Conrad Beissel was a loner. Some today would call him a hermit.
Beissel, though, also was a natural leader who drew others to him.
In 1732, he founded the Ephrata Cloister, meant as a retreat from worldly distractions where devoted members could follow a disciplined life designed to prepare them for a heavenly existence. Beissel viewed life on earth as the time to prepare for the second coming of God, which he felt would happen during his lifetime.
Eventually, he built his movement up to the extent that it included some 250 acres and 40 buildings. Today, 28 acres and nine of the original buildings, built mostly between 1740 and 1770, survive and make up the historic Ephrata Cloister.
“The Ephrata Cloister complex was the town of Ephrata for many years,” said Museum Educator Michael Showalter. “The modern town didn’t even exist until the railroad arrived during the Civil War.”
By the 1750s, the community consisted of nearly 300 members, with about 80 celibates, termed brothers and sisters. Around 200 married members lived on nearby farms. These members chose Beissel as their spiritual leader, but were not willing to make the sacrifices demanded of the solitary life.
In contrast, the celibate members lived a very rigid lifestyle. They could sleep no more than six hours per day with a two-hour worship time at midnight. They believed sleeping was their weakest time, when the devil could arrive. Therefore, they slept on hard, wooden benches with a wooden block for their pillow. They ate a sparse, vegetarian diet.
“However, the celibates were very talented,” Showalter said. “They built a five-story meeting house, many would now call a skyscraper by early colonial standards. In 11 years, they built eight of these tall buildings.”
At Ephrata, Beissel’s view of God as both male and female gave the celibate women almost equal status with men, a novel idea for the day. They taught in the schools and were partially supported by the married community. The largest book in colonial America, at 1,500 pages, titled the “Martyr’s Mirror,” was printed by these talented people, using their own handmade ink and paper.
“The early celibates composed 1,000 songs, being one of the first to compose four-part harmony in America,” Showalter said. “These musical compositions and the German calligraphic writing, called frakturschiften, were viewed by members as a discipline of both body and soul. Some of the first female composers in America were from this group.”
Today, the Ephrata Cloister Chorus brings to life the music of the Ephrata Cloister as a special educational program. Wearing white robes patterned after those worn by the brothers and sisters of Ephrata in the mid-18th century, the modern chorus performs throughout the region.
In addition to works from Ephrata’s past, the group performs compositions from other early American communities, including the Shakers, the Moravians, the Harmonists, the Kelpius Community, the First New England School and African-American spirituals.
Another program is “Winter History Class,” a nine-week lecture series that has grown to an audience that stretches the capacity of the auditorium, with nearly 90 people registered last year. The Saturday night after Thanksgiving, at the Candlelight Open House, visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds, explore the buildings, visit with craftsmen, and hear the chorus.
Showalter said that “Christmas at the Cloister” in mid-December is one of the most popular programs. The “Lantern Tour,” part of the Christmas program, is a special theatrical event that takes visitors back in time to the Ephrata Cloister as it may have appeared in the 1700s.
The cloister, a National Historic Landmark administered by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, in partnership with the nonprofit Ephrata Cloister Associates, is, of course, not without its challenges, Showalter said.
“Like other nonprofits, finding staff and volunteers is always a pressing challenge,” he said. “We strive to share the story of Ephrata, its people and achievements, with our visitors—about 15,000 annually, from around the world.”
The Ephrata Cloister is located at 632 W. Main St., Ephrata. For more information, visit www.ephratacloister.org or call 717-733-6600.