Friday, October 31, 2008

Ephrata Cloisters

In Ephrata, Pennsylvania, stand the remaining buildings - now a historical park - of a religious society which brought considerable pain and self-examination to the Brethen between 1725 and 1768. It was founded in 1732 by Johann Conrad Beissel, after his separation from the Brethren.

As it grew, the Ephrata Community eventually comprised three categories of members: celibate sisters, celibate brothers, and married householders. The sisters and brothers lived in separate buildings built specifically for them, while the householders lived in scattered farmhouses near enough to be summoned by a bell. The latter joined the celibates for worship. By 1750 all land within five miles of Ephrata had been deeded to persons loyal to Beissel. By 1750 Ephrata had a population of about 300.

The beliefs of the Ephrata Community were quite similar to those of the Brethren. They had no formal creed, considering the entire Bible as their code, members were permitted to preach during meetings. Celibacy was advocated as the ideal state for all persons, but it was not made manditory although some married persons separated and joined the celibate orders. A number of ordinances were observed, including believers baptism, the love feast, and feetwashing.

Confessions were written and handed to Beissel, who then read them publicly for the edification of all. Discipline was considered to be a method of keeping oneself in tune with God's will. It involved a meager diet, constant prayer and worship, little sleep, hard work, and no luxuries.

A printing press, a productive farm and orchard, a grist mill, a saw mill, a flax seed oil mill, a fulling mill, a paper mill, and a bark mill were all established. A tannery was set up and the sisters operated looms and made cloth. The economic and religious impact on the surrounding area was considerable.

Educational contributions were made by Ephrata in two ways. A classical academy, attended by students from as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore, was begun in 1740. The Sabbath-school was also begun around 1740. There was a steady stream of visitors, both famous and obscure, who came through the doors of the cloisture. American government officials and travelers from foreign countries had all heard of the people of Ephrata with the curious customs.

Following Ephrata's peak period, the decline in numbers was steady and seemingly inexorable. From 250 residents in 1759 to no more than 135 persons in 1770. In the late 18th century, a daughter community at Snow Hill was established which outlasted its parent. The celibate orders at Ephrata legally ended in 1814. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the property and several major and minor buildings have been restored since 1941. The site is now a tourist attraction with thousands of persons touring the grounds annually.

Sources: The Brethren Encyclopedia
Heritage and Promise, Bittinger