Ephrata Cloister

A unique religious community from the 18th century known for its musical compositions, monastic lifestyle, and architectural significance.

Ephrata Cloister, also known as the Ephrata Community, was a religious group that played a significant role in the religious and cultural history of colonial America. It was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, a German pietist mystic, at Cocalico Creek in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Beissel and his followers were part of a larger movement known as the Schwarzenau Brethren.

Founding and Beliefs

Beissel, born in Eberbach am Neckar, Germany, in 1691, immigrated to Pennsylvania in pursuit of religious freedom. He attracted a group of German settlers who were seeking spiritual goals rather than earthly rewards. The Ephrata Cloister was deeply rooted in mysticism, Anabaptist traditions, and incorporated elements of asceticism. Key aspects of their belief system included the observance of the Sabbath on the seventh day (Saturday) and the encouragement of celibacy, although married families were also part of the community.

The Monastic Lifestyle

At its peak, the Ephrata Cloister consisted of about eighty celibate brothers and sisters, along with approximately 200 married members living on nearby farms. The celibate members, known as the Solitary, led lives marked by discipline, self-denial, simple diets, brief rest periods, hard work, and private meditation. They lived in unique European-styled buildings and focused their lives on Jesus Christ and His teachings.

Contributions to Arts and Printing

The Ephrata community was notable for its contributions to music, calligraphy, and printing. They established the second German printing press in the American colonies and published the largest book in Colonial America, the “Martyrs Mirror,” a history of Christian martyrs. The members composed and performed intricate hymns and choral pieces, and Conrad Beissel himself wrote music with a unique style using “master notes” and “servant notes” to create harmony. The community’s musical tradition remains a significant part of its historical legacy.

Architecture and Daily Life

The architecture of the Ephrata Cloister reflected German colonial and monastic influences. Notable buildings included the Saal (Meetinghouse) and Saron (Sisters’ House). The Meetinghouse was used for scripture reading, lessons, and music, and special fellowship gatherings called Love Feasts. Saron was initially constructed for couples who lived as celibate brothers and sisters but later became a residence for the Sisterhood.

Decline and Legacy

Following the death of Conrad Beissel in 1768, the Cloister experienced a decline in membership. The last celibate member died in 1813, and the remaining members formed the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. The Cloister continued to function until 1934. In 1941, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the historic site, initiating a program of restoration and preservation. The Ephrata Cloister is now a public historical site and a testament to religious tolerance, creative expression, and intellectual freedom.

Interesting Facts

  • The Cloister had an architectural gem in its buildings showcasing German colonial and monastic influences.
  • The Ephrata Codex contains compositions by the first credited female composers in North America, who lived and wrote their music at the Cloister.
  • During the American Revolution, the Cloister served as a hospital for nearly 260 American soldiers.
  • The German calligraphic art of Frakturschriften, often shortened to Fraktur, was first produced in America around 1750 by artists at the Ephrata Cloister.
  • The town of Ephrata takes its name from the Biblical Ephrath, meaning “fruitful,” which is the biblically referenced former name for the city of Bethlehem.

Preservation and Public Access

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has undertaken the task of preserving the Ephrata Cloister. Visitors today can explore the well-preserved buildings, gardens, and artifacts, offering a glimpse into the past life of this unique community. The site, designated a National Historic Landmark, hosts guided tours and special events, allowing the public to experience the serene beauty of early colonial architecture and understand the history and beliefs of the Ephrata Cloister.