Mark Ralls: The Fourth of July, Moravian style

As people of faith, it might be appropriate to have a quiet Fourth of July, taking a cue from the Moravian Christians who marked the first public celebration in 1783 with prayer, music and a candelight procession, says a pastor in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Most sixth graders in my city can recite how a group of our local ancestors became the first Americans to celebrate the Fourth of July. What I suspect they are not taught is how strikingly different that first celebration was from the pageantry that currently marks our most cherished national holiday.

In the spring of 1783 -- a few weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the end of the American Revolution -- the ebullient governor of the newly minted state of North Carolina set aside July 4 as a day of public thanksgiving. Congress would not declare it a national holiday for nearly 100 years.

Yet in 18th-century America word traveled slowly. Residents of North Carolina towns and cities were left with no more than a dozen or so days to plan the festivities. (In some rural areas, July came and went before they learned of the new holiday.)

In light of more pressing matters, like organizing the local branches of a new nation and reordering their lives after seven years of war, this was a tall order. If it were not for the quick planning of the Moravians of Forsyth County in the communities of Salem and Bethania, Gov. Alexander Martin’s great idea would have been universally ignored.

For good reason, this is a source of pride for the residents -- young and old -- in the Winston-Salem area.

Yet, what intrigues me is how strikingly different in theme and tone the first Fourth of July was from the peppy celebrations that followed in its wake. By comparison, the first Fourth of July was not just subdued. It was sedate, a somber occasion of reflection and prayer.

There were no block parties or bottle rockets. No boisterous parade. The day began in worship and concluded with candlelight procession. More striking still, many celebrants that day were conscientious objectors. Throughout the American Revolution, they had -- by and large -- stubbornly refused to fire a shot or wave the flag.

Their theme for the day – drawn from Psalm 46, with music compiled by composer Johann Friedrich Peter – was noticeably pacifist and non-partisan. “[God] has stopped wars to the end of the earth,” they sang. “The bow He breaks. He splinters the spears and consumes the shields with fire.” A version is still performed in Old Salem today.

My point is not to diminish the animated national party the Fourth of July has become. I enjoy fireworks and parades as much as the next guy. Yet it is to caution us from turning a celebration into a spectacle. And it is to remind us that -- as Moravian Christians have through the ages -- you can be patriot without wrapping yourself in the flag or firing guns in the air.

As a people of faith, it is not only permissible, it might even be appropriate to have a quiet Fourth of July. To light candles and to pray. Rather than merely memorializing the great things we as Americans have done, let us remember the unmerited mercy of God and reflect upon the gracious things God would have us do.

I am proud that Moravian ancestors from my community celebrated the first Fourth of July, but I am even more grateful that they showed me a gently contrarian way to celebrate it -- a way to be both patriotic and a person of faith.