Today, Americans enjoy a culture that fosters freedom of faith more than perhaps any other in the world. One key reason for this difference is that religious freedom was a core value of the earliest settlers who came to America’s shores. Many faith cultures were woven into the country’s virgin fabric, creating a colorful tapestry of faith traditions upon which more and more freedoms would eventually be built.
Groups of any faith background can explore and appreciate historic sites that carry with them a piece of this religious heritage that paved the way for them to practice their beliefs today. Many relics of America’s religious past still welcome pilgrims in search of a place of worship or quiet, or who want to pay homage to the heritage they adopted or in which they grew up.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Today, Winston-Salem is a bustling metropolis that is a haven to both innovation and the arts. Few people realize, however, that a few miles away is the site of the city’s birth, much of which has been preserved as the historic town of Old Salem.
Ragan Folan, executive director of Old Salem, describes the town as “a living-history museum.”
“What’s unique about Old Salem is that it was one of the first early American towns that was actually a theocracy,” she said. “The church was the government in the town until 1875.”
Members of the Moravian church originally founded Old Salem. The Moravians were the first Protestant sect to rebel against the Catholic Church in Europe and primarily took root in what is today the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries.
In a deal known as the Wachovia Tract, the church, in search of expansion from its original American roots in Pennsylvania, purchased 100,000 acres of the North Carolina land that would become Old Salem. About two-thirds of the original settlement still stands today and is a part of Old Salem’s attractions.
Much like visiting Colonial Williamsburg, on any given day, visitors can see live re-enactments of craft-making, farming and other domestic tasks that would have been performed by the Moravian community.
Unlike many religious groups, the Moravians emphasized the importance of education for both boys and girls equally.
“The Moravians founded both a boys’ school and a girls’ school in 1772,” Folan said.
Guests at the site today can experience parts of this educational tradition by participating in a development lesson on 19th-century manners or can even take a language class to learn bits of French, German and Latin. Another educational opportunity exists in the adjacent Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, which houses craftsmanship and folk art of the early South.
Holmes County, Ohio
Holmes County is considered the very center of the Buckeye State. However, beyond its location, it is most well known for its rich Amish and Mennonite heritage, having one of the largest concentrations of the faith groups in the country.
“Most Amish people here are very friendly,” said Kurt Kleidon, a spokesman for the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. “They are eager to allow visitors to experience their lifestyle, and in fact, much of their livelihood depends on the many tourists the area attracts.”
While visiting the area, faith groups can dip their toes into Amish waters in many different ways. A good place to start is the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center. The centerpiece of this museum-style outpost is a 265-foot mural known as “Behalt” that depicts various aspects of Amish and Mennonite heritage. Guided tours of the center offer interpretations of the mural.
At the center, visitors can also learn about Amish history that predates the group’s immigration to America. Some may be surprised to learn that it was full of persecution, martyrdom and discrimination, which explains much of the peaceful lifestyle Amish people work so hard to preserve today.
For a more familiar experience, guests should plan a trip to one of the many working Amish homesteads in the county. One of these is Yoder’s Amish Home, which has been open to the public since 1983. Guides take guests through the various structures essential to supporting the family’s lifestyle, including two houses, gardens and a traditional-style barn and schoolhouse. A bakeshop is housed at the homestead, as well; there, guests can sample and buy the family’s famous baked goods, preserves and other items.
Among the other interesting sites throughout the county are craft stores that feature famous Amish quilts and furniture, the renowned Lehman’s hardware store and the German Culture Museum, which tells the story of how Holmes County was originally settled.