Cover image for Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata By Jeff Bach

Voices of the Turtledoves

The Sacred World of Ephrata

Jeff Bach


$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02744-9

304 pages
6" × 9"
26 b&w illustrations/3 maps
Co-published with Pennsylvania German Society

Pennsylvania German History and Culture

Voices of the Turtledoves

The Sacred World of Ephrata

Jeff Bach

“Where numerous scholars failed in past centuries to write a definitive work about Ephrata Cloister during its peak years as an ethnic, religious, and cultural curiosity in America, Jeff Bach successfully articulates the context in which Ephrata was created and functioned. His research is grounded in thorough knowledge of the European religious thought, practice, and writing that heavily influenced Ephrata’s founder and spiritual leader, Conrad Beissel.”


  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects

Winner of the 2005 Outstanding Publication Award from the Communal Studies Association Winner of the 2004 Dale W. Brown Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies

Winner, 2004 Dale W. Brown Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies

Winner, 2005 Outstanding Publication, Communal Studies Association

Co-published with the Pennsylvania German Society/Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

The Ephrata Cloister was a community of radical Pietists founded by Georg Conrad Beissel (1691–1768), a charismatic mystic who had been a journeyman baker in Europe. In 1720 he and a few companions sought a new life in William Penn’s land of religious freedom, eventually settling on the banks of the Cocalico Creek in what is now Lancaster County. They called their community “Ephrata,” after the Hebrew name for the area around Bethlehem. Voices of the Turtledoves is a fascinating look at the sacred world that flourished at Ephrata.

In Voices of the Turtledoves, Jeff Bach is the first to draw extensively on Ephrata’s manuscript resources and on recent archaeological investigations to present an overarching look at the community. He concludes that the key to understanding all the various aspects of life at Ephrata—its architecture, manuscript art, and social organization—is the religious thought of Beissel and his co-leaders.

“Where numerous scholars failed in past centuries to write a definitive work about Ephrata Cloister during its peak years as an ethnic, religious, and cultural curiosity in America, Jeff Bach successfully articulates the context in which Ephrata was created and functioned. His research is grounded in thorough knowledge of the European religious thought, practice, and writing that heavily influenced Ephrata’s founder and spiritual leader, Conrad Beissel.”
“Bach uses the unique, mystical language of Ephrata to present a comprehensive view of this sacred community.”
“Bach (Bethany Theological Seminary) has mastered the primary sources—many are in German—and deciphered the religious language and images of Ephrata’s extensive devotional literature, letters, hymns, and art. The author’s narrow focus on interpreting the religious language of Ephata will limit interest in this monograph to advanced students and scholars.”
“Jeff Bach allows us to understand the ingredients of Ephrata’s theology and challenges us to explore how these particular Protestant Pietists fit into the religious smorgasbord that was colonial Pennsylvania. Voices of the Turtledoves answers many questions and raises still more.”
“No one, however, has set out the community’s history or illuminated its ideological basis and coherence nearly as well as Bach has. This book will be the standard work on the subject for decades to come, and it constitutes an important contribution to scholarship in American religious history and the history of intentional communities.”
“The virtues of Bach’s book are considerable; however, its chief value is in providing a solid intellectual history of the Ephratan experiment. Bach’s clear understanding of the tenets of mysticism and of Boehmist thought allows him to explain elements of Ephratan life and thought which would otherwise be unexplainable.”
“For the serious student of colonial Pennsylvania, the Brethren movement, communal societies, or Pietism in early America, Bach’s work is essential reading. The excellent bibliographical essay alone (pp. 197-217) makes it indispensable for academic libraries.”
“Bach’s book is a hard read, but not because he does not handle his subject deftly and with competence. Rather, as Beissel’s successor Peter Miller observed about the mystical language of Ephrata, ‘Those who speak it are hard to understand.’ Thanks to Bach, their voices (likened as they are to the cooing of turtledoves) become much more intelligible.”

Jeff Bach is Associate Professor of Brethren and Historical Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary. During the summer of 1995, he served as Scholar in Residence at the Ephrata Cloister.


List of Illustrations





1. The Religious Thought of Ephrata: Conrad Beissel

2. The Religious Thought of Ephrata: Other Writers

3. "Holy Church Practices": Ritual at Ephrata

4. Manly Virgins and Virginal Men: Gender at Ephrata

5. "God’s Holy Point of Rest": Ephrata’s Mystical Language in Space and Time

6. Roses in the Wilderness: Ephrata’s Manuscript Art

7. "Heavenly Magic": Hidden Knowledge at Ephrata


Bibliographical Essay




Georg Conrad Beissel (1691–1768),1 founder of the Ephrata

community, wrote to a friend in Heidelberg in the mideighteenth

century, "I wish in all my expressions to be

understood magically and mystically."2 A German immigrant,

Henry Ezechiel Sangmeister (1724–86), had arrived

at Ephrata a few years earlier, in the spring of 1748. Later

antagonistic to Beissel, Sangmeister recounted, "I committed

myself to his [Beissel’s] prayers at all times, but he used

a style of language that I could not understand."3 By 1762,

Peter Miller (1710–96), heir apparent to leadership at

Ephrata, wrote in a hymnal preface that there was at Ephrata

"a language among the people of God" that few speak anymore,

and "those who speak it are hard to understand."4

On first encountering Ephrata’s writings, readers often

puzzle over the mix of erotic and religious metaphors

abounding in the community’s voluminous devotional literature,

letters, hymns, and poetic texts. This book investigates

the eighteenth-century Sabbatarian monastic community at Ephrata through

their religious language and its European sources as the primary, but not sole,

avenue of interpretation. This book proposes that Conrad Beissel and others at

Ephrata used familiar elements from German Radical Pietism to create a language

and ritual practices to convey a mystical awareness of God. The concept

of a mystical awareness of God comes from Bernard McGinn’s definition of

mysticism as an anticipation and awareness of God’s immediate presence

among those seeking it. Part of the purpose for what may be called Ephrata’s

mystical language was to draw adherents into a linguistic labyrinth of delight

mingled with penitence. Beissel’s labyrinth invited followers to "lose" earthly

attachments in order to find God in what Beissel promoted as a foretaste of

paradise. While not all at Ephrata shared Beissel’s views, nor did all find God

or paradise at Ephrata, Beissel’s language so shaped the ways in which many

conducted their lives there that his mystical language is a key to interpreting

Ephrata. Many people at Ephrata sought to be united with Christ in mystical

union, like the turtledoves frequently found in pairs in Ephrata’s art. The writers

gave voice to Ephrata’s language for the quest of each soul to be joined to

Christ, like a pair of turtledoves.

The Ephrata community, or Ephrata Cloister, was called by its own members

der Lager der Einsamen, or Camp of the Solitaries. German-speaking contemporaries

often called them Beisselianer (Beisselites) or Siebentäger

(Sabbatarians). Their internal history, Chronicon Ephratense, published in

1786, is an important, but not always reliable, source of information about

them. The Chronicon was edited by Peter Miller under the pseudonym

Agrippa, and published in 1786, but was based on a manuscript chronicle

reportedly kept by Jacob Gaas, or Brother Lamech, who died in 1764. An

English translation by J. Max Hark, published in 1889, has made the chronicle

more accessible.5 The name Ephrata first appeared in print in 1736, in a

hymnal for the community.6 Beissel reportedly bestowed the name around

this time. Ephrata was a Protestant Sabbatarian community of Christian mystical

devotion and practice. With celibate orders for women and men and a

congregation of married families, known collectively as the "householders,"

the community flourished from about 1730 to about 1770. The community

began as Beissel became leader of a Brethren, or Dunker [Neu-Täufer] congregation

in Pennsylvania in 1724, then formally separated from them by rebaptizing

some of his followers in 1728. In 1732 he withdrew to the banks of

Cocalico Creek. Members soon followed, and there they built up a religious

community that peaked at about three to five hundred members and associates

around mid-century. In addition to building large monastic houses and

chapels, the community developed an important milling center and established

a printing press by 1745. They created the first examples in Pennsylvania

of the manuscript art known as Fraktur and printed the largest book

produced in colonial America. Beissel wrote the first treatise on music composition

produced in the colonies.

Because of these significant achievements in colonial America, the Ephrata

community has invited various interpretations. The relatively few who have

written about Ephrata have often defined the community either in light of

mysticism or as a sectarian group. The portrait of Ephrata provided here,

drawn from all major printed writings by its members as well as from manuscripts,

music books, and architectural works, focuses on the unique religious

language and ritual of this distinctive community, virtually unknown beyond

the circle of regional interest.

the problem of ephrata

Mysticism is a compelling approach to the study of Ephrata for several reasons.

Ephrata writers themselves identified their writings as "mystical," such

as Beissel’s Mystische und sehr geheyme Sprueche (1730), the Mistisches und Kirchliches

Zeuchnüß (1743), and Sangmeister’s Mystische Theologie (1819–20).

Those who deeply influenced Conrad Beissel, such as Jacob Boehme7 and

Johann Georg Gichtel,8 who published Boehme’s complete works, have been

described as mystics.

A working definition of the mystical element of Christianity, offered by

Bernard McGinn, is that part of its belief and practices that concerns the preparation

for, the consciousness of, and the reaction to what can be described as the

immediate or direct presence of God. Many writers emphasize religious experience

and union with God as the defining characteristics of mysticism.

Acknowledging the importance of the particular religions in which one discusses

mysticism, Bernard McGinn is one scholar who has allowed the possibility

of comparative studies of mystical elements among religions.9

"Mysticism" as a noun appeared in Christianity only in the seventeenth

century, in French as la mystique, as Michel de Certeau has shown.10 Without

defining mysticism as such, Certeau examined it through literary criticism.

He called it a discipline, "mystics," in which received language was used in a

new way. Certeau saw the new discipline emerging as the received tradition of

perceived religious and political unity, cosmological and religious order, fractured

in the early modern era.

According to Certeau, "mystics" as a discipline "had to determine its procedure

and define its object" as it charted a new verbal topography and new

procedures. While practitioners could counsel how to journey in the mystical

way, they could not define the journey’s object: the Divine Other. Certeau

believed that this impossibility doomed the discipline to die "of the question

from which it was formed." The mystic discipline disappeared at the close of

the seventeenth century as the Enlightenment ushered in a new assurance of

knowledge emptied of God. As Certeau admits, however, the "ghost" of mystical

discourse persisted in places where the Enlightenment’s triumph was

delayed. Ephrata was such a place.11

The contributions that McGinn and Certeau make to defining mysticism

advance the examination of Ephrata beyond two earlier efforts by John Jacoby

and F. Ernest Stoeffler. The earlier work, Jacoby’s Two Mystic Communities in

America, is a vague comparison of Ephrata with Oneida.12 Stoeffler’s Mysticism

in the German Devotional Literature of Colonial Pennsylvania sets Ephrata in context

with other religious groups and publications in colonial Pennsylvania. A

pioneering effort, Stoeffler’s work defined mysticism as "the total complex of

efforts which man has made and is making towards the immediate apprehension

of the divine, and whatever may be the results of this experience in daily

life." Stoeffler, however, applied this definition almost totally to mystical

experience.13 A few samples illustrate the importance of mystical expressions

as characteristic of Ephrata’s literature. Beissel wrote, "God is an incomprehensible

Nothing, and I am an incomprehensible ‘I.’" Those seeking God

will suffer "until all Being is dissolved into Being Nothing, and all

Something is dissolved into Nothing." Beissel explained, "So we live in his

[God’s] holy Being: his life is our life, and we have become in him, that we

are what we are."14 A devotion written probably by Sister Bernice (Maria

Heidt) counseled any seeking sister to direct herself singly and solely to

Christ. "First then can complete union happen with her holy husband, Jesus,

her heavenly bridegroom."15 These examples, and others to follow, show that

Ephrata authors created a mystical literature, and that inquiring about mysticism

at Ephrata can bear fruit in efforts to interpret the community and its


While the study of mysticism offers a fitting interpretive tool for Ephrata,

its members’ efforts to form a distinct community invite attention to the

sociological dimension of relationships with their neighbors. Ernst

Troeltsch’s typology of church, sect, and mystics, while formative for the

study of small, distinct religious groups, has limitations.16 Ephrata fits many

of his characteristics of a "sectarian" group. Yet their use of the vocabulary of

mysticism suggests that Ephrata is a hybrid in Troeltsch’s typology. Bryan

Wilson has tried to sharpen the sociological typology of sectarian groups, but

Ephrata’s literature, ritual, and material culture are too complex to fit neatly

within his precise categories.17

Nevertheless, Ephrata writers used the dichotomy of sect and church. They

turned "sect"in its pejorative sense on its head by applying it against the

Christian traditions established on the European continent. The community’s

confession of faith stated: "There is a difference between the Church and a

sect. A sect gives birth to itself from the will of a man and in general is conducted

under the same man, and is ruled with human understanding. The

Church may be compared to a woman; submission is characteristic of woman,

just as ruling is characteristic of a man."18

One obvious problem with defining a "sect" is the power behind those

doing the defining. Those who control the definition control the placement

of dissenters. The Ephrata community clearly conceived of themselves as

"Church." But their concept of "Church" differed radically from the religious

bodies that upheld European Christendom. Ephrata considered the two major

Protestant traditions to be sects, founded by two men, Martin Luther and

John Calvin. Beissel also considered Roman Catholicism a sect dominated by

male will.19 Thus Ephrata construed the meaning of "sect" in ways different

from the dominant Christian traditions of Europe, even as those traditions

saw groups like Ephrata as sects.

Bryan Wilson also holds that all sects presuppose varying responses to a

world that is seen as evil. Here he sets the sect not against a dominant church

but against the world, another common dichotomy in studies of sectarian

movements. Conrad Beissel saw the world as divided between two opposing

races (Geschlechte): "the children of God and the children of the course of this

world [Kinder dieses Weltlaufs]."20 Attending to Ephrata’s relationship with the

people around them adds a helpful comparative dimension to an interpretation

of Beissel’s group. In this book, references to Ephrata as a sectarian group

means a small group with a fairly specific identity, at times cohesive, at times

contentious, in distinction to yet never isolated from the people surrounding


This work focuses on the religious language of Conrad Beissel and colonial

Ephrata as one manifestation of Christian mysticism and on the European

sources of Beissel’s thought. At times the tools of theology, at times insights

from literary theory help to focus on the way Ephrata’s authors operated with

their unique language and set of rituals in their search for the presence of God.

Sociological considerations of the construction of a small group, or sect, in

distinction to dominant religious bodies and the wider culture, also help here

to put Ephrata in profile. The methodology of this work also draws on interdisciplinary

insights from the study of gender and in limited ways from the

study of architecture and folk art. No single methodology can say everything

about Ephrata; neither can this book. For present purposes, this book examines

colonial Ephrata as a community of mystical Christianity, whose unique language

for the search for the immediate presence of God influenced choices

about how its members organized their lives, their space, and their time.

historical overview

Georg Conrad Beissel was born March 1, 1691 in Eberbach, in the Electoral

Palatinate, the tenth child of a baker, Matthias Beusel (also spelled Beisel),

who died before Conrad’s birth. Matthias received the privilege of town baker

for three-year terms in 1683, 1686, and 1689. In 1683 the family rented living

quarters in the "town bakehouse behind the church." Matthias died September

19, 1690.21 Conrad’s mother, Anna Köbler Beusel, died May 28,

1699, when he was eight. Bedfast, five days before her death she received four

gulden from church alms because "the poverty of this widow and her children

is so great."22 Orphanhood and poverty are repeated themes in Beissel’s later


Upon the death of Matthias Beusel, his older brother, Johannes Beusel

(1627–1710), intervened on behalf of the family. Johannes was a mayor

(Schultheis) and Reformed schoolmaster in the nearby town of Strümpfelbrunn.

24 Johannes Beusel appealed to the Eberbach town council to permit

his son Justus to succeed Matthias Beusel as the town baker so that Matthias’s

widow and children could continue to live in their quarters. The council

appointed Justus, replacing the interim town baker, and Matthias’s family

apparently stayed on in their home.25 The aged uncle Johannes Beusel may

have influenced Conrad’s understanding of the Reformed faith.

Eberbach, on the Neckar, was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German

Nation, comprising more than 250 provinces and territories. Southwestern

Germany had not recovered from the sufferings of the Thirty Years’ War

(1618–48), which had effectively paralyzed population growth, economic

development, and social mobility for decades.26 Germany lacked the stimulation

that enabled many other European nations to recover from the war. Germany

had no ties to territories that could provide natural resources or serve as

export markets. Foreign investors shied away from Germany. Multiple

coinage, customs barriers, and a lack of an effective communication network

hindered Germany’s economic recovery.27

Agriculture suffered in Germany during these years of hardship. Generally

grain prices fell during most of the seventeenth century into the second quarter

of the eighteenth. Slow population growth in Germany tended to keep

demand for agricultural products low, while the calamities of war and bad

harvests reduced supplies. In the second half of the eighteenth century, population

grew, keeping pace with gains made in the amount of cultivated land

and yields. Thus the nutritional level of the general population remained

poor and even deteriorated in the second half of the eighteenth century.

When Beissel was born, the Electoral Palatinate suffered further from the

depredations of the Nine Years’ War (or War of the Grand Alliance),

1688–97. The war began after Louis XIV made a dynastic claim to the Electoral

Palatinate. Eventually German princes, the Dutch, the Austrian Habsburgs,

and finally the English and the Spanish joined in the Grand Alliance

to confine Louis. Both France and the Grand Alliance hired as many as thirty

thousand Swiss soldiers, who ended up fighting each other on different sides

of the war.

Louis XIV torched the Palatinate during his retreat across it in 1688. In

1693 the French burned Heidelberg and bombarded its castle. The winters of

1693–95 were particularly cold, reducing the food supply. When the Peace of

Rijswijk (1697) ended the war, political boundaries were left about where

they had been in 1679. Louis abandoned his claim to the Palatinate but kept

an eye out for the successor to Spain’s childless Habsburg king, Charles II.

When Charles II died in 1700, Louis supported the monarch’s last will,

which favored Louis’s grandson Philip of Anjou as successor to the Spanish

throne. Louis moved troops into the Spanish Netherlands in 1701, precipitating

the War of the Spanish Succession. The Dutch, English, Austrians, and

Prussians forged a new alliance against the Sun King. Once again the Palatinate

straddled Louis’s warpath. In 1703, first French, then English troops

afflicted the Palatinate. In 1707 the French pillaged the Palatinate, Württemberg,

and Baden again. Treaties in 1713–14 ended the war.28

As war tore the Electoral Palatinate repeatedly during these years, Conrad

Beissel grew into early adulthood. Although Ephrata’s internal history, the

Chronicon Ephratense, suggests that Conrad "led a sorry life" after his mother’s

death, Beissel himself wrote of a "godly youth" during which he strove for

"utmost purity." Elsewhere, however, he described himself as a "berry fallen

from the vine of Sodom."29 Even if he were interested in religion at an early

age, Beissel was surely also vulnerable to the temptations of youth.

Beissel was reportedly apprenticed as a youth to a baker, and supposedly he

also learned to fiddle. The Ephrata chronicle recounts time spent as a journeyman

in Strasbourg and in Mannheim. Beissel reportedly worked in

Mannheim for a baker named Kantebecker. When Beissel spurned the

romantic advances of his master’s wife, the young man was sent away.30 The

Chronicon’s suggestion that Beissel lived in Strasbourg and Mannheim after

his conversion is probably out of sequence.31 Sometime before 1715, Beissel

landed in Heidelberg as a journeyman for a baker named Prior. Beissel

thanked him thirty-eight years later for his efforts when Beissel left the city

under difficult conditions, perhaps even expulsion.32

The vast majority of Germans at this time were rural and poor, with varying

social patterns according to town and territory. At the bottom of the

social scale were cottagers and day workers, who subsisted from day to day.

The economic hardships of the eighteenth century swelled the ranks of these

poor. Just above them were the peasants, with varying amounts of land.

Those who could not subsist from their land often adopted a secondary occupation,

such as some kind of artisan work.33 The merchants who sold their

wares often instigated this cottage work, also known as the putting-out system.

34 A whole family might share aspects of the supplemental work, which

was often spinning and weaving. These rural artisans were outside guild

membership and regulations. Because they were always vulnerable to market

fluctuations, an economic crisis might force them to move. This combination

of artisan work and some agricultural work was not uncommon in southwestern

Germany in the early eighteenth century.

In the cities, guilds controlled much of the lives of artisans who attained

the rank of master of a trade. These households made up the urban lower class

(Kleinbürgertum). To these households also belonged journeymen and apprentices.

Guilds rigidly controlled admission of new members and competed for

political influence.This system maintained social stratification and economic

stagnation in German cities throughout much of the eighteenth century,

postponing the arrival of industrialization.35 These conditions shaped Conrad

Beissel’s childhood and early adulthood.

Beissel experienced a religious conversion in a Pietist group in Heidelberg

in 1715, according to his letters and the Chronicon.36 Pietism was a renewal

movement within Protestantism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,

in its German manifestation typically credited to Philipp Jakob Spener, who

introduced small-group meetings, collegia pietatis, for edification in his Frankfurt

congregation in 1670. Small-group meetings had already been used in

the Dutch Reformed renewal movement known as the nadere reformatie, or

further (or second) reformation. The nadere reformatie, like German Pietism in

general, sought a completion of the Reformation in moral improvement and

devotion to match the sixteenth-century reform of doctrine. A German

Reformed pastor, Theodor Undereyck, had introduced the use of small groups

in Mühlheim in 1665, unbeknownst to Spener.37 To the use of small groups

Spener added a renewed eschatology, "the hope of better times to come" (die

Hoffnung künftigen besseren Zeiten).38 Johannes Wallmann has named the small

groups and eschatology as the defining marks of Lutheran Pietism. Pietism

was characterized by a strong interest in ethical behavior and reliance on the

Bible. Some Pietist authors stressed an affective response to one’s awareness of

justification by faith. August Hermann Francke, who established the education

and charity center at Halle, popularized the idea that the struggle of

repentance (Bußkampf) was necessary before one could break through to an

awareness of forgiveness.39

A more mystically inclined member of Spener’s Frankfurt congregation,

Johann Jakob Schütz, embraced a more radical eschatological hope and more

separatist outlook. He eventually led a dissatisfied group out of Spener’s congregation;

they became known as the Saalhof circle.40 This was the beginning

of Radical Pietism, a strongly separatist wing of the Pietist movement.41 During

the 1690s, many Radical Pietists sharpened their eschatology to the point

of expecting Christ’s return in the new century. Many of these separatists

doubted that any faithful church could exist, and consequently some pursued

their faith outside of the churches of Christendom.42 Small Pietist groups,

whether in or outside the church, met for mutual encouragement with no

clergy present. Their efforts for renewal and their private meetings were

sometimes perceived as a threat to the established church system, and some

rulers suppressed them.

Pietism was part of a stream of religious renewal in Europe, responding to

the doctrinal precision of Protestant Orthodoxy and the triumph of the

Catholic reclamation in Europe, or Counter-Reformation. Ted Campbell has

called this stream of religious renewal in Catholicism and Protestantism a

"religion of the heart," emphasizing experiential faith and affective response

to it, as well as ethical improvement and outreach in mission and charity.

This renewal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spawned Pietism in

the Reformed tradition in the Netherlands and in the Lutheran faith in German

lands, Denmark, and Sweden, and contributed to the Evangelical Awakening

in Great Britain, with leaders such as George Whitefield and the

Wesleys. In Catholicism this "religion of the heart" found expression in

Jansenism, Quietism, and renewed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.43

This religious renewal flowed through the Baroque era, with its emphasis on

emotional response in art, architecture, and music.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Radical Pietism spread to the

Palatinate. In June 1701 in Lambsheim, near Mannheim, a day laborer

named Matthias Baumann (d. 1727) experienced religious visions over a fiveday

period. Baumann believed God commissioned him to preach repentance

before the impending final judgment.44 He stopped attending the Reformed

Church and worshiped with local Mennonites. After arrests in 1702 and

1706, Baumann emigrated to Pennsylvania and founded a small group, the

Neu-geboren (the Newborn) in the Oley Valley, in present-day Berks County.

Baumann reportedly visited Conrad Beissel some years later in the Conestoga

region, preaching sinless perfection. While Baumann expounded, Beissel told

him to smell his own excrement and see if that pertained to perfection.

Pietist activity in the Palatinate quickly heated up as itinerant laymen came

preaching repentance. The separatist Johann Georg Rosenbach preached in

1703 to about one hundred at a home in Heidelberg, and then in Mannheim.45

In 1706 the itinerant Radical Pietist Hochmann von Hochenau made a circuit

in the Palatinate, probably at the invitation of Alexander Mack. The son of a

wealthy miller and member of the Schriesheim town council, Mack had

already sold his interest in the family mill to his brother that year. Their father

died that summer.46 When a Schriesheim official broke up Hochmann’s

preaching service there in August 1706, the group scattered. Eleven of

Hochmann’s followers went to Zuzenhausen, near Heidelberg, where they

stayed with Hans Bechtold, a Mennonite, who also claimed to be a Pietist.47

Hochmann surfaced in Mannheim in September and was arrested there. The

punishment of forced labor on the city fortifications turned into open-air

preaching services that aroused sympathy among Mannheim citizens. Meanwhile,

Mack moved his family to Schwarzenau, a tiny village in Wittgenstein,

where the ruling family, known for Pietist sympathies, welcomed religious

dissenters. Hochmann had already preached the return of Christ in the spring

of 1700 in Berleburg, the seat of government for Wittgenstein.

Pietist activity continued in and around Heidelberg. On May 1, 1708, a

group of men were arrested in Schriesheim for holding unsupervised religious

meetings. One of them was Alexander Mack’s father-in-law, Johann Valentin

Kling, an elder in the Reformed parish and member of the town council.48

Another person in the group, Esbert Bender, was a wool spinner originally

from Herborn, recently a resident of Heidelberg. Bender later joined the Neu-

Täufer, then later moved to Ephrata.49 During questioning Kling named

among the friends of his group one Johann Adam Haller, former clerk of the

Reichskammer. Another friend was a baker from Frankenthal named Schatz,

who with his wife and her brother had fled the Palatinate after being arrested

for holding devotional meetings.50

Jacob Schatz, a native and master baker of Frankenthal, had experienced

"awakening" as a result of Hochmann’s preaching in 1707. Schatz later

recounted that "the pastors and guild leaders all together wanted to persecute"

those awakened by Hochmann. In 1708 Schatz and three others moved

to Düdelsheim, in the Marienborn region of Isenburg.51 Isenburg was also a

Reformed territory, its ruling family related by marriage to the ruling family

in Wittgenstein and somewhat hospitable to religious dissenters. Jacob

Schatz and his wife later gave Conrad Beissel lodging.

Some of Kling’s group were arrested again in 1709, this time with two

brothers, Johann Georg and Nicholaus Diehl. They named among their

friends a certain Johann Adam Haller, a student, and Anna Maria Pastoir,

wife of the Heidelberg professor Philipp Ludwig Pastoir, although she had

not attended their meetings.52 The Chronicon later named a Haller, the brothers

Diehl, and Mrs. Pastoir as members of the group in which Beissel experienced

conversion in 1715. Julius Sachse claimed without documentation that

Beissel’s Heidelberg Pietist circle was a Rosicrucian chapter.53 The unlikeliness

of this claim will become clear in Chapter 7.

Beissel’s Heidelberg friends probably knew the thought and perhaps the

writings of Jacob Boehme, the German visionary and spiritualist. The Haller

in their circle may be the Haller with whom Johann Georg Gichtel corresponded;

at least Ephrata’s chronicle identifies him as such. Gichtel published

Boehme’s full corpus of writings in Amsterdam and popularized Boehme to

Radical Pietists in Germany and to the Philadelphian Society. The Philadelphian

Society grew out of a network of readers of Boehme in England, under

the leadership of Jane Leade. The German branch of the Philadelphian Society

similarly grew from among Boehme’s readership. Johann Wilhelm

Petersen and his wife, Eleanora von Merlau Petersen, a member of the Saalhof

separatists in Frankfurt, were leaders of the Philadelphian group in Germany.

Publications by Leade and her associates John Pordage and Thomas Bromley

were quickly translated into German and printed on the continent. The two

branches carried on a lively correspondence.54 Gichtel was one of many important

links between them. It is probable that Beissel’s Pietist circle in Heidelberg

knew Boehme’s thought and had some correspondence with other


While working as a baker with Prior in Heidelberg, Beissel allegedly

plunged into "mathematics,"55 which may have included the numerology

important in his 1728 book, Mystyrion Anomias. Numerology figured in the

works of Radical Pietists such as Johann Jacob Zimmermann (1634–94) and

Christian cabbalists such as Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636–89). Both

men influenced Johannes Kelpius (1670–1708), who led a group of hermits

to Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1694. Later Beissel claimed that he immigrated

to Pennsylvania partly to join the Kelpius community. In addition,

the former Reformed minister and professor Heinrich Horch sought to use

numerology to interpret symbolic numbers in the Bible and predict Christ’s


In Heidelberg, Beissel encountered legal trouble for his religious activity.

Conflict within the bakers’ guild may have contributed to his troubles, perhaps

leading to arrest. His final sermon in Geistliche Reden claimed explicitly

that he was expelled from the Palatinate. His letters indicate that he must

have left Heidelberg around 1718. Beissel remembered the Palatinate with

both love and loathing. He referred to his departure as his "orphanhood," his

loss of his fatherland compounding the bitter grief of losing his parents. Yet

he also prophesied its utter destruction for rejecting him.57

Beissel fled from Heidelberg to Düdelsheim in the Marienborn area of

Isenburg (Figure 1) and found refuge with Jacob Schatz, the baker originally

from Frankenthal. By the time Beissel arrived, Schatz had associated with the

Community of True Inspiration and hosted meetings in his home. The Inspirationists

had arisen in 1714 and were formally organized in 1715 over a controversy

about false versus true inspiration. Influenced by the French

Prophets, the Inspirationists believed that the Holy Spirit gave them direct

revelations. One of their number, the famous physician Dr. Johann Samuel

Carl, reportedly treated Beissel in Marienborn during a severe illness. Beissel

visited their services, but he was moved from the adult gatherings to the children’s

meetings when two young women became disturbed by his presence.

He withdrew from the Inspirationists and reportedly lived for a time with

Georg Stieffel. Here Beissel worked as a wool spinner and received charity

from a nobleman, Junkerroth.58

Some writers have mistakenly followed Julius Sachse’s claim that Beissel

went to Schwarzenau and may have met Alexander Mack. This is unlikely,

because the account of Mack’s meeting with Beissel in 1730 in Pennsylvania

indicates that Mack did not recognize Beissel.59 They almost surely would

have met had Beissel lived in Schwarzenau before Mack left there in 1719.

Also, Beissel would not have met the Neu-Täufer in Marienborn. The entire

Dunker group there was expelled in 1715 for baptizing adults. Beissel arrived

in Düdelsheim a few years later. While he probably did not know the Neu-

Täufer personally in Europe, he surely knew about them.

Beissel’s reasons for emigrating to America in 1720 are still not completely

known. He may have sought simply to escape his abject poverty, or

perhaps to join a group of hermits led by Johannes Kelpius, as the Chronicon

reported. The same volume claimed that two of Beissel’s friends, Georg Stieffel

and Jacob Stuntz, persuaded him to emigrate with them.60 The chronicle

also claimed that some tried to dissuade Beissel from emigrating. Dr. Samuel

Carl allegedly encouraged Beissel to stay and maintain important friendships,

but Beissel persisted.

Political events in the Palatinate may have convinced him that confessional

chaos was about to break out again. Prince Elector Carl Philip succeeded his

childless brother, Johann Wilhelm, in 1716, continuing the Roman Catholic

Pfalz-Neuburg family line. Carl Philip recalled the Heidelberg Catechism

because of its condemnation of the mass. In 1719 he claimed the Holy Spirit

Church of Heidelberg for his court church, despite the settlement of 1648

allowing Reformed and Catholics to share it. The prince elector ordered the

removal of an interior wall dividing the worship space and sent the Reformed

congregation elsewhere. Protestant rulers reacted so strongly that, as Reginald

Ward has noted, for a moment in 1719 many Protestants thought they

perched on the brink of another disastrous religious war.61 This situation may

have contributed to Beissel’s decision to leave Europe permanently.

Conrad Beissel reportedly sailed with four friends: Georg Stieffel, Jacob

Stuntz, Simon König, and Hennrich von Bebern. Stuntz reportedly paid

Beissel’s passage. Beissel arrived in Boston in October 1720, on the ship Elizabeth

and Hannah, and then traveled to Philadelphia. The hermit community

of Johannes Kelpius (1673–ca. 1708) near Germantown had disbanded, but

Beissel imbibed the views of a few surviving members, such as Conrad

Matthäi. Meanwhile Beissel apprenticed himself for a year to a weaver, Peter

Becker (1687–1758), in Germantown. Becker was a native of Düdelsheim,

where Beissel had lived with Jacob Schatz. Becker was baptized by the Neu-

Täufer in 1714. Upon their expulsion in 1715, he went with many others to

Krefeld. After conflicts within the congregation there, a group emigrated to

Pennsylvania in 1719, with Becker as a leader.62 However, they did not

resume worship together in Pennsylvania until 1723.

Beissel and his friends followed a stream of immigrants from southwest Germany

and Switzerland that began in 1683 and swelled dramatically in the

decades after his arrival in Pennsylvania. Aaron Fogelman has identified three

phases of German immigration to the colonies, based primarily on motivation

for leaving. From 1683 to 1709, primarily religious repression drove a few hundred

to emigrate. Between 1709 and 1714, the British crown actively recruited

German and Swiss immigrants to help produce naval stores. Poor harvests after

the harsh winter of 1709 in the Palatinate heightened the lure of the new land.

Religious issues remained a factor for a minority of the few thousand emigrants

in this period. The third period, 1717–75, saw by far the largest outpouring of

Germans and Swiss. A few still fled religious hardship, but the overwhelming

majority of the some 80,000 in this third wave sought better economic conditions.

Pennsylvania, with its religious toleration, drew the majority of Germanic

immigrants, although a large concentration settled in New York’s

Hudson Valley.63 Beissel arrived in1720, when Pennsylvania’s non-native population

numbered perhaps 100,000, about a third of them of Germanic origin.

By 1730, about 4,000 African slaves were held in Pennsylvania.64

While the large majority of the Germanic immigrants in Pennsylvania

belonged to Lutheran or Reformed churches, a small but significant minority

adhered to one of about a dozen dissenting sectarian groups. The first German

settlers, a group of Mennonites turned Quakers, mostly from Krefeld,

had established Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia, in 1683. The

Kelpius group arrived in 1694 and set up a short-lived separatist community

on Wissahickon Creek.65 More Mennonites arrived, followed by Dunkers in

1719, then Schwenckfelders in 1734 and Moravians in 1741. Other small

groups were also represented, such as the Inspirationists, the New Born of

Oley, and a group in Conestoga known as New-Mooners. When Beissel came

to Pennsylvania, a few hundred Mennonites and maybe fewer than fifty

Dunkers represented the sectarian people.66 Other separatists found in Pennsylvania

freedom to abstain from joining any religious organization. A severe

shortage of clergy helped the dissenters’ situation: only four ministers were

available to serve twenty-six German Reformed congregations and three

Lutheran clergymen for twenty-seven congregations in 1740.67

Beissel’s decision to leave Germany reflected the mixture of motives that

drove many people to emigrate after 1717. Some had experienced difficulties

over religion. Many had chafed under the limitations of economic stagnation

and social rigidity in Germany. Some immigrants, including many at

Ephrata, had been displaced at least once before they moved to Pennsylvania.

Beissel, like some Radical Pietists, was a poor artisan who probably had to

apprentice himself for survival upon his arrival. In place of the uncertainties

of both Europe and the frontier, the Ephrata community eventually offered to

newly arriving immigrants food, assistance with shelter, and social fellowship

in a language of the old country. The motifs of homelessness, orphanhood,

and pilgrimage permeate Ephrata’s spirituality. Beissel often called himself

one "who possesses nothing" and "on pilgrimage to silent eternity." These

phrases reflect the social conditions that he and some followers experienced.68

After one year with Becker, Beissel moved to Conestoga. This region,

drained by Conestoga Creek, was sparsely settled by Swiss and German

Mennonites and other Protestants.69 Beissel lived somewhat as a hermit, at

first sharing a household on Mill Creek (Mühlbach) with Jacob Stuntz.70 Later

Stieffel joined them, as did a young man from Holland, Isaac von Bebern,

probably related to the Hennrich von Bebern who emigrated with Beissel,

Stuntz, and Stieffel.

In Conestoga, Beissel encountered small religious groups, some familiar,

some perhaps new. Bebern, related to a Mennonite-Quaker family among the

first settlers in Germantown, took Beissel in 1722 to Bohemia Manor, the

fading remnant of a community of followers of Jean de Labadie in northern

Maryland. Bebern had relatives there.71 Upon their return, Michael Wohlfahrt

(1687–1741), a wandering Radical Pietist originally from Memel, on the

Baltic (now Klaipeda, Lithuania), visited them. Thus began a relationship

that later would bring Wohlfahrt back as a leader in Beissel’s congregation.

The household on Mill Creek broke up in 1723 after Michael Wohlfahrt

left for the Carolinas. Stuntz sold the cabin to recoup Conrad’s transatlantic

fare. Alone again, Beissel moved about a mile away to a place known as

Swede’s Spring. Soon Wohlfahrt rejoined him. Years later, in a letter to a

friend in Mannheim, Beissel remembered thinking that in this period of relative

solitude he had triumphed "in the quiet of the spirit, separate from all

men, to serve my God in his holy temple."72

In the autumns of 1722 and 1723 the Neu-Täufer, or Dunkers, renewed their

fellowship through visitations led by Peter Becker. The Chronicon credited Beissel

for this "awakening."73 On Christmas Day, 1723, Peter Becker baptized

eight people in Wissahickon Creek in Germantown and led a love feast that

evening. Evangelizing and worship continued in 1724 in the backcountry. In

November they organized what became the Coventry congregation near present-

day Pottstown. On November 12, 1724, Becker preached in Conestoga.

Five persons requested baptism. A sixth came forward as Becker administered

the rite, and Beissel stepped up as the seventh and last candidate.74

Thus at the age of thirty-three Conrad Beissel received baptism among the

Neu-Täufer. He brought with him the Radical Pietist longing for spiritual

love among believers. He had drunk from springs of Boehmist thought in

Heidelberg, mingled with Inspirationists, the loosely knit Philadelphians,

the Dunker preacher Becker, adherents of Kelpius, the fading Labadists,

and the Mennonites. Yet he also held the separatist distrust in organized religious

groups. Many groups influenced Beissel, but he never embraced any

fully. This unresolved tension ran through Beissel’s career and the Ephrata


The new little congregation at Conestoga chose him as their leader. Apparently

Beissel already enjoyed positive regard in the area. Even a detractor such

as Ezechiel Sangmeister reported years later that Conrad Beissel was greatly

loved and admired among the sectarian people in Conestoga between 1721

and 1724.75 Beissel’s reputation was in part that of a prayerful, loving man.

The congregation’s choice of Beissel was not unlikely.

Soon after his baptism, Beissel began to honor Saturday, the seventh day, as

a personal observance of the Sabbath. He also taught that celibacy is superior

to marriage. He did not require the congregation to observe the seventh day,

and continued to lead worship on Sunday. The seventh-day Sabbath and

celibacy, plus probably his charismatic personality, brought him into conflict

with the rest of the Dunkers. Beissel’s supporters closed ranks around him. In

1725 he moved into a cabin built for him on the farm of Rudolf Nägele, formerly

the Mennonite pastor in the Conestoga region, whom Beissel baptized.

Other congregation members followed suit, and a nascent community began.

In December 1728 Beissel led six members to reenact the baptism he had

received from the Brethren four years earlier, in order to "give it back" to

them. Jan Meyle, whom Becker had immersed at the first Brethren baptism

in 1723, assisted Beissel. The rebaptisms in 1728 formally marked the rupture

that had begun in 1725.76 Beissel evangelized and the congregation

grew. Apparently a couple named Permersdorff created some internal dissent

around 1728–30.77

Beissel published a booklet on the Sabbath in 1728 and another against

marriage two years later. In 1730 he also published a collection of maxims

and poetry and a small hymnal of mostly original texts, thus launching a

career as a prolific poet. In 1732 he abruptly surrendered leadership of the

congregation and moved again to solitude, this time on the banks of Cocalico

Creek, a few miles away. He actually joined Emmanuel Eckerlin, who with

his brothers had joined Beissel’s congregation earlier. Emmanuel had built a

squatter’s cabin on the Cocalico. Soon members followed Beissel and a settlement

grew. They earned fame for their charity. Celibates lived in hermit cabins,

and married couples with children, or householders, settled among them.

A boom of communal building began in 1735, when members built the

first monastic house, called Kedar. At this time he organized the sisters into

the Order of Spiritual Virgins. The celibate men were organized into the

Zionitic Brotherhood around 1738, when their house, Zion, was built. They

raised dormitories and chapels at the rate of almost one a year from 1735

until 1746, when Bethania and its chapel were completed. In 1740 Beissel

ordered celibates still in hermit cabins to enter monastic houses;78 not all


In 1735 Beissel and Wohlfahrt evangelized in the Tulpehocken region.

They won the Reformed minister, Peter Miller, who had been educated at

Heidelberg, and Conrad Weiser, the Indian interpreter, among others. Beissel

won converts from the Germantown Dunkers in 1738, including two sons of

Alexander Mack.79 He also gathered members among Welsh and English Sabbatarians.

Members settled around Ephrata, creating outposts named Zoar,

Massah, Hebron, and Kadesh. Zoar is today’s Reamstown (Figure 2).

Beissel chose Israel Eckerlin (Brother Onesimus) as prior when Wohlfahrt

(Brother Agonius) died in 1741. Probably with the help of his older brother,

Samuel Eckerlin (Brother Jephune), Israel led an economic expansion by buying

and building mills on the creek. They developed a lively trade with

Philadelphia, and Ephrata became an important milling center on the Pennsylvania


Around 1740, the celibate brothers requested that Beissel be called

"Father" along with his self-chosen spiritual name, Friedsam Gottrecht,

meaning "Peaceable, Right with God." The title of "Father" would replace

the title of "Brother," used by all the celibate men. Some members, such as

Johannes Hildebrand, resisted calling Beissel "Father."81

The years between 1740 and 1745 brought other conflicts. A householder,

Ludwig Blum, and the sisters introduced choral singing and composition

around 1740. Beissel took over the choir, however, and Blum left. In 1742

Beissel scuttled the community’s participation in the ecumenical synods led

by Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Tensions with Israel Eckerlin

over leadership and the expanding economy led Beissel to expel him in 1745.

Beissel’s Ephrata peaked between 1745 and 1755 with perhaps three hundred

or more residents, including celibates and families. The communal

economy crested just before Beissel expelled Israel Eckerlin. His expulsion

may have preserved the unique religious life for the short term. Beissel reorganized

the celibate orders in 1745, naming the sisters the Roses of Saron and

the men the Brotherhood of Bethania. Ephrata’s unique material culture

reached its zenith during these years. The scribes created some of their best

manuscript art after 1745. The composition of hymn texts and tunes flourished,

as did Beissel’s devotional writing. The community established its

printing press in 1745, second only to Christopher Saur’s for German printing

in colonial Pennsylvania.

Some turns of events presaged future decline. New converts arrived from

Gimbsheim between 1749 and 1751, including several Beissel relatives.

However, many of them moved on to York County, where a congregation

formed on the Bermudian. A youth revival in 1748 fizzled. Several sisters

died young in 1747–48.82 The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) put Ephrata in

harm’s way and helped to slow immigration.

During and after the war, Beissel wrote and cycled in and out of illness. He

was reportedly severely ill around 1741 and was ill again in 1762.83 Yet on

three occasions around 1764 he traveled the hundred miles to the Antietam

Valley, near present-day Waynesboro, to visit a new congregation, eventually

Snow Hill. Ephrata residents scattered as far away as South Carolina (Figure 3),

although their settlements were not intentional extensions of the community.

Beissel fought his last battles with familiars. In 1764 a small party of disgruntled

former residents returned from Virginia, led by Ezechiel Sangmeister

and Samuel Eckerlin. Because Samuel was the last living signatory who

still acknowledged his part in a joint deed to community land, his party was

entitled to live on the property. A protracted legal battle finally reached the

Pennsylvania Assembly, despite supposed scruples against using courts of

law. At the same time, the prioress, Mother Maria Eicher, reportedly

attempted to separate the sisters completely from their affiliation with the

celibate brothers. Beissel deposed her around 1764, although she remained as

a sister in Saron.84 Beissel failed to secure a dismissal of Eckerlin’s land claim,

and he could not bring Sangmeister’s faction into conformity with community

life.85 Finally, after Beissel’s death in 1768, all parties reached an agreement

in 1770, allowing vowed celibates to retain the property and allowing

Eckerlin and Sangmeister’s faction lodging and some food.

Sangmeister’s autobiography portrayed Beissel’s last years as rancorous and

indulgent in food, drink, and sexual affairs.86 Beissel may have drunk liquor,

perhaps even to inebriation, for the pain in his aging body. If Beissel was sexually

involved with any women, it had to be well before his final years. Remembered

as a "living skeleton til his death,"87 Beissel could hardly have had the

stamina in his seventies for the lasciviousness that Sangmeister portrayed.

Beissel died an old man on July 6, 1768, attended by the aging celibates.

Although Peter Miller led the declining band of celibates and Georg Adam

Martin held forth at Antietam, Beissel’s death greatly dimmed the already

declining fires of piety at Ephrata.88 Certainly a product of the Old World,

Conrad Beissel and his associates formed a community shaped by religious

views that were rooted in that world yet were impossible to realize there.

Threaded through a complex network of religious connections, their religious

world was strung taut by difficult social conditions that spanned Europe,

England, and North America. Beissel and the Ephrata settlers could make

concrete this religious vision, with its flaws, only in the toleration and economic

opportunities of William Penn’s colony.

Conrad Beissel preached God’s impending destruction of European Christendom,

calling believers to prepare in lives of self-denial for the coming paradise

of eternity. He embodied both fiery and prayerful charisma that rarely

became routine to his listeners. Beissel promised and lived a rigorous training

of body and soul in anticipation of eternity. Ephrata delivered a somewhat

better here-and-now by sharing economic resources and labor, providing

housing, and removing celibate women from the dangers of childbirth. Those

who fled to Beissel at the supposed evening of the cosmos prepared for God’s

unmediated presence in what they hoped was the dawn of the eternal Sabbath.

Few, if any, could know that the hardships of the Old World would

yield in Pennsylvania not to an angelic paradise but to a new colony of prosperity

and toleration. Precisely that toleration allowed them to give visible

form and expression to their Christian faith and practices, originally honed on

the margins of Protestant dissent in Europe. They embodied this faith in one

of the most singular constructions of gender identity in the American


Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.