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Original Document
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Original Document
A Brief History of Three Religious Communities: Ephrata Cloister, Bethlehem and Harmony

Part A: The Ephrata Cloisters


Conrad Beissel, the founder, charismatic leader, and guiding spirit of the Ephrata Cloisters was born in Eberbach, Germany in 1691. At that time the Protestant Reformation that began during the previous century was still a powerful influence in Europe. In 1720 Beissel joined thousands of others who fled their homelands for religious reasons. He decided to come to William Penn's colony where religious dissenters were welcomed. A fter twelve years with other religious pilgrims he decided to seek solitude in the forest. That decision led to the founding of the Ephrata community in 1732. He had two fundamental beliefs: Saturday, not Sunday, was the Sabbath; and celibacy was better than an earthly marriage.

Although he went into the forest seeking solitude, others soon followed him. By 1750 there were approximately 80 celibate Brothers and Sisters in the Ephrata community. They occupied separate small log cabins that were soon replaced by large imposing structures. The newer building also had a log cabin structure, but some had five floors. These distinctive building had very steep roofs with dormer windows jutting out that marked the separate floors. Together the Brothers and Sisters were known jointly as the Solitary. Nearby were about 200 people living in traditional family units. Although celibacy was considered to be most pleasing to God, it was not required. These non-celibate supporters of the Ephrata Cloisters were known as the Householders, and they lived on their own farms. While they had personally rejected celibacy, the Householders supported the Brothers and Sisters in the Ephrata Cloisters with funds, produce and labor.

Daily life for the Solitary was one of discipline, both of mind and body. They ate little, worked long hours and dressed in common white robes. Sleep was interrupted for lengthily prayer sessions during the night. The community went to special services called "Night Watches which, at first, lasted for four hours. Then, it was shortened to two hours. There was little time between the religious service and the beginning of the workday. They engaged in private meditation in hopes of regaining the pure bodies of the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their goal was to be prepared to enter Paradise. Their industriousness caused them to be quite successful. They owned and operated a paper mill, a flour mill, an oil mill, a fulling mill, a bakery, a printing office, schoolhouse and many other buildings. They did not have a written covenant and used the New Testament as their guide in all matters. Ephrata was incorporated as a community in 1812. The property of the Solitary was held in common, but no member was required to surrender personal property. They did accept donations and grew through these donations and the profits realized from their farms and manufacturing operations.

The Ephrata community was known for the variety of buildings. There was a Sisters" House, a Brothers" House, a large chapel and hall where they held the Agape or Love Feast. There was a meeting room with galleries where the entire society could meet. Smaller buildings included the schoolhouse, a printing house, an almonry, and a bake house among others. They were particularly successful with their printing press. They began using it in 1743 and continued for fifty years. Their most ambitious project was the translation and publication of a 1500 page book, the Martyrs Mirror. It was the largest book ever printed in colonial America. Two artistic achievements, one in music and the other in writing, are hallmarks of the Ephrata Cloisters. The music of the Ephrata Cloister was well known to outsiders. Visitors were charmed by the music said to be based upon the Aeolian harp. Beissel , himself, composed about a thousand tunes for four voices. Visitors who heard them were mesmerized by their unearthly musical beauty. German calligraphic writing, Frakturschriften, was considered to be a discipline for both the soul and the earthly body. Examples of this writing are prized today as a monumental artistic accomplishment.

Life in the Ephrata cloister was busy. The surrounding farm land needed tending and the various business enterprises required constant attention. Their goal was not, however, to make more money than they needed. When William Penn, a frequent visitor, offered a 5,000 acre tract of surrounding land, Beissel turned it down. They were generous toward travelers and visitors were entertained. The whole community became a hospital for the wounded after the Battle of Brandywine in 1777.

Conrad Beissel died in 1768 at the age of 77. He was succeeded by Peter Miller, a Presbyterian clergyman who converted to the Seventh Day Baptist faith and was baptized by Beissel in 1735. Miller was a well-educated man who wrote and spoke several languages. He is remembered for his work in the cloister's publishing business. By the late 1700"s the cloister was in decline. By the end of that century there were only about twenty members left. The two things that distinguished them from outside members of the religious group were their attire and their celibacy. The wave of religious fervor that had swept the country earlier in the century was over. The institution officially ended in 1814.

The Ephrata Cloisters in Lancaster County were impressive to visitors for a variety of reasons. One visitor was so impressed that he wanted to replicate it in another location. The Snowhill Community, located in Franklin County, was a branch or offshoot of the Ephrata Cloisters. Peter Lehman, its founder in 1800, had a lengthy stay at Ephrata. While there he arranged to establish a religious order of Seventh-Day Baptists at Snowhill. The order started with four members and grew to forty. There were four significant buildings, the original Cloister (1814), the Chapel (1836) , (1836), a Brother-House (1839), and a Sister-House (1843). Like Ephrata, Snowhill was known for its outstanding music and singing. Secular members strongly adhered to the Seventh Day Baptist observance of Saturday, not Sunday as the day of worship. Married secular members had to live in homes outside the cloister. They were larger in number than the cloister members and did not have to adhere to the discipline imposed upon cloistered members nor endure the deprivations of cloistered life.


Part B: Bethlehem

The Moravians originated in the area of Europe today known as the Czech Republic, and trace the Moravian Church back to the Unity of the Brethren, a Protestant church founded by followers of Jan Hus (1373-1415). For the next 300 years they were alternately tolerate and persecuted depending upon the religion of the local rulers. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), n fact, whole areas where Moravians lived in Moravia and Bohemia were virtually depopulated. Those who survived often escaped to other parts of Europe. As time passed after the terrible ordeal of the Thirty Years War, the Moravians grew in strength and they found an effective leader in Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). In 1720 he offered the Brethren sanctuary in Herrnhut, located on his estate. Seven years later he assumed leadership of the Renewed Church that in America was called the Moravian Church.

Zinzendorf was a Protestant theologian who placed Christ at the center of his religion. Also, he believed that it was important to live together in a community divided into like groups based upon age, marital status, and sex. This was the Choir structure. It began in 1728 in Herrnhut when a separate dormitory was built for a group of unmarried men. Within two years there was a Single Sisters House and then choirs of boys, girls, single men, single women, married men and married women, widows and widowers. While they worshipped separately, they came together for such things as the lovefeast, a singing hour and other special events. Soon, Moravians who had scattered throughout Europe began to evangelize for the Moravian Church at Herrnhut and to spread the word of Christ.

The Moravians believed that they had a duty to spread the word of their Protestant faith. Their move to the New World was based in large part on their zeal to Christianize the slaves and the Indians. They sent a few missionaries to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1732 and some to Greenland in 1733. Because of the great distance from Germany, it was difficult to maintain the missions. In 1734 the trustees of Georgia invited to Moravians to come to that colony. They accepted the invitation. In 1735 Moravian missionaries went to Georgia where they were not particularly successful in converting the natives to Christianity. They also were unhappy because of pressure to render military service in a dispute between the Spanish and English over Florida.

In 1736 they sent a mission to Lehigh County in Pennsylvania because of an interest in winning Indian and Black converts there. By 1740, the Moravians had abandoned Savannah. Some went back to Europe while others went northward to Pennsylvania. Their original purpose was to establish a school for Negroes at Nazareth, a 5000 acre site located 60 miles north of Philadelphia that had been purchased by a Calvinistic Methodist preacher, George Whitefield. They planned to work with him in this missionary work. Soon they had some serious disagreements with Whitefield so broke away. Instead they purchased 500 acres of Pennsylvania land south of Nazareth where the Monocracy Creek and the Lehigh River join. It was here that they established their settlement. In 1741 Zinzendorf visited the site and named the settlement Bethlehem. The settlement would have several hundred residents in the years to come.

From 1742 until 1762 during a period known as the " General Economy" they cultivated their land in common. Everything (land, houses, and businesses) was communally owned. The Choir system of Herrnhut was followed with married men and women living separately. As soon as a child was weaned, he/she was placed in the "Nurserie." After 1762 the "General Economy" was abandoned following an economic crisis experienced by the Moravian Church in Germany From 1762 onward, the choir houses were only for the unmarried, the widows, and widowers. Many of the large choir houses were in continuous use for more than 250 years.

Bethlehem had been established as a mission center and as a permanent settlement, but the missionary and spiritual work took precedence. The Moravians were in Bethlehem to be missionaries for the Native Americans and the slaves in the Caribbean. The permanent residents of Bethlehem (The Home Congregation) were to work hard to sustain the missionary work (the Pilgrim Congregation) with the Delaware Indians. Bethlehem was the base from which satellite mission communities elsewhere in North America and the Caribbean could be supported.

Moravians strongly believed in a unified effort, pre-approved by their church leaders, when conceptualizing and then building a community whether it was in Europe or North America. The prominent placement of the church in the town square and the exact location of each religious building as well as business establishment and boarding school was preplanned and approved by the religious authorities. Bethlehem was a planned community organized around Der Platz, the central open square. Detailed plans were drawn and then followed exactly. By 1758 there were thirty-five industries with the heavy industries such as the tannery, the gristmill, linseed oil mill and the butchery all located at the bottom of the hill. The various craft shops were scattered through the main settlement.


Part C: Harmony

While Beissel and the Moravians had settled in eastern Pennsylvania, another Protestant religious dissenter chose western Pennsylvania for his religious settlement. In 1791 George Rapp announced to shocked government officials in Maulbronn, Germany that, "I am a prophet, and I am called to be one." A few years before in 1785, Rapp officially broke from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and he took some followers with him. By the early 1790s he had about 4,000 followers. By 1803, when he departed for America, he left over 10,000 followers in Germany. These German Pietists wanted to either reform the official state Lutheran church, or break away from it. They believed that the rituals as practiced within the church had lost their original meaning. They began to observe three tenets that would take on even more significance when they moved to America as the Harmony Society: community ownership of goods, millennialism (expected Christ to return to Earth soon) and abstinence from sex.

In February 1805, he and 500 charter members created the Harmony Society and purchased 1,300 acres of land about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh in Butler County. All who signed had agreed to turn over personal property and possessions to the society and in return they would have all their physical and spiritual needs met. Originally, members were to get property or a cash donation if they decided to leave, but this provision was revoked in 1836. The communal orientation did not suit all of his followers so some never went to live in Harmony and some others left.

Originally, Rapp had high hopes of getting a Harmonist petition for a land grant in Ohio approved by congress, but that did not happen. The agricultural enterprises prospered. They had orchards, vineyards, grain, merino sheep, mills, a textile factory, a brewery, a tannery, a general store for members to get the things they needed, and even a Harmony Inn to accommodate visitors. Individual families had a house and a quarter acre lot to raise some animals and plant a garden. In school, the children were taught German and English. A small brass band played on religious occasions and for visitors. Residents went to the brick church on the town square twice on Sunday and once during the week. Occasionally society leaders and business agents left the town. Others did not. They paid taxes to the United States, but did not serve in the military. While they celebrated the national Independence Day on July 4, they remained apart from their surroundings in western Pennsylvania.

In 1814 George Rapp felt it was time to move further west. He had thought from the beginning that the Pennsylvania site would be a temporary one on their move westward. The Harmony Society purchased 30,000 acres in Indiana. They moved there and would remain in the Indiana Territory for a decade. They called their new settlement by the original name of Harmony, and also New Harmony. Their economic activity grew to include the sale of rope, shoes, leather goods, and pottery. Their trademark symbol of the golden rose became a symbol of quality goods. In 1824, they acquired a printing press and entered the publishing business. That same year they sold their Indiana community to Robert Owen, a British social reformer.

George Rapp and his followers moved back to western Pennsylvania and built the town of Economy. Their name choice for their new community reflected their preoccupation with industry and their belief that the "Divine Economy," or a new perfect world order would come. Here they concentrated on sericulture, the growth of silk worms for silk production. In this they were successful, but internal dissension took its toll. There were disagreements over the rule of celibacy, the leadership of George Rapp, and the removal of personal property when a member decided to leave. All caused the community of Economy to fall into decline. George Rapp died in 1847 and subsequent leaders were not as successful in keeping the members united. Although they made a transition from reliance upon agriculture to industry and investment capitalism (particularly in the oil industry and railroad construction), the rule of celibacy and non-recruitment of new members caused numbers to decline. Prior to its dissolution in 1905, much of its wealth had been fraudulently taken by non-religious new members who had been attracted by their wealth. The Harmonist Society remains, however, an interesting chapter in the communal movement within the United States.
Information on the Ephrata Cloisters was taken from: "Ephrata Cloisters: Anticipating Paradise", a pamphlet published by the Ephrata Cloister; "Ephrata Cloister: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, pp. 13-47; William A. Hinds, American Communities and Co-Operative Colonies, pp. 16-26; William J. Murtagh, Moravian Architecture and Town Planning, pp. 3-14. Information on Bethlehem was taken from: Katherine M. Faull, Moravian Women's Memoirs: Their Related Lives, 1750-1820, pp. vii-xl. Information on Harmony was taken from: Hilda A. Kring, "The Harmonists: A Folk-Cultural Approach", pp. 1-147; and Elise M. Wagner, "Economy of Old and Ambridge of Today," pp. 3-20; and Aaron Williams, The Harmony Society, pp. 48-71.
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