Teach PA History
Daily Life in Pennsylvania's Historic Cloistered Religious Communities


Download and copy the combined worksheets for this lesson.


What might cause some people today to want to join a religious community that was separated from the rest of their society? (That's right, they might want to escape from problems in that society. They might even want to cut themselves off from people they didn't agree with. They might even think that their way of living was the only way so they might want to live with like-minded people.) What about the reasons people might have a couple of centuries ago? (They could be basically the same reasons, especially if they thought their society was corrupt and that their church had lost its way. Some people of the 18th and 19th centuries had such a low opinion of their church and its leaders that they wanted to physically separate from their church.) The Reformation in Europe was a time of turmoil. Out of the spiritual confusion of the times, some Europeans decided to move to America to start over again. Some others in America were attracted to the philosophy of purifying religious practices and joined with these European religious pilgrims. Communities were established to put into practice their religious approach to life.

Students should be told that these lessons will explore the commonality of life in three religious communities in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries. They will read about each community and do a variety of activities to better acquaint them with the daily life of those who lived at Ephrata Cloister, Bethlehem, and Harmony. Celibacy was practiced, but not exclusively, in each of these locations. The residents of each were committed to hard work, self-sufficiency, and profit making for the good of their society. All were Protestant denominations. Each of the communities had distinctive appearances based upon town planning.

Basically, this lesson on the three religious communities will be a series of hands-on activities to explore daily living. Students will do research when they examine primary sources. A graphic organizer will be used to help them organize what they have read. They will use the information they find to create a newspaper in which they will write news stories, editorials and feature articles. They will examine a town plan and then categorize the information to determine its meaning. They will look at written opinions by some of the residents of these religious communities to evaluate what the communal living experience says about life in Pennsylvania at that time. When they have completed these activities, they will have a better appreciation of the human beings who created unique religious communities in our Commonwealth.

Day 1

It is likely that few students will know much about all three of the religious communities presented in this lesson. Some who live near one of these settlements may know about that particular one, but nothing about the other two. To insure that they gain some basic information about all three, an informational hand-out (marker Source 4: A Brief History of Three Pennsylvania Religious Communities: Ephrata Cloister, Bethlehem, and Harmony) is provided. The teacher should divide the class into groups of three and then distribute a copy of the informational hand-out to each group. There is approximately two pages of text for each religious community so each group member should be responsible for reading the two pages in Part A, or Part B, or Part C. Then, they need to complete their section of the graphic organizer in Worksheet 1: A Comparative Look at Ephrata Cloister, Bethlehem, and Harmony. The final question calls for collaboration among the three group members. Once the worksheet is completed, the teacher should lead a discussion that compares the factual answers given by members of the different groups. Once there is consensus on those answers, the teacher should focus upon the historic importance of these religious communities in Pennsylvania (question #10).

Day 2

The lesson today focuses upon life at Ephrata Cloister. Conrad's Beissel's "Rules of the Solitary Life" guided the community members' daily lives on earth and pointed the way to get to Heaven. Point out to students that daily life in the Ephrata Cloister involved the constant interaction of dozens of people living together in the same building. Human nature being what it is, getting along with each other was problematic. Their leader, Conrad Beissel, gave guidelines for daily interaction on earthly matters such as the importance of avoiding gossip. He also was concerned with their spiritual well being so he addressed
those matters as well.

Beissel had 244 rules in a publication entitled, "Rules of the Solitary Life." Give students a copy of twenty of these rules (marker Source 1: Rules of the Solitary Life). Allow time for them to read some of these rules and ask for some general reaction. Do they sound strict, wise, fair, or unfair? Could you live with these rules guiding your life? Then, distribute Worksheet 2: Rules of the Solitary Life. It is a graphic organizer that provides a structure for students to organize the representative set of twenty rules into four categories. There is a final question that asks students to select one category and to summarize the advice in that category into a short essay. When students have completed the worksheet, lead a discussion in which students contribute their answers and others comment upon their reasons for dividing the rules as they did. Then, ask for volunteers to read their answers to the final question. Discussion should follow to make sure that the students understood the rules that guided the daily life of the residents of Ephrata Cloister.

Day 3

The Moravians at Bethlehem were required to write a story of their life, a memoir (Lebenslauf). Different people wrote them at different times in their lives; so some were written in early adulthood, others during middle age, or even in old age. In spite of when they were written, all reveal the personality, life experiences, and religious fervor of the writer. We know more about daily life in this religious community by examining the lives of the residents.

Give students copies of the three memoirs (marker Source 2: Three Moravian Memoirs). Three different choirs are represented by these memoirs (Single Sisters, Married Sisters, and Widowed Sisters). Each is approximately two pages in length. Ask a student to orally read each of the memoirs to the class. Lead a class discussion on the topic of "What do I know about this women from what she said about her self? Ask for one word descriptors. For example, she was poor, hard working, religious, adventuresome, etc. Write those words on the chalkboard under the woman's name. Keep these words on the board so students can see them when they are doing the following assignment.

Distribute Worksheet 3: Three Moravian Memoirs. Go over the directions for this activity. Also distribute three sheets of plain white paper for them to create a title page that has a specific title for each of the memoirs plus a drawing of an important scene in their lives. Students will need to reread the three memoirs to get ideas for creating a descriptive title and drawing a scene from events in their lives.

Day 4

Let students know that members of the three religious communities (Ephrata Cloister, Bethlehem, and Harmony) in this lesson were all hard working and God fearing people. Those in Bethlehem not only supported themselves, but also helped fund missionary work elsewhere. When the Moravians created their religious community of Bethlehem, they focused upon both spiritual and temporal needs. They wanted Bethlehem to be an industrial center that would process the products from surrounding agricultural plantations. The finished articles would be used for community self-sufficiency as well as for sale. The Plan of Bethlehem, dated 1766 (Source 6) reflected the community as it existed seventeen years after its founding.

Distribute copies of a map of Bethlehem (Worksheet 4d: Plan of Bethlehem, dated 1766). Direct student attention to the town plan and point out that the buildings were for a variety of purposes (private homes, business, religious buildings, etc.). Ask students how a town in the 21st century would differ from Bethlehem in the mid 18th century. Typical student responses might be that there would be clothing stores, music and video stores, theaters, etc. Ask what these things have in common (entertainment), and why entertainment and pop culture could not be a part of the lives of these people in Bethlehem? In general, have a discussion that gets students thinking about what a town plan says about the people who live in that town.

Now distribute copies of Worksheet 4: The 1766 Community Plan for Bethlehem. Enlist the help of the school librarian to find occupational dictionaries that would list the job titles that are found in question # 1 on this worksheet. Give students time to find definitions of unfamiliar terms. The teacher may want the students to work in small groups to share opinions about how the types of buildings should be divided into the six categories. Also, students could collaborate to answer the two questions that call for reflection (how the town plan shows the importance of religion, and how it shows that Bethlehem could be self-sufficient). When students have answered these questions, the teacher should lead a discussion based upon these two questions.

Days 5 -7

Students will learn about the Harmonists of Butler County by critically reading a variety of primary sources (marker Source 3 and marker Source 5) and then transferring that information into a newspaper format. They will be challenged to do research using selected primary sources and then to come up with creative ways to make that information appealing and more easily understood in both news and feature stories.

Refer students to Part C of marker Source 4: A Brief History of Three Religious Communities for background information on this group of religious dissenters. Remind students that the Harmonists were dissenters from the Lutheran Church who followed a charismatic personality, George Rapp. They followed him from Germany to Pennsylvania, then on to Indiana and back again to Pennsylvania. In December 1804 the articles of purchase for land in Butler County, Pennsylvania were signed and the society officially began on February 15, 1805, with the signing of the Articles of Association. (Kring, p. 24).

The teacher should divide the class into groups of two or three students. Then, the teacher should give each group a single sheet of newsprint (18 " x 24 "). Also, the teacher should distribute a copy of Worksheet 5: Directions for Creating a Newspaper to each group. Basically, the hand-out explains to divide the sheet of newsprint into six columns with room for a banner headline at the top.

Students need to be aware that this will just be the front page of a newspaper, not the entire newspaper. This will allow them to include a wider variety of topics. Students may write directly on the newsprint, or use word processing on a computer. The smaller print made by a computer will allow more information to be placed in each story. Some stories may be complete on this page while others may be incomplete with the rest of the story to be found on another (but nonexisting) page. Students may pick any date between 1805 and 1815 for Harmony or any date that corresponds to one of the primary sources. A good choice might be May 17, 1826, the date of the visit by Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar (source 5-G) or August 7, 1847, the day George Rapp died.

The newspaper should include many different kinds of stories such as the following:

  • An editorial statement supporting ideas found in the Articles of Association (marker Source 3: Incorporation of Harmonists).

  • An interview with a community member or members who emphasize the importance of hard work, not play (Source 5-A: an adult; Source 5-B, a teenager; Source 5-F, for all members. These are found within marker Source 5: Daily Life of the Harmonists)

  • An article that lets the readers know that there are many different kinds of and workers in the community, and that all are important. (Source 5-C)

  • A story board with several panels showing how the community members relax and find entertainment in simple pleasures (Source 5-D).

  • A letter to the editor explaining to non community members the meaning of the verses cried out by the night watchman. (Source 5-E).

  • A report on the visit of Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar on May 17, 1826 (Source 5-G) or the death of the founder, George Rapp on August 7, 1847.

  • Advertisement for farm machinery that was used in the early 19th century.

  • Pictures of typical clothing worn by the Harmonites.

When the students have completed their newspaper, they should be displayed in the classroom. The teacher might want to create a bulletin board or other method of displaying the work. The general title for the display could be: "The Harmonists of Butler County."

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