Remembering those we’ve lost at God’s Acre in Salem

This week’s Outlander episode, “Of Lost Things,” gave us all the feels. I found one of the most poignant scenes to be the one in which young Willie sneaks away to see Jamie, who has decided to leave Helwater. Willie sees the carving of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, and Jamie explains how he lights a candle and prays for the ones he has lost.

Willie: “Who do you pray for?”

Jamie: “My brother. He’s called Willie. Like you. And my sister, my Godfather… my wife.”

The scene got me thinking about the people we all will lose along the way. And after this episode aired Sunday, those of us on the East Coast awoke Monday morning to the horrific news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Now more than ever, we could use a peaceful place to reflect and pray about all that we have lost.

God’s Acre in Old Salem is that kind of place. If you’ve read Drums of Autumn and beyond, you’re well acquainted with the Moravian settlement of Salem, where the Frasers often visited to trade and purchase goods. Today, Old Salem is a historic living history museum near downtown Winston-Salem that every Outlander fan should see.

God’s Acre is located along South Church Street. As you approach the main entrance, you’ll pass under the words of Job 19:25: “I know that my redeemer liveth.” Every Moravian burial ground is known as God’s Acre. The one in Old Salem is the largest God’s Acre in North Carolina.

What you’ll find here may not be what you’d expect to see in a graveyard that dates back to the 18th century. (The first person buried here was a man by the name of John Birkhead on June 7, 1771.) There are no obelisks, ornate headstones or family tombs. Instead, what you’ll find are rows upon rows of simple, flat markers that gently rise and fall along hills leading toward the downtown skyline.

That’s because Moravians believe all people become equal in death. The rich and poor are treated equally here. The square, marble markers quaintly stand in stark contrast to the flashy resting places you’ll see in the (non-Moravian) Salem Cemetery, which was chartered in the 1850s and abuts God’s Acre.

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Also notable about God’s Acre is the placement of the graves. Moravians were not buried with their families. Rather, they were buried according to the choir system of the 1700s. They are grouped by age, sex and marital status.

Several blocks away in Salem, there was also the Strangers’ Graveyard, where non-Moravians were buried. But as the number of enslaved people grew in Salem, the burial ground became a segregated place. By 1816, the Strangers’ Graveyard became known as the “Negro God’s Acre.” (Old Salem recently announced the Hidden Town Project, an initiative to research the history of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans in Salem. I hope to share more details about this in a future blog post!)

Perhaps I feel a connection to God’s Acre because I have history here. I have relatives who were Moravians, and I know of at least one who is buried in God’s Acre in Old Salem. I grew up in the area, and despite the fact that I was raised Catholic, I’ve attended many Lovefeast and Easter sunrise services at local Moravian churches. If you plan to visit God’s Acre, I highly recommend planning your trip on a Sunday so you can experience the beautiful Christian service and fantastic music at the 1800 Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. (The church also offers a live broadcast of its Sunday service online.) And if you ever have the opportunity to attend the Easter sunrise service here, you absolutely should. Each year, thousands of people attend the observance, the longest running Easter sunrise service in the country.

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When you stand among the white stones, perhaps you can say a prayer for lost things as Jamie may have done.

St. Anthony, when you prayed, your stolen book of prayers was given back to you. Pray now for all of us who have lost things precious and dear. Pray for all who have lost faith, hope or the friendship of God. Pray for us who have lost friends or relatives by death. Pray for all who have lost peace of mind or spirit. Pray that we may be given new hope, new faith, new love. Pray that lost things, needful and helpful to us, may be returned to our keeping. Or, if we must continue in our loss, pray that we may be given Christ’s comfort and peace. Amen.

Further reading:

God’s Acre” by Anna Withers Blair, NCpedia.

In the Communion of the Saints: The Salem Moravian Graveyard,” Our State magazine.


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