Ephrata: Radical Pietism and Material Culture in 18th Century PA

This post is part of a series of blogs completed for EAMC 606: Cities on a Hill: Material Culture in America’s Communal Utopias. This class examined the history and material culture of intentional communities throughout American history using Winterthur’s collections as well as field studies.

About an hour and a half away from the Winterthur Museum, over winding roads and through fields tilled by horse-drawn plows, there lies the remains of a community once known for its radical religious beliefs. In the heart of Lancaster County, the Ephrata Cloister still welcomes visitors. Because it is a site of unique predecessors of Pennsylvania German material culture, the Ephrata Cloister serves as a fascinating case study in America’s earliest intentional communities.

We met with the curator, who took us through the visitors’ center and gave us a tour of some of the extant structures. First, we watched a video of reenactors who told the story of founder Conrad Beissel and his journey to America in search of religious freedom for his Radical Pietist beliefs. The visitors’ center has great exhibit spaces, which house artifacts that illustrate everything from Ephrata Fraktur to reproductions of the habit-like garments that celibate brothers and sisters wore. Aside from the exhibit, visitors truly get a sense of how the Ephrata brothers and sisters occupied space when they enter the extant buildings.

Hebron-Saron, or the Sisters’ House, and the Saal, or Meetinghouse.

[Image description: The view from the ground level of the front of two clapboard buildings with many windows and shingled roofs. They are connected at a right angle. They are the Sisters’ House and Meetinghouse at Ephrata.]

Upon first entering the site, the most prominent structures you’ll see are Hebron-Saron, or Sisters’ House, and the Saal, or Meetinghouse, where much of the representative material culture of the community was created and still resides. The warped, asymmetrical siding of these buildings almost evokes houses illustrated in storybooks. These buildings housed the celibate members of the community, and you get the sense walking through their spaces that the focus of the community was preparation for eternity rather than the creation of material comforts in the present.

This garment was worn by all men and women who were part of the celibate orders at Ephrata.

[Image description: A mannequin figure of a female member of the Ephrata Cloister wears a long white gown with a hood. The figure stands in the corner of an indoor exhibit on display at the Ephrata Cloister.]

Ephrata’s members lived incredibly sparsely, which aligned with founder Conrad Beissel’s beliefs regarding asceticism, or depriving yourself of any material comforts. His teachings had a lot in common with European Radical Pietists, who believed that the Second Coming was imminent, and people could experience the immediate presence of God. To prepare for the Second Coming, for example, they did not have beds. They slept for a few hours a night on L-shaped benches without cushions, pillows, or blankets. The gift shop even sold wooden blocks labeled as “pillows!” I’m still not sure if museum staff intended this as a joke. Brothers and sisters would awaken in the middle of the night, every night, in anticipation of the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Beissel also advocated eating very little in order to create a pure body that was ready to accept the spirit of Christ. Taken all together, this meant that the celibate orders did not get a good night’s rest, nor did they eat nutritious, well-balanced diets.

Considering the community’s focus on the afterlife, it makes sense that their extant material culture does not reflect distinct aesthetics or quality craftsmanship. The furniture, such as the benches and shelves in the Kammer, or bedrooms, are very plain and appear not to have been made by well-trained craftsmen. After all, do you really need to invest time and resources into making nice furniture when you know Jesus is coming any day now?

 

This cradle likely dates to the eighteenth century. Non-celibate members may have used this cradle or ones like it for their children.

[Image description: A wooden cradle with gingham-patterned bedding is elevated on a wooden platform as part of an indoor exhibit about life at the Ephrata Cloister.]

This inference loses some of its traction when studying Ephrata’s Fraktur, or broken script. Fraktur is usually associated with later Pennsylvania German folk art, but it also formed a critical part of Ephrata’s community life. Beissel advocated using the creation of Fraktur as a means of spiritual exercise for the celibate orders. Creating this folk art was supposed to break the will of the scribes and take them on a spiritual journey. It often depicted religious iconography and adorned the manuscripts that the community made on their printing press beginning in 1745. Their print culture survives to the present and it’s certainly some of the most interesting material culture you’ll see at the Ephrata Cloister!

 

This page from The Christian ABC depicts upper case versions of the letters M, N, O, and P.

[Image description: A page from The Christian ABC on display. Text panel reads, “The letters “M, N, O and P” from the small upper case alphabet. Compare the style of this “N” with the large “N” on the left.”]

This is an upper case calligraphic letter N from The Christian ABC.

[Image description: A page on display from The Christian ABC. Text panel reads, “Upper case “N” from the large upper case alphabet with the plain border.”]

 

By Laura Earls, University of Delaware Graduate Student



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