Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ephrata Cloister

If you're considering giving up your secular life to become a brother or sister of the Ephrata Cloister, I have a few words of advice for you.

The sisters' dorm is five stories.

First, you might want to leave your aubergine zoot suit at home.  And your steak knife.  Leave that at home, too.  Oh, and never, ever get in a pillow fight with your brethren.

These things will help you get started as a follower of Conrad Beissel—a young baker who left the Palatinate region of what is now Germany to seek religious freedom in Penn's Colony in 1720.

Along his spiritual journey in Pennsylvania, Beissel joined a group of Anabaptists. But in 1732, he decided to become a hermit and find his own path.

He must have had quite a magnetic personality, because people followed after him and set up a camp nearby, and Beissel took on the role of spiritual leader.

He believed that men and women were equal, but should be separate and celibate—so the women had their own dorm and worship space, as did the men—and that all should wear white robes.

Still interested in joining the brotherhood?

As a new member, here's what you can expect. You'll start your day at 5:00 a.m. and work until 9:00 a.m. At that time, you'll stop to pray for an hour.  Notice anything missing? Yeah—breakfast.

At 10:00 a.m., you'll go back to work until 1:00 p.m., at which time you'll stop to pray. No lunch. Sorry.

Then you'll work from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and if you haven't fainted from malnourishment, you'll sit down to dinner. Hope you like vegetables.

Then it's work, work, work until 9:00 p.m. when you get to collapse into bed. Yep, now you can curl up on that cozy pine board measuring 18" wide x 6' long. Oh, and that 4" x 4" x 10" block of wood? That's your pillow.  Zzzzzzz

Up and at 'em! It's midnight, and we have to be ready for Christ's second coming.  So you'll worship for two hours, and at 2:00 a.m.—provided the Lord hasn't returned and whisked you off to heaven—you'll crawl back onto your board for three more hours and start all over again.

So why the harsh living arrangements? Here are Beissel's thoughts. God doesn't eat or sleep, so we should curtail our sleep and curb our appetites.  Deep sleep invites dreams where evil thoughts can enter our minds.  Regarding being celibate—each of you will "marry" God when you get to heaven, so why bother getting married here on earth?

At its peak, the cloister had 40 buildings, 250 acres, and 300 members.  The brothers worked a tannery and grain-, linseed-, paper-, saw-, and fulling mills. The sisters tended to the gardens, produced textiles, and drew ornate bible verses on large sheets of paper which were hung on the walls.

The buildings were built in traditional German style with steep roofs, dormer windows (that were randomly placed), and low doorways and ceilings. The shingles were tapered top to bottom and side to side.

The brothers and sisters were a benevolent bunch—feeding and giving (warm and comfy) beds to travelers for free. They also helped new settlers build homes and distributed goods to the poor. During the Revolutionary War, the sisters' dorm became a makeshift hospital where the brethren tended to 260 sick and wounded soldiers.

In 1813, the last celibate member died, and householders (non-celibate members who lived in homes near the cloister) took over caring for the property. In 1941, the state of Pennsylvania purchased the cloister and restored the buildings that remained.

Today, the cloister sits on 28 acres and has nine buildings that visitors can tour.

And if you're still thinking about becoming a brother or sister, you can even try out one of the "beds" during your visit. That might clinch your decision.


Sharon Kwilter said...

They had some nice examples of woodwork! Thanks for sharing.

But, about the lifestyle, no wonder they died out...

Ross Henton said...

Kari, two questions...

Have you seen dovetailed hinges like these in the past? I've never seen anything remotely like it.

Is that an open tray with angled sides below the top of the desk? Can you tell us anything else about it?

Thanks! What beautiful work.

Bubba Squirrel said...

Kari--please tell us about the piece in the second frame of the first group. What was it's intended use? What was the tray looking thing for? How did it work?

Kari Hultman said...

Shasha—interestingly, it was not celibacy that caused the cloister's demise (the same goes for Shakers). It was the zeitgeist of the time. People were moving away from communal living and spirituality. The outside world was becoming more affluent and materialistic. Towns were building up around them and influencing them. So people began leaving the cloister.

Ross, I have seen pintle hinges, but have never seen sliding dovetail hinges or battens before this. I don't know if it's a German technique or if the carpenters at the cloister came up with it. If anyone has an answer, I'd love to know.

Ross and Bubba Squirrel, the tables with open trays beneath the top are reproductions. I asked about them during the tour and the guide indicated that the reproductions were based on either what they thought the brothers and sisters would have used or what they found at the cloister. I wasn't really clear on what he was saying. This is the first time I had seen tables like this. The trays were mortised at the four corners so they slid down onto the sawbuck legs. Because of the legs' angles, the tray was wedged in place without any fasteners. I imagine they used it like they might a drawer. If the table was in a study, then maybe the tray held books and writing instruments. If it was in a kitchen, then maybe the tray held cutting utensils and towels. It was a neat feature on the tables, for sure.

Ross Henton said...

Thanks, Kari. I found another photo of it (or a table like it, also at the cloister) here:

This one raises still more curiosity for me... Because of the protruding dowels below the top.


upriver said...

I am not deeply religious (actually, not even shallowly religious) but I believe sleep to be the closest thing most of us ever get to a legal mystical experience. Thusly, sleep should be encouraged and afforded all possible sacred status.

Kari Hultman said...

Ross, the dowels pin the legs to the drawer runner. The runners are attached to the top by way of sliding dovetails. It's a traditional sawbuck table except for the tray beneath the top. And actually that may also be traditional, but I've only ever seen one at the cloister. I built a PA German sawbuck table. If you'd like to see the building process, go to my blog entry entitled "Sawbuck Table: Finished!" (you can enter it in the search bar). That post gives you links to all the other blog posts about building the table.

Upriver, I'm with you. I think that Beissel's reasoning behind the sleep and food deprivation is a little (a lot!) wacky anyhow.

Brian said...

I love those wooden hinges,ive been dabbling with wooden hinges myself lately , as for the bed! well tempting as it looks I think i'll give it a miss. Thanks for sharing this :)

Ross Henton said...

Ah, I see. I'd read the sawbuck table journey before, but missed that detail. It was the protrusion of the dowels that threw me... Are they removable, so the table can be disassembled? Or is the fac that they're not cut to flush purely aesthetic?

Anonymous said...

Huh - I live that life already, just kind of happened into it - who knew that it was a "thing" back in the day. Well, other than all that work stuff - I tend to spend some of my waking hours commenting on stuff on random sites on the internet rather than tanning hides. I know, I'm slackin' here. Back to it...

Anonymous said...

Regarding doors made with sliding dovetailed keys: When my grandfather was a boy, his father bought an old farm in Shenandoah valley Va. There was an old spring house on the property with a door made from slats secured with a wedged dovetail key. He made the cabinets in his house the same way and I have used it to make lids for chests. I've never needed to adjust the key to accomodate seasonal movement. I drive them tight, pin the small end with a healthy dowel and it takes care of itself. Love your blog.

Harlan Barnhart

Bob said...

I suspect I'd also be waiting for the "rapture" if I lived there. Or maybe someone to come in and murder me in my bed. Either one.

Kari Hultman said...

Brian, aren't those cool hinges? They are very fun to build and very practical.

Ross, the dowels are removable. Once removed, you can remove the drawer supports (this is on the one that I built). At that point, you remove the wedges in the stretcher and remove the legs. The legs then pull apart with lap joints. A very fun project and no hardware.

Anon, I hope you have a softer pillow than they used at the cloister, at least. ; )

Harlan, I'd love to see photos of the chests you made. They sound very cool. Feel free to shoot me an email:

Bob, I'd take death over discomfort any day. heh.