A Better Life – Part Nine


The Ephrata Cloister

We have already seen how the religious oppression in Central Europe and the haven of religious tolerance offered by Pennsylvania encouraged groups of pietists to cross the Atlantic. The Ephrata Cloister was another such group, founded in 1732 by Johann Conrad Beissel at Ephrata on the banks of Cocalico Creek in what is now Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.

The only way to achieve the highest form of spiritual attainment was through the practice of celibacy, Beissel thought, and so the community, called the Camp of the Solitary, was split into two with a convent called the Sister House and a monastery called the Brother House. Adherents wore a habit styled on that of the Capuchins. Clearly, celibacy poses a threat to the long-term viability of any community but Beissel had worked that one out. Close by there was another community consisting of families, a married order of householders. As well as new celibate recruits these families provided the lifeblood of the community.

The whole Ephrata community abstained from eating meat which they regarded as being spiritually undesirable, other than when they celebrated communion when they tasted the flesh of lamb. Life was simple and austere, spent working, principally tending crops and light industrial work, particularly carpentry and papermaking, and praying and contemplating. Beissel conducted religious services every Saturday and they would last for many hours.

Those in the Sister and Brother houses slept on wooden benches no more than 15 inches wide – a passion killer if there ever was one – and with a wooden block for a pillow. They went to bed at 9 o’clock and slept for three hours before spending a couple of hours on the lookout for the Second Coming before retiring to bed for another three hours, rising at five. They ate just one small meal a day.

At its height the Ephrata community consisted of some 80 celibate men and women and a further 200 in the married congregation and it occupied some 250 acres of land. The community had a positive outlook on life and treated their neighbours, the land and the environment with respect. Music, as often was the way with these communities, played an important part in their life and Beissel developed his own system of composition, using a predetermined sequence of master notes and servant notes to develop harmony, a forerunner of serialism. A glass trumpet was found on the site in 1998, minus a mouthpiece, so it is not clear whether it had ever been blown.


The community boasted the second German printing press in the American colonies and the quality of their printed documents with stunning hand illuminations, called Fraktur, was widely acclaimed. They also published the largest American book at the time, the whopping Martyrs Mirror which charted the deaths of Christian martyrs from the time of Christ until 1660. They were also famed for the quality of their calligraphy.

Alas, Beissel shuffled off this mortal coil in 1768 and the loss of their charismatic leader coupled with the disruption caused by the Revolutionary War – there is archaeological evidence that the Cloisters were used as a hospital – meant that numbers took a dive and the monastic side of the community was quietly shelved. The last celibate member died in 1813 and in the following year the Society was incorporated as the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. The last surviving resident of the Ephrata Cloister, Marie Kachel Bucher,  died on 27th July 2008 at the grand old age of 98. The cloisters are now a museum.