Life at the Ephrata Cloister

They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide.

In my last post, The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America, I discussed an interesting compendium of music from 1746 that is currently housed in the Library of Congress. This music was originally created at the Ephrata Cloister in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. These Germanic hymns are remarkable in their simplicity, and are very haunting and beautiful if you have a chance to hear them performed. (More details on how to do so can be found in that post.)

Deep within the pages of this beautifully illuminated codex, a scholar named Chris Herbert discovered that several of the compositions were attributed to three of the sisters who led celibate lives as part of the religious commune. These are now considered to be the first known written compositions by women in what is now America.

I wish we knew more about Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura. Currently it seems that all we know was that they lived to be about 79, 67 and 79 respectively, at a time when most women would consider themselves lucky to make it into their 40’s. Life in 18th century America tended to be unhygienic, brutish and short.

Think about it. According to this article, today, about 15 American women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s outrageous and says much about our broken health care system in this country. But in the 1700’s, when it wasn’t uncommon for women to have 8 children, the death rate was more like 1200 women per 100,000 live births. And by the last half of that century, long before reliable birth control, about one in three girls were already pregnant when they walked down the aisle.

Those are some scary statistics. Women must have felt like they had little choice but to play Russian Roulette with their ovaries. Most of them could expect to stare mortality in the eye several times throght the course of their lives. Under those circumstances, joining a celibate commune would be (sorry) a Godsend.

Joining the Ephrata community afforded a woman the opportunity to not have to focus on mere survival as most people did. Not only was the average woman raising a large family, she was preparing meals from scratch, making her own clothing, soap and candles, and fetching water for the laundry she had to do by hand. And if she found herself, by some misfortune, to be left as the only surviving parent, there were scant opportunities for her to make money. The only occupations that were common for white women back then were domestic service, childcare, gardening, and household production in the forms that I described above. (I specify white women because slavery was still very much in effect at the time and that’s another subject entirely. Suffice it to say that the lives of most black women were, at the very least, a thousand times more brutal.)

To make matters worse, that era was also plagued with smallpox, typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, and measles. Often these maladies were brought on by unsanitary living conditions and made even more deadly by a dearth of formally educated medical professionals, especially outside of the larger cities.        

Clearly, most colonial women didn’t have time to consider composing music or producing art of any kind. It wouldn’t even have been on their radar. But the sisters who lived at Ephrata Cloister led different lives, indeed. Celibacy alone afforded those women a longevity that other women merely dreamed of. A longer lifespan meant more years to be musically and artistically creative. It makes me wonder whether all the sisters in this community were genuinely pious. This life sounds like a logical choice if you’re a woman living in that era and you want more out of life.

But that’s not to say that the sister’s lives were easy. They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide, and they used wooden pillows. They slept in two 3 hour shifts per night, and usually ate one small vegetarian meal per day, often consisting of roots, greens, fresh baked bread and water. Witness reports say that the celibate sisters and brothers all looked thin and pale, but they appeared healthy.

The sanitation at the cloister was poor at best, and they were not able to bathe often. The white robes that they wore must have glowed in stark contrast to their dirty state. And yet I imagine those robes were a nightmare to keep clean as well.

When Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura and their fellow celibates were not composing, creating art, or praying, the sisters would spin thread, often to be woven into linen by the men at the fulling mill, in order to produce the cloth needed for the robes. They would also copy music and tend gardens. Brothers would run the water-powered saw mill, the grain mill, the paper mill, and the oil mill that extracted natural oils from seeds or oil rich vegetables. The brothers also, of course, built all the structures in the commune.

Their religious philosophies seem to have been rather unique. They believed that God had a male, wrathful side, embodied by Christ, but also a female side that was pure love and wisdom, and was embodied by someone called Sophia. The brothers and sisters were married to one side or the other, and therefore were expected to remain faithful to that spouse. Hence the celibacy.

The community’s collection of books subscribed to a wide range of ideas, including alchemy and astrology.  It seems that members of the community were not strictly bound to a rigidly defined creed. Some in the community believed in sacred visions, and that all parts of nature are intimately interconnected. One book on alchemy describes how to generate life from the lifeless. They also read about Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, the Harmony Society, Hermeticism and Kabbalah.

You can peek inside some of their books on the Historic Ephrata Cloister’s website. One book, called The Golden Chain of Homer, includes a page in an unknown language.

The community also highly prized a book that opined that although the earth was round, its basic nature was cubic, and at its center lies the holy point of rest, also known as New Jerusalem. They also had a well-illustrated book that described the process of spiritual transformation on the body. Clearly these people were dedicated to seeking out the proper spiritual path for themselves, by any means necessary.

It appears that some members also practiced powwowing, which originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s a folk magic tradition that includes aspects of folk religion and healing charms. (I was fascinated to learn that the term abracadabra is associated with powwowing.)

In this article about Chris Herbert’s discovery of the female composers in the cloister, he states that “Rules about worship changed frequently at Ephrata. At times devotees shaved their heads, at other times they slept only three hours a night. Treatises were written about what to eat in order to sing properly, and what to eat in general — no meat, no honey.”

The founder and spiritual leader of this community, Johann Conrad Beissel, seems to have been philosophically influenced by Radical Pietists and Mystics. He came to America from Germany in 1720 and was still forming his belief system when he was baptized by the Brethren-Anabaptists in 1724, but he eventually rejected the brethren when he decided that the Sabbath should fall on Saturday rather than Sunday. (Scandalous!)

By 1732 Beissel decided to move deeper into the Pennsylvania forest and become a hermit, stating that he had a distrust of organized churches. He wanted to lead a quiet life of contemplation, but friends who believed in his philosophies followed him and built homes near his. They called this place the Camp of the Solitary. Yet, oddly, many of them lived in shared dwellings.

Then came other followers who chose not to be celibate. They were called householders. They were couples who were farmers and craftsmen. They lived nearby, supported what became the cloister, and worshiped with the brothers and sisters, allowing them to have more time to compose and draw, and hold ceremonies that included the washing of feet.

When Beissel died in 1768, membership really started to decline. The last celibate member died in 1813. At its height, the community consisted of about 80 celibate men and women, and 200 non-celibate householders living on farms nearby. After 1813, the buildings that used to house celibate members were divided into apartments and rented to church members. The last surviving (non-celibate) resident of the cloister, Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher, died in 2008 at the age of 98. She apparently moved from the Ephrata area in 1927, but before that she had given tours of the now empty cloister.

Today, the historic Ephrata Cloister is maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and from the looks of it, they are doing a wonderful job. They certainly have a well-designed website that makes me long to visit the actual place someday. The information on this website has taught me much about Ephrata Cloister despite my distance. I lingered on its pages for hours. It includes a virtual tour, a well-made introductory video that is also played in the visitor center, and some interesting slide presentations (I particularly recommend the one called Hidden Knowledge at Ephrata) and if that ignites your interest, you can even attend a Virtual Ephrata Academy, which includes a dozen very fascinating lecture-length videos on a whole host of subjects related to the cloister in its heyday.

I am grateful that this cloister existed, especially for the sisters. It allowed them to lead fuller, healthier lives, and demonstrates that women of that era were just as creative as women are today. They simply needed the time and space to express themselves. That time and space, given to them in the form of that community, was a precious gift. We are all beneficiaries of that gift, because we can still hear their music, view their art, and walk around their community.

Other Sources:

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/common-diseases-18th-and-19th-century

https://clickamericana.com/topics/health-medicine/us-life-expectancy-in-the-1800s

https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/six-unbelievable-but-true-facts-about-colonial-life/

Travel vicariously through this blog. And while you’re at it, check out my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

One thought on “Life at the Ephrata Cloister

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: