It is well-established that freedom of religion is an essential tenant upon which the United States was founded. And it was part of the motivation that drove many of the earliest settlers to come to America, especially Quaker William Penn’s Pennsylvania. One of the most notable communities, founded in the 18th century, is the Historic Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It is more than simply age that makes the cloister interesting and notable. A unique Anabaptist sect, the community followed seemingly unusual rituals and was known for their printing and songwriting.
Today, the site of the community transports visitors back centuries as they explore eight remaining buildings that have been meticulously restored using traditional techniques and methods. And, let me tell you, it is an intriguing trip.
Brief History of Ephrata Cloister
Ephrata Cloister would not exist were it not for Conrad Beissel. Born on 1691 in Eberbach in what is today Baden-Württemberg, Germany, he emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1720 in order to seek religious freedom.
He spent more than a decade in Pennsylvania and lived for some of that time as part of another Anabaptist Christian community, including the Seventh Day Dunkers. But eventually, he decided to strike out on his own, so to speak. Beissel sought a stricter lifestyle to connect with God.
In 1732, he moved to what was then a forest. Beissel was willing to live independently as a hermit. But others followed Beissel, who was said to be charismatic. The Ephrata Cloister, named “Ephrata” after the former biblical name for Bethlehem, was founded.
You can think of the Ephrata Cloister community as having roughly two parts. One was the brothers and sisters of the community while others were families, frequently referred to as Householders. The Householders lived in the area and worshipped with the cloister but did not follow the same religious requirements in their everyday lives.
The residents of the Ephrata Cloister lived celibate lives with sisters housed in one building and brothers in another. The Sisters’ House and their meeting house (the Saron and Saal, respectively) are among the remaining buildings and the centerpiece of the historic site.
The residents followed Beissel’s strict religious requirements by today’s standards. They ate a single vegetarian meal each day (although meat was eaten occasionally as part of ritual meals). The majority of the remainder of their time was spent alternating between private worship and doing work to sustain the community. Each brother or sister had their own modest quarters with a wooden bench that was roughly a foot and a half wide and served as a bed. A wooden block was a pillow. Each night, the residents gathered in their gender-based meeting houses from midnight to 2 am to await God’s arrival. Assuming he had not arrived, they returned to bed for three hours before the start of the day.
Prayer Through Printing and Music
While the community did spend much of their time in prayer and religious reflection, they expressed their faith in some more tangible ways, too. Namely with printing and music.
At a time when literacy rates were patchy at best, the Ephrata Cloister was renowned for their printing. The skill saw them able to “manufacture” books from start to finish despite the in-house approach being rare at the time. In particular, the community is known for the largest book printed in Colonial America, Martyrs’ Mirror, a 1500-page religious text in German. Many of the texts written and published by the community use Frakturschriften, a popular German style of calligraphy.
In addition to writing texts, the community was also composing songs. The group is acknowledged as having some of the earliest known female composers.
The End of an Era
Ultimately, it was Beissel’s death in 1768 that served as a turning point for the cloister. With the founder not there to oversee things, over time, fewer of the community were willing to observe the strict lifestyle. By 1813, the last member of the cloister died, leaving the estate to the Householders. While they remained living, working, and worshiping at the site, by 1934 the community came to an end.
Exploring Ephrata Cloister
Today’s visitors to the historic Ephrata Cloister can get an idea of what the community once was. You can walk the paths between the buildings, peek in windows, and even enter some of the buildings. It is almost comical how the printing press and weaving looms barely fit in the buildings. But with the wooden shingle roofs, stone walls, and wood siding, what remains is extremely picturesque, even charming, if you simply judge by appearances.
While from the outside the Saron, and to a lesser extent the Saal, appear like large, spacious buildings, inside it is a different story. The four-storey Saron features low ceilings, corridors that are barely a shoulder’s width wide, and limited windows. The private bedrooms while not grand, were remarkably private considering the otherwise strict rules under which the followers lived. Although, Beissel himself had his own dedicated accommodations. And while men and women seemed to experience a relatively remarkable level of equality, given the time period, they still lived in separate dorms.
The Saal is a bit more open thanks to a second-floor balcony that is open to the ground floor, although the original incarnation of the building would have had a solid ceiling on the first floor. The dormitory and meeting hall for the men, sadly, is no longer standing.
Inside the visitor center, there is a small museum that is not worth missing. There are some original artifacts that have been unearthed on display, including what has been called a glass trumpet. Although no explanation is available for the unusual find, it makes Ephrata Cloister even more intriguing. How would such an unusual piece make it to this place?
The price of admission includes a guided tour, which I highly recommend. The tour guide that led us through the site was extremely well informed on the Ephrata Cloister; to my amazement he was an intern and, unfortunately, on his last day as a tour guide. In addition to escorting visitors in the Saal and Saron, the tour is extremely informative. Regardless of whether you take the tour, there is a “dial and discover” tour to offer you more information as you explore the site on your own and at your own pace. A couple of the buildings, including the bakery, have further experts who can talk you through how things were used and what everyday life was like.
The museum has a large parking lot with free parking. There is also a picnic area.
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All photos, and opinions, are my own.