The Ephrata Cloister: Unveiling the History of a Religious Utopia

Sisters’ House and Meetinghouse at the Ephrata Cloister.

Nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, the Ephrata Cloister is a testament to a unique and enigmatic chapter in American history. This preserved historic site offers a glimpse into a religious community that thrived during the 18th century, leaving behind a legacy of extraordinary devotion, artistry, and a profound connection with the divine. This summer, I enjoyed a VIP tour of the second and third floors of the Saron (the Sisters’ House) and Saal (the Meetinghouse), typically closed to the public.

The second floor of the Saron. Check out the doorway in this unaltered photograph. 😲 Something doesn’t seem quite right.

Enjoy this overview of the historic Ephrata Cloister’s captivating story and some fantastic photos of how these simple but highly devoted Christians once lived.

Founding of the Ephrata Cloister

The Ephrata Cloister was founded by a German immigrant named Conrad Beissel, who came to the site in 1732 seeking to live as a hermit following his own religious ideas. Beissel believed earthly life should be spent preparing to achieve a spiritual union with God at the Second Coming, which he felt would soon occur. He and a small group of followers established the Cloister as a religious community that combined elements of Pietism, mysticism, and communal living.

📷: Historic Ephrata Cloister

The Life of the Cloistered Brethren and Sisters

The Ephrata Cloister was organized into two distinct groups: the celibate “Brotherhood” and the “Sisterhood.” Members led an austere and disciplined life, which included celibacy, communal living, and adherence to strict daily schedules of worship, work, and prayer. They dressed in distinctive white robes and wore their hair long, adding to the Cloister’s mystique.

📷: Historic Ephrata Cloister

Members were required to sleep on wooden benches 15 inches wide, with wooden blocks for pillows. They slept six hours per night, from 9 p.m. to midnight and from 2 a.m. until 5 a.m., with a two-hour break to “watch” for the coming of Christ. They ate one small vegetarian meal a day. The only time the followers of Beissel were permitted to eat meat was during the celebration of communion when lamb was served. The members of the Cloister spent much time at work or praying privately. Services every Saturday were led by Beissel, often being several hours long.

15-inch wide bench from the Sisterhouse used for sleeping.

The Printing Press and the Martyrs Mirror

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Ephrata Cloister was its use of the printing press. The community produced religious texts, including hymnals and illuminated manuscripts. The most famous work to come from the Ephrata press was the Martyrs Mirror.

Martyrs Mirror (or The Bloody Theater) was first published in Holland in 1660 by Thieleman J. van Braght. It documents the stories and testimonies of Christian martyrs, especially Anabaptists. The book’s full title is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660.

Next to the Bible, the Martyrs Mirror has historically held the most significant and prominent place in Amish and Mennonite homes.

Architecture and Artistry

The architecture of the Ephrata Cloister is an architectural gem. The original buildings, including the Saal, the (Meetinghouse) and Saron (Sisters’ House), showcase German colonial and monastic influences.

Inside the 1741 Saal, the Meetinghouse.

The Saal is a Fachwerk or half-timbered building constructed in 1741 as a worship hall for Householders. When the Sisterhood moved into the adjoining building, they took control of this Meetinghouse. Here, Sisters worshiped each midnight while the Brothers gathered in their own Saal. The entire congregation used the Meetinghouse on Mount Zion for Saturday worship. The services in the Meetinghouse included scripture reading, lessons, and music. Special fellowship gatherings, called Love Feasts, celebrated the coming of Christ with feet washing, a meal, and the Eucharist with bread and wine. As the Solitary population shrank in the 1770s, the Householders took a more active part in daily work. They probably added the stone kitchen to the rear of the building as a place to prepare their Love Feast meals.

The 1743 Saron, the Sisters’ House at Ephrata Cloister.

Saron was constructed in 1743 for couples who left their homes to live as celibate Brothers and Sisters. It was a brief experiment, and when the husbands and wives returned to their farms, the building was remodeled to accommodate the Sisterhood who called themselves the Roses of Sharon. Each of the building’s three main floors contains a kitchen, a room for eating, two common workrooms, and about 12 sleeping chambers, one chamber for each Sister. For nearly 15 years, Mother Maria Eicher directed the Sisters’ daily duties and maintained their independence from the Brotherhood. After the death of the last Sister in 1813, the building was divided into apartments and rented to church members.

The Music of Ephrata

Music played a central role in the spiritual life of the Ephrata Cloister. Members composed and performed intricate hymns and choral pieces. Their musical traditions were as unique as they were beautiful, and the community’s devotion to music and song remains a notable part of its history.

In fact, the first credited female composers in North America lived and wrote their music at the Ephrata Cloister. The Solitary Sisters wrote intricate hymn melodies and texts during the 1740s intended to be sung at worship services. Several compositions and lyrics in the illuminated manuscript known as the ‘Ephrata Codex’ are attributed to Sister Föben (Christiana Lassie), Sister Ketura (Catherine Hagaman), and Sister Hanna (Hannah Lichty). One of Sister Föben’s hymns from 1746 is highlighted in the attached image found on pages 679 and 680 of the Codex.

Hymn written by Sister Föben (Christiana Lassie).

Legacy and Preservation

The Society declined after the death of the charismatic Beissel in 1768. The last celibate member died in 1813, and the following year, the remaining Householders were incorporated into the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. Members continued to live and worship in the Cloister buildings until the close of the Church in 1934.

However, its legacy endures. In 1941, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission assumed administration. It began a program of research, restoration, and interpretation of this important historic site with the support of the Ephrata Cloister Associates. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, visitors can explore the well-preserved buildings, gardens, and artifacts that offer a captivating window into the past.

Fun Facts

The German calligraphic art of Frakturschriften, often shortened to the word Fraktur, is considered the first of this folk art produced in America around 1750 by artists at the Ephrata Cloister. Early fraktur was created with inks, paints, and paper produced at the Cloister.

📷: Ephrata Cloister Collection

During the American Revolution, Ephrata served as a hospital for nearly 260 American soldiers, some of whom rest in the Mount Zion cemetery overlooking the historic grounds.

The town of Ephrata takes its name after the Biblical Ephrath. Meaning “fruitful,” it is the biblically referenced former name from the city of Bethlehem.

Behind the Scenes

Planning Your Trip

Visiting the Ephrata Cloister is a must if you are intrigued by history, religious mysticism, or simply the serene beauty of early colonial architecture and landscapes. Guided tours provide a deeper understanding of the Cloister’s history, and the site often hosts special events and programs that bring the past to life.

They are located at 632 W Main St, Ephrata, PA 17522. It is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesday and Sunday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Click here for additional visitation details.

Adventure Awaits!

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Buried Treasure: The legend of EphrataCloister’ss hidden golden chalice

According to a Lancaster New Era newspaper article, state archeologists conducted the first official excavation project at Ephrata Cloister during the summer of 1963. Shortly after they started digging, the scientists heard whisperings of nearby buried gold.

According to Ephrata residents, the King of Austria gave the Cloister a golden statue or chalice as a gift for their deep religious piety. Conrad Beissel took one look and decided the object was far too worldly for the plain-living Solitary Ones. Legend has it that Beissel buried the gold treasure on the campus in a cave, around or even under Mount Zion. The gold has never been found. Click to read the whole tale.

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