EPHRATA, Pa. — The solemn, 18th-century religious cloister that once seeded this Lancaster County town with German immigrants endures as one of Pennsylvania’s most curious historic sites. It’s never more mystical than in December, when otherworldly hymns fill its stark timber buildings and shimmery lantern tours transport visitors back to a rough early America.
The themes of the Christmas week tours at the Ephrata Cloister have ranged from colonial weddings to the French and Indian War.
- An undocumented immigrant marked two years in sanctuary in a Philadelphia church by starting a weekly fast
- A Mexican boy turned 18 at the Berks detention center. His birthday meant handcuffs.
- Another group wants to open a shelter for migrant children in the Philly area. Others have sparked protests and zoning fights.
This year, though, the topic reaches all the way from then to now: immigration.
It could be touchy for a small, state-owned site in Pennsylvania’s conservative heartland to explore so contentious a subject. But leaders here saw parallels between eras when newcomers with different ideas were not always welcomed.
“You can quickly make connections to modern life,” said museum educator Michael Showalter.
How the immigration theme will play out on the nightly guided tours — led by high school and college history buffs in period dress — depends on who shows up.
Some visitors will be asked to assume the roles of immigrants. They’ll be confronted by an actor complaining about them — his anti-immigrant screed drawn almost straight from the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who detested the arriving hordes of German speakers. By the mid-1700s, they numbered as many as 100,000 in Pennsylvania and were a third of Philadelphia’s populace.
Franklin feared that they would never learn English. That they’d reject local customs. That Pennsylvania would become “a colony of aliens.”
Which these days may sound familiar.
“It’s our job to show folks what lessons can be learned from history,” said Sue Fisher of the volunteer Cloister Associates, a group that leads daily tours for 15,000 visitors a year and drums up memberships and donations. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission preserves and maintains the site, while the associates fund all programming, including the 25-voice Cloister Chorus.
Nine original buildings remain of an estimated 40, which included five-story colonial skyscrapers. Fronting 28 wooded acres, they resemble nothing so much as a setting from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, the spooky movie about an Amish-style community cut off from the world.
Ghosts? There’s a story or two.
At the cloister’s peak in the early 1750s, about 80 celibate Brothers and Sisters in white hooded robes lived a semi-monastic existence here, supported by 200 married Householders in cabins on the periphery. All were in the thrall of a charismatic pietist named Conrad Beissel.
Born in Eberbach, Germany, in 1691, Beissel was orphaned at 8, apprenticed to a baker, and at 24 experienced a personal religious awakening. His conflicts with the government-supported Protestant church compelled him to leave his homeland, landing in Boston and then traveling to Pennsylvania and the Germantown settlement in 1720.
After a year or two learning weaving — and collecting adherents to his self-styled faith — Beissel moved 65 miles west to a hermit life along the Cocalico Creek. Over time, followers trailed him, to pledge their celibate fealty or set down traditional roots as Householders. Among them were members of migrant families whose names — such as Gorgas, Rittenhouse, Mack, and Kimmel — would loom large in Philadelphia history.
By the time the cloister was established in 1732, Beissel was “the prime spiritual power on the Conestoga frontier,” E.G. Aderfer wrote in The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture.
The members named their commune Ephrata, likely from Genesis: “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath," that is, Bethlehem. They focused on preparing for a spiritual union with God at the Second Coming, which they believed imminent. Even the architecture spoke to their goal: The low doors forced heads to bow, the halls are as narrow as the pathway to heaven.
They faced distrust and hostility from locals, according to research by Miami University of Ohio scholar Doug Ward. Observing a Saturday sabbath, they worked on Sundays, so serious a violation of then-Pennsylvania law that some were jailed.
The cloister responded with charity, building cabins for arriving settlers, providing a free school for children, and taking in destitute widows. In the winter of 1777-78, members opened their doors to 250 Continental Army troops, most suffering “camp fever,” or typhus, and tended them until they returned to battle or died. Dozens are buried in a hillock cemetery called Mount Zion.
The cloister was a center of not only spiritual aspiration, but also creative arts and technology.
In the early years, Franklin put aside his disdain to do cloister printing jobs, including three hymnals and Beissel’s “99 Mystical Sayings.”
Franklin printed in the German language, but his English-style font was hard for members to read. They later acquired one of only two German printing presses in the colonies. Making their own paper and ink, they produced 1,300 copies of The Martyrs Mirror, a 1,500-page account of persecuted Anabaptists and the largest book published in pre-Revolution America.
They also created stunning works of fraktur, the German calligraphic art, and wrote more than 1,000 a cappella hymns, using Beissel’s rules for four-part harmony. Some were signed by Sisters, placing them among America’s early female composers.
The celibate Brothers and Sisters led hard lives, and that was how they wanted it. They lived in sparse, solitary rooms with benches as beds and blocks of wood as pillows. They ate one meal a day and slept little, focusing on work — farming, carpentry, textile production — and private prayer.
Each midnight, they’d awaken to watch for God’s arrival, their timing based on the Biblical statement that “the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
When the Lord didn’t appear by 2 a.m., they’d return to their quarters.
“There was that sense of trying to find God,” Showalter said, “and make him part of your life, or you part of his.”
After Beissel died in 1768 at age 77, the commune fell into slow decline. The last celibate member died in 1813, and the following year, the remaining Householders were incorporated into the German Seventh Day Baptist Church.
Today, Showalter is working on the first “Householder Homecoming,” inviting descendants of early community members to explore the place of their ancestors. The August 2020 event will offer genealogical research, tours, and the chance to meet relatives they never knew they had.
He has compiled a list of recognized members of the commune, as well as the subsequent Ephrata Congregation of the German Seventh Day Baptist Church.
But others with no family connection have been drawn back again and again.
Jorge Alfonso Leyva Varela of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, said he and his wife have visited the cloister many times in the last 15 years, and refer to it as “the place where inspiration started.”
When their daughter was born in El Paso, Texas, in 2018, there was only one choice for her name: Éfrata.
Lantern Tours: Dec. 26 and 29, every half-hour from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at Ephrata Cloister, 632 W. Main St. Advance tickets required, 717-733-6600. Adults $10, seniors $9, students $7, children $5.
Cloister Chorus: Dec. 9 and 10, 6:30 and 8 p.m. Tickets $7 at the Museum Store, and online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/christmas-at-the-cloister-tickets-80575564683. 717-733-6600.