The door to the entrance into this house

Where the united souls live,

Let no one more from there escape,

For God Himself among them now is reigning.

Their joy blooms in the united love-filled flame,

Because from God and His own love they came.

 

Author Unknown, Wallchart (Ephrata Cloister)

 

 

 

HISTORy, THEOLOGY, AND INTERPRETATION: 

THE EPHRATA CLOISTER, A CASE STUDY iN PUBLIC HISTORY

 

DARIN D. LENZ

Department of History

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Historic sites in the United States have traditionally been established to preserve and instruct the patriotic sensibilities of succeeding generations of Americans.[1]  However, not all historic sites highlight the patriotic mandate prevalent in the minds of many early preservationists.[2]  Occasionally sites considered to hold historical importance do not fit easily into the pantheon of American nationalism without manipulation.  At times, the distinction between patriotic viability, site availability, and genuine historic value has created tension between site selection and the need for preservation.[3]  American religious sites, which usually

hold some aesthetic or spiritual value that is limited to a particular community, are intuitively dismissed from being perceived as legitimate historical sites worthy of commemoration.[4]  The conflict between religious and historical value becomes even more troublesome with the proposition that a religious site could receive public funding for preservation simply because of its past religious function.  Americans prize highly the ideal of church and state separation to reinforce their concepts about a national secular-civic identity, as well as the historical artifacts that give agency to that identity.[5]  Yet, publicly funded and preserved religious sites that challenge the contemporary separationist thesis regarding religion and civic space do exist.[6]  The Ephrata Cloister,[7] located in the borough of Ephrata among the Amish and Mennonite tourist havens of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, presents an unusual case that challenges many of the presuppositions of historical interpretation regarding a site that is primarily religious in nature. 

Though the Ephrata Cloister has been part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since 1941, in recent years the site has yielded a plethora of new information that expands upon the everyday life of the original inhabitants, as well as their theological constructions and motivations.  This case study will examine the innovative revision of interpretation the Ephrata Cloister implemented in 2000 with the influx of new research that examines historical, theological, and material evidence.  Hopefully, this case study will challenge interpretative limitations imposed upon sites whose value is not simply defined in terms of patriotic nostalgia or political ideology but encompasses the public practice of religion.  

 

I. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CLOISTER

Ephrata’s religious community was a direct byproduct of the theological diversity that erupted as a result of the Protestant Reformation.[8]   With the aid of the ruling elite, European state churches of the seventeen and eighteenth century, including, Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic, began to reassert authority, with the aid of the ruling elite, within their principalities and territories to demarcate orthodox Christian beliefs and practices.  Fringe religious groups, such as the Pietists and Anabaptists, began to leave the Continent in search of religious freedom.[9]  Georg Conrad Beissel, the founder of the Ephrata Cloister, immigrated to Pennsylvania as a result of this turmoil on the Continent.  Originally from the small village of Eberbach, Beissel fell under the influence of diverse streams of Christian spirituality and cabbalistic philosophy as a young man.[10]  Having achieved some financial and social success as a baker in Heidelburg by 1718, Beissel suffered persecution for his adherence to a mystically minded religious sect.  After being expelled from his home province in Germany, Beissel headed for Germantown, Pennsylvania, in hopes of finding religious tolerance.  He served as a Brethren minister and, for a number of years, led a small congregation on the Pennsylvania frontier.  Eventually Beissel felt that he must abandon the pulpit in order to live the spiritual calling of a ascetic hermit.  Despite his desire to pursue his lifestyle alone, Beissel’s charismatic personality, combined with his devotion to God, drew others to him and soon a small community of disciples developed.  This community evolved into a complex religious sect that had celibate male and female members (known as Brothers and Sisters), a group of married adherents (known as Householders), and a thriving religious environment that excelled at promoting an extremely disciplined lifestyle in hope of obtaining a mystical oneness with God.[11]

Beissel’s faith journey provides the basis of public interest in the Ephrata Cloister.[12]  The Cloister’s historical significance as a religious site, at least initially for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, relied on William Penn’s vision of religious diversity and tolerance.[13]  Penn desired to see his colony exemplify a social and religious utopia that guaranteed “freedom of conscience for all believers.”[14]  For those enamored with the history of early Pennsylvania, the Cloister serves as a historic monument of Penn’s noble dream.[15]  Even though the site is maintained and operated by the Commonwealth, the Cloister also serves as a commemorative space that advocates for the quintessential American concept of religious freedom found in the First Amendment.[16] 

In 1814 after the death of the last celibate member of the church, the Householders formed themselves into the German Seventh-Day Baptist Church.  These descendants of the original church lived at, worshiped, and maintained the site until 1934.  After some confusion about who held legal ownership over the land, the property was sold to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1941.  In addition to the Cloister’s religious significance,

the site also holds importance as a source of “original art and music, distinctive medieval Germanic architecture, and [as a] significant publishing center.”[17]  For most of the Cloister’s interpretative history under the Museum Commission, quantifiable attributes, such as folk art and architecture, have been the dominant vehicle for establishing historical legitimacy and site significance.[18]  The historic park that operates today, however, has experienced an explosion in scholarship about the original religious community who lived on the site in the eighteenth century.  This knowledge about the Cloister has resulted in broadening the interpretation and strategy for presenting the site to the public.

 

II.  RESEARCH AND THE CLOISTER

          The Ephrata Cloister in recent years has drawn upon community and academic resources made available through various sources.[19]  In 1991 a conference was held at the Ephrata Cloister in honor of the 300th anniversary of Beissel’s birth.  This conference inspired renewed interest in  the Cloister’s unique religious, social, cultural, and material significance.  Partially in response to the conference,[20] the Ephrata Cloister Archaeology Project, initiated in 1993, has been “collect[ing] new information, which can be used to mark original building locations on the land surface and provide a more meaningful interpretive experience for thousands of tourists who annually walk the property.”[21]  The new archaeological dig on the site began to provide fresh data about everyday life at the Cloister.[22]  According to Stephen G. Warfel, lead archaeologist at the site, “an artifact assemblage in excess of one million objects has been unearthed, cleaned, labeled, and inventoried.”[23]  This influx of new material evidence along with traditional academic research began the process that altered Ephrata’s interpretative themes.[24]  Building locations have been given more accurate interpretations according to their function and the discovery of additional material evidence obtained from archaeological exploration.[25]  Likewise, this material evidence has provided a deeper understanding of the conflicts within the community and the impact of these struggles on the community as it attempted to survive in a colonial environment antithetical to the asceticism embraced by the Cloister.[26]

          In 1995 Jeffrey Bach, at that time a doctoral student in the Religion Department of Duke University,  was awarded a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission “to serve seven weeks as scholar in residence at the Ephrata Cloister.”[27]  Bach has been called the “Rosetta Stone” of the Ephrata Cloister for the insights his research provided in comprehending the religious community that Beissel led.[28]  Bach’s dissertation furnishes a complete overview of the religious practices found at Ephrata.  Beginning with the social and religious contexts surrounding the development of the Cloister, Bach extends his research into Beissel’s religious thought, other Cloister writers’ thought, religious practices, gender issues, architecture, time, language, music, folk art (Frakturschriften), and magic.  Based on research in the original sources, almost all of which are in German, Bach reconstructs the identity of the Cloister’s inhabitants with an exegesis of the unique religious language employed by the community to conceive their rituals.  Bach’s ability to define the theological purpose behind the rituals of Beissel’s community enabled the museum staff to add a new dimension to the Cloister’s interpretation—the reasons behind the sect’s ascetic lifestyle. 

          One example of how Bach’s research provided insight into the motivations for the behavior of Beissel and his followers can be found in his exploration of their fasting practices.  Bach points out that Beissel and many of the other members of the community held to a strict diet of only one meal per day.  Some of Beissel’s instructions regarding food were as follows:  “Keep a clean table provided with well disciplined meals; yet eat at all times of God’s holy essence.”[29]  Bach highlights that Gottfried Arnold’s thought had a major influence on the community’s practice of fasting.[30]  He also explains that Beissel and, most likely, other members of the community who suffered as “religious refugees” may not have found the fasting ritual outside of their experience on the Continent.[31]  But what makes Bach’s research unique is that he examines how Ephrata writing “links diets and the spiritual life.”[32]  Boehme, Beissel’s philosophical mentor, taught that “[biblical] Adam’s paradisic body needed no bowels nor elimination.”[33]  Beissel, Bach argues, “may have believed that spiritual rebirth and asceticism could restore the body to the paradisic state of Adam.”[34]   In other words, according to Bach, Beissel subscribed to the notion that by denying the body food, and therefore limiting “elimination,” he could achieve a “paradisic body.”[35]  Bach goes on to argue that fasting “provided an important avenue by which Ephrata’s celibates sought the fullness of God’s presence.”[36]  By disciplining their earthly need for food the community was encouraged, explicitly by Beissel, to fill that bodily void with “God’s presence.”  Prior to Bach’s revelations, the information about the celibates one meal per day routine was presented as one of many odd facts about the Cloister devoid of any meaning or logical causation.  After Bach’s research was incorporated into the interpretation, fasting was placed into a theological context.  This context clarified that the celibates were attempting to “be like God” by denying their earthly need for food.[37]   Needless to say, Bach’s research demonstrates a connection between the celibates’ daily routines and theological motives that revolved around the desire to enter into a mystical union with God.

          Michael Showalter, who now serves as the Museum Educator at the site, also began in 1995 “rereading [source material] for tiny details of everyday life” at the Cloister.[38]  Showalter’s research was instrumental in constructing an interpretative exhibit that would permit the public to place the full narrative of Ephrata’s history into a broader cultural, historical, theological, and material context.  Showalter’s thesis shares the majority of its title, “Prelude to the New World:  An Introduction to the Ephrata Cloister Orientation Exhibition,” with the visitor center exhibition titled, “Prelude to the New World:  An Introduction to the Ephrata Cloister,” which resulted from the research.[39]  In fact, Showalter’s thesis serves as a basis for the exhibit and also is a key element in the interpretative training of park volunteers and staff.[40]  The exhibit utilizes a variety of visual, material, and literary sources, many of which are genuine artifacts (although some reproductions are used) traceable to either the Cloister or the appropriate historical time period.   Furthermore, the orientation exhibit traces the life of Beissel from Germany to Pennsylvania utilizing Beissel’s own writings, hymns, and sources for his unusual theological praxis.[41]  The exhibit familiarizes the visitor with the unique architectural value of the remaining buildings[42] and describes building methods and materials.  Finally, the orientation exhibit traces the history of Ephrata through its historical transition from a religious commune in the eighteenth century, to an established denomination church in the early nineteenth century, to a tourist attraction and public history site in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[43]  The orientation that the exhibit provides points to the opportunity that archaeology, academic, and local research offers the continuing and complex story of the Cloister.

 

III.  REINTERPRETING EPHRATA

          As a result of the insights furnished by contemporary scholars and researchers, investigating the how and why of the Cloister’s unique religious culture, a shift was made in the official interpretation of the site.  Though the foundational elements of the 1941-2000 interpretation remain, there has been the addition of theological praxis in everyday life combined with the acquisition of material culture recovered through either purchase or archaeology, and a revival of “personalism” added to the interpretation.[44]  Bach and Showalter’s academic research was vital to the interpretation of day-to-day life at the site and Warfel’s archaeological exploration continues to offer material data.  The desire to present a holistic interpretation of the site was made possible by incorporating ongoing research into a thematic presentation of how the Cloister community thought and lived in the eighteenth century.

          The guided tour of the Cloister begins in the visitors’ center with an introductory video of fifteen minutes.[45]  An actor playing Peter Miller, Beissel’s successor at the Cloister, speaks with a thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent as he narrates the history of the early Cloister.[46]  The video provides an interpretation of the Cloister similar to that found in the visitors center orientation exhibit with the exception that it does not bring the visitor up to the present day.  At the conclusion of the video a guide enters the room clad in a white robe reproduced to match the eighteenth century Peter Miller character in the video.  From this point the tour proceeds outdoors where visitors flow from building to building examining the Germanic architecture of Beissel’s house, Saal (the Meetinghouse), and Saron (the Sisters’ House), while learning more about the religious beliefs and practices of the Cloister.[47]  The information provided by the guides varies to some degree with their historical knowledge and their time on staff.  Within each of the buildings there has been an attempt to locate material artifacts that best give a sense of what happened in that space during the eighteenth century.  This integration of “personalism” is readily apparent in the women’s dormitory rooms and common eating area.  Throughout Saron the rooms are outfitted with the appropriate furnishings.  The common eating area has tables, dishes, cups, and utensils consistent with the number of women who would have eaten there, along with suitable kitchenware.  The items on display are presented with as much historical accuracy as possible (though many, if not most, of these material artifacts are reproductions).  Throughout the tour the guide explains the daily life of the celibates in terms of theological motivation.  The artist expression of the Cloister, the harsh work ethic, the lack of food, the lack of sleep, and the practice of having devotions six times per day are all explained within the context of practicing theology.  At the end of the guided tour the visitor can walk the grounds of the Cloister and examine other historic buildings on the site.  Most of the buildings have an exhibit that explains the building’s function in the community and usually includes some form of an artifact, whether historic or modern reproduction, to covey this meaning.  All of the buildings and their exhibits contribute to developing the narrative of the Cloister from the eighteenth century until the present.

Clearly, the Cloister has attempted to present a narrative of this historic site in terms that

resonant with the public at large, the region, and vested local interests.  However, the challenge of offering new stories about any site, especially when it affects a traditional interpretation of the space, is whether those stories can fit into the mission and vision for the site.  The change of interpretation motivated by ongoing research meshes easily with the mission statement of the Cloister:  “The mission of the Ephrata Cloister is to preserve and interpret the site and it [sic] history as a meaningful example of religious toleration and intellectual freedom in the New World and its relevance to everyday life today.”[48]  Though the mission statement pays homage to museum studies by employing such wording as “preserve” and “interpret,”[49] and is also defined by drawing on Penn’s colonial experiment in “religious toleration and intellectual freedom,” the mission statement does attempt to connect the forgotten past of the Cloister with “everyday life today.”  The desire to make the past relevant to the present provides “a sense of history [that] locates us in society, with knowledge that helps us gain a sense of with whom we belong, connecting our personal experiences and memories with those of a larger community, region, and nation.”[50]  This element of the mission statement serves both the public and the museum staff in defining a major obstacle for historic sites and their visitors—“What does this historical location mean for me and my life in a postmodern world?”  This question is valid and necessary in a contemporary world that assigns value to objects, places, and institutions according to pragmatic concerns and benefits.  The museum staff’s desire to connect the religious thought and praxis of Ephrata with the “everyday life” of visitors can be found in the visitor’s brochure:

“Today, only a fraction of the Cloister’s 18th century heritage remains.  Yet, the story of a people anticipating Paradise [sic] by starting a spiritual quest to unite with God persists.  We may look upon the actions of these pioneers as different from ones we would choose for ourselves, but the desire for a better life rests within everyone.  Ephrata is one expression of that desire.”[51]

 

The redefined mission and expanded interpretation of the Cloister is readily identifiable in this simple paragraph.  There is a clear recognition of the theological imperatives that motivated the commune’s mystical desire for oneness with God.  Even more interesting is the designation of Beissel and his followers as “pioneers.”  This selection of wording implies that the individuals who called the Cloister home were actively engaged in a distinctly American struggle against prevailing social mores regarding religion, consumerism, and living arrangements.  The paragraph closes with the hopeful reminder that “the desire for a better life rests within everyone.”  This phrase too conjures up the American patriotic idealism about foreign people coming to the United States seeking a more fulfilling life rooted in American individualism.  Likewise, the statement connects visitors with the past by acknowledging that all of humanity strives for the same “desire,” though often cloaked in different garb.  However, the most interesting aspect of the closing sentences is in the postmodern articulation of Ephrata as an example of the “better life.”  By refusing to make any value assessments about daily life, theological perspective, and the community’s unique living arrangements, the statement encourages visitors to see the Ephrata Cloister as a vibrant example of what fuels all human activity at its most fundamental level—a desire for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

 

CONCLUSION

          The Ephrata Cloister provides an unique case study of how theology can facilitate the historical interpretation of a religious site.  Though archaeology, reinterpretation of historic texts, and the recovery of material artifacts are common in developing site interpretation, the implementation of a historical theologian’s findings appears to be unique, especially at a state-funded site.  Interestingly, the committee involved in approving the Cloister’s revised interpretation chose not to move towards a more objective, secular story.  Instead, the decision was made to provide explanation and theological grounding for the behavior of Beissel’s community.[52]  William J. Lewis, in his book Interpreting for Park Visitors, argues that history becomes more compelling “when its human aspects are emphasized.”[53]  Lewis encourages park interpreters with the advice that the, “more specific you can be about the people who were once involved in your site’s history, the more effective you will be.”[54]  By telling a more holistic story of Ephrata, the museum offers visitors more than an interesting visual, material, and social experience.  The museum provides the visitor with an opportunity to understand the reasons for the Cloister’s existence, lifestyle, and decision to live as a community.  Furthermore, by placing the story of the Cloister within the larger context of Anabaptist and Pietist church history, the site provides visitors a glimpse into religious thought of early modern Europe and early America.  In a similar manner, the robust nature of this interpretative project connects with the holistic nature of human life.  By accepting the reality that most of humanity worships some form of a Creator, the Cloister appeals to “the whole man that the visitor represents” and connects at a variety of levels that ignite the imagination.[55]  This aspect of the Cloister’s revised interpretative plan presents a notable example for other historical sites.  By accepting the good, bad, the confused, and the controversial the site offers visitors a wide range of stories to learn and to take with them.[56]  Ephrata’s bold interpretive experiment provides the public with an opportunity, outside of a historic church tour, to learn about the significant role that religion and theological nuances have played in American history.[57]  Regardless of opinions that visitors or others may hold about the church-state issues involved, the story of America’s religious history needs to be told and the Ephrata Cloister has provided a model for examining that legacy in a professional and responsible manner.


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Beissel, Georg Conrad.  Some Theological Maxims or Rules of the

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Clouser, Roy A.  The Myth of Religious Neutrality:  An Essay on the

Hidden Role of Religious Beliefs in Theories.  Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame, 1991.

 

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Settlement of the Dunkers at Ephrata, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania By Redmond Conyngham, Esq.  To Which is Added A Short History of That Religious Society By the Late Rev. Christian Endress.  Publisher Unknown, 1826.

 

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_____.  Ephrata Cloister:  Anticipating Paradise, A Community’s Earthy

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University, Harrisburg, 1998.

 

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Commission, 1998.

 

Warfel, Stephen G.  Historical Archaeology at Ephrata Cloister:  A

Report on 2001 Investigations.  Harrisburg, PA:  Pennsylvania

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[1] Diane Barthel argues that in America “preservation initially served as one means of social integration:  not just of classes but, equally important, of the increasingly diverse racial and ethnic populations.  The homes of local heroes, revolutionary leaders, and of presidents were meant to teach civic obedience both to new generations and to new immigrants arriving through the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  They helped construct civic identities.”  Diane Barthel, Historic Preservation:  Collective Memory and Historical Identity  (New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press, 1996), 33. 

 

[2] Two prime examples of patriotic historic preservation are evident in the selection of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  See Patricia West,  Domesticating History:  The Political Origins of America’s House Museums  (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999).  Also see, Diane Barthel, Historic Preservation, 20.

 

[3] William T. Alderson and Shirley Payne-Low explain that “[s]eldom are historic buildings saved because a group of knowledgeable people, armed with detailed research reports, has reached a dispassionate and logical conclusion that a building ought to be acquired.”  Rather, more often than not, historic sites are saved by preservationists in response to the proposed sale or destruction of a property that has an “old and revered” status within the community.  William T. Alderson and Shirley Payne Low,  Interpretation of Historic Sites, 2nd ed.  (Walnut Creek, CA:  Alta Mira Press, 1996), 8.

 

[4] It should be noted that the National Register for Historical Places limits the selection of a religious site to its quantifiable qualities such as “architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance,” and limits the historical significance of “properties owned by religious institutions or used for religious purposes” on religious merit alone.  National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Code of Federal Regulations: Title 36 Parks, Forests, and Public Property, Part 60 National Register of Historic Places,  (Washington, D.C., 1981).

 

[5] Martin E. Marty and Jonathan Moore describe the common arguments against public religion or recognition of religion in the political-civic sphere as founded on the idea that religion “has no place in a democratic republic” because of its divisiveness, its disruptive qualities, and its tendency towards violence.  See, Martin E. Marty and Jonathan Moore,  Politics, Religion, and the Common Good:  Advancing A Distinctly American Conversation About Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life  (San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass, 2000), 41.

 

[6] James W. Skillen, when commenting on the role of religion in the public square, argues “[a] strict spearationist position on religion . . . insists that religion can be predefined as a private affair and that the public order is neutrally secular.  While this position aims to shut out other views of religion from public life, it remains unselfconscious about the deep religious character of its own comprehensive point of view, which it wants to impose.  The fact is that what underlies the religious/secular division of life is a comprehensive view of reality, with roots in the Enlightenment, that designates traditional religion as private and modern politics as secular.”  James W., Skillen,  “The Theoretical Roots of Equal Treatment,” in Equal Treatment of Religion in a Pluralistic Society,  ed. Stephen V. Monsma and J. Christopher Soper  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1998), 73.  Also see, Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality:  An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Beliefs in Theories  (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame, 1991).

 

[7] Despite the fact that the original religious community located at Ephrata never referred to the site as a cloister or commune, throughout this paper I will refer the community established at Ephrata in 1735, as well as the current historical site managed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as the Ephrata Cloister for geographic and literary clarity.

[8] The main material culture exhibit in the Cloister’s visitor center titled, “Prelude to the New World:  An Introduction to the Ephrata Cloister,” builds upon the European turbulence that brought Beissel to the New World when it states, “The illustrations in the Martyrs Mirror [the famous religious publication of the Cloister] speak of the persecution and turmoil in the Old World.  America provided an escape;  Pennsylvania offered freedom.” 

 

[9] Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1992), 70-71.

 

[10] Beissel was introduced by friends to several different theologically experimental groups.  He was first exposed to Pietist thought that focused on “inner devotion” and ethical living, combined with a “fresh study of the Bible and the early church.”  Later, Beissel came under the influence of Inspirationists who believed that they were “possessed by the Holy Spirit” and provided evidence of their peculiar pneumatology by having “visions, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), miracles, and prophecy.”  The next and greatest influence on Beissel’s religious thought was the writings of fellow German, Jakob Boehme, a renowned mystical philosopher.  E. G. Alderfer,  The Ephrata Commune:  An Early American Counterculture  (Pittsburgh, PA:  University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 18-19.  Also see, Walter C. Klein,  Joann Conrad Beissel:  Mystic and Martinet, 1690-1768  (Philadelphia, PA:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942), 41-42.

 

[11] Christian Endress, “History of the Society,” in An Account of the Settlement of the Dunkers at Ephrata, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania By Redmond Conyngham, Esq.  To Which is Added A Short History of That Religious Society By the Late Rev. Christian Endress  (Publisher Unknown, 1826), 151.

 

[12] Michael S. Showalter, Anticipating Paradise:  Music of Hope and Praise from Early Communities  (Ephrata, PA:  Ephrata Cloister Associates, 2000), 2-5.

 

[13] The guide for the Cloister published jointly with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Stackpole Books (2000) still contextualizes the Ephrata Cloister within Penn’s vision of religious freedom for the colony.  John Bradley,  Ephrata Cloister:  Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide  (Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000), 7-11.

 

[14] John Bradley,  Ephrata Cloister:  Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide, 10.  Interestingly, in contrast to the positive narrative associated with most official literature of Penn’s vision, Daniel B. Shea argues that the “history of early Pennsylvania, whoever tells it, records the failure of Penn’s Holy Experiment.”  Shea points out that Penn’s Quaker vision of “applying the Sermon on the Mount to the governing of men” was difficult to manage when the dislike of political power, ideals regarding public morality, and pacifistic convictions came face to face with the everyday realities of corrupt power struggles, immoral human actions, and “Indian attacks.”  Daniel B. Shea,  Spiritual Autobiography in Early America  (Madison, WI:  The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 6-7.

 

[15] Interestingly, John B. B. Trussell, Jr. argues that for Penn “religious toleration did not mean that he agreed that there could be different ideas of truth, but only that in spiritual matters all people had the right to be wrong.”  Therefore, though Penn may not have agreed with Beissel’s spiritual experiment he would have embraced it as a valid expression of faith similar to his own Quaker belief.  See, John B. B. Trussell Jr.  William Penn:  Architect of a Nation  (Harrisburg, PA:  Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1998), 70.

 

[16] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”  Vincent Wilson, Jr. ed., The Book of Great American Documents  (Brookeville, MD:  American History Research Associates, 1998), 48.

[17] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Cloister [brochure] (Harrisburg, PA, 1997).

 

[18] Michael S. Showalter, Museum Educator, interviewed by author, 20 June 2002, Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

 

[19] Bruce J. Noble, Jr. argues that “Parks throughout the nation offer fertile terrain for countless books and dissertations, and park managers should try to supplement scarce research funds through collaborative projects  with neighboring academic institutions.”  Bruce J. Noble, Jr., “At Historical Parks:  Balancing a Multitude of Interests,"” in Public History:  Essays From the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia  (Malabar, FL:  Krieger Publishing Company, 1999), 283.  Also see, Freeman Tilden,  Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed.  (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 23.  To the Cloister’s credit, and in accord with Noble’s suggestion, several institutions have close links with the museum.  The Church of the Brethren denomination has two higher educational institutions under its influence, Elizabethtown College and Bethany Theological Seminary, contributing in one form or another to historical, theological, and cultural study of the Cloister.  Religious historian Donald F. Durnbaugh has contributed greatly to the understanding of the Ephrata Cloister through his research and writing on early American Anabaptists, much of which has been published by the denomination’s press.  Elizabethtown College is affiliated with the Cloister by supporting the annual summer archaeological dig at the site (in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission), as well as through their Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups.  For a comprehensive bibliography of the research available on the Cloister available through Elizabethtown College see, Jobie E. Riley,  Ephrata Cloister, A Bibliography:  1945-2000  (Elizabethtown, PA:  Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist and Pietist Groups, Elizabethtown College, 2000).  Finally, the Ephrata Cloister Associates founded in 1958, which is a non-profit organization that offers membership to any interested individual for a small fee, provides financial support for educational programming, special functions (i.e., Ephrata Cloister Choral, Summer Evening Tours, etc.), and purchases original artifacts and antiques associated with the Cloister so that they can be returned to the museum’s archival collection.

 

[20] In 1989-1990 there was test archaeology done on the site for a future fire suppression system that led to the discovery of building foundations.  This information coupled with the renewed interest in the Cloister’s material evidence led to establishment of an annual summer archaeological dig at the site.  There were, however, previous archaeological explorations at the Cloister in 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1966.  Michael S. Showalter, Museum Educator, interviewed by author, 20 June 2002, Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

 

[21] Stephen G. Warfel, Historical Archaeology at Ephrata Cloister:  A Report on 2001 Investigations  (Harrisburg, PA:  Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002), 1.

 

[22] Hardesty and Little point out that the oral and literary record of a site may not provide information beyond “the insiders’ view of just a few literate people from a socially and politically dominate group that may or may not correspond to with the grassroots data about actual behavior coming from archaeology.”  Therefore, archaeological evidence can provide a unique perspective on the actual everyday lives of individuals who lived on the site that may conflict with the written record, but could provide important insights into actual living conditions and behaviors.  Donald L. Hardesty and Barbara J. Little,  Assessing Site Significance:  A Guide Archaeologists and Historians  (New York:  Alta Mira Press, 2000), 67.

 

[23] Stephen G. Warfel, Historical Archaeology at Ephrata Cloister:  A Report on 2001 Investigations, 2.

 

[24] Jeffrey A. Bach to author, August 28, 2002, email, personal collection.

[25] The best example of this new interpretation is found in the exploration of the Mount Zion site on the Cloister property.  The site was home to a splinter sect at the Cloister led by a former follower of Beissel.  According to the archaeological evidence this religious group functioned in “‘main stream’ culture of Early America” by satisfying their “growing desires for material goods through purchase,” which apparently is not as evident in the Beissel’s community down the hill.  Ibid., 16.

 

[26] Warfel believes that the evidence from the Mount Zion site provides an opportunity “to tell the story of the community’s persistent struggle with influences of the outside world.” Ibid., 28.

 

[27] Jeffrey A. Bach, “Voices of the Turtledoves:  The Mystical Language of the Ephrata Cloister”  (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1997), 485.  Jeffrey A. Bach to author, 8 August 2002, email, personal collection.

 

[28] Michael S. Showalter, Museum Educator, interviewed by author, 20 June 2002, Ephrata, Pennsylvania. However, Dr. Bach humbly believes that the Ephrata staff “are a bit overly generous and enthusiastic about my work.”  Jeffrey A. Bach to author, 14 July 2002, email, personal collection.

 

[29] Georg Conrad Beissel,  Some Theological Maxims or Rules of the Solitary Life, trans. Michelle S. Long, ed. Nadine A. Steinmetz  (Ephrata, 1752;  reprint, Ephrata, PA:  Ephrata Cloister Associates, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1991), 40.

 

[30] Jeffrey A. Bach, “Voices of the Turtledoves:  The Mystical Language of the Ephrata Cloister,” 200.

 

[31] Ibid., 201.

 

[32] Ibid., 203.

 

[33] Ibid., 202.

 

[34] Ibid., 201.

 

[35] Ibid., 202.

 

[36] Ibid., 206.

 

[37] Michael S. Showalter, Museum Educator, interviewed by author, 20 June 2002, Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

 

[38] Ibid.

[39] Michael S. Showalter,  “Prelude to the New World:  An Introduction to the Ephrata Cloister Orientation Exhibition”  (M.A. thesis, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, 1998).

 

[40] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Guide Manual: Ephrata Cloister [unpublished manuscript] (Ephrata, PA, 2000).

 

[41] William J. Lewis indicates in his approach to presenting history that providing “excerpts from diaries, letters and poetry they wrote; singing songs they used to sing or listen to;  describing a meal they might have eaten;  revealing the concern they had for political and social issues;  portraying their energy situations;  discussing familial relationships;  showing blowups of old photos, prints and artwork” offer the visitor a humanized portrait of the site that can be “carried back home.” William J. Lewis,  Interpreting for Park Visitors  (Philadelphia, PA:  Eastern Acorn Press, 1980), 98.

 

[42] According to the exhibit only eight of the original thirty buildings survive today.

 

[43] This history of the historical site is useful because it allows visitors the opportunity to see that even tourists of one hundred years ago came to the Cloister grounds to gawk at the remnants of this religious community.  One exhibit station has a newspaper article from the era that reads, “The society would be pleased to have no cranks with Kodak cameras and [people with] misrepresentations publish glowing newspaper reports of any matters of the ancient Cloister at Ephrata”  (“Fair Play,” The Daily Intellegencer, August 4, 1893).

 

[44] According to James M. Lindgren “personalism” was the 19th century approach to historical interpretation that was utilized by women before the professionalization of historic preservation by men.  “Personalism” focused on “those old-time interiors, crafts, and manners that seemed most associated with the revered founders of the nation, leaders of their town, or patriarchs (and matriarchs) of their family.  With its focus on the interconnectedness of spirit, body, and nature, personalism placed importance on an artifact’s ties to such values as individual character, love of family, respect for community, personal intimacy, and humility before God.  Put simply, personalism stressed the material and immaterial bonds that made people human.”  James M. Lindgren,  “‘A New Departure in Historical Patriotic Work’:  Personalism, Professionalism, and Conflicting Concepts of Material Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,”  The Public Historian  18,  no. 2  (Spring 1996):  44.

 

[45] Anticipating Paradise:  Introduction to the Ephrata Cloister, prod. Commonwealth Media Services, 15 min., Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2001, videocassette.

 

[46] Key to the interpretative strategy of the Cloister is Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage.  Tilden’s six interpretative principles are the foundation of all that the museum has endeavored to accomplish in presenting the story of the Cloister.  Michael S. Showalter, Museum Educator, interviewed by author, 20 June 2002, Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

 

[47] During my interview with Michael Showalter he mentioned that tour guides are often mistaken for members of the original church, which has long been defunct.  On my last visit to the Cloister, prior to writing this case study, I witnessed an interaction between a tour guide and a visitor that reveals how confusing the robes and video are to visitors who have no context in which to place a historical religious site.  Upon entering the visitors’ center a tour guide and visitor entered directly after me, the visitor asked the guide, “So, how long have you lived here?”  At which time the guide smiled and explained that he was a retired teacher who volunteers at the site.  Needless to say, having guides dressed as authentically as possible does present some problems for interpretation if there are not clear markers to help the guests understand that the Cloister is not a functioning religious commune.

[48] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Guide Manual: Ephrata Cloister [unpublished manuscript] (Ephrata, PA, 2000).

 

[49] Kenneth L. Ames argues that most museum mission statements “pay homage in some form to the museum profession’s own trinity: collecting, preserving, and interpreting” without evidence that these activities are even “sufficiently empowering.”  See, Kenneth L. Ames,  “Finding Common Threads:  An Afterword,”  in Ideas and Images:  Developing Interpretive History Exhibits,  ed. Kenneth L. Ames, Barbara Franco, and L. Thomas Frye  (Nashville, TN:  American Association for State and Local History, 1992), 314.

[50] David Glassberg,  Sense of History:  The Place of the Past in American Life  (Amherst, MA:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 7.

 

[51] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,  Ephrata Cloister:  Anticipating Paradise, A Community’s Earthy Life and Heavenly Quest [brochure]  (Ephrata, PA, 2001).

[52] In my interview with Museum Educator, Michael Showalter, he indicated that four themes drive the interpretation of the Cloister for the public:  theology, economy, community, and legacy.  Though not reflected in the mission statement of the site, these thematic impulses are easily seen in all the exhibits, the cultural landscape, and guided tours of the site.  Michael S. Showalter, Museum Educator, interviewed by author, 20 June 2002, Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

 

[53] William J. Lewis,  Interpreting for Park Visitors  (Philadelphia, PA:  Eastern Acorn Press, 1980), 98.

 

[54] Ibid.

 

[55] Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage, 3rd ed.  (Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 44-45.

 

[56] Linda Shopes indicates that most public history sites suffer from a “public stance of ‘optimism’” that prevents an open and honest criticism of the site’s history.  The Ephrata Cloister may be unique in their approach to providing a balanced historical narrative.  The tour guides do not paint an overly positive picture, the introductory video raises questions about a volatile situation within the eighteenth century commune, and the revision of the official interpretation of the site indicates that the history of the Cloister is open to scholarly and critical re-evaluation.  See, Linda Shopes,  “Building Bridges Between Academic and Public History,”  The Public Historian  19,  no. 2  (Spring 1997):  54.

 

[57] Catherine Howlett states that “Extraordinary educational and interpretive models are emerging at sites around the country, particularly where curators and administrators are willing to take risks.”  The Ephrata Cloister museum definitely fits within Howlett’s praise because of the site’s willingness to address issues, such as theology and tradition, by utilizing recent research.  See, Catherine Howlett,  “Integrity as a Value in Cultural Landscape Preservation,” in Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, with a foreword by Dolores Hayden,  ed. Arnold R. Alanen and Robert Z. Melnick  (Baltimore, MD:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 206.