New book explores life in Ephrata cloister

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Ephrata, Pa., wasn’t always a tourist mecca. It was once home to one of America’s earliest religious communities.

In a new Penn State Press book, Voices of the Turtledoves, author Jeff Bach guides readers through the history of Ephrata, located in Lancaster County, Pa.

His work “successfully articulates the context in which Ephrata was created and functioned,” said Nadine A. Steinmetz, site director of Ephrata Cloister from 1984 to 1995.

“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.”

Sought religious freedom. The Ephrata Cloister was a community of radical Pietist Germans 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.

They called their community “Ephrata,” after the Hebrew name for the area around Bethlehem.

Two hundred members. At its height in the 1760s, the community at Ephrata probably numbered more than 200 members.

Celibate brothers and sisters were divided into two separate but cooperative orders. A third order, the Householders, consisted of families.

Uses their voice. Bach is the first to draw extensively on Ephrata’s manuscript resources and on recent archaeological investigations (conducted annually since 1994) to present an overarching look at the community.

Voices of the Turtledoves allows various Ephrata members to speak through their writings and provides an important key to understanding their symbolic religious community.

Bach, an associate professor of Brethren and historical studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, served as Scholar in Residence at the Ephrata Cloister in 1995. 

About the cloister. The cloister was founded in 1732 by German settlers. The community consisted of celibate brothers and sisters and a married congregation of families.

Members became known for their music, calligraphy and printing. Following the death of the last celibate member in 1813, the married congregation formed the German Seventh-Day Baptist Church.

Members continued to live and worship at the cloister until 1934. In 1941, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the historic site and began a program of restoration and interpretation.

Today, the historic buildings are part of a 28-acre reservation open daily to the public.

To order book. All books published by Penn State University Press (1-800-326-9180) are available through bookstores, wholesalers or the publisher.

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