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Conrad Beissel and his Communal Experiment

Written by Ronald J. Gordon ~ Published February, 1996 ~ Last Updated, December, 2011 ©
This document may be reproduced for non-profit or educational purposes only, with the
provisions that the entire document remain intact and full acknowledgement be given to the author.

s the German Baptist Brethren established themselves in the New World, they quickly welcomed and provided assistance to other Brethren arriving from the Old World. Conrad Beissel was one such individual who later became a presiding member of the Conestoga congregation near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After time he endeavored to influence them toward his own spiritual mysticism, particularly his teachings regarding celibacy and Sabbath (Saturday) worship. Elders from the Germantown Mother Church in Philadelphia attempted to return their brother back into their fold of orthodoxy through repeated visitations. After continuing friction with these Elders, Beissel finally broke with them and established his own experiment in faith at Ephrata in 1732. In the following years with the death of their founder and figurehead Alexander Mack in 1735, Brethren increasingly began leaving their congregations to join Beissel in his new mystical experiment along the Cocalico Creek. The wife of Brethren printer Christopher Sauer was a Prioress at Ephrata Cloister for fourteen years. During the early years and primarily under the guidance of Beissel's personal supervision, the community prospered, incorporated much industry, and produced a unique religious culture. But not long after the death of Beissel in 1768, the community began to wane and the buildings slowly deteriorated. After several decades, the remaining dwellers made notable attempts to preserve their society and repair the buildings, but there were not enough people left to maintain a viable community. In 1814, the few remaining dwellers incorporated the Seventh Day German Baptist Church which survived until 1934. Finally, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission assumed ownership of the grounds and regressing structures in 1941, and initiated a program of research, careful restoration, and continuing maintenance. Tour guides in period costume now escort visitors throughout the park with knowledgeable and meaningful interpretation of cloistered life. A museum presents the historian with a snapshot of life at the Cloister, a gift shop offers souvenirs for the average traveler, and the genealogist will relish the opportunity to peruse the original cemetery which yields the names of those interred.


Parallel to recounting the positive accomplishments of Conrad Beissel and the members of Ephrata Cloister, this document attempts to examine one aspect of the story which few historians or researches have endeavored to address. This author has repeatedly walked over the grounds at Ephrata, and one question persistently remains. After all the opinions and interpretations have been discussed from all the many histories written, this simple observation must eventually be considered and answered: “Why are these buildings now empty?



The Visionary

The Bakery
Bakery and Rear of Saal

berbach, Germany, was the birthplace of Johann Conrad Beissel in 1690. His father was a baker who died two months before he was born, and tragically at the age of eight, his godly mother also died. Raised by older brothers and sisters in poverty, he drifted from musician to baker and spiritual mystic. At Heidelberg he became friends with many Pietists and was briefly jailed. Upon his release, Beissel departed with two friends for America, and landed in Boston in 1720. Eventually arriving in Germantown he decided to become a weaver under the apprenticeship of Peter Becker who then presided over the Brethren. A bit restless and discontent, he soon left for the Conestoga territory (Lancaster) where he lived as a hermit. In 1724, a missionary expedition of Brethren from Germantown convinced him to rejoin the Brethren. He was baptized and regularly met with a newly formed congregation, and soon became the leader of this fledgling Conestoga group. However, it soon became noticeable that Beissel was more intent on persuading them to accept his own mystical interpretations of spiritual living. Referring to himself frequently as the Superintendent, he visited many other Brethren settlements with the idea of enlarging a group of sympathetic followers. This was not difficult since no firm organization structure existed between the Brethren congregations, and his personal charisma only strengthen his undeniable gift of leadership. Few historians obfuscate his extraordinary gift for persuasion. Little if any coercion was necessary, for Beissels magnetic personality literally drew people under his tutelage. In December of 1728, he openly declared his independence from the Brethren as he instructed follower Jan Meyle to rebaptize him in the Conestoga Creek. He soon moved to Ephrata and later established a formal colony in 1732, to pursue his own vision of spiritual mysticism. The attempts of the German Baptist Brethren to reconcile Beissel and return him to the fold where in vain. His vibrant personality and eloquent speaking abilities endeared other Brethren and attracted many outside converts. There was a gradual exodus from many Brethren settlements to the Cloister at Ephrata, especially following the death of Alexander Mack in 1735 (founder of the Schwarzenau Brethren). In the wake of Mack's influence, Beissel achieved prominence and embarked on a steady course of proselytizing which was immensely successful. He literally moved the entire Brethren congregation at Falckner's Swamp to Ephrata.

Living Quarters
Living quarters with
bench bed & block pillow

Beissel's followers were vegetarians and grew their own food in several gardens. Tour guides relate that lamb being served during communion was the only time the faithful were allowed to eat meat. Needless to say, communion was requested often. Members were generally monastic and segregated in rustic living quarters by gender. Married couples were later admitted, building their own houses on the grounds. The colony was very autonomous. It had orchards, gardens, grain-fields, the resources to manufacture Clothing From Flax, plus a saw-mill, gristmill, paper-mill, and Printing Press. A number of artisans were very skilled in crafts such as Clock Making and decorative writing termed Fraktur. Some of the first "casement" type windows in American were installed in the larger buildings. Cloistered living was austere, members wore plain white Hooded Cloaks to disassociate themselves from the distraction of individual clothing styles. Most living quarters or cells in the Sister's House were very small with a hard wood bench for a bed and a solid wooden Block for a Pillow. Passageways in this large dormitory were narrow. Doorways often had a heavy support beam that forced dwellers to bend over as they entered another room. Park tour guides must frequently remind modern visitors to bend forward in order to keep from bumping their heads. One of the more significant elements of Beissel's teachings was that celibacy is the most advantageous means of opening and maintaining a reliable channel of spiritual communication to God, for it relives the mind of the recurring distraction of sensual pleasures. Since food and clothing were produced within the Cloister, much time was involved in tending to a variety of everyday chores, such as gardening, mending, transporting goods between the numerous buildings, and naturally the laborious tasks of cooking and preparing meals. These necessary activities easily reduced idleness and kept people busy. In the evenings after chores were finished, members participated in numerous other events such as choral singing, often in Five Part Harmony in the main worship center - the Saal (worship hall on right) that adjoined the larger Saron (Sister's house from rear). Since Beissel was previously aligned with the Brethren, the modern Brethren visitor to Ephrata Cloister is frequently reminded of numerous Brethren elements of faith and practice or manners and customs - especially the communion service. One chief industrial activity of the colony was its printing press, certainly exceeded in significance and production by the Sauer press in Germantown. Power exists in the written word and this press authenticated the legitimacy of the Cloister by giving the dwellers their own self-produced literature. The Ephrata press also generated many outside compositions such as the Mennonite book of Martyrs in 1748. Of particularly special interest was the monumental production of Chronicon Ephratense in 1786 by Jacob Gass and Peter Miller (Beissel's successor). Although it is regarded by historians as indefensibly biased toward the activities of the Superintendent, nonetheless it offers the historian an opportunity to evaluate the development of the community, and especially it's relationship to the German Baptist Brethren (later Church of the Brethren).

Expansion to Snow Hill

The Superintendent

Flax Cutter
Flax Cutter

earning to play the violin in Europe, Beissel taught music at the Cloister and wrote hundreds of songs. Many others also devoted themselves to poetry and music. Their choir became widely known. Over thirty people were involved in writing hymns and the printing shop soon began producing hymnals, especially Die Turteltaube. Unfortunately, all was not in perfect harmony, for Beissel ruled the Cloister with an iron hand and banished anyone who did not eventually yield to his authority. In the due course of time, friction with Israel Eckerlin, Prior of the Monastery, became open and somewhat hostile. This event soon formed cliques of smaller parties, each aligned with either Eckerlin or Beissel. Private agreements were often made on how to comport oneself, depending on which of these two protagonists should ultimately win the struggle. Accepting the Priory in 1740, Israel Eckerlin was a firm believer in hard labor. He was also a good businessman who added industry to the Cloister. It was actually his idea to add the mills, the orchards, purchase surrounding territory, and finally make the community self-supporting. His widowed mother came from Germany to America in 1725 with four sons, Israel, Samuel, Immanuel, and Gabriel. Each brother was very active in the Cloister, nearly from its beginning, and worked very hard to make it a success. Israel was a genius in many areas. He was deeply respected by the Ephrata community for his astuteness, but it also made Beissel extremely jealous. Eventually the feud became hostile with frequent exchanges of anger in public. In order to preserve tranquility, it was agreed that Israel should leave the Cloister for a short period of time, so as to allow emotional wounds to heal. While he was absent, Beissel literally destroyed much of what Israel had accomplished, including the burning of hymn books containing Eckerlin composed songs, plus the sawmill which Israel had personally constructed. When Eckerlin later returned and observed the wanton destruction of his grace inspired contributions, the feud waxed even hotter. It remains somewhat difficult to understand that Beissel then resigned as Superintendent for a short period of time, which left Eckerlin in control - but not for long. Through intrigue and minor stealth, Beissel was able to return and finally depose his adversary. To preserve unity and the very existence of this mystical experiment, close friends of Eckerlin urged him to permanently leave the Cloister. Unfortunately, deep seeds of bitterness remained, as also did the casual remembrance of which colonists were formerly aligned with whom during this struggle.

Spinning Wheel
Clothing was manufactured

Others also began experiencing the ire of Conrad Beissel, who was otherwise a brilliant organizer with an undeniably charismatic personality. Dissidents would either capitulate or leave. As Beissel's intemperate nature emerged and became public, many became disillusioned while others felt their suspicions confirmed. Many who were formerly Brethren returned to their congregations. At the height of his proselytizing fervency, married women seemed to be a recurrent target. Maria Sauer, wife of Germantown printer Christopher Sauer, Sr. was enticed from her family to live at Ephrata, the wife of the Elder at Falckner's Swamp left her husband who forcibly took her back several times, and Brethren historians claim that Elder Martin Urner of Coventry begged his wife to remain faithful, to which she did. In 1744, only four years after Eckerlin had become Prior and at the height of the administrative struggle with Beissel, Maria Sauer returned to husband and son in Germantown with a full reconciliation. As the disruptions continued, other residents began to realize and more fully comprehend what the Elders in many Brethren settlements had perceived years before. Although he was genuinely bestowed with charisma and richly endowed with the gift of leadership, Johann Conrad Beissel was also a benevolent tyrant. It seems quite paradoxical, that as many Brethren residents were leaving, Alexander Mack, Jr. came to Ephrata seeking consolation following the death of his father, only to find bitterness and strife in open display. Hoping for peace and the very preservation of the Ephrata community, Alexander Mack, Jr., Israel and Samuel Eckerlin decided to leave. A journey that would leave a string of Brethren settlements and congregations in western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The Opportunist

Grandfather Clocks
Clock Making

t would be unfair to suggest that Beissel did not superintend this community with heartfelt convictions, but it may be historically more accurate to say that he constantly used his powers of influence to create opportunities that more directly benefited himself. Beissel used his Brethren affiliation to raid their congregations for his opportunistic enterprises. He benefited from the advantage of weak communication between the many scattered Brethren settlements which facilitated the imposition of his own beliefs on their congregations. Martin Urner forcefully opposed him at Coventry but the story was entirely different across the Schuylkill River at Falckner's Swamp where an enclave of Brethren had settled in the early 1720's. Beissel literally moved this congregation to Ephrata. He also had success in dislodging Brethren from other settlements at Conestoga, Oley, and Tulpehocken. This had a chilling effect on surrounding Brethren, especially at Germantown where dismay and helplessness described their efforts to combat his impassioned zeal. They recognized his spiritual gifts yet regarded him as a deceiver. Beissel seemed never content to be governed as merely one more of the fellowship. Historians note that if things did not go Beissel's way, he would depart from that company to start over again somewhere else. He was also intrigued with aspects of mysticism and frequently visited other groups such as Keithian Quakers on French Creek, Sabbatarians in Newtown or Providence, and especially the Labadists at Bohemian Manor. Unsubstantiated claims also suggested that he associated with Rosicrucians. A modest correlation of the more unusual aspects of the Ephrata community will show the lasting influence of the Labadists in the area of sexuality and asceticism. It cannot be denied that Beissel possessed a dynamic personality, enhanced with a profound gift of administration, but he unfortunately used these attributes to focus attention much too often on himself. The reader of the numerous histories of Ephrata will surely educe that much of the success of the Cloister was heavily dependent on the personality and charisma of one man - Conrad Beissel. When his presence left the community at his death in 1768, Ephrata Cloister simply began to irreversibly diminish.

Answering The Question

Upon concluding your visit to the restored Cloister, perusing the grounds, listening to the guides, reviewing the exhibits, and generally inhaling a deep breath of history, you must address our original question: “Why are these buildings empty?” This former religious colony is now a museum - not a flourishing congregation. Gone are the inhabitants and the vespers, singing, industry, and communion. Gone are the human endeavors to etch a religious experience into the wilderness of central Pennsylvania. Everyday articles of a once vibrant fellowship are now relics on display under glass. Paid staff go through the motions of retelling the story and maintaining the grounds. A special choir returns periodically to celebrate the original music, but the light of a former age became a flickering wisp that was extinguished by deaths, departures, infighting and neglect.

Predictably, spiritual allegiance to the devoted work of one man and his own vision will eclipse the awesome majesty of grace from a God who loves unconditionally and guides providentially. Although many denominations have resulted from the activity of one individual, including the Church of the Brethren, their degree of success has usually hinged upon the degree of spiritual allegiance or yieldedness to Jesus Christ of that one individual. Luther is to Lutheranism what John Wesley is to Methodism and likewise Calvin to Presbyterianism. Each of these men have certainly exhibited their darker side on occasions, but what remains for history to evaluate is their resolute desire to obtain the likeness of Jesus Christ in their life. Instead of seeking divine acceptance through the rigidity of law and ritual, it was Luther's discovery of grace by reason of God's unmerited love that enabled him to understand his own inadequacy and enjoy powerful enrichment from the infilling work of the Holy Spirit. Only when Martin Luther was able to accept his inabilities and recognize his limitations was he able to receive the fullness of life that God offers. It is nothing less than the dynamic, vibrant personality of Jesus Christ in the hearts of men and women that gives meaning and purpose to life. Without this transforming power of Christ, life remains empty, longing to be filled with meaning. It was Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of the city of Hippo Regius who eloquently concluded: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” After searching for meaning along many different pathways, disappointment brought him to the ultimate conclusion that all searching can end when we discover the love of God. Mathematical genus Blaise Pascal said it differently, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man, which only God can fill through his Son Jesus Christ.” Without the indwelling presence of God through the person of Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, religious life tragically becomes an rigorous pursuit of attempting to satisfy God through ascetic efforts.

Religious Communities

Printing Press
Printing Press

Someone might respond to our question with the postulation that all such religious communities eventually go out of existence. In other words, it is the communal environment itself rather than a personality which is at fault. True, some religious communities have gone out of existence but some are thriving. The Amana Colony is one such community and their history points back to Europe during the exact same period of time as Conrad Beissel. In the early 1700s in northern Europe, people were becoming dissatisfied with the intellectualism of the liturgical churches. Pietism and Mysticism flourished because people wanted a personal experience with God. Many groups started breaking away from the established state-churches. One such group was the Community of True Inspiration which held that God still communicated through devout followers in the same manner as with the prophets of the Old Testament. In the 1840s they left an economically depressed and war ravaged Europe for America. Ebenezer was the name of their first settlement near Buffalo, New York, and it was an immediate success. Farms and industry were very successful, perhaps too successful because it soon outgrew the available land. They then moved to eastern Iowa and became the Amana Church Society, a word taken from Song of Solomon 4:8 which signifies fidelity. This one colony eventually grew into seven separate colonies. Their farms were fruitful and their industry was productive. In fact, their products were so dependable that they were able to secure government contracts to build refrigeration units during the Second World War. You can still buy an Amana refrigerator in most parts of the nation. These people originated from the very same time period and cultural background as Conrad Beissel. Now here is the salient question. Do you know the name of any one of their leaders? Do you know the name of any person involved in their founding? Most people cannot name even one person, and understandably so, because the success of the Amana group continues even to this day on principles - not personalities. Their religious experience overshadows their leadership.

Conclusion

The answer to our question of empty buildings may simply rest in the counsel of the wise educator Gamaliel who advised the members of his own community that the works of men are doomed to failure without God's interaction and providential guidance. “For if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought, but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it,” Acts 5:38-39. During the early to mid-years of Beissel's supervision, the cloistered dwellers at Ephrata prospered and accomplished many noteworthy projects, but as his darker side gradually became more evident, their growth and effectiveness was stymied. In the years following his death in 1768, the whole experiment simply began to dissolve as residents gradually moved away. The Cloister's own records show about 300 residents around 1750, falling to 250 residents in 1759 (mid-years), and by 1770 only two years after Beissel's death, the number had dwindled to 135 brothers, sisters, and householders. Those who remained, lived in a small community that was only a shell of its former glory. Absent from their community was a subsequent figurehead with the same dynamic gifts of charisma and wisdom to confidently pilot Ephrata Cloister into an uncertain future. In the course of time, their buildings slowly began to deteriorate as did their dream. As previously mentioned, there is one very small remnant group still existing in western Pennsylvania near Salemville in Bedford County. However, there are remarkable differences between the Salemville group and the community at Ephrata, noticeably the absence of cloistered dwellings, communal farms and industry, strict ascetic principles, restrictive dress, and the practice of celibacy. In fact, their emphasis on Sabbatarianism is one of the few remaining distinctions from the Church of the Brethren. Our conclusion is that these buildings are empty because they were founded upon a personality, not a principle.

The Legacy

Cemetery
Final resting place of Conrad Beissel

n 1814, the scant few remaining dwellers of Ephrata Cloister incorporated themselves as the Seventh Day German Baptist Church, a title which survived until 1934. With its future in limbo during the late 1920's, these few members recognized the end of their communal experiment but strongly disagreed on how to best dispose of the grounds, buildings, and artifacts which held considerable monetary and historical value. The arguments escalated into legal action against each other to such a crescendo that the courts revoked the incorporation of their charter and placed the property under receivership. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission assumed ownership of the grounds and buildings in 1941, with a program of research, interpretation, and careful restoration. There are a few noticeable innovations that have been added to perhaps better explain former living conditions. The print shop has been moved (or better recreated) into its own structure, whereas it was most probably located in the Brother's House. These modest recreations and rearrangements, along with periodic archeological digs, help the visitors enjoy a convincing atmosphere and more deeply appreciate the energy of the Cloister legacy. There is a well organized visitors center, museum, and gift shop, offering numerous educational materials, tourist information, and historical literature. Also included is the original cemetery which yields lots of valuable information for genealogists, especially those interested in making connections with the German Baptist Brethren. Visitors can enjoy both a self-guided tour on the mostly unrestricted grounds or a group tour (recommended) with an interpretative guide in period dress. Phone the Service Desk about hours of operation, admission fees, reservations for large groups, or special needs. The staff is very friendly and more than willing to answer questions that would expand your understanding of that period of history and generally make your visit more enjoyable. The museum, bookstore, and gift shop are must visits.

Photo Credits:

  • All modern photographs taken by Ronald J. Gordon.
  • The printing press is not the original Ephrata press which was a huge wooden press, typical of the time and most of which no longer exist. The small metal Printing Press which is currently on exhibit at the Cloister is from a much later period.

Literary Resources:

  • Alderfer, E.G. - The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1985.
  • Best, Jane Evans - Turmoil in Conestoga, Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, January 1963, pp. 2-27.
  • Gass and Miller - Chronicon Ephratense: A History of the Community of Seventh Day Baptists at Ephrata, Translated by J. Max Hark, Lancaster: S.H. Zahn & Co., 1889.
  • Longenecker, Stephen - The Christopher Sauers, Elgin: Brethren Press, 1981, pp. 28-49.
  • Sachse, Julius Friedrich - The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, 1708-1800: A Critical and Legendary History of the Ephrata Cloister and the Dunkers, Philadelphia, 1899-1900; reprinted by AMS Press, New York, 1971.
  • Seachrist, Denise A. - Snow Hill and the German Seventh-Day Baptists: heirs to the musical traditions of Conrad Beissel's Ephrata Cloister, Ph.D. Dissertation, Kent State University, 1993.
  • Viehmeyer, L. Allen - The Bruderlied and the Schwesterlied of the Ephrata Cloister, Yearbook of German-American Studies. 31 (1996): 121-136.

Cocalico means ...:

  • During one of many visits to the Cloister, this writer gained the personal cooperation of Steve ....., one of the curators. When requested to be taken to the nearby stream, he exclaimed: “You don't want to go down there. The place is full of snakes, in fact, the word Cocalico is a Native-American term for Den of Snakes, and believe me, they're still there!”

Online Resources:

Tour the Cloister and Museum:

  • Please contact their Front Service Desk for admission fees and hours of operation at 717-733-6600 Ext. 3001

Location:

  • Ephrata Cloister, 632 West Main Street, Ephrata, Pennsylvania 17522
  • The main entrance is on the south side of Route 322 (West Main Street) about one hundred yards east of the Route 272 overpass in Downtown Ephrata. If approaching from Harrisburg, the entrance sign will be on the right.