“God’s Acre” is the scene of a moving celebration that dates back almost 250 years and attracts thousands each year.

“God’s Acre” is the scene of a moving celebration that dates back almost 250 years and attracts thousands each year.

Eliot Elisofon/Getty Images

Whether we worship in a grand urban cathedral or a little country church, Christian Southerners have a long tradition—nearly 250 years—of greeting Easter morning with an outdoor sunrise celebration, often with worshippers facing east. The service might include prayer, Scripture reading or liturgy, and music, during which the sun comes up. Usually, a breakfast follows, and then the regular Easter service is held in the sanctuary later that morning.

Why gather at sunrise on Easter? According to the Gospels, Christ’s empty tomb was discovered very early in the morning. Centuries later, European Christians began holding sunrise services to celebrate the resurrection.

Historical accounts credit the Moravian church of Germany with creating the first sunrise service in 1732. The practice then spread to Moravian churches all over the world, eventually becoming part of Easter Sunday for other Christian denominations as well.

In America, the sunrise service came first to the Salem Congregation of the Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which began welcoming Easter before daylight in 1772 and has done so every year since.

According to the Salem Congregation's website, the Moravian Band, which plays an important role in church worship and celebrations, breaks into smaller groups and begins playing at different points in town hours before dawn. The first selection? “Sleepers Awake.”

At 6 a.m., while it’s still dark, the sunrise service officially begins in front of Home Moravian Church. Eventually, the crowd and the entire Band—some 500 musicians—will reverently process to God’s Acre, the traditional name of Moravian cemeteries. In preparation for Easter and the sunrise service, volunteers will have meticulously cleaned each of the recumbent headstones and placed flowers throughout the cemetery. It’s something family members often do together, making it an Easter tradition to help tend God’s Acre together.

Local station WSJS has been broadcasting the sunrise service for decades. You can listen to it live on WSJS.com

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