Over the years of our sister trips, an odd pattern has emerged. We find ourselves, more often than not, exploring the mortal remains of esoteric, often extinct, religious groups. These range from the mainstream Moravians of Old Salem to the extinct but lovable Shakers of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. (And let me just say, staying at Pleasant Hill is a FABULOUS experience. Go. There.)
On Thursday, we added the Ephrata Cloister to our collection, and it wins in at least two categories: It is the oldest community we’ve ever visited, and the weirdest.
When we left Pleasant Hill, I was about ready to become a Shaker, to work at different skilled jobs all week and dance in worship on Sundays. When we left Ephrata Cloister, it was with a slight shudder and a certain sense of relief. Where to begin?
An Anabaptist named Conrad Beissel came to America from Germany in 1722 and wound his way back into the wilderness to be a hermit. Such was his charisma that he was soon joined by men and women who wanted to be hermits with him, and the community was born. Its distinctive characteristics were worship on the seventh-day, rather than Sunday, and a very aescetic lifestyle for the group Beissel called “The Solitary.”
The Solitary were men and women who lived celibate, monastic lives at the community. Supporting them was a congregation of people called the Householders, who were married, had children, and followed a less rigorous discipline.
The discipline of the Solitary will curl your hair. Rising at five a.m., they alternated hours of private prayer with work and corporate worship. They ate one (vegetarian) meal each day, at six p..m, and were in bed by nine on “beds” that were wooden boards, 18 inches wide, with “pillows” of pine wood. They rose at midnight and spent two hours watching for Jesus’ return. Back in bed at two, they slept until five, when the schedule repeated itself.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this didn’t catch on. During Beissel’s lifetime, the community grew to about 50 Solitary and 200 Householders, but after his death, it went into a decline. Of course, he never intended that it be a community at all, so he did virtually nothing to encourage others to come there. When the last of the celibate sisters died, the Householders maintained the community for over a hundred years, until 1939, after which the state of Pennsylvania picked it up as a site of historic interest.
It’s definitely interesting — I recommend it, because the docents are great and the site is beautiful. Just be aware that the museum exhibit, featuring male and female mannequins wearing the white habits of the Solitary, will creep you out. The white outfits, combined with the pale, gaunt appearance of sleep-deprived people who ate vegetables, give an aura of menace to the whole undertaking. Plus, the low ceilings and doorways of the sisters’ house and the Saal make one think of, we might as well say it, dungeons.
The Solitary at Ephrata were known for beautiful German manuscript work, and they were familiar to Benjamin Franklin, who was interested in books and printing. Franklin carried on quite a correspondance with one of the Solitary, Joseph Miller, about the printing business, because for a while the community ran one of the busiest printing presses in Pennsylvania. This ceased when Beissel disapproved, since it made money, and he was more of an end-of-the-world kind of guy.
What our docent said about the enterprise was this: Imagine how bad it must have been in the deteriorating Holy Roman Empire that this seemed better.