Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata

Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata

by Jeff Bach
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Penn State University Press


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Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780271027449
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication date: 08/02/2005
Series: Pennsylvania German History and Culture
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.84(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Voices of the Turtledoves

The Sacred World of Ephrata
By Jeff Bach

Pennsylvania State University Press

Copyright © 2006 Jeff Bach
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780271027449

Chapter One


Conrad Beissel

Conrad Beissel's collaborator Michael Wohlfahrt once reportedly told Benjamin Franklin that the Ephrata Sabbatarians "fear that if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement." As late as 1790, Peter Miller (1709-96) wrote, "We have no creeds, our standard is the New Testament." Wohlfahrt explained well why the Ephrata community and the Schwarzenau Neu-Tdufer (Dunkers) hesitated to write a definitive confession of faith.

The Ephrata community nevertheless wrote some statements of faith, such as the Mistisches und Kirchliches Zeuchn|_ der Br|derschaft in Zion (Mystic and churchly testimony of the brotherhood in Zion) in 1743. Beissel's Dissertation on Man's Fall, first published in 1765 in an English translation by Peter Miller, summarized many of his major beliefs.

Johannes Hildebrand (1679-1765) wrote significant treatises. Ezechiel Sangmeister (1723-84), a disgruntled critic of Beissel, neverthelessshared many of his core beliefs and expressed them in an autobiography and a volume on mystical theology. Mindful of Wohlfahrt's cautions not to impose more order on Ephrata's writings than the authors themselves would, let us examine some of Beissel's central beliefs.


Conrad Beissel drew on a variety of religious sources. His major source was Jacob Boehme's thought, particularly as Johann Georg Gichtel interpreted it. Beissel considered direct religious experience to be as authoritative as Scripture. At times he appealed to the authority of the earliest centuries of Christianity, although he gave it less weight than personal experience. The ritual practice of the Dunkers, too, helped to shape Beissel's religious views.

Gichtel's influence on Beissel was clear to the Moravian leader August Gottlieb Spangenberg, who wrote in 1737 that Ephrata was Gichtelian. Later Sangmeister noted that Gichtel's writings were authoritative and accessible at Ephrata. Mainly through Gichtel, the Philadelphian Society network in England and Germany, and the work of Gottfried Arnold, the history professor and Pietist, Beissel absorbed and adapted Boehme.

Two major hermeneutical presuppositions determined Beissel's use of Scripture. First, from Heinrich Horch's Mystische und Profetische Bibel, or Marburg Bible (1712), Beissel adopted allegorical and typological interpretation. While Beissel never credited Horch directly, Peter Miller's preface to Deliciae Ephratenses, Pars I (1773) named Horch explicitly. Beissel's second presupposition, derived from Inspirationist influence, was his confidence in the direct religious experience of revelation.

Horch chose the biblical books of Song of Solomon and Revelation as the interpretive keys for finding a "hidden" or mystical meaning of the whole Bible. He also used typology for an eschatalogical, or prophetic, interpretation of Scripture and events of his time. Horch divided the Song of Solomon into an allegorical chronology of Christianity. After an initial purity as the bride of Christ under persecution (Song of Sol. 1:5-3:6), the Church was under the Christian emperors (3:7-5:1), then under Antichrist, presumably Roman Catholicism, up to Horch's present (5:2-16). Finally (6:1-8:14) the "newly kindled fire in Philadelphia" (das in Filadelphia [sic] neu angez|ndete feuer) will prepare the Church for marriage to Christ, "the heavenly Solomon" (den himmlischen Salomon).

Horch correlated his outline with another chronology that he based on the seven letters of Revelation. The letter to Ephesus, for example, represented the first Christians. Smyrna represented myrrh, standing for the persecuted churches, an incense to God (parallel to Song of Sol. 3:6). The sixth letter to "Filadelfia" represented a brotherly love when the faithful would be of one heart and one soul. Finally, when "Filadelfia's love unfortunately cools off," a brief, lukewarm seventh era would ensue, followed by Christ's glorious reign.

Horch viewed earliest Christianity as a movement of initial pure love for Christ and fellow Christians. Thus he shared the portrayal of the first Christians in the historian Gottfried Arnold's Wahre Abbildung der Ersten Christen (1696). Like most in the Philadelphian movement, Horch anticipated a rekindling of the initial pure love at the end time, just before Christ's return. He believed that the Philadelphian era was his own time, to be followed soon by a brief seventh era (the Laodicean period) and then the coming of Christ. To the language of bridal mysticism and the soul's espousal to Christ Horch added the heightened eschatology of Radical Pietism.

Experiential inspiration shaped Beissel's use of Scripture and preaching. The visiting Swedish provost Israel Acrelius described Beissel's bodily gestures while preaching in 1753. Beissel "threw his head up and down, his eyes hither and thither; pulled at his mouth, his nose, his neck." These movements resemble the gyrations of Inspirationists as Eberhard Ludwig Gruber described them in 1716: "shaking of the head, drooping of the mouth, twitching of the shoulders, wobbling of the knees, and trembling of the legs."

Acrelius noted that the Ephrata brethren "indeed read the Scriptures, but believe themselves to be possessed of an 'inward light,' which transcends the outward." The Sabbatarians believed that their public speaking came "from the immediate light and impulse of the Spirit," whereas the Dunkers, as Spangenberg observed, "consider the Scriptures to be an outward witness that one ought to hold just as the Scriptures say." Beissel, in contrast, read Scripture through what he believed was his immediate, inward experience of the Holy Spirit.

Beissel found a third significant authority for his views, though somewhat less weighty, in Christian antiquity, particularly as described by Gottfried Arnold, the historian and friend of Radical Pietists. As J|rgen B|chsel has shown, Arnold portrayed the first Christians as models of rebirth, spirituality, and ethical conduct. Arnold employed his account of ancient Christianity to criticize the church system of his time. Beissel endorsed this critique. Gradually Beissel instituted some of the ascetic practices of Arnold's portrayal, as Peter Erb has noted. Still, Beissel turned not to the first century after Christ but primarily to the first state of the androgynous Adam in paradise, as Boehme portrayed it. Beissel preached that this paradise was at hand, for Christ would soon return.

The Neu-Tdufer of Schwarzenau provided another important influence on Beissel, primarily through their ritual practice, much of which Ephrata adopted. Whether this Dunker influence was Radical Pietist or Anabaptist was a question pursued in the last half of the twentieth century. C. David Ensign proposed that Boehmist thought is the defining characteristic of Radical Pietism, and he argued for a close similarity between the Dunkers and Ephrata. The Dunkers' relation to Ephrata, he suggested, might resemble that of the "Roman Catholic faithful and a religious order."

Ensign's thesis grew out of a debate that characterized much of Brethren historiography in the second half of the twentieth century. Brethren scholars such as Floyd Mallott, William Willoughby, Ensign, Durnbaugh, Vernard Eller, Dale Brown, and more recently Dale Stoffer and Carl Bowman have asked whether Dunkers origins were primarily Pietist or Anabaptist. This debate, more pronounced between about 1960 and 1970, responded in part to Robert Friedmann's work on Mennonite piety, which set the Anabaptist movement in opposition to Pietism.

Ensign argued that the Dunkers were primarily Radical Pietists in origin. He cited their endorsement of celibacy, though they did not require it, and their use of the ban as traits that Radical Pietism shared with Ephrata. While the Dunkers admired celibacy, however, they believed that God "instituted marriage in paradise." They did not hold Gichtel's view, derived from Boehme, of an androgynous Adam, whose sexual desire led to the fall into sin. Virtually no Radical Pietists practiced the ban, contrary to Ensign's thesis. The impulse for congregational discipline came to Ephrata and the Dunkers from both Reformed Pietism and the Anabaptist tradition.

Portraying Anabaptism and Pietism as polar opposites is less helpful for understanding Dunker origins or Beissel's community for at least two reasons. First, neither Pietism nor Anabaptism existed as pure types. German Pietism contained radical and separatist tendencies from its beginnings in 1670, as Johannes Wallmann showed in demonstrating the influence of Johann Jakob Sch|tz in Frankfurt. Sch|tz seems to have known little of Boehme, but he was interested in chiliasm, in Tauler's sermons, and in cabbala. Surviving Anabaptist groups also manifested diversity, ranging from the tolerant and prosperous Dutch Mennonites to the Amish rigorists after 1693, with other groups in between in Switzerland, Alsace, and the Palatinate.

Second, the influences between the surviving Anabaptist traditions and Pietism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may be more porous than Robert Friedmann admitted. He proposed that Pietism eviscerated the strong biblical discipleship of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. He defined Anabaptism as a movement of uncompromising discipleship, expressed in fellowship, love, and readiness to "suffer in conflict with the evil world order." Friedmann defined Pietism as "a quiet conventicle-Christianity," concerned primarily with an "inner experience of salvation" and "not at all" with "a radical world transformation." Friedmann overlooked such Anabaptist spiritualists as Hans Denck and David Joris, the latter of whom took up more room than any other Anabaptist in Gottfried Arnold's account of Christian history, Unparteyische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie. Also Friedmann underestimated Pietism's ethics and outreach, embodied in the charity and mission at Halle. Any polar opposition of Pietism to Anabaptism oversimplifies both movements, which have common emphases in some manifestations.

Ephrata illustrates the complex relationships between Pietist and Anabaptist groups in the early eighteenth century. Many Mennonites found their way to Ephrata, such as Rudolf Ndgele, an early Mennonite minister in Conestoga, and families such as Graff (Groff), Funk, Guth (Good), and Wenger. The Ephrata Press reprinted important Mennonite works, among them G|ldene Aepffel in Silbern Schalen (1745), Ernsthafte Christenpflicht (1745, 1770), and Thieleman van Braght's Martyrer-Spiegel (1748). Friedmann judged the Martyrer-Spiegel to be "authentically Anabaptist," yet Pietist Ephrata produced its first translation into German. While Ephrata may have acted only as printers contracted by the Mennonites, the financial loss on the Martyrs' Mirror suggests a motivation other than profit.

On a foundation of Boehmist thought transmitted through Gichtel and the Philadelphian Society, Conrad Beissel constructed his religious thought with Scripture read through the hermeneutics of Horch and of direct religious experience. Beissel fashioned the outward practice of his community from the ritual life of the Dunkers, sometimes drawing on the model of ancient Christianity. He created a unique synthesis of religious thought and practice from the Old World embodied in a singular religious community in the New World.


Beissel's earliest known writing that can be dated with some confidence is a letter written probably in 1725, if the Chronicon is reliable. The letter condemned two of his acquaintances, A. W. and D. C. of Oley (probably Georg Adam Weidner and David Caufmann or Kaufmann) for circumcising each other. The letter reveals that many major elements of Beissel's thought were in place within a year of his baptism in 1724.

The impetus for the circumcision probably came from Philadelphian literature, contrary to Julius Sachse's theory that proselytizing Jewish traders instigated the event. Thomas Bromley, an English Philadelphian, wrote in his booklet titled The Law of Circumcision that circumcision symbolized a celibate life devoted to God. "We must deny the relationship of man to woman," Bromley counseled. A Snow Hill copybook with excerpts from books received from Ephrata contains a long portion from the German translation of this work.

Bromley probably developed his conviction in part from Jacob Boehme's comments that male circumcision was commanded in order to show that "the animal mixing of man and wife is disgusting before God's holiness." Gichtel shared this view, endorsing celibacy. Beissel wrote later that God commanded circumcision of the male organ "to show that before God's holy eyes it is disgusting." While Beissel endorsed celibacy, he condemned circumcision, arguing that grace and promise in the new covenant supersede the old covenant of the law, of which circumcision was a sign.

Beissel's speculative Boehmist thought emerged in the letter as he traced the promise of grace through "the seed of woman" (Weibes-Samen) from Eve to Sarah to Mary. According to Beissel, Sarah's pregnancy "without the doings of a man" (ohne Zuthun des Mannes) prefigured the virginal conception and birth of Jesus, the truly "virginal man" (jungfrdulicher Mann). Beissel also alluded to the so-called Priesthood of Melchizedek by writing that the reborn enter into "the inward Holy of Holies" and offer prayers "like a holy incense [Rauchwerk]." These words followed Gichtel closely.

In this letter Beissel signaled his efforts to create a mystical language for the presence of God. The redeemed, he wrote, learn "to speak a new language and serve God unceasingly in his holy temple." For Beissel, the special awareness of God's presence was analogous to God's presence at the ancient Jerusalem temple. Awareness or experience of this special presence of God requires a special language. Thus in what may be one of Beissel's early letters in Pennsylvania, central themes of his later thought, such as the Sabbath, celibacy, the creation of a special language for God's presence, and unique constructions of female and male gender, are already present.

Beissel's first known publication, Mystyrion Anomias, defended the Sabbath, one of his earliest distinctive teachings. No copy of the 1728 German version is known, but an English translation from the next year survives.


Excerpted from Voices of the Turtledoves by Jeff Bach Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Bach. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


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



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