Gracehill - 'Rural Utopia'
Ireland's only full scale Moravian settlement
Situated on the outskirts of Ballymena lies the picturesque village and Moravian settlement, Gracehill. Although it cannot claim to be the oldest Moravian congregation in the north of Ireland, Gracehill is nonetheless regarded as the ‘Mother Church’ by Moravians here. Indeed, Gracehill remains the only full-scale settlement the Moravians were to build in Ireland.
Founded in the 18th century the beginnings of the Moravian settlement at Gracehill can actually be traced back as far as the 15th century. In England in the early 15th century, John Wyclif, Oxford academic and theologian, was expounding theories that would anticipate those of Martin Luther some hundred years later. Inspired by Wyclif, the then Rector of Prague University, John Hus began to protest for reform within the Catholic Church.
Hus’ views were to cost him his life and in 1415 the Council of Constance decreed that he be burned at the stake. However, Hus’ followers ensured that his views did not die with him and over time the teachings of the Unitas Fratum (United Brethren) would spread as far as the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean and eventually, by the early 18th century, England.
It was at this time that John Wesley, his associates, and many involved in the Evangelical Revival in England began to take an interest in, and be influenced by, the teachings of the Moravians.
Essentially ecumenical in outlook, the Moravian Church allowed for a great degree of freedom in doctrinal thinking whilst maintaining an emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ in all things. Their motto ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity’ underscores their commitment to principles of Christian fellowship and Christian service.
It was one of Wesley’s circle, John Cennick, who would be pivotal in establishing the Moravian Church in Ireland. Whilst preaching in Dublin in 1746, Cennick caught the attention of a Ballymena merchant called Joseph Dean. Dean who had been greatly affected by Cennick’s teachings beseeched the preacher to come and address the people of his hometown. Cennick agreed and within days of his arrival in Ballymena up to 2,000 people were coming to hear him talk.
However, not all were happy with what he had to say and eventually, under threat of his life, the preacher was driven from the town. Undeterred Cennick would continue to spread the teachings of the Moravian Church in the surrounding lands until, aged just 39, a terrible fever took his life. Although he died young, Cennick had nonetheless succeeded in his life’s ambition and in 1765 the Moravian settlement of Gracehill was founded.
Initially leasing land from Lord O’Neill the Ballymena congregation built Gracehill in the grid-like pattern common to villages in Europe at the time. At the centre of the village was the Church, flanked by the Manse and the Warden’s house.
The Brothers and Sisters Walks on either side of the Church are joined at the site known as ‘God’s Acre’, the burial ground. Its layout was also strictly defined with men buried to the left of the central path and women to the right. Even the headstones were of a standard design and shape. Surrounding this central area were homes for the congregation.
These buildings, including the brethren houses, communal houses for single sisters, single brethren and widows, and schools for the boys and girls all radiated outwards from the focal point, the Church, to form a large square. A farm, shop and inn (for parents accompanying their children to and from the boarding schools) completed the settlement.
In the 18th century it was not merely the layout of the village, but the entire workings of this rural utopia, which were highly structured. Not only did all the people of Gracehill belong to the Church they were also organised by group or, as they termed it, ‘Choir’, each with its own particular duties and dwelling places.
The inhabitants would follow their prescribed trade or craft for the good of the whole community and in return the community ensured they were given a home and all life’s other essentials. The aim was that Gracehill should be wholly self-sufficient and greater able to devote itself to local evangelical work.
One of the particular successes of the Moravian society at Gracehill was in relation to education. With the Moravians renowned for high and exacting levels of education the school at Gracehill soon became famous throughout Ireland and attracted pupils from the highest echelons of society.
With its stone buildings dating back as far as 1768, unique Georgian architecture and rare features such as galleting (whereby small stones form decorative lines in the joints between basalt courses), it is not surprising that in 1975 Gracehill became Northern Ireland’s first designated Conservation Area. It has also been the recipient of numerous awards including the Europa Nostra Award.
In 2003 the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, as part of the European Heritage Open Days Scheme, staged an event which brought the history of the village to life. Actors from a living history company assumed the roles of the 18th century brethren in an undertaking that afforded the public a rare insight into the day-to-day workings of this rural utopia.
By Francis Jones