Ephrata Cloister, founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, is one of America's earliest religious communities. It was best known for its original art and music, distinctive Germanic architecture, and significant publishing center. The community consisted of three orders: celibate Brothers and Sisters who practiced a lifestyle emphasizing spiritual rather than material goals and the married householders. A visit today starts at the visitor center with a slide show and a guided tour by guides in period costume of the larger buildings which consist of the sister's house, meetinghouse, householder's residence, bake house, print shop, solitary house, graveyard, and a visitor center where one may ask questions, buy books, souvenirs or gifts. It is located on Main Street (US 322) at the junction of PA 272 in the borough of Ephrata.
This site isn't so much a detailed history of the cloister as it is about 'our ancestors' and 'their lives' at the cloister. Hopefully, however, it will spark your interest and give you a desire to learn more about this unique part of our heritage. Much more can be discovered by clicking on some of the internet links at the bottom of this this page or through some of the books which are listed. Possibly, you too, may even want to go to Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania and take a tour for yourself.
Our direct ancesor, Hildebrand In Aebnit and his wife, Anna (Schlegel), were householders within the group and a neighbor and friend to many of the brothers and sisters. It is not known exactly when they joined but tax lists, land records and other records do verify that they lived in Cocalico Township of Lancaster Co., PA as early as 1756 and probably since about 1742. Samuel Eckerlin and John Martin were even executors to his will. Ezekiel Sangmeister wrote about him in his journal and even told of his and Anna's deaths while with the brethren from Ephrata on Sandy Hook in Virginia. Ephrata Cloister and their teachings and their leaders were a big part of our ancestor's lives.
In June 1764, just shortly after the death of Hildebrand, during fears of an Indian attack, Ezekiel Sangmeister led a group of 26, which included the three orphaned In Aebnit (spelled a variety of ways in different sources) boys, John (the oldest and who was 16 at the time), Joseph, and Jacob back to Ephrata. Other families included those of Christian Hockman, John Martin and Christian Luther. After their safe arrival at Ephrata, there were reports of great damage done by the Indians in the vicinity which they had recently vacated.
We don't know exactly how long the boys remained at Ephrata Cloister or with families there, but it is only reasonable to assume that they would have stayed at least for a few years with either the brothers there or some of the houeholders in the area. With men like Sangmeister bringing them 'home to the safety' of the Cloister and Martin and Eckerlin taking care of the will probate and estate and guardianship, we know that their upbringing, especially the two younger boys Joseph and Jacob, was greatly influenced by the beliefs of those who belonged to the cloister in the 1760's. We don't locate the boys again until after the Revolutionary War about 1778 and into the 1780's when thy appear once again in Virginia, in a location very near where their parents had died 15-20 years earlier.
In 1941, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission assumed complete ownership of the grounds that at one time was a thriving very closely-knitted community of loyal neighbors and families. A program of research, historical interpretation, and restoration was began. Thanks to this organization, today we can venture back into time and get a glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors who once called the Ephrata Cloister - Their Home.
Guided by D. Mitchell Jones and his son, Paul Jones
--Hilderbrand In Aebnit, Joseph Inaebnit, Benjamin Atnip, John Esaw Atnip, Virginia (Atnip) Cantrell
Sam Houston Cantrell, Nancy Dupree (Cantrell) Jones, Frank Garland Jones --
Since discovering our heritage about 4 years ago and that our ancestor, Hildebrand In Aebnit, belonged to the Ephrata Colister, we've all had a desire and urge to visit. Mitch and his son, Paul, are the first of our group who has fulfilled this dream.
In the spring of 2004, he was told that Paul, his son who is 12 and on a travelling baseball team, would be in a tournament in mid July in Coopertown, New York. This was already an adventure to look forward to and a once in a lifetime experience. At this time, they decided to make it into a holiday and a trip that neither one of them forget.
Not only would they visit Coopertown and all it had to offer, but would have detours to Gettysburg to see the battlefield, Sandy Hook in Frederick Co., VA where they would climb the tower and view the magnificient 7 bends, walk on the land where Hildebrand and Anna lived with the brethren, but also visit the Ephrata Cloister, where it all started.
After loading up the Ford Ranger and Paul making sure that he didn't forget his Harry Potter book to read on the 'boring freeway', they left their Florida home and headed through the Cumberlerland Gap.
Cumberland Gap - On the Way
To go to Kentucky, which the Inabnits later migrated, they would have had to travelled over this in their covered wagons and carrying all their belongings. The route was up Valley on Great Wagon Road then down into TN. The TN route is now Highway 25E which I (Mitch) took to Gap. The large mountain on right has view from top which I drove up to and then walked up more for view down.
The top pictures show the entrance sign and road into Ephrata Cloister. The one on the right is a view just left of the main entrance.
The tour starts in the visitor centre where you are met with guides in period costume. Here you purchase your tickets and are shown a short video, depicting the history of the cloister. This is a modern building with restrooms, a water fountain, and a tourist desk to ask any questions such as places to stay or other tourist areas in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania area.
Walking out of the visitor center (picutre below), you or your group are then guided through the larger buildings in the cloister. The guides are very friendly and helpful, explaing the significance of each building and what it was used for. You are free to ask questions.
After the guided tour, you are free to visit the smaller buildings on your own and encouraged to return to the visitor center where you may purchase souvenirs, books, and other momentos.
(below) View standing in front of Vistor Center which is number one on the diagram in the brochure.
Building on left is the Saron, meeting house.
Conrad Beissel (1691-1768) was the founder of Ephrata Cloister and is also buried there. These pictures, taken by D. Mitchell Jones, give us different views on the house. On the the left, we can see part of the physician's house. Between 1732 when he arrived and 1768 when he died, Bissel had moved about 6 times within the Cloister. In the late 1740's, a home was built for him between the Bethania, Brother's House, and the Saron, Sister's House.
The picture of the inside of Saal comes from page 39 of the book, "Eohrata Cloister, Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide", by Kyrle R. Weaver, and published by Stackpole Books, see link below under books and references.
The Saal was almost a perfect Cube with edges of 40 feet. The Saal represented Jerusalem in the minds of Beissel and his followers. Sisters sit on one side and Brothers on other side. Householders sit in Balcony section.
It was constructed in 1741 as a worship hall for the householders. When the Saron was built for the sisters next door, they took control of this meetinghouse where they would worship each midnight. The Brothers had their own Saal, or meeting house. The entire congregation used the meeting house on Mount Zion for the Saturday night services. The services, in each of the meeting houses, would include scripture reading, lessons and of course music. There were also special gatherings, called Love Feasts, which included feet washing, a meal, the Euchrist with bread and wine. During the 1770's after Bissels death, the population of the cloister gradually shrunk. It was during this time that the Householders took a more active part in the daily work. It is believed that they added the stone kitcher to the rear of the building as a place to prepare this meal.
Right - Saron next to Saal
The Saron was originally built in 1743 for Householder couples who left their homes to live as celibate brothers and sisters. It was a brief experiment that didn't work. When the husbands and wives returned to their farms, the building was remodeled just for the sisters.
The building has 3 floors and each floor has a kitchen, dining room, two common workrooms, and about 12 sleeping chambers, one for each sister. These sisters called themselves the 'Rose of Sharon'. Mother Maria Eicher directed the daily duties of the sisterhood for nearly 15 years and maintained their independence from the brotherhood.
The last sister died in 1813 and the building was then divided into apartments and rented to church members.
This oven was constructed in the early 1820's probably to serve the needs of the residents who later rented apartments in the Saron.
Saron Bake Oven
Large Bake House and Kitchen
The Bake house was one of the busiest sites at the Cloister. Bread was a necessary staple for survival. Mixing the dough, letting it rise, heating the brick oven to a certain temperture and then actually baking the bread were daily riturals. This building is one of the original structures.
The photograph on the right shows us the top of the bake house, which was located behind the main meeting house, Saal. During the 1700's, this area served several purposes. It was more than likely used as a work or storage space or possibly a distribution point.
The above photograph shows the garden on the left, the physician's house with the small bakery (attached) in the middle and the Conrad Beissel House is to the right.
Then, below, we have a close-up view of the the garden surrounded by a picket fence and a side-view of the physician's house.
There were at least 2 who were members of the Cloister who called themselves 'practitioner in psyhic' or 'doctors'. These were Brother Gideon (Christian Eclsteom) and Samuel Eckerlin, who are family was very familiar with. Eckerlin is the one who took care of Anna when she was sick in Virginia. These men had very little training in actual medicine. Whether their 'cures' or 'medical treatments' actually helped or not is questionable.
This house most likely contained a bed for the sick, and a cupboard for shelving books and the various herbs which were used in treatment.
Reports from visitors to the Cloister in the 18th-century reported that the members were thin and pale, but otherwise appeared to be healthy. The biggest health concern, common to most communities of this time period, was 'poor santitation'. Baths were very infrequent.
As you can see, this is a smaller bake house than the one we just talked about and it is actually attached to the physician's house. This house was mainly used for seasonal chores such as candle-making, soap-making, and probably laundry.
Bake House attached to the Physican's House
The Brother's House was known as the Bethania. It was built in 1746 and stood until 1908. It was four stories and was much like the Saron, or the Sister's House.
The picture on the left shows the Printing House with the Kedar Plaque in right foreground and the garden fence on the left. The one on the right gives us a different view.
The Printing offices of the brotherhood was originally housed in its own building before being moved to the Bethania, Brother's House, which was next door.
The west end of this structure was built around 1735 and is one of the oldest structures still standing. About 1810, an addition, with better lighting and more space, was built to the east, and was occupied by householder, Able Witwer, who operated a clock-making shop.
The Kedar was a communal dormitory. The building originally housed both brothers and sisters and was built in 1735. Between 1737-1741, a prayer house was added. By 1746, the building became home for widowers and children and was turned over to the poor. It is possibly that the younger boys of Hilderbrand stayed here for a while. The building was tore down about 1800.
Below we have two different views of the Carpenter's House.
The Carpenter's House was very typical of the earliest homes in Ephrata and is probably one of the oldest of the surviving buildings on the site.
There were several very highly-skilled carpenters that lived at the Cloister. Among these were Brother Sealthiel (Signund Lander) and Brother Kenan (Jacob Funk). These men also built furniture for the community's use.
Cocalio Creek ran along back edge of Ephrata. The day this picture was taken, it had been raining and the creek was quite muddy. I am sure Hiltbrand and his sons spent a lot of time around this creek as it was the livelihood of the cloister. So much depended upon it.
Cocalico is a Native-American term, which was originally spelled Hoch Kaleung. It meant 'Den of Serpents or Sankes'. I'm told that the area is still heavily infested.
The creek and spring did offer the residents a constant supply of cool fresh water that was easy to get to. The Natives considered this to be a prime hunting spot as animals would often come to quench their thirst. In 1732, this creek and spring was one of the prime reasons that Conrad Beissel chose to build the cloister here. Not only was water needed for human consuption, but also needed to power the many mills (saw, grain, paper, oil, etc) that the cloister maintained.
However, if it was me, believe I would have listened to the natives and stayed away from those snakes. Don't believe any amount of persuasion could make me live so close to snakes.
Samuel Eckerlin lived just up from the Cloister. In this picture, Mitch is standing about 100 feet in front of Saal, the meeting house. There is a house to the right, but in background hid by trees is another house about 100 yards from where he was standing. This house is on land that belonged to Eckerlin.
Samuel Eckerlin's Land
Samuel Eckerlin is the one that was in Virginia with our Hiltbrand and it was at his place that Anna died. He was also one of the executors of Hiltbrand's will and was therefore guardian, at least of their financial matters, of the orphaned boys.
There is much more about Samuel in our Virginia pages. His life is one that you're sure to want to read more about.
These photos, to the right, show theWeaver's House and a pump with the Weaver's House in the background.
At the weaver's house, the brothers and sisters of the cloister would spun linen thread and wove it into cloth. They used flax, which was grown at the cloister. Both the brothers and sisters would spin the thread while the actual weaving of the cloth was left to the men. Seamstress and tailors would then sew the white monastic robes.
Since our Hiltbrand was a linen weaver, he must have spent many hours at the weaver's house.
There are actually two cemeteries at the Cloister - God's Acres (for solitary members and householders) and Mt. Zion Cemetery (for early residents of the community and those who died there during the war).
God's AcreThe ones shown below, taken by Mitch, were actually taken in the cemetery behind the weaver's house and next to the bake house. It was called God's acres and was for the solitary and householder members of the Cloister.
The graves in this cemetery date back into the 1700's and include the final resting places of several early members of the cloister. The earliest marked grave, many are unmarked, dates back to 1767.
Among these, who still have stones standing, are:
The surrounding stone wall is a 1950's reconstruction or the original wall.
Right: Exit of Cemetery
Our Hilderbrand and Anna died in June 1764 and 1763, respectively while with Samuel Eckerlin and Ezekiel Sangmeister in Sandy Hook. Their 3 orphaned boys were brought back to the cloister by Sangmeister. It is not known if they had any other children who may have died as infants and buried here. However, our family would have certainly known many of these earlier ones who died in the 1700's.
Mount Zion CemeteryThe second cemetery was called Mount Zion Cemetery and this is where the graves of several residents of the early Ephrata community are buried.
The cloister was used as a hospital for many of Washington's army during the winter of 1777-1778. Though it is believed that hundreds died here during the war, only about 60 can be accounted for in official records. In 1902, a large monument was dedicated in the Mt. Zion Cemetery to mark the mass grave of the soldiers.
- Fundamental Christan Doctrines
- Believed in the Bible
- Believed in Jesus Christ and the trinity of the Godhead
- Believed Salvation is of Grace and not of works
- Believed in Baptism
- Own printing press at the Cloister (1745)
- Printed and authored many hymnals
- Translated several books into German
--Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1754)
- Collection early American poetry
- Appreciation of music
- Self-supporting Colony
- Own Food - orchards, gardens, grain fields
- Own Mills - saw mill, grist mill, paper-mill
- Own Artisians - craftsman
--our own Hildebrand was a linen weaver
--Sangmeister was a writer, highly-skilled carpenter
- Revolutionary War - Place of Refuge
- Temporary Hospital - sisters tended the sick and prayed for the dying
- Cemetery - Final resting place for over 200 soldiers
Since the three orphan sons of Hilderbrand, our ancestor, spent a great part of their formative teen years living in or around the cloister and being cared for by these families, they had to have been heavily influenced by the life there. This was in the mid 1760's until the war was over. One of the first things one notices is that all three of the boys were around 30 when they married. I'm sure that their upbringing had something to do with this. They would have had an education and taught a love for music, poetry and books. And most of all, they were taught the Bible and the importance of believing in Christ. As we know, they did speak German and taught their children later on to speak German.
As you click on some of the links below and read about the daily lives of these people, their unique culture, and some of their founders, let's not be too quick to judge. Remember the times when the group was formed and try to imagine ourselves back in the early to mid 1700's and living in a developing county where independence, democracy and freedom are nothing as we know it today. In fact, there was not even a United Sates of America. These people had left 'their homelands' - all for their own reasons and made the long treacherous journey across the ocean. Most had been in America for only a brief time. And through all of this, they had faith, believed in education, preservation of books and translating them to read in their own language, loved music and poetry, even to authoring many of their own and taking care of their own and others who needed help.
I'm sure that many of these morals and values have been passed down through descendants of other families who lived there just like they have in mine. Many of Hildebrand's descendants have become ministers, missionaries, doctors, educators and share a love of music and poetry. Several families have taken in orphans or fostered children.
Books and References
Internet Sites To Explore
- Weaver, Kyle R., Series Editor, "Eohrata Cloister, Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide", Stackpole Books (for link follow - Pennsylvania and Region and then Trail of History) , 5087 Ritter Road, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055, 2000.
- Voices of the Turtledoves - The Sacred World of Ephrata by Jeff Bach, Co-published with the Pennsylvania German Society (April 2003)
- Tour Handhout, "Ephrata Cloister - Anticipating Paradise, A Community's Earthly Life and Heavenly Quest"
- "Life and Conduct of the late Brother Ezechiel Sangmeister" translated from the German Leben and Wandel by Barbara M. Schindler. (Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley, Ephrata, PA 1986)
- Ephrata Cloister and More Ephrata Cloister
--Great details and insight into this unique historical place!
- The Ephrata Cloister - Church of the Brethren Network
- Ephrata Cloister - Step Into History
Directions, Hours of Operation, On-Site Features, Places to Stay
- Map and directions to Ephrata Clositer
- The Ephrata Cloister - A virtual Tour
- Stones of Faith - Pennsylvania Germans & Their Gravestones
Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, PA
- The Ephrata Cloister: A Sabbatarian Commune in Colonial Pennsylvania
- The Mystical Legacy of Ephrata Cloister
Lancaster County's 18th Century Spellbinding Culture
Census Records | Vital Records | Family Trees & Communities | Immigration Records | Military Records Directories & Member Lists | Family & Local Histories | Newspapers & Periodicals | Court, Land & Probate | Finding Aids