Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Conrad Beissel

Ephrata Cloister: Women's Building and Meetinghouse

Conrad Beissel (1691-1768) was born in Eberbach, a town deeply divided between Catholics and Calvinists.
As one of the latter, he took up the baking trade in Heidelberg. He absorbed radical Pietist ideas there and decided to emigrate to Pennsylvania in 1720. There it was his hope to join a colony on the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia, founded by one Johannes Kelpius in 1691. Known as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, its members were awaiting the imminent coming of the Lord.

When Beissel arrived, he was surprised to find that Kelpius had been dead for 12 years. However, Conrad Matthei, one of Kelpius’s closest assistants, started to work with Beissel. This experience – and his falling in with the local German Baptists – helped crystallise Beissel’s religious thought.

Eight years after his arrival, he led his followers out of fellowship with the regular German Baptists, as he had come to believe that the Jewish Sabbath was the correct day of the Lord – henceforth, his people would be called German Seventh Day Baptists.

In 1732, out in Lancaster County, Beissel established his “Camp of the Solitary” – now called Ephrata Cloister. There were two separate houses, one for celibate men and one for celibate women. The members wore white robes and were kept separate save for their worship services, which featured many of Beissel’s hymns (he was a talented composer). Their married and marrying relations -–dubbed “Householders” – lived in a nearby complex. The Ephratans slept and ate little, all the while farming, printing and engaging in calligraphy, paper-making, carpentry, milling and textile production.

After Beissel’s death, the celibate community gradually and inevitably shrank, ending up with just one member by 1900. The German Seventh Day Baptist Church that Beissel founded survives, but Ephrata Cloister is now a monument run by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.