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Saturday, August 21
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Ephrata Cloister, among America’s earliest and most highly revered religious communities, was founded in 1732 by German settlers who worked to reach their spiritual goals rather than reap earthly rewards. Some of the earliest brethren resided in solitary homes- even caves in the woods- but, over times, the members gathered in unique European style buildings. At the outset, the core Ephrata community consisted of celibate Brothers and Sisters; from the commune’s earliest days, however, it welcomed a married congregation of families, although their households were located apart from the celibates.

At the zenith of the community in the 1740s and 1750s, about 300

ephrata_bethania_brothers_house

Bethania, the Ephrata Brother's House

members worked and worshiped at the Cloister. Today, the National Historic Landmark is open for tours, special programs, and on-going research opportunities.

Families have always played an important role in life at the Ephrata Cloister, and this is the chance for your entire household to discover the local heritage. From childhood through grandparents, there were jobs for everyone to keep families supplied with food, clothing and education. Here’s just a sample of some of the great things you can try on this special day:

  • become an apprentice
  • break flax
  • weave tape
  • help with colonial chores
  • draft a family tree with a quill pen
  • search for building clues
  • explore gravestone designs
  • learn about baking bread and make butter
  • try-on clothing from the 1700s
  • play games from long-ago
  • discover a different type of family in the Sisters’ House
           

 All activities are included with regular (low!) admission to the grounds.

For further information, see Ephrata Cloister’s site. It’s outstanding.
You might also enjoy these articles:

Ephrata Cloister, a Heretical Commune in Early Pennsylvania

Celibate, pacifist, vegetarian, Conrad Beissel’s Rosicrucian Pietists made Ephrata Cloister the longest-lived and the most successful commune in America.

Pacifist Rosicrucians Nursed the Continental Army Troops

Sister of the Roses of Sharon

Sister of the Roses of Sharon at Ephrata

German Pietists at Ephrata Cloister provided the principal hospital and nursing assistance for the Continental Army troops after the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown.

They approached from different angles, but the radical mystic Protestant theosophists of Ephrata and the evolving Enlightenment Age politicians of the emerging United States met at meaningful points.

George Washington Pardons Traitor Michael Widman

Reverend Peter Miller of the Ephrata Cloister taught George Washington a lesson in charity and the humane treatment of prisoners and criminals.


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Rosicrucian Digest claims that, “the Rosicrucian Order was the only society of its day which offered the services of its total membership to the shaky cause of liberty…Ephrata was the only American community to mobilize exactly 100% for the rehabilitation of the fallen.”

The Continental Congress pressed various religious communities to provide medical assistance during the Revolution. Unlike other groups, Ephrata did not ask for any reimbursement for their contributions and sacrifices, including the destruction of their homes and tabernacle; depletion of food stores, clothing, blankets, medical supplies, and trade inventories; the loss of priceless works of art and, in several cases, their lives. Steadfast pacifists, the brethren and sisters of Ephrata abhorred the war and refused to take up arms but, by acquiescing to the request from George Washington to tend to the wounded and dying of the Continental Army, they exposed themselves to the deadly typhus and smallpox infecting the troops.

battle of brandywine

Battle of Brandywine

Although the medical facilities at Ephrata became, per Army records, the “principal hospital for the sick and severely wounded at Brandywine,” the Pietist and Rosicrucian cloister’s participation in the Revolution neither begins nor ends with dressing the wounds suffered at the Battle of Brandywine.

Several among this commune of pacifist monks and sisters were not long out of hermetic caves in Cocalico or along the banks of the Wissahocken. To understand why Ephrata ultimately not simply accepted its fate, but embraced its role in the Revolutionary War, we have to look at why Ephrata was founded and, similarly, why its predecessor, Woman in the Wilderness, America’s first commune, crystallized around Johannes Kelpius.

Cynics might point out that Ephrata became a hospital because George Washington said it must and, indeed, he did. He offered Peter Miller, Ephrata’s spiritual leader, no true choice. The cloister was commandeered. Community members, riled, objected; some of them had been hermits but, when the topic turned to religion or government, they proved tenacious and argumentative. Intellectually, they were neither meek nor mild. They debated. Passively resisting the war machine, they insisted that the army take what it needed by force. They knew they would suffer severe material loss, and sacrifice the routines of their spiritual lives to tend to the immediate physical needs of others. They knew such service might kill them. In the end, the commune embraced its role. What looked from outside the commune like a seizure of property and the conscription of a hospital staff was transformed by the adepts of Ephrata into the work of the spirit, until it became, from within, an offering and a devotion to holy service.

As one soldier, grateful for the healing and soothing from the sisters of Roses

woman_wilderness_View_on_the_wissahickon_james_peale

View on the Wissahickon by James Peale

of Sharon said,

“Until I entered the walls of Ephrata, I had no idea of pure and practical Christianity. I knew it in theory before; I saw it in practice then.”

William Penn, Heretics, and the New World

In New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon writes of Bensalem, a place where “generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit” will reign. Bensalem inspired the founders of the Royal Society of London. At roughly the same time, the mid to late seventeenth century, Quakers in England were deported, imprisoned, or worse.

William Penn, a pacifist Quaker, was more or less paid off by King Charles II to round up all the heretics he could, haul them away from England and, for good measure, everywhere else in Europe, and drop them in America. Between what Quakers already owned and controlled of East and West Jersey, and the new grant to settle the debt of the Crown, Quakers controlled West Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Upon receipt of his charter, Penn wrote, “It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation,” a major tenet of which would be spiritual tolerance and the freedom to worship as one sees fit. Penn’s promotional literature, proselytizing tours through Europe, and Frame of Government emphasized religious freedom and open discourse, offering, at least in theory, the power to the populace to actively influence government.

Among Penn’s favorite regions in which to recruit were the Rhinelands and Lowlands of Germany. Penn extended invitations to all German Quakers, and he proved especially attractive to the Pietists. Francis Daniel Pastorius secured land from Penn, and the two collaborated on a plan for a “Germanopolis”– Germantown. Pastorius soon led a modest wave of Pietist immigration from Germany to Pennsylvania.

Aside from escaping persecution, the Pietists came because they thought that Europe and the Church were suffering the death rattles of unregenerate and irreversible spiritual decay. The Pietist groups were attracted by the promise of a true New World, one in which Christianity could be recalled from the profligate, restored, purified to the point that Christ, the Bridegroom, would return. Casting their eyes upon the old world, the Pietists marked the signs of the Apocalypse. Divine Judgment was imminent. The Pietists, like Noah, built an ark and sailed for a new land in which they could live rightly and be spared holy retribution. Distancing themselves from the old world, full of sin, they congregated in dens of peace and brotherhood to facilitate rediscovery of the truth long trampled by moral decline.

Cocooning in the Wilderness

Ten years after the founding of Germantown, a group of Pietists, who were also third-degree Rosicrucian adepts, took root in huts and caves on the ridge above the Wissahickon. Johannes Kelpius and his followers thought of themselves as the Chapter of Perfection. By “perfection,” Kelpius was referring to their task of “completing” a spiritual journey. In no way did the “monks of the ridge” regard themselves as “flawless.” Today, we refer to Kelpius’ group as Woman in the Wilderness. The study of the history of communes and intentional communities in America is incomplete without an understanding of Woman in the Wilderness.

woman_in_the_wilderness_Johannes_Kelpius

Johannes Kelpius

Johannes Kelpius left the Old World to find an unspoiled place in which, via study and prayer, he could prepare for the New Era. Mathematicians, theologians, astronomers, Kabbalists- Johannes Kelpius and forty fellow university scholars settled in the wilderness, on the spot, and during the year in which, they expected the Second Coming. By day, Kelpius and his brethren studied, worshiped, taught school, and plied trades: physician, architect, bookbinder, clockmaker. By night, they scanned the skies, eyes intent on the Millennium. The Bridegroom never arrived. However, the members of Woman in the Wilderness, learned men early in the Age of Enlightenment, were aware that they had come to a place of pure potential, a place where they could find the religious freedom and political rights essential to the world they wanted to inhabit and for which they were prepared to sacrifice.

In “The Messenger of the Magi,” published in the 1951 Rosicrucian Digest, Harold Preece writes,

Whatever the unrevealed purposes of the Masters, their intention had been clear choosing this young, new nation of the West as the place where majestic teachings would flower in august greatness. Here, eventually, free institutions would permit the free dissemination of noble, redeeming principles kept carefully guarded in older countries wracked by tyranny and torture. Here, truth would be left forever unchained to combat error through reason and logic. Here, seekers of the truth could be informed of the great Order, which waited graciously to serve them.

The hermits of the Wissahickon, the Pietists and Rosicrucians of Ephrata, all devout, skilled, intelligent, learned people, believed just as deeply as George Washington or any other of the founding fathers that America was a destination promised to the deserving. Like Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, the “monks of the ridge” and the later cloister sensed that the power to determine history, the capacity to influence the evolution of humanity was in their grasp.

They approached from different angles, but the radical mystic Protestant theosophists of Ephrata and the evolving Enlightenment Age politicians of the emerging United States met at meaningful points.


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Reverend Peter Miller of the Ephrata Cloister taught George Washington a lesson in charity and the humane treatment of prisoners and criminals.

  

Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.
— George Washington, 1776

 

The Patriot cause and the Continental Army received incalculable wartime aid from a commune of pacifist Rosicrucian scholars, the German Pietists of the Ephrata Cloister, beginning with the publication of the Declaration of Independence and lasting through the aftermath of the battles at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown. The men of Ephrata’s Brotherhood of Zion and the women of the Roses of Sharon furthered the Revolutionary efforts in various meaningful ways. Footnotes Since the Wilderness will look at several, but begin with an encounter between George Washington and Prior Jaebez, the Reverend Peter Miller.

Although a minor character in the Commander’s career, Peter Miller had- just perhaps- a profound impact on Washington.

George Washington

George Washington

A relatively arcane event may help explain one or more pardons Washington granted during the Revolution and, perhaps, his Presidency. Washington, by 1775, had documented his predisposition to treat enemies per the parameters of the humanitarian ideals evolving in the minds of the leaders of the young nation. That doesn’t mean that, a few years of disillusions, frustration, bloodshed and scattered betrayals down the road, the man didn’t require a little reminder of his own principles.

Peter Miller taught George Washington a lesson in forgiveness and charity when Miller petitioned the Commander in Chief to pardon the Cocalico tavern owner and convicted traitor, Michael Widman. Widman had been a vocal Patriot. After the colonies declared independence, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County had formed a Committee of Safety, and Michael Widman spearheaded that Committee from inception.

Following the nearby Battle of Brandywine and the British occupation of Philadelphia, General Howe dispatched two men, traveling in cognito, to gather intelligence near the Ephrata Cloister because, by that time, the cloister had become the principal hospital for Continental soldiers wounded near Brandywine. The men stopped for supper and lodging at Michael Widman’s tavern, a short ride from Ephrata. Widman spoke of General Howe in an uncomplimentary manner. His guests were murderously perturbed. Enemy pistol to his chest, Widman managed to break through the window to his rear, and escape into the black night. Fearing that his life depended upon finding refuge from his pursuers, he hid in the attic of the brother’s house at Ephrata. All Germantown knew that Widman, a prominent, combative member of the Reformed church, had serious issues with the heretics at Ephrata. The cloister was the last place the townspeople would expect to find Michael Widman.

Widman crouched behind the chimney in the attic of the Brotherhood of

Ephrata Brother's house

Ephrata Brother's house

Zion for three days. Hungry, sleepless, at wit’s end, he grew convinced he would be executed if discovered by the British. He resolved to leave Ephrata and head for Philadelphia, request an audience with General Howe, apologize for his loose tongue and beg for clemency. Widman stopped home to tell his wife of his plight. When he reached Philadelphia, Widman saw Howe. Widman offered General Howe the locations of the Rebel munitions stores.

The men of the scouting party at the tavern recognized Widman, and reminded Howe about the event. Widman was petrified. To save his neck, he offered every conceivable service to the British. General Howe, disgusted by the whimpering Widman, summarily dismissed him, unharmed. “Such a cowardly and contemptible man,” said Howe “could never be trusted in the Royal cause.”

Widman couldn’t even claim the honors due a rat. Meanwhile, his wife had told the authorities of his plan to betray the Continental Army. As soon as he emerged from behind British lines, militia seized and hauled him to the Block House in West Chester. At court-martial, he was convicted for treason.

Peter Miller was the only person who spoke on Widman’s behalf, not at his trial but, after walking overnight from Ephrata to Valley Forge—quite a hike- he spoke directly to George Washington. Washington received Miller with respect and grace. They knew one another. Washington was fully cognizant and heartily appreciative of the service that Ephrata, and Peter Miller, provided the Patriot cause.

Miller interceded between the Commander and his prisoner not, as Washington first assumed, because Widman and Miller were friends. To the contrary: Widman was Miller’s admitted “worst enemy,” and had treated the gentle, if intellectually aggressive mystic quite roughly over the years, as they frequently crossed one another’s path.

Years before, Peter Miller had been the minister at the German Reformed church at Goshenhoppen, in Germantown. Under the influence of Conrad Beisell and the Dunkers, Rosicrucians, Pietists and Seventh Day Adventists at Ephrata, Miller rejected the more conventional principles of the Reformed Church. Michael Widman became the new minister. He took Miller’s defection personally. Widman spat in Miller’s face whenever they met, tripped him on the local footpaths, and at least once punched the saintly Peter Miller, who was wont to thank Widman for any abuse.

Washington, like numerous other leaders and scholars in the colonies, revered Peter Miller. Moved by the teacher’s argument, that Jesus had done as much for him, Washington granted Widman pardon and, with tears in his eyes, in front of his men, the Commander thanked Peter Miller for the lesson in charity. So did Widman. He and Miller walked home together.

Here embellished, there diluted, the story has been distorted  so many times over the years it feels a little like the cherry tree fable, but has more factual basis. Colonial records do not indicate that Widman was hanged; they do, however, show that he was punished. His property was seized and sold. Michael Diffenderfer bought four tracts of Widman’s land during March 1780.

Peter Miller taught George Washington a lesson in forgiveness, charity, and non-attachment to the desire to punish and avenge, even during wartime. Ephratan scholars preserved the story for a reason or, maybe more accurately, two reasons. One was to illustrate the extent to which Peter Miller would sacrifice personal safety and welfare to perform an unselfish act of human kindness towards even his most bitter enemy. The second reason was to memorialize the kind of contribution that the men and women drawn to Ephrata could make to a Revolutionary cause that required bloodshed to complete.

Above all a teacher, Peter Miller left home that night to forgive his enemies in a Christ-like manner; he also left home to teach another extraordinary man, one perhaps ‘chosen’ in a secular sense, the wisdom to do the same. Miller went out to sear a message into the spirit of George Washington and, by extension, into the Patriot cause and everything into which America had the power to evolve.

 

The lesson in forgiveness and charity taught by Peter Miller may have influenced Washington’s decision to honor the requests made by friends and Mary Ball Washington’s extended family to pardon a far more notorious and bloodthirsty traitor, Joseph Bettys, just a few years later. Washington took the noose from Joe Bettys’ neck following “pleas from the family and others,” “solicitations of influential and respectable Whigs,” and the “humble petition of his aged father.”

Bettys promised to reform. He didn’t, and was eventually executed, but that’s not relevant. At the moment when Washington pardoned Bettys, he pardoned a man who, multiple times, had proven flagrantly unregenerate, notoriously disloyal to the Patriot cause, embarrassing to the Ball family, and who was making a living robbing, raiding, and killing colonists. Betty’s was clearly an enemy of the state, but was pardoned.

Perhaps Washington had the example set by saintly, humble Peter Miller in mind.

Not only your Officers, and Soldiers have been treated with a Tenderness due to Fellow Citizens, & Brethren; but even those execrable Parricides whose Counsels & Aid have deluged their Country with Blood, have been protected from the Fury of a justly enraged People.- George Washington to Lt. General Gage, 1775


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