Feast of Jeremias Dencke, Simon Peter, and Johann Friedrich Peter (May 28)   4 comments


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

Photographer = Jack E. Boucher

Image Source = Library of Congress

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



Silesian-American Moravian Composer and Organist


SIMON PETER (APRIL 2, 1743-MAY 29, 1819)

German-American Composer, Educator, Musician, and Minister

brother of


German-American Composer, Educator, Musician, and Minister


This is a post about three important early American Composers–all of them Moravians and two of them pastors.  Their stories overlap, hence their inclusion in one post.

Our story begins with Jeremias Dencke (1725-1795), born in Langenbielau, Silesia.  He, a recent convert to the Moravian Church in 1748, moved to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Saxony.  There he served as an organist before emigrating to America in 1761 on the same boat with the father of our other two saints, Simon Peter (1743-1819) and Johann Friedrich Simon (1746-1813).  Five years later, for the occasion of the Provincial Synod at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Dencke composed the first piece of concerted church music in America; it was a work for chorus, strings, and organ.  Other major works from his oeuvre included three sets of sacred songs for soprano, organ, and strings.  Johann Friedrich Peter’s collection preserved these sets of sacred songs.  Dencke, probably the first composer of instrumentally accompanied sacred vocal music anyone composed in America, died at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on May 28, 1795.  He was fifty-nine years old.

The birthplace of the Peter brothers–Simon (1743-1819) and Johann Friedrich (1746-1813)–was Heerendijk, Holland.  They, educated in Europe, followed their father to America in 1770.  Both brothers were composers, musicians, educators, and pastors.

Johann Friedrich Simon (1746-1813) was the more prominent composer in the family.  This was due to where he worked, for Simon Peter (1743-1819) usually labored in churches and communities without fine instrumental ensembles and/or choirs.  When a church had a choir the vocal ensemble was usually small.  Thus his musical compositions were not as numerous as those of his brother, but he made up for the lack of quantity with a high standard of quality.  Among Simon’s works was an anthem, “Look, Ye, How My Servants Shall Be Feasting,” for the fiftieth anniversary of the Moravian arrival in North Carolina.

Both brothers’ American odyssey began in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where they arrived in 1770 to teach at Nazareth Hall, the boys’ school there.  Johann Friedrich left three years later, but Simon remained in Pennsylvania until 1784, when he moved to North Carolina.  He worked as a pastor, a music teacher, and a church administrator.  Among Simon’s pupils was Johann Christian Till (1762-1844), whom he mentored at Nazareth.  Simon proved crucial to arranging for Till, a nail maker and woodworker, to take music lessons during part of his (Till’s) lunch hours.  Till went on to become a schoolmaster, composer, piano builder, and musician.  In 1811 Till succeeded Johann Friedrich Peter as organist at Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Simon died at Salem, North Carolina, on May 29, 1819.

Johann Friedrich Peter (1746-1813) went from being a pupil to a master teacher and a faithful servant of God in U.S. Moravian communities.  He also became the leading Moravian composer in the United States, for he had talent and opportunities to pursue it.  Johann Friedrich’s Moravian upbringing taught him that the proper uses of talents were to glorify God (Christ, specifically) and to edify one’s community, not to enrich oneself.  During his time on Earth Johann Friedrich struggled spiritually with his ego and his musical gifts.  He also thanked Christ for these gifts and the successful navigation of that spiritual struggle.

Johann Friedrich was a well-educated and capable man.  He matriculated at the boarding school at Niesky, Germany, in 1755.  There he studied under Johann Daniel Grimm (1719-1760).  From 1765 to 1769 Johann Friedrich attended the seminary at Barby, Germany.  There he started copying music, which he carried to America.  That collection included works from European composers, may of whom were alive at the time.

Bethlehem-Nazareth, PA

Above:  The Bethlehem-Nazareth Area in Pennyslvania, 1945

Scanned from Hammond’s New Era Atlas of the World (1945)

Johann Friedrich lived in America from 1770 to his death forty-three years later.  He spent most of that time in Pennsylvania, usually in Bethlehem.  From 1770 to 1773 he taught at Nazareth Hall, the boy’s school, at Nazareth.  Johann Friedrich spent 1773-1779 in Bethlehem.  There he led the community instrumental ensemble, the collegium musicum, and made it part of regular worship services.  A brief stint (1779-1780) at Lititz followed.  There he kept the church records.

Lititz-Mountjoy, PA

Above:  The Lititz-Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, Area

Scanned from Hammond’s New Era Atlas of the World (1945)

From 1780 to 1790 Johann Friedrich served in various capacities at Salem, North Carolina, and in the vicinity.  He compiled orders of worship, played the organ, preached, baptized, administered communion, supervised and taught at the boy’s school, kept the congregational diary, served the church as secretary, served as the community’s music director, led the collegium musicum, and, for a time, served as the interim pastor.  After he left Salem, others continued his musical legacy in the community.  Johann Friedrich also conducted services in outlying communities, where he administered the sacraments and, as necessary, played the organ and sang.

Below:  Home Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1935

Photographer = Frances Benjamin Johnston

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-csas-02658



Graceham, MD

Above:  Graceham, Maryland, 1945

Scanned from Hammond’s New Era Atlas of the World (1945)

Johann Friedrich moved a few times before returning to Bethlehem for more service (1793-1802.  He was the interim pastor at Graceham, Maryland, from 1790 to 1791, before returning to Bethlehem briefly (1791).

Hope, NJ

Above:  Hope, New Jersey, 1945

Scanned from Hammond’s New Era Atlas of the World (1945)

Then he left to supervise the school at Hope, New Jersey, from 1791 to 1793.  During his third tenure (1793-1802) at Bethlehem Johann Friedrich served as the clerk, secretary, and organist at Central Moravian Church.  He left again in 1802 to become the pastor at Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, but returned to Bethlehem two years later.  There he remained for the rest of his life.  Johann Friedrich retired as organist in 1811.  Johann Christian Till (1762-1844), his brother Simon’s former student, became the new organist.  Our saint died suddenly on July 13, 1813, shortly after playing the organ for a children’s service at Bethlehem.

The great man–a composer and a music teacher–left human and musical legacies.  His pupils served in their communities for decades and influenced countless numbers of people directly and indirectly.  The prolific composer left his works, such as six string quartets (from 1789), the earliest chamber music anyone composed in the United States.  Johann Friedrich also composed church anthems, such as “It is a Precious Thing,” originally a duet for two sopranos.  (The 1954 edition is, however, a duet between a baritone and a soprano, followed by a four-part a cappella chorale.)  Other anthems included “Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Hearken, Stay Close to Him.”

Johann Friedrich understood that his talents came from God.  Thus our saint employed them to glorify God and to edify his communities.  He was piously humble about his many services to God and communities, leaving many unmentioned.  I, however, mention three here:

  1. He organized a service of mourning for the passing of President George Washington.  The service occurred at Bethlehem on February 22, 1800.
  2. Johann Friedrich organized the service of dedication of the new (and current) structure for Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, in 1806.
  3. He played the violin in an early American performance of Haydn’s Creation at Bethlehem in 1811.  David Moritz Michael (1751-1827), a composer of church anthems, conducted.

These three “new” saints–Jeremias Dencke, Simon Peter, and Johann Friedrich Peter–seem like kindred spirits not only to each other but to me.  I thank my late father for introducing me to classical music, especially the ecclesiastical side of it.  Thus my well-honed musical tastes cause me to like these three saints for cultural reasons, among others.  May their musical legacies thrive.





Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses.

Grant that we, encouraged by the good examples of your servants

Jeremias Dencke, Simon Peter, and Johann Friedrich Peter,

may persevere in running the race that is set before us,

until at last we may with them attain to your eternal joy;

through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Micah 6:6-8

Psalm 15

Hebrews 12:1-2

Matthew 25:31-40

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 724


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: