador. And the Historic Moravian Bethlehem District would join the small, exclusive list of just 24 World Heritage Sites in the U.S. — a list that includes the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

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