From Hermitage to Celibate Village — The Ephrata Cloister

Recently, we took a short Saturday trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to visit a historic site that Sarah has been wanting to see for years: the Ephrata Cloister. We think it’s likely that most of our readers are not familiar with this place, so it seems appropriate to include it in our Profiles of Celibates series. We’re including some photos from our visit within the post itself, but not all. You can see additional photos on our Facebook page.

Most of the time when Christians think of celibacy, Catholic priests and Catholic and Orthodox monastics come to mind first. Speaking comparatively, there aren’t many current or historic examples of Protestant celibacy. We decided to write about the Ephrata Cloister not only because it was a fascinating movement, but also because it was a Protestant movement. We’ve received many questions from Protestant readers about whether any celibate communities have arisen from within their traditions. As we continue this series, we plan to offer (insofar as it is possible) a balance of posts on Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians who have committed to celibacy either temporarily or perpetually.

During our visit to the Ephrata Cloister, we learned that the term “cloister” was foisted upon the community by outsiders who perceived the brothers and sisters as living like Catholic monastics. To the people who lived there, it was simply the town of Ephrata — named for Ephrath, the biblical site where the matriarch Rachel died during childbirth. Ephrata was founded by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), a German Pietist who had originally intended to create a hermitage for himself rather than a village of vowed celibates. Beissel had been forced to leave Germany for his involvement with non-state-sanctioned religious groups. After immigrating to Pennsylvania but before experiencing a call to celibacy and solitude, he became a leader in the congregation of Conestoga Brethren. During this time, he attracted a number of followers due to his vibrant personality and unusual theological ideas (i.e. Saturday, not Sunday, is when the Sabbath should be observed). In 1732 as he resigned from leadership in the Brethren congregation and sought a quiet place to find unity with God, a number of his former followers desired to continue under his leadership and the village of Ephrata was born.

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The founders of Ephrata believed that the most complete union with God was a marriage of sorts. Giving one’s entire life over to God required abandoning any possibility of earthly marriage. To Beissel’s understanding, God’s wrath was his masculine aspect and God’s gentle mercy was his feminine aspect. Because both masculine and feminine could be found within God, men at Ephrata committed their lives in marriage to Sophia (Divine Wisdom) and women became brides of Christ. They adopted a rigorous rule of living that involved several hours of work, even more time in prayer, and one vegetarian or vegan meal per day. Brothers and sisters slept on wooden beds and awakened in the middle of the night to pray and watch for Christ’s coming. Sabbath worship took place in the community’s meetinghouse on Saturdays with the brothers and sisters physically separated while in the same room. Exceptions to the schedule were made for the community’s Love Feast which involved a grand banquet, reception of communion, and the washing of feet. Brothers and sisters donned white robes to hide the curves of their bodies and to symbolize their heavenly marriages.

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Approximately 80 celibate members resided at Ephrata, and eventually the village grew to include more than twice as many non-celibate members who lived in their own family farmhouses surrounding the core community of brothers and sisters. Families at Ephrata worked and worshipped alongside celibate members, often providing them with food and other necessary resources. Celibate members operated a German school for the local children. The dominant focus areas of work at Ephrata were music and writing. While manual labor played a role in the community’s daily life, members were trained to be singers, calligraphers, printers, and bookbinders. Ephrata left as its legacy an extensive collection of musical compositions, which a volunteer choir continues to sing for the public today.

When Beissel reposed in 1768 and Peter Miller assumed leadership, the celibate community at Ephrata began to decline rapidly. Beissel’s charismatic personality had been its driving force for years, and with less interested in celibacy amongst young men and women who had been educated by the brothers and sisters, Ephrata’s original vision for seeking unity with God in solitude lost its popularity. The last celibate member reposed in 1813, after which the village’s remaining residents became the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. The last non-celibate resident of the Ephrata Cloister — Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher — reposed in 2008.

Visiting the Ephrata Cloister gave us a window into a different kind of celibate life. We found it fascinating how Beissel used Genesis 1 to garner support for celibacy. In his theology, God intended to create humans with a perfect balance of male and female. Achieving this balance after the Fall required intense effort to discipline the body and the mind. Every dimension of the ascetical effort hinged upon integrating the masculine and the feminine. At Ephrata, it was essential to integrate one’s sexuality fully in order to balance masculine and feminine rather than attempt to repress all sexual desires. People interested in cultivating a celibate vocation might find some of Ephrata’s practices for honoring the masculine and feminine within as a helpful frame for integrating, rather than repressing, one’s sexuality. The daily disciplines of the Ephrata Cloister at its height were impressively demanding and reminded us of many other monastic communities we’ve visited. We have found ourselves musing about the connections between discipling the body and fully integrating one’s sexuality, and this topic might be helpful for others pursuing celibacy to consider.

We were intrigued by how the Ephrata Cloister blossomed as an artistic community. Several celibate members became skilled at writing Fraktur, preparing a number of texts such as this decorative wall hanging.

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Those who had taken on Ephrata’s monastic life saw their vocations blossoming into art. The depth of detail and care in Ephrata’s creative endeavors bears witness to one of many possibilities for how celibates can love and serve the world differently. We were amazed to learn that some Ephrata hymns consist of over 200 verses offered to God in witness to his work within the hearts of the community. Even 200 years after the last celibate member of the Ephrata community reposed, the artistic legacy of Ephrata continues. As we reflected on the art at Ephrata Cloister, we wondered what aspects of our own celibate vocation might have a broader impact. How might our commitments to vulnerability, hospitality, and a shared spiritual life bear fruit that reflects God’s glory?

We found our trip to Ephrata to be incredibly refreshing and have enjoyed talking about the visit together and with friends. We’re eager to continue the conversation with all of our readers in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “From Hermitage to Celibate Village — The Ephrata Cloister

  1. Thank you for your blog – this post in particular was fascinating to me, since I had always assumed that “the celibacy thing” existed completely outside of the Protestant tradition.

    • A lot of people think that, and it’s understandable because the majority of celibate movements have developed within the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. We have some other Protestant examples on our list for future posts, and we hope those will benefit readers considering celibacy from Protestant perspectives.

    • I think I know of the sisters to whom you are referring. I referenced them in our very first post in this series near the beginning of our time blogging. They’re a fascinating group! -Sarah

  2. Is there any connection between the Ephrata community and the Shakers?
    Also, I’m not sure how Protestant you consider the Episcopal church but there is a long tradition of celibacy of various kinds in that tradition.

    • There’s no connection between those two communities. The Shakers were English in origin. We do have the Shakers on our list to write about in the future. The only thing remotely like a vacation my family was able to take when I was growing up was a weekend trip to a historic Shaker village in Kentucky. That’s one of my favorite memories from childhood.

      Yes, we also plan to write about one or more Episcopal or Anglican monastic communities. We haven’t selected which ones yet, but are open to suggestions. It may be a few months before we get to them, but we will.

      Sarah

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