Beissel spent a year in Germantown, just outside Philadelphia, before moving to the Conestoga area, where he was appointed leader of the newly formed Conestoga Brethren Church in 1724. His radical views of Saturday worship and celibacy soon caused a split in the congregation. He withdrew from the church in 1728 and in 1732 moved from the Conestoga area to Cocalico Creek in northern Lancaster County to seek the life of a hermit.
Beissel served not only as the community’s spiritual leader, but also as its leading composer and devised his own system of composition. The Ephrata hymnal was printed in 1747. At the request of a group of Mennonites, Ephrata also published the Martyrs Mirror, a history of the deaths of Christian martyrs from the time of Christ until 1660.
The community faced dissention at various times, with its greatest crisis coming from Israel Eckerlin, prior of the brotherhood, who challenged Beissel’s leadership. The controversy came to a head in 1745, with Eckerlin being expelled. Ephrata declined rapidly after Beissel’s death in 1768. 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 moved into some of the original buildings on Cloister property and remodeled them to suit their needs. In many cases the original 18th-century furniture was given a coat of paint, cut down to fit a space, or repaired with disregard to original construction methods or materials.
|Interior of Bissel House|
Excavations on the site have revealed that, among other things, the Cloister was used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War. Also, in 1998 archaeologists unearthed the only glass trumpet of its kind in North America. The instrument, which is believed to have come from Germany, was found in excellent condition, which led archaeologists to conclude that it was intentionally buried. The only part missing was the mouthpiece, and it isn’t known whether the trumpet was ever played.
Today Ephrata Cloister is a National Historic Landmark administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and is open for tours, special programs, and research. Ephrata Cloister maintains a rich collection of original artifacts including furniture, books, manuscripts, baskets, and ceramics. With the exception of paper items, most artifacts are on exhibit in the buildings. To learn more go to Ephrata Cloister’s official website.
This is another historical site that I’d love to visit one day. Is there a historical period, event, or person that you’re especially drawn to? Or do you own an item from an earlier time that has given that period in history a special meaning for you? If so, please share with our readers!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, releases April 1, 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the