Feast of Peter Wolle, Theodore Wolle, and John Frederick Wolle (November 14)   6 comments

Wolle Family Connections

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor



U.S. Moravian Bishop, Organist, and Composer

father of


U.S. Moravian Organist and Composer

kinsman of 


U.S. Moravian Organist, Composer, and Choir Director


Families should nurture a healthy devotion to God, I am convinced.  Certainly the Wolle family of Bethlehem-Nazareth, Pennsylvania, did so.

The story, for the purpose of this post, began with John Frederick Wolle (1745-1813), a Moravian missionary to St. Thomas, in the Caribbean Sea.  He and his wife had two sons important to this post–John Frederick Wolle (1785-1860) and Peter Wolle (1792-1871).  Peter arrived in Pennsylvania at the tender age of three years.  In 1807 he became one of the first three students at Moravian Theological Seminary, all of whom went to on to become bishops in the Unitas Fratrum.  Peter taught in Moravian schools in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, states in which he also served congregations as a pastor.  From 1810 to 1814 he taught at the Collegium Musicum (from 1820 the Philharmonic Society of Bethlehem).

Peter served God and the Moravian Church with several talents.  In 1836 he published the first Moravian tune book in the United States, Hymn Tunes, Used in the Church of the United Brethren.  He altered Moravian hymn tunes to make them more similar to commonly sung hymn tunes in America.  This was necessary partially due to cultural pressures and ecclesiastical competition.  In the realm of music he also played the organ and composed anthems–nothing surprising, given the musical priorities of the Unitas Fratrum.  Peter, who became a bishop while pastor at Lititz, Pennsylvania, served as the interim minister at Dover, Ohio, from 1853 to 1855.  Then he served on the Provincial Board of the American Province until he retired in 1861.  He died at Bethlehem in 1871.

Two of Peter’s sons went into music also.  James Wolle built pianos–very well, apparently.  Theodore Francis Wolle (1832-1885) became an organist, like his father.  Peter taught young Theodore to play the instrument.  By the age of ten years the boy could play all tunes from his father’s Tune Book from memory.  Theodore started teaching music at Greensboro College, Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1853, played in a Confederate Army band during the Civil War, and returned to Bethlehem by 1865.


Above:  Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, February 1969

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = HABS PA,48-BETH,2–4

Theodore worked as an organist and composer in Bethlehem.  At first he played the organ at the Moravian chapel there.  Then, in 1871, he became the organist and choirmaster at Central Moravian Church.  He held the post for fourteen years.  The congregation replaced its old organ, which dated to 1806, in 1873.  Theodore helped to design the new instrument, which had three manuals and forty stops–more than the old organ did.  He stood in the legacy of Johann Klemm, David Tannenberg, Sr., and other Moravian Church organ builders.

Theodore also broke with tradition in two ways.  He changed the role of the organist in Moravian worship.  That role had been to support the congregation in worship.  A Moravian Church organist was not traditionally a performer, but Theodore became the first Moravian Church organist to give recitals.  He also changed the design and sound of Moravian Church organs.  They were traditionally modest instruments which did not attract attention to themselves in terms of sound or appearance.  The 1873 organ at Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, however, sounded grand and looked decorative.

Theodore also composed at least one tune, “Asleep in Jesus” (1877), which I found in an old Moravian hymnal.

His successor at Central Moravian Church was a third John Frederick Wolle (1863-1933), grandnephew of Peter Wolle (1792-1871), grandson of John Frederick Wolle (1785-1860), great-grandson of John Frederick Wolle (1745-1813), and a relative of Theodore.  (Distinguishing among people is a simpler task when they have different names.)  John Frederick number three, or J. Fred, as he preferred that people call him, became one of the most influential and acclaimed Moravian Church musicians and music teachers in the United States.  He studied the organ with Theodore at Bethlehem and David Wood at Philadelphia.  In 1884-1885 he lived in Munich, Germany, where he was one of four students the great organist Josef Rheinberger accepted that year.  The master organist preferred a dry, straight-forward performance style of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but J. Fred opted for an expressive interpretation.  The student also became familiar with the music of Richard Wagner while in Munich and began to make organ transcriptions of selections from Wagnerian operas.

J. Fred returned to Bethlehem in 1885 and stayed busy doing what he loved.  He succeeded Theodore as the organist and choirmaster at Central Moravian Church that year.  Two years later he added to those duties the positions of organist at Lehigh University and Packer Memorial Church (Episcopal), on the campus.  For eighteen years he played the organ at Lehigh.  He also composed works for the organ and for choirs and won national acclaim for his organ recital at the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. As if that were not enough, J. Fred co-founded the American Guild of Organists in 1896 and founded the Bach Choir of Bethlehem two years later.  He served as the first Director of that ensemble, which gave the first complete performances of the Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio in the United States, in 1900 and 1901, respectively.  His Bach Festivals were major cultural events.  The Bach Choir was not originally a professional organization for, J. Fred said, Bach was for everybody.

J. Fred left for Berkeley, California, in 1905, to lead the Department of Music at the University of California.  During his six years he organized a Bach Choir in that city.  He returned to Bethlehem in 1911 and resumed his role with the original Bach Choir.  In 1915 he was organist at Salem Lutheran Church, Bethlehem.

J. Fred died in 1933.

These three saints glorified God with their talents, which they nurtured and honed.  Fortunately, they had support along the way.  May we, likewise, strive to be all we can be for the glory of God and the benefit of others, have the support we need, and, as able, enable others to achieve their potential.







Almighty God, beautiful in majesty, majestic in holiness:

You have shown us the splendor of creation in the work of your servants

Peter Wolle, Theodore Wolle, and J. Fred Wolle.

Teach us to drive from the world all chaos and disorder,

that our eyes may behold your glory,

and that at last everyone may know the inexhaustible

richness of your new creation in Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Isaiah 28:5-6 or Hosea 14:5-8 or 2 Chronicles 20:20-21

Psalm 96

Philippians 4:8-9 or Ephesians 5:18b-20

Matthew 13:44-52

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 61


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