Conrad Beissel, founder of Ephrata, was born in Eberbach am
Neckar, Germany, in March 1691. His birth came at the end of a century of wars
which had devastated his homeland. By the age of 8 Conrad had been orphaned by
the death of his parents. As a young man he learned the trade of baker, and
traveled in the region to perfect his skills. In his journeys he encountered
Pietism, a movement to reform the established, state supported Protestant
churches. Joining the Pietists, Beissel met in small groups not sanctioned by
the church to read the Bible and pray. The church found Beissel in conflict with
the law, and following a personal religious awakening about 1715, he was
banished from his homeland. He remained in Germany until 1720 when he immigrated
to Pennsylvania, where William Penn’s policies offered freedom of conscience.
After spending a year in Germantown, just
outside Philadelphia, Beissel moved to the Conestoga area, just east of present
day Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There he affiliated with the Brethren, an
Anabaptist group which offered admission to the faith to those individuals who
had reached maturity. In 1724 Beissel was appointed leader of the newly formed
Conestoga Brethren Congregation. His radical ideas of Saturday worship and
promotion of celibacy soon caused a split within the congregation, and in 1728
Beissel withdrew his membership in the church. His charismatic personality
continued to attract followers until 1732 when he left the Conestoga and sought
the hermit's life along the banks of the Cocalico Creek in northern Lancaster
County. Soon after his move to the Cocalico region, Beissel was followed by
like-minded men and women who wished to follow his teachings.
illustrated in an
18th-century Ephrata hymnal.
began as a hermitage for a small group of devoted individuals grew into a
thriving community of nearly 80 celibate members supported by an estimated 200
family members from the region at its zenith in the mid-18th-century. During
that period much of the activity surrounded the charismatic founder and leader,
Conrad Beissel. His theology, a hybrid of pietism and mysticism, encouraged
celibacy, Sabbath worship, Anabaptism, and the ascetic life, yet provided room
for families, limited industry, and creative expression. The community became
known for its self-composed a cappella music, Germanic calligraphy known as
Frakturschriften, and the complete publishing center which included a paper
mill, printing office, and book bindery.
During the period from 1735 to 1746 the community constructed no less than
eight major structures, dormitories or meetinghouses, in addition to a number of
smaller dwellings, workshops, and mills. Not all of this was done without
internal discord. The most dramatic was the challenge to leadership posed by
Israel Eckerlin, Prior of the Brotherhood. The Eckerlin controversy came to a
head in 1745 with Eckerlin’s expulsion from Ephrata, but it was not the only
note of conflict in the community’s long history.
Brothers' House, built in 1746.
With the death of Beissel in 1768 the society quickly declined. Peter Miller,
successor to Beissel, recognized that the monastic life was no longer attractive
to new generations. He wrote to Benjamin Franklin saying, “the mind of Americans
is bent another way.” By 1813 the last of the celibate members died, and the
following year the remaining members of the married congregation formed the
German Seventh Day Baptist Church. Poorer members of the Church moved into many
of the original buildings on the Cloister property and altered the spaces to
suit their needs. With these new residents came bits of furniture and household
items; however they also made use of the furnishings that remained in the
buildings. In many cases 18th-century furniture was given a coat of paint, cut
down to fit a space, or repaired with disregard to original construction methods
By 1929 the remaining church members living at the Cloister entered into a
disagreement with each other on the disposition of the site and its artifacts.
The members took legal action against one another, and in 1934 the court system
revoked the incorporation charter for the Church at Ephrata. The property was
placed under the care of a court appointed receiver, who in 1941, sold the
remaining 28 acres of the historic site to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Restoration on the nine surviving original buildings began immediately, headed
by architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh. Brumbaugh left the project in 1960 and most
interior spaces were restored by architect John Heyl.
Today the National Historic Landmark is administered by the Pennsylvania
Historical and Museum Commission. Daily tours, special programs, and on-going
research continue to inform and educate visitors to the site about Ephrata’s
surviving legacy and the people who built it.
632 West Main Street, Ephrata, PA 17522
Telephone (717) 733-6600