The Ephrata Cloister:
A Sabbatarian Commune in Colonial Pennsylvania

Conrad Beissel was a German Pietist immigrant who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1720 and became a Sabbatarian.   A charismatic figure, Beissel attracted a group of followers who in 1732 formed a commune on Cocalico Creek in Lancaster County, near the present town of Ephrata.   How did the Ephrata Commune go on to become one of the most successful experiments in communal living in American history?   What talents and skills were they renowned for?

The main Sabbatarian Christian denominations-the Seventh Day Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Church of God (Seventh Day)-have their spiritual roots in the English Puritan movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Seventh Day Baptist denomination was started by Puritan Separatists who left England for the freedom of worship that was available in seventeenth-century Rhode Island [5], while the nineteenth-century founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Church of God (Seventh Day) were Millerites-followers of a Baptist preacher named William Miller who had predicted, based on his interpretation of Daniel 8, that Christ would return in 1844. Many of the Millerites were descended from New England Separatists, including some Seventh Day Baptists, and they inherited much of their basic belief system from their Puritan forebears [2].

Puritanism, with its emphasis on holy living grounded in obedience to the biblical commandments of God, has made a lasting imprint on American religion and culture. Puritan writings and lifestyle also influenced the leaders of the Pietist movement, a roughly analogous wave of reform that swept through Dutch, Swiss, and German Protestantism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pietists believed that their churches should move beyond disputes about correct doctrine and do more to bring about significant changes in the lives of believers. They stressed the need for ministers to set exemplary examples and give practical sermons, so that individual Christians would be truly 'born again' and lead lives of devotion to God and service to others. One Pietist innovation, the establishment of small group Bible study and prayer gatherings, is still recognized today as a very effective way to enhance church life.

Pietism brought renewal to the churches of German-speaking Europe and later had an impact on John Wesley and the Methodists in England and America [3]. The Pietist movement also led to the creation of new churches, groups that hoped to recapture various important aspects of the experience of the early Christians. Such 'radical' Pietist groups often faced persecution in Europe but flourished in America-especially in Pennsylvania, whose founder, William Penn, actively encouraged the dissenters of Europe to come to his new haven of religious freedom [1, p. 12].

Of particular interest to Sabbatarians is Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), a German Pietist immigrant who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1720 and over the next several years became convinced of the continuing validity of the seventh-day Sabbath for Christians. A charismatic figure, Beissel attracted a group of followers who in 1732 formed a commune on Cocalico Creek in Lancaster County, near the present town of Ephrata. The Ephrata Commune went on to become one of the most successful experiments in communal living in American history, renowned for its prolific printing press, its unique choral music, and its beautiful illuminated manuscripts decorated in Fraktur, an ornate style of German calligraphy. In this article, I will recount the story of Conrad Beissel and the Ephrata Commune, a fascinating episode in Sabbatarian history.

Beissel's Early Life and Travels

Conrad Beissel was born in March 1691 in Eberbach, a town on the Neckar River in what is now the German state of Baden-Württemberg. That region of Europe was ravaged by war throughout most of the seventeenth century, leading to widespread unemployment and homelessness. Conrad's father Matthias, a baker, died shortly before Conrad was born; his mother Anna then struggled to support a large family before succumbing to death herself when Conrad was eight or nine [1, Chapter 2].

After living in poverty for several more years with older brothers and sisters, Conrad became an apprentice to a baker in Eberbach. From the baker he learned the art of the violin along with the baking trade. He also began to attend Pietist small group meetings.

In 1710 or 1711, Beissel was promoted to journeyman status and set out for other towns to prove himself, as directed by the local bakers' guild. His first stop was Strasbourg, where, in the words of historian E. G. Alderfer, his 'fertile mind was opened to the mystical, occult, and millennialist underground of European Christendom' [1, p. 19]. In addition to reading Pietist literature, he became involved with the Inspirationists, a charismatic group, as well as the Society of Philadelphians, a group of disciples of the German mystical philosopher Jakob Boehme. The Philadelphians wrote religious poetry in a style that may have influenced Conrad's later poetry and hymn-writing.

Beissel's next assignment was in Mannheim, where his master, a baker named Kantebecker, accompanied him to Pietist meetings. The young man also became entangled in a brief love affair with Frau Kantebecker. When Conrad repented and ended the affair, the baker's wife confessed to her husband, and Beissel was forced to leave Mannheim for Heidelberg. He apparently resolved after this affair to lead a celibate life.

In Heidelberg, Conrad continued to attend secret meetings of radical Pietists and mystics, and he converted the entire family of his new master, Herr Prior, to a Pietist life. He also gained financial prosperity for the first time by developing a new bread recipe. This recipe, which used vegetable oil instead of the usual pork lard, became very popular, resulting in Conrad's promotion from journeyman to master baker and an appointment as treasurer of the local bakers' guild.

Beissel's material success was shortlived, however. His criticism of the conduct of his fellow bakers at the guild's banquets led to a falling out with the guild. Some other guild members then arranged to have him arrested because he did not attend the Reformed Church, Heidelberg's official church. Prior's attempts to intervene on his behalf were unsuccessful, and he was stripped of his baker's credentials and banished from the entire Palatinate region [1, p. 22].

Forced to leave Heidelberg, Conrad fled north to Westphalia, where he again fellowshipped with groups of Pietists and mystics. In particular, he came in contact with the Schwarzenau Brethren, who were also known as 'Dunkers' because of their practice of baptism by immersion. In 1719 a group of twenty Dunker families under the leadership of Peter Becker migrated to Pennsylvania, which offered religious freedom to many German Separatists. (Becker's spiritual descendants in America came to be known as German Baptist Brethren and today make up several denominations, including the Church of the Brethren, the Brethren Church, and the Old German Baptist Brethren.1) Beissel and a group of friends followed Becker's example in 1720. Beginning their journey in the spring, they arrived in Boston in September and reached Germantown, Pennsylvania (now a part of Philadelphia) by late autumn.

A Spiritual Odyssey Continues

Germantown, where Peter Becker had settled, was the initial destination of many German immigrants to America during that era. Conrad Beissel came to Germantown because he hoped to join a nearby group of mystical Pietists that he had heard about back in Germany. This group, which was commonly known as the 'Wissahickon Hermits' or the Society of the Woman of the Wilderness (after the symbolism of Rev. 12), originally consisted of forty men who had come to America in 1694. Led by young Johannes Kelpius, they led an ascetic, celibate existence on the banks of the Wissahickon River while expectantly awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus. But unbeknownst to Beissel, Kelpius had died in 1708, and by 1720 only a remnant of the group remained. So instead of joining the hermits, Conrad spent his first year in America as an apprentice in Peter Becker's weaving shop.

In late 1721, Beissel headed west with his friend Jacob Stuntz, who had purchased some land near the Mühlbach (Mill Creek), a tributary of the Conestoga River in the region that later became Lancaster County. There the two built a cabin, where they started a free school for the children of their German neighbors. They were soon joined by Isaac van Bebber, the nephew of a man who had accompanied them on the voyage to America.

During the winter of 1722, Isaac convinced Conrad to accompany him on a trip to Bohemia Manor, Maryland, where his father and another uncle had lived since 1704 as part of a religious commune organized by followers of the French mystic Jean de Labadie (1610-1674). Members of this commune led ascetic lives of poverty and celibacy. Beissel was impressed by what he saw at Bohemia Manor. To some extent, the lifestyle there served as a pattern for the regimen that was later followed at the Ephrata commune.

Beissel was also influenced in 1722 by an English Seventh Day Baptist congregation that was founded that year in East Nantmeal in nearby Chester County. Shortly after his return to the cabin from Maryland, Conrad began to keep the scriptural Sabbath. He came to view the Sabbath as an important component of a life totally surrendered to God, as well as a symbol of a believer's spiritual rest in Christ and future eternal rest in the world to come [4, Vol. 1, pp. 146-147].

In those days there were few organized churches to offer spiritual support to the settlers on the Conestoga frontier, and Beissel sensed that his neighbors needed encouragement. He began to travel around the countryside, preaching and promoting a religious revival. According to Alderfer [1, p. 36],

'He was soon the prime spiritual power on the Conestoga frontier. Separatists without a church home, even Mennonites with one, flocked to hear him...The evidence suggests that Conrad could release powerful spiritual energies.'

Birth Pangs of a New Community

In 1723, Jacob Stuntz sold the cabin, and Beissel built a log cabin of his own beside a spring about a mile away. There he was soon joined by Michael Wohlfahrt, who had previously been one of the Wissahickon hermits.

Meanwhile, back in Germantown, Peter Becker was starting a revival of his own among the Dunkers, who had initially become dispersed after their arrival in Pennsylvania. Becker regathered the scattered group into a congregation of seventeen members. On December 25, 1723, they met on the banks of the Wissahickon and baptized six more. These baptisms were the first conducted by the German Baptist Brethren in America.

The following year, Becker and the Brethren began to raise up congregations in neighboring districts. When they reached Beissel's vicinity, they sought out his assistance, and he readily agreed. Although he loved the solitude of his cabin, he had also begun to long for a connection with a larger group of Christians. On November 12, 1724, he attended an evangelistic meeting at the home of Heinrich Höhn and was baptized by Becker in Pequea Creek along with five others. This meeting produced a Conestoga congregation of the Brethren with twelve founding members, six men and six women.

The new congregation soon acknowledged Beissel as its leader, and it grew rapidly under his direction, numbering twenty-two by the spring of 1725. A new cabin was built for Beissel on the land of Rudolph Nägele, one of the members, so that Conrad could be closer to the group. And as the months went by, more and more people moved into the area in order to be closer to him.

For a few years Conrad and the Conestoga congregation worked together successfully with Becker and the Brethren in Germantown. A high point of their cooperation occurred on Pentecost in 1727, when a meeting of all the Brethren in the region was held at Coventry in Chester County. On that day Beissel preached powerfully and baptized eleven people in the Schuylkill River. He also introduced antiphonal choral singing, an art that was later developed much further at Ephrata.

However, the alliance between Becker and Beissel was strained from the beginning on account of Beissel's distinctive teachings, especially his vigorous promotion of seventh-day Sabbath observance and celibacy. Disagreements between the Germantown and Conestoga groups finally led to a parting of the ways in late 1728. To symbolize their independence from Germantown, the Conestoga members who had originally been baptized by Becker were rebaptized in December of that year. A year later Alexander Mack, who had originally organized the Schwarzenau Brethren in 1708, arrived from Germany and sought to bring Beissel back into the fold, but he was unsuccessful. Thereafter 'the two congregations maintained a cool degree of communication without real communion, ' in the words of Alderfer [1, pp. 44-45].

The fast-growing congregation's unusual practices also led to friction with the government of Lancaster County, which was formed in May 1729. In their observance of the fourth commandment, Beissel's followers were careful to work on six days of the week, including Sunday. A Pennsylvania law prohibited work on Sundays, and some men in the congregation were arrested in 1730 for violating it. However, the prisoners sang hymns and refused food for several days, causing their jail-keepers so much worry that the authorities decided to release them. The Sabbatarians were not bothered about working on Sundays for some time after that [1, p.48].

Greater problems, both inside and outside the community, were created by the issue of celibacy. When some women left their husbands to join the Solitary-as the celibate portion of the community was called-their husbands often became hostile toward Beissel. Moreover, the nature of Beissel's relationship with his female followers was the subject of much gossip. Anna and Maria Eicher, who had left their parents' home in 1726 to join the group, were briefly arrested along with Conrad in 1730 because of such rumors, but all three were soon released when the rumors proved to be groundless. Thereafter, the community was organized into three 'orders' : the Householders, who were married members of the congregation; the male Solitary, called the Brotherhood of the Angels; and the female solitary, called the Spiritual Virgins. It soon came to be understood and accepted that some members of the congregation chose to be celibate, while others chose to have families.

An additional major difficulty was the issue of property ownership. A number of people in the Mill Creek settlement were 'squatters' who had set up cabins on unused land without bothering to arrange any official claims for the land. As Alderfer comments, these people were not deliberately stealing, but 'with their Anabaptist comunitarian background, many of them were simply not property-conscious in the traditional sense' [1, p. 45]. They saw Acts 2:44 ('All the believers were together and had everything in common.') as an ideal structure for a Christian community. However, the London Company, which administered much of the land in the area, took a different view. In August 1730, handbills were posted ordering squatters to vacate company lands or face prosecution. No action was taken, but it was becoming clear that the group would need to find another home.

Feeling increasing pressure over these and other issues, Conrad Beissel began to long for the solitude he had enjoyed several years before. In February 1732, he shocked the congregation by announcing his resignation as its leader, then moved to a remote cabin eight miles away on Cocalico Creek. (The name Cocalico comes from Indian words meaning 'snake hole' or 'den of serpents.') There he enjoyed several months of peace and quiet and prepared a book of hymn poems called Vorspiel der Neuen Welt ('Prelude to the New World'). A friend, Samuel Eckerling, arranged to have the book printed in Philadelphia by a young printer named Benjamin Franklin.

Growth of the Ephrata Commune

Beissel's time alone did not last long, though. After several months people from the Mill Creek settlement, both Solitary and Householders, began to move to Cocalico Creek to be near him again. The Householders bought property in the area, and the group obtained permission from Thomas Penn, son of the late William Penn, to set up a commune. At some point during the next four years, the community began to be called Ephrata, the ancient name of the area of Bethlehem (Gen. 35:16-20; 48:7; I Chron. 4:4).

The commune faced distrust and hostility from its neighbors at the beginning, including incidents of vandalism and assault. Ephrata responded with acts of charity, building cabins for settlers arriving in the aread, providing a free school for children, and offering free bread from a newly-built bakery. There was also some friction with the local government on the issue of taxes for the Solitary, but the dispute was soon settled amicably.

Ephrata grew steadily through the 1730s. In 1735, when Alexander Mack died, a large delegation from Ephrata travelled to Germantown for the funeral, where they sang a special hymn composed for the occasion. This gesture reopened communication between the Sabbatarians and the Germantown Dunkers, and many moved from Germantown to Ephrata in the ensuing years. Other German-speaking Protestants were attracted to Ephrata as a result of evangelistic trips made by the Solitary to various places in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Eventually the reputation of the commune spread to Europe, and some people immigrated to America for the express purpose of joining Beissel's community. By 1740, its numbers included about seventy Solitary and 35-40 families of Householders, for a total population of over 200.

Those who came to Ephrata in the 1730s included a number of very talented people. Most notable was Peter Miller, a linguist with a degree from the University of Heidelberg, who served the commune ably and faithfully for about 60 years. One arrival from Germantown in the late 1730s was Ludwig Höcker, a well-educated man who was placed in charge of the commune's school. As schoolmaster, Höcker raised the school's standards so that it developed a fine reputation, eventually attracting students from other faiths and from as far away as the eastern seaboard. Another educator during the early years of Ephrata was Ludwig Blum, a Householder who came in about 1738. Blum, who had formal training in music, led a singing school for the female Solitary and established a strong foundation for Ephrata's musical efforts.

Buildings were constructed for the male and female Solitary and for worship. Kedar, a three-story building for the female Solitary, was equipped with a tower clock constructed by Christopher Witt of Germantown. It was probably the first such clock made in America.

The Solitary wore monastic garb and adopted a strictly-disciplined, ascetic lifestyle. There was only one regular meal per day, a vegetarian supper. In 1735 they began to hold two-hour midnight meetings for repentance, worship, and contemplation as they awaited the return of Jesus Christ. An open confessional system was started in 1736. On Friday nights, the Solitary examined themselves and wrote down assessments of their spiritual condition. These reports were given to Beissel, who read them aloud at worship services the next morning.

Challenges External and Internal

The Ephrata congregation was one of many German Protestant groups in eighteenth century Pennsylvania. With its pacifism and emphasis on good works and communal values, Ephrata had much in common with several of the other groups, including the Mennonites, the Moravians, and of course the Germantown Dunkers. In 1736, Ephrata established contact with the Moravians. Beissel got along especially well with August G. Spangenberg, a Moravian bishop.

In December 1741, Moravian leader Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf came to Pennsylvania with a plan to unite all of these German Protestants in one ecumenical organization under his auspices. To explore the possibility of forming such an organization, Zinzendorf sponsored a series of meetings involving representatives of the various groups. The meetings ended up accomplishing nothing, partly on account of doctrinal differences among the groups. An even bigger barrier to unity, though, may have been the personality and cultural differences between the nobleman Zinzendorf and Beissel the peasant, two proud men from very different backgrounds. Beissel and the Ephrathites suspected, not without justification, that Zinzendorf wanted to take over and control their commune. At any rate, the two groups went their separate ways after that, both making notable achievements.

Zinzendorf posed an external challenge to Ephrata in 1742. The commune also faced serious internal tensions in the early 1740s as it worked out its future direction. During those years, Ephrata's economic activities were greatly expanded under the management of Israel Eckerling, the leader of the male Solitary. Ephrata's agricultural products included wheat, flax, millet, and hemp, and the Solitary grazed livestock and planted fruit trees and a vineyard. The commune had already built a gristmill in 1736, and in the early 1740s it added another gristmill, a sawmill, a linseed oil mill, a fulling mill for preparation of cloth, a tannery, and a paper mill. In 1743, Ephrata paper was used by Christopher Sauer of Germantown in the printing of twelve hundred copies of Luther's German translation of the Bible. This was the first non-English Bible printed in colonial America, and several of the Solitary assisted in its production.

The high-quality goods produced at Ephrata soon found markets as far away as Philadelphia and Wilmington. Three teams of horses were used to take wagonloads to these markets. and Israel Eckerling hired agents in Philadelphia to represent Ephrata's interests there. Under Eckerling's skillful direction, the commune quickly grew in wealth.

Despite this rapid economic progress, many at Ephrata believed that something was going terribly wrong. The Solitary members of the congregation had come in order to lead lives of poverty, service, and devotion to God. Instead, they were now being forced into a condition close to slavery, with only six hours of sleep per day and more and more hard work to do. Precious little time was available for prayer and meditation. Some also objected to the use of horses to pull wagons, feeling that this was a form of bondage for the horses. (Ephrathites had previously done all of their travelling on foot.) By 1743, many Householders had ceased giving tithes to the Solitary. They were glad to support works of charity but saw no need to fund Eckerling's expanding economic juggernaut.

As time went by, it became increasingly clear that Israel Eckerling's ambitions and ego were growing out of control. For example, he would buy grain from area farmers for low prices at harvest time, store the grain in Ephrata's granaries until prices rose, and then mill and sell flour for a tidy profit. Such practices were tantamount to usury in the minds of many. At one point, Eckerling had a lavish robe made for himself that was patterned after the robe of Aaron described in Exodus 28. By August 1745, the community agreed that Israel Eckerling had to be removed from his position of authority over the Solitary and Ephrata's internal economy. Eckerling and his brothers Samuel and Gabriel then left the commune, moving four hundred miles away to the frontier of southwestern Virginia, where they became trappers and traders. After that the Eckerlings kept in touch with Ephrata and occasionally visited, but they never came back to live there. Israel and Gabriel were later captured by the French during the French and Indian War and died under the harsh conditions of their imprisonment [1, pp. 139-142].

Ephrata's Golden Age

In the years following, Ephrata turned away from Israel Eckerling's capitalistic, materialistic emphasis and refocused its efforts on its original vision and goals. Production in the commune's mills was scaled back drastically, leaving much more time for charity, education, evangelism, and worship.

Sometime in the mid-1740s, the commune obtained its own printing press from Germany. Added to the paper mill and tannery, the new press gave Ephrata 'the only complete printing, binding, and publishing establishment in America' [1, p. 108]. Many books and pamphlets were published at Ephrata in the ensuing years, including theological, philosophical, historical, inspirational, and musical works.

Ephrata's most ambitious publishing effort was carried out as a service to the Pennsylvania Mennonite community. The Mennonites sensed-accurately, as it turned out-that a war between the British and French was on the horizon. With war might come persecution for them and other pacifists, and they wanted to prepare their children for the trials ahead. An important source of inspiration for Mennonites was the Martyrer-Spiegel (Martyrs' Mirror), a huge book chronicling the sufferings of Anabaptist and pacifist Christians in Europe. Unfortunately, the only available edition was in the Dutch language, and most of the Pennsylvania Mennonites could not read Dutch. They turned to Beissel for help, and the Brotherhood (i.e., the male Solitary) at Ephrata agreed to take on the formidable task of translating, editing, and publishing a German edition of the book. A team of fifteen men spent three years on the project. (Peter Miller, the chief translator and editor, is said to have slept only three or four hours a night during the entire course of the work.) The final product, which was 1,512 pages long and measured ten by fifteen inches, was the largest book published in America before 1800. Thirteen hundred copies were ready in 1748.

Another project of Peter Miller and the Brotherhood in the late 1740s was the expansion of the Ephrata school to include a Latin Academy for older boys. This addition further enhanced the already fine reputation of the school. As it turned out, the school outlasted the commune itself by many years, as evidenced by the fact that the present school building at the site was erected in 1837.

Meanwhile, the Ephrata Sisterhood was reorganized in the mid-1740s and moved into a larger building, which was called Saron after the new name of their group-the Order of the Roses of Saron. (This building still stands today and can be seen by visitors to the Ephrata Cloisters Park.) The Sisters played a major role in the subsequent flowering of the arts at Ephrata, as exemplified by their beautiful illuminated manuscripts of hymns and musical scores. These manuscripts bring together a powerful combination of poetic imagery, music, and art, all dedicated to the glory of God. In 1750, two of the Sisters produced Der Christen A B C, a large book of illuminated alphabets which Alderfer [1, p. 125] terms 'a calligraphic masterwork.'

All three orders of the community came together in Ephrata's choral singing. Conrad Beissel's many musical compositions included two men's parts (high and low bass) along with at least three women's parts. Singers at Ephrata followed a strict diet and wore white robes during lengthy practices and performances, in keeping with Beissel's conviction that the best music was the product of a lifestyle of purity and wholeness.

What accounts we have suggest that those who heard Ephrata's choral music were profoundly moved by the experience. For example, Reverend Jacob Duché, an Anglican minister from Philadelphia who later became chaplain to the Continental Congress, gave the following description after a visit to Ephrata in 1771 (quoted in [1, p. 115]):

' The music had little or no air or melody; but consisted of simple, long notes, combined in the richest harmony....The performers sat with their heads reclined, their countenances solemn and dejected, their faces pale and emaciated from their manner of living, their clothing exceedingly white and quite picturesque, and their music such as thrilled to the very soul. I almost began to think myself in the world of spirits, and the objects before me were ethereal. In short, the impression this scene made upon my mind continued strong for many days, and I believe, will never be wholly obliterated. '

William M. Fahnestock, whose family was connected with Ephrata for generations, commented in an 1835 article,

' The tones issuing from the choir imitate very soft instrumental music; conveying a softness and devotion almost superhuman to the auditor ' [1, p. 114].

Ephrata's musical heritage continues to fascinate musicians and ethnomusicologists. One example of recent research on this music is [6].

Beissel's Final Years

As the Mennonites had feared, war did break out in the 1750s, and the frontier areas west of Ephrata became dangerous places to live. During the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Ephrata became a haven for refugees whose homes were destroyed in Indian raids. The commune generously provided food and shelter for as many as possible. It also gave food and supplies to the company of infantry that was sent from Philadelphia to protect the area.

One British visitor to Ephrata reported in 1759 that the population of the community (including Householders) totalled 250. By that time, the founders of the commune had reached middle or old age, and few people were arriving to join the Solitary. However, Ephrata did maintain some evangelistic outreach even in those difficult years, thanks to George Adam Martin, a former Dunker minister who came to Ephrata in 1762. That year Martin travelled to the western edge of the Pennsylvania frontier and established a congregation near Stony Creek in an area that is today part of Somerset County.

Previously, in 1752, Martin had raised up a congregation near Antietam Creek in what is now Franklin County, about 90 miles southwest of Ephrata. When Martin became affiliated with Ephrata, the Antietam Creek group became a Sabbatarian congregation. Conrad Beissel and others from Ephrata visited this group three times during the early 1760s, and thereafter the two communities maintained close ties. On Beissel's first visit, one of their meetings was interrupted by the shocking news that just a few miles away, schoolmaster Enoch Brown and six pupils had been killed by Indians. Beissel consoled the group and persuaded its members not to take up arms.

In February 1765, Beissel fell down some steps and seriously injured his foot. The foot took a long time to heal, and his health deteriorated after that. He died at age 77 on July 6, 1768. Two days later, over 700 attended his burial service at Ephrata.

Ephrata and the Revolution

Peter Miller, who assumed leadership of Ephrata after Beissel's death, had by that time already been a prominent member of the Brotherhood for over thirty years. He went on to give nearly thirty more years of faithful service to the community. Miller was also highly respected outside of Ephrata circles and carried on correspondence with a number of leaders of the Revolutionary War era. He was elected a member of the prestigious American Philosophical Society in 1768,

By 1770, the number of Solitary had dropped to 42, and there were 99 baptized members among the Householders. However, the commune was by no means ready to disband. Peter Miller kept the Ephrata printing press busy for the next twenty-five years, producing Beissel's works and a detailed history of the commune along with books and pamphlets for the Mennonites, Dunkers, and the Pennsylvania government.

As war approached, pacifists came to be viewed with suspicion and were often accused of being disloyal to the Revolution. In Pennsylvania, pacifists still comprised a quarter or more of the population, and Miller was a prominent spokesman for their cause. On October 10, 1776, he wrote,

' We ought to abhor all War, for to subject all Men without Distinction to the Civil Law, is injurious to the Christian Cause, as some may be under a higher Magistrate, and also consequently emancipated from the civil Government....In the present struggle there is a third Party, who observe a strict Neutrality ' [1, p. 163] .

Although Ephrata maintained a neutral stance during the Revolution, it did not remain untouched by the ravages of war. On September 11, 1777, the continental army suffered great losses at the Battle of Brandywine, with three hundred dead, six hundred wounded, and another four hundred taken prisoner. General Washington had about five hundred of the wounded transported seventy miles to Ephrata, forcing the commune to become a temporary hospital. Ephrata mobilized all its resources to care for the soldiers during that fall and winter. While Washington's army suffered through the harsh winter at Valley Forge, disease and infection swept through the hospice at Ephrata, killing about 150 of the soldiers and ten of the Ephrathites. After the soldiers left, two of the commune's finest buildings had to be burned down to stop the spread of disease.

To add insult to injury, Washington also raided Ephrata's paper supply when the army ran short of paper for shot wadding. The two wagonloads of paper taken from the commune included the remaining unbound pages from the Martyrs' Mirror. Ironically, paper bearing the stories of the pacifist martyrs was used to aid the cause of war.

The selfless Christian love displayed by the Brothers and Sisters at Ephrata was gratefully recalled by one of the soldiers who survived that winter. This unnamed officer wrote,

' I came among this people by accident, but I left them with regret....They all acted the part of the Good Samaritan to me, for which I hope to be ever grateful; and while experiencing the benefits of their kindnesses and attentions...and listening to the words of hope and pity with which they consoled the poor sufferers, is it strange that...their uncouth garments appeared more beautiful in my eyes than ever did the richest robes of fashion...? Until I entered the walls of Ephrata, I had no idea of pure and practical Christianity. Not that I was ignorant of the forms, or even the doctrines of religion. I knew it in theory before; I saw it in practice then' [1, pp. 165-166].

By this time, the commune's most productive years had passed, but the characters of the aging Ephrathites had been strengthened and perfected by many years of faithful and disciplined service and guided by Peter Miller's fine example. Miller's integrity is illustrated by one more story from the time of the war. Near Ephrata lived a tavern keeper named Michael Widman who sometimes harassed, and once even assaulted, Miller. Widman was a vocal Tory, and he was eventually arrested for treason and sentenced to be hanged. Instead of celebrating his enemy's demise, Peter Miller walked the sixty miles to Valley Forge through snow to intercede with George Washington on Widman's behalf. Moved by Miller's example, General Washington granted a pardon, and Miller is said to have walked an additional fifteen miles to deliver the pardon just in time to save Widman from execution.

Peter Miller guided the commune until his death on September 25, 1796. The gentle scholar lacked Beissel's charisma but may have contributed even more to Ephrata's legacy.

By the time of Miller's death, only a vestige of the commune remained. The few remaining Solitary stayed together for the remainder of their lives, with the last celibate members dying in 1813. Thereafter the congregation of Householders, who constituted the German Seventh Day Baptist Church, continued to worship at Ephrata for many years. In 1823, Ephrata hosted a national meeting of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference.

As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more of the young people of the congregation moved west. The group dwindled in size, finally dissolving in 1934. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission acquired the site in 1941 and then carried out a restoration program that was completed in 1968. Information about the current museum at the site can be found at

The Snow Hill Commune

Some aspects of Ephrata's culture were preserved for a time at a smaller commune near Quincy, Pennsylvania, which was founded by a family named Schneeberger ('Snow Hill' in English) in 1798. The Snow Hill story begins with Barbara Karper, who as a young girl in the 1760s became a disciple of Conrad Beissel after Beissel's visits to George Adam Martin's Antietam Creek congregation. In about 1770, Karper married Andreas Schneeberger (anglicized to Andrew Snowberger) and soon persuaded him to adopt her Sabbatarian customs. After Martin moved west in 1772, Peter Miller kept in contact with the congregation and later ordained Andrew Snowberger to the ministry. The press at Ephrata occasionally published hymns and poems written by the Snowbergers and others in the group.

Snowberger was more of a doer than an evangelist, and he was apparently relieved when Peter Lehman arrived to pastor the group in the late 1780s. Lehman, a young man of Amish or Mennonite background, was a hermit in the Allegheny Mountains before he heard about Ephrata and came in contact with Peter Miller. At about the time of Miller's death, Lehman began urging the congregation to adopt a celibate lifestyle like that of the Ephrathites. The Snowbergers' three grown children accepted this message and were able to convince their parents to join them. The Snow Hill commune began with these five Snowberger family members in 1798.

The commune never grew very large in numbers. There were five Brothers and ten Sisters in 1830 and about twice that many in 1845. Even so, the group prospered, and its diverse economic activities included the production and sale of grain, textiles, barrels, brooms, furniture, and pottery. The Ephrata tradition of choral singing was carried on at Snow Hill, as was the art of illuminating manuscripts in Fraktur style.

However, the extreme asceticism of Ephrata was not imitated at Snow Hill. Instead, long, comfortable lives of moderation were the norm. The members lived and ate together in a brick common house that was originally built in 1814. After three large additions were made to the building between 1835 and 1843, the double-winged structure reached a total length of 150 feet.

In its isolated rural location, Snow Hill generally seems to have had little effect on the surrounding area. Of those who knew about it, some mistook it for a Catholic nunnery. As at Ephrata, the commune provided generous hospitality to travellers passing by. One notable outreach effort occurred in 1845-1847, when money and flour were sent to victims of the Irish famine.

Snow Hill did have one area of conflict with the outside world. Sunday labor was still illegal in Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century, and for some time the commune paid fines for violating state law. In 1846, the congregation appealed unsuccessfully to the state legislature for relief. The judiciary was also uncooperative. When Jacob Specht of Snow Hill refused to pay his fine in 1846, he was defended by the renowned Thaddeus Stevens but lost his case before the state supreme court. Then in 1848, some in the congregation lost property and others were thrown in jail over the issue. After that, however, public opinion seems to have influenced authorities to overlook further violations of the Sunday labor law.

During the Civil War, battles raged not far from Snow Hill. For example, the commune was only about thirty miles from Gettysburg. Strangely, though, little is known about the effects of the war on the group.

As the century went on, the congregation's interest in carrying on the traditions of Ephrata waned. By 1872, only eight Brothers and eight Sisters remained in the commune. The society was disbanded in March 1889 with the closing of the common dining room. The last of the Sisters, Elizabeth Fyock, died in 1894 at age 83; while the last of the Brothers, Obed Snowberger, died a year later at age 72.


At the turn of the twentieth century, two groups of German Seventh Day Baptists remained-the lay congregation at Snow Hill and a sister congregation in Salemville. As we enter the twenty- first century, the Salemville group is thriving under the able leadership of pastor Paul Manuel, while only a few members remain in the Snow Hill area. The old common house at Snow Hill, which had fallen into disrepair, has recently undergone some renovations.

There are few traces of Ephrata in the lives of today's German Seventh Day Baptists. In faith and practice, they closely resemble other Baptist Brethren except for their day of worship. Nevertheless, one connection with Ephrata remains: Twice a year, in the spring and fall, they remember their roots by journeying east to Ephrata to hold a love feast (a special Communion meal) in the meeting hall of the restored Cloister.

The Ephrata story is in some ways an anomaly in Sabbatarian history. In particular, I suspect that many readers of this article will find Conrad Beissel's emphasis on celibacy and asceticism to be at best unnecessary and at worst unbalanced and unbiblical. But despite Ephrata's excesses and eccentricities, there is much to admire in its history. Visitors to the Cloister today receive a reminder of what can be accomplished when disciples of Jesus Christ join together, in the spirit of the New Testament Church, to dedicate their lives to God's service.

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to my friend John Lauver, who sparked my original interest in Ephrata's story and provided helpful information for this article.


  1. E.G. Alderfer, The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1985.

  2. Bryan W. Ball, The English Connection: the Puritan Roots of Seventh-day Adventist Belief, J. Clarke, Cambridge, England, 1981.

  3. Donald F. Durnbaugh, ``The Flowering of Pietism in the Garden of America,'' Christian History, Issue 10, 1986.

  4. Julius Friedrich Sachse, The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, 1708-1800: A Critical and Legendary History of the Ephrata Cloister and the Dunkers, 2 volumes, Philadelphia, 1899-1900; reprinted by AMS Press, New York, 1971.

  5. Don A. Sanford, A Choosing People: The History of the Seventh Day Baptists, Broadman Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1992.

  6. Denise A. Seachrist, Snow Hill and the German Seventh-Day Baptists : heirs to the musical traditions of Conrad Beissel's Ephrata Cloister, Ph.D. Dissertation, Kent State University, 1993.


1 More information on these denominations is available at

Written by: Doug Ward.   
Mr. Ward is a a mathematics professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
He edits a zine called "Grace and Knowledge" which is on the Web at