The Entrance to Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, Pennsylvania
Studies in American Esotericism 
The Alchemy of the Voice at Ephrata Cloister
Jan Stryz
Michigan State University

Alchemical transmutation is effected when male and female principles within the individual work to bring about the union of heaven and earth. It seems on one level to be a solitary pursuit. Yet tradition calls for the male alchemist to enlist the help of a female in some instances, in order to provide the complementary energy necessary to the alchemical process. In one sense, calling upon a human helper logically extends the principle that has the alchemist working with physical materials in that it turns the alchemist's attention to the apparently objective world. But it is also consistent with the alchemical world-view, which is concerned with relations played out between essential energies. Thus, the alchemist never merely acts upon inert objects, but enters into relations with living substances.

No physical experimentation with metals or stones is involved in the alchemy that I will examine here. But under the direction of their founder and "Father," Conrad Beissel, the choral group at Ephrata cloister did engage in work that can be defined as alchemical. The principles that governed the composition of the tunes mirrored alchemical relations; the dietary regulations imposed on choral group members aimed at the spiritualization of the voice; and the relations between Beissel and the group members were tinctured with the drama of the alchemical love and war that played out within him. In the wilderness of Pennsylvania, during the mid-eighteenth century, Beissel invented his own idiosyncratic version of alchemy from those pieces of Boehmean theosophy he absorbed as a young man in Germany.

Before coming to America, Beissel became involved with German associates of the Philadelphian Society when he went to Strasbourg around 1711. The ideas and writings of German mystic Jakob Boehme were then being promoted by this fraternity founded in

England. From Strasbourg, he traveled as a journeyman baker to Mannheim, where he had an affair with his master's wife. When spiritual inspiration caused him to turn from her, she became jealous and went into a violent rage, to which he responded by calling her a Jezebel. She took the tale to her husband, and Beissel made a hurried exit from Mannheim, heading for Heidelberg. And with that incident behind him, "he bade good-night to earthly women" and became a "wooer of the Virgin Sophia," the figure of divine Wisdom revered in theosophical circles.[1] Heidelberg offered ample opportunities for him to pursue his spiritual love; there groups of radical Pietists who had separated themselves from the church explored sacred knowledge in secret meetings. Many members of the Heidelberg intelligentsia were drawn to these groups, and the hence this lowly baker's apprentice became acquainted with the world of scholarship as he learned more of theosophy. He was befriended by a learned man - presumably named Haller - who was a correspondent of the famed theosopher Gichtel. Through Haller, Beissel then had an indirect link to an expert Böhmean theosopher, for Gichtel had edited the first collected version of Boehme's works, which appeared in 1682.[2]

Conflict between his increasing devotion to unorthodox beliefs and his worldly affairs came into play at this point. He had risen in the ranks of the baker's guild after his new bread recipe made him the city's most popular baker. But he alienated fellow guild-members with criticisms of their excesses, and through their influence he was brought before the ecclesiastical court to answer questions regarding his faith and alleged membership in a secret society. Given the choice of joining an orthodox church or being banished, he fled Heidelberg. Authorities had confiscated the documents that enabled him to work as a baker, and so he was forced to eke out an existence as a wandering peddler. His travels brought him in contact with various members of esoteric groups, and somewhere he heard of

The only known image of Conrad Beissel.

The entrance to what is reputed to be the cave in which Kelpius undertook spiritual retreat and alchemical work, on the hill above the Wissahickon River, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
a spiritual hermitage in the wilds of the New World, led by Johannes Kelpius. There, it seemed, he could find the solitude and freedom he needed to pursue his spiritual path. Arriving in Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1720, Beissel found that Kelpius's Society of the Woman in the Wilderness had dissolved, and Kelpius had passed away some years before.

He subsequently set up a cabin in the Conestoga wilderness with several other hermits, but his magnetism combined with his missionary efforts eventually served to turn hermitage into commune. Seekers trickled to the remote cabin, and established themselves near him. Yet the lure of the hermit's life would always beckon, since his dealings with others invariably led to some type of conflict. Just as he had alienated himself from the bakers of Heidleburg by imposing his rigid principles on them, he similarly brought himself into conflict even with his spiritual friends. Ephrata historian James Ernst notes that Beissel "was hard to live with. His egotism and fiery temper could brook no dissent. His spiritual pride led him into bitter quarrels with all his friends."[3] One legacy of this is a vindictive expose of Beissel and his leadership of Ephrata, Leben und Wandel (Life and Conduct), reputedly written by a former brother of the cloister, Ezechiel Sangmeister.

Beissel was attacked by the Germantown community from which he drew his members, as well, not simply due to suspicion regarding a strange religious sect, but also because of the dangerous attraction both he and his doctrines held for women. News that two young women had taken up solitary life with other male hermits in the wilderness became seed for gossip. Beissel and the women were shocked to find themselves called before the local magistrate to answer charges that one of the women had borne Beissel's child. Beissel demanded witnesses, and when the gossip was traced to its source, the tribunal discovered to its embarrassment that the

original story referred to the legitimate child of the woman's married sister. Several years before this incident, he had already stirred up fear and disapproval of outsiders and even his own converts with his condemnation of earthly marriage. Husbands feared abandonment. Wives might have practical as well as spiritual incentives to adopt the celibate life. In the aftermath of the scandal, Beissel entrenched himself in opposition to the traditional family structure by publishing a book denouncing marriage of the flesh, and espousing a life of spiritual virginity.

Despite his controversial ideas and sometimes abrasive manner, Beissel exuded a spiritual power that could hold people fascinated. This exhibited itself in the inspired sermons he delivered, eyes closed and in a trance-like state. The Chronicon Ephratense says that he did not even use the Bible, so that "'the utterance . . . might not be soiled by the written word.'"[4] His magnetism evoked more personal responses in women of the congregation, who at one point flooded him with so many offerings that deacons had to be appointed to distribute the goods to the poor. (He briefly accepted the gift of a featherbed, but rejected it for a wood bench when he found that its softness excited his carnal desires.) One woman, after years of living a celibate life according to the regulations of the Ephrata Sisterhood, reputedly became somewhat unhinged and proposed marriage to Beissel. When he refused, she concocted a story that she had borne him a child, which they had killed. Only after her own life was imperiled did she confess before court that the tale was a fabrication.[5]

These intense, tangled relations seem somehow reflected in Beissel's only developed articulation of his philosophy, A Dissertation on Man's Fall.[6] There, drawing on theosophical ideas that can be found in Boehme and Gichtel, he traces the fall of man to the division of the sexes.[7] In Beissel's version, when the archangel rebelled against God, he "stirred up the fiery abyss within himself

and . . . exalted himself above the meekness of the divine femininity."[8] God's own femininity was threatened, and He was forced to awaken his masculinity and abandon his gentle nature to protect Himself from being made Lucifer's husband, and having His goodness made subject to the fallen angel's wrath. So God took on an authoritarian role, divided all of creation into male and female, and subjected the female to the male. The rebellious prince of angels thereby could find no feminine part that was free to be dominated by his fiery masculine nature. Then God attended to His own abandoned feminine side and proposed that they make man in their own imagethat is, man would embody the unity and harmony that had been lost throughout creation. The plan was that this androgynous man would eventually restore wholeness throughout creation by employing a balanced rulership. But the man, Adam, was corrupted by observing the animals, and "desired to be sexually separated" like them.[9] God then made a body for Adam that "should serve on the one hand as a stronghold for the weakened humanity and, on the other hand, by overcoming this body, man was to become a princely conquerer."[10] The heavenly femininity had fled Adam, and God made for him a new wife, Eve, who had "received the stigma of lust from his body" and had been "weakened by Adam's will."[11] The salvation of creation still could have been effected through a faithful relation between Adam and Eve, which would have enabled them to unite again "at a higher level of the celestial life without having to die."[12] Of course, Eve "meddled with the serpent" and presumably opened the way for Lucifer's influence.

But Eve is not maligned as the guilty party at this point in Beissel's text. He does point out that had Eve fulfilled God's plan, in the course of a thousand years, Lucifer would again have been bound in chains, and Eve, "filled with meekness and light, would have absorbed within herself the fiery abyss, i.e. the excited masculinity."

The title page of Beissel's Dissertation

This, in turn would allow God's divine femininity to emerge from the wilderness and to absorb "all the awakened male will and in this way the restoration of all things would have come." Here Beissel laments, "O how great would have been such a shortening of days if the male will had not advanced that far in his rule!" Though he concedes that it was necessary for even God "to borrow the same will, and conduct his government in magisterial robes," it is clear that the creation of authoritarian offices was a response to a crisis.[13] All such offices will be abolished when the divine order is restored. In the meantime, man must labor to subdue the fiery male will. That is what raised itself up in Lucifer, to the point where he sought to exalt himself before God; that is what Adam was unable to subdue in himself once it awakened; and that is what Christ finally clothed in the water of divine femininity, so that "the pure font of the meekness of God has begun to flow again."[14] But Christ could only accomplish this by undergoing the agony in the Garden of Gethsemene, where his "fire [was] revenged by the fire of revenge." There, he "offer[ed] his male image as food to the woeful judgment of fire."[15] Then Christ, "by immersing himself into the gentle fountain of water, become female again and like the Virgin, atoned for and abolished the fiery will of Adam."[16]

Beissel's accounts of his own painful battles with the "fire of evil" within himself begin and end the treatise. He tells us of his revelation that before he could be wed to the Virgin Sophia, his own masculinity would have to be crucified, as was Christ's. While he rejoices in his introduction that "My exalted self-will has been put to the cross with Christ and its fiery male power has humbled itself after the manner of women,"[17] the conclusion sounds a different note. He tells of the torture of being torn between love for celestial purity and incapacity for heavenly endeavors: "as often as my industry brings forth a flower of paradise, a

sword is drown against me, as if I had committed the greatest crime. This has been going on for many years already and it will continue until my sinful body will perish."[18]

The transmutation of fiery energy and the restoration of creation through reuniting the sexes in their celestial forms are alchemical themes. References to the bride and groom in Dissertation, which are developed at more length in the last sermon of Beissel's Geistliche Reden, echo imagery found not only in Boehme and Gichtel, and contemporary mystics Gottfried Arnold and Heinrich Horch, but in the widely circulated The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.[19] This latter work's claim to be a foundational text of Rosicrucian principles has been contested due to speculations that the author intended it as a hoax.[20] Nonetheless, its influence is indisputable. In relation to Beissel, however, it simply serves to illustrate how the connection between an allegorical wedding and the alchemical process had been explicitly mapped by the time he was writing.[21] In philosophers such as Boehme, as well as in various alchemical treatises, the divine union of male and female generates a spiritual child, the embodiment of the restoration of creation. Similarly, Beissel speaks of how "we are only impregnated by the spirit of eternity, but eternity itself or the child is not born. Therefore we sigh and groan incessantly for deliverance from all things that encumber us."[22]

From our post-Enlightenment cultural perspective, it is easy to relegate such language to the realm of metaphor, where image is safely sealed from reality, and holds no power to affect it. Alchemical allegory is particularly susceptible to confusion regarding relationships between the literal and the figurative, since the art itself branched into different tributaries: those who focused on the aspect of physical experimentation in the attempt to unlock the secrets of nature developed a science that finally could dispense with the allegory; those who became fixed on the search to turn

lead into gold in the attempt to garner worldly wealth lost sight of the true goal of alchemy; and those who kept sight of alchemy's spiritual end tended to de-emphasize physical experimentation. But the tendency of alchemy to lean more towards either physical or spiritual results in any particular instance or at any point in its history should not be permitted to obscure the fact that it never involved working exclusively on a physical or a spiritual plane; rather, while it does presuppose a split between earthly and heavenly realms, any transmutation it effects comes about through a union between those realms. Thus, while Jung's treatment of alchemical processes as symbols of deeply transformative psychological events translates this ancient art into terms the modern mind can understand, it removes alchemy from the territory now claimed by science.[23] Mircea Eliade's treatment in The Forge and the Crucible, on the other hand, acknowledges the roles of both the physical and spiritual worlds. As Italo Ronca has pointed out, Eliade saw alchemical work as "an initiation ritual, in which the adept helped set free the imprisoned spirit, or soul of inorganic and yet living matter." He continues,

In his view, the alchemist re-enacted within a short time the ages-long creative and perfecting process of Nature, thus redeeming the physical world and, by analogy and through some kind of mystical initiation, his own soul, from earthly bondage.[24]

Beissel's own stance regarding alchemy was likely influenced by Gichtel, who never denied the efficacy of physical alchemy. Rather, he warned that

"Chymistry enchants minds hungry after gold to such an extent that they fancy they are possessed of much knowledge, where yet it is hidden in God's wisdom, and none by his own authority can open the book of nature. The spirit of Sophia must both in chymistry and theology, co-work with our understanding, if we are to bring forth anything great."[25]


Gichtel repeatedly refers to dangers attending the misuse of alchemy for monetary gain, and also acknowledges that charlatans used it as a ruse to obtain money from those who believed the alchemist would bring them a return on their investment. Though he ever advises the practitioner to focus on spiritual ends, it is a mistake to conclude that alchemy merely provided him a convenient set of metaphors with which to clothe his spiritual ideas. In implicitly acknowledging throughout his writings that physical transmutation can take place through the process of alchemical tincturing, he subscribes to a philosophy of nature that asserts the spiritual origins of the physical world. such as detailed by Boehme in Signatura Rerum.

A belief in the "Book of Nature" underlies alchemy as well as other Renaissance arts associated with magic and mysticism. As Hugh Ormsby-Lennon has noted, this belief assumed "a necessary or 'motivated' (usually magical) connection between words and the things they signified."[26] Rooted in Platonism, the "Rosicrucian linguistics" that pervaded mid-seventeenth-century England resembled the "book mysticism" of post-Paracelsian Germany, and was influenced by Boehme.[27] Boehme and the various hermetic groups subscribing to this view of language held that man had suffered a second, linguistic fall resulting in a "'Babylonical Confusion,'" as the Rosicrucian tract Confessio phrases it.[28] What prevents man from seeing the divine presence in nature is the inability to read Nature's Book properly. But true reading entails direct sensual experience, such as occured when Boehme's vision was opened by the flash of sunlight off a pewter dish. As his contemporary biographer put it, Boehme then "'went forth into the open fields, and there perceived the wonderful or wonderworks of the Creator in the signatures, shapes, figures, and

A main building at Ephrata, where Beissel conducted his choir.

qualities of all created things, very clearly and plainly laid open.'"[29] The fall from the tower of Babel could be reversed through a Pentecostal experience such as granted to the apostles by the Holy Spirit and to Boehme. Ormsby-Lennon emphasizes the importance of the Pentecostal experience as "present reality" for believers in the tenets of Rosicrucian linguistics.[30] Yet he also points out how the "aspiring alchemist" was urged by an adept of the day to "'Run over the Alphabet of Nature, examine every letter, every particular creature in her booke.'"[31] This raises questions regarding how word and thing would be reunited for the alchemist, and what role this union plays in alchemical work. Is the redemption of language effected through alchemical labors, or is it first necessary to be granted through inspiration the ability to read the language of nature before embarking on the alchemical labors that will reunite heaven and earth and redeem man from the first fall? In any case, Boehme's discussion throughout Signatura Rerum points to the importance of knowing the language of nature in order to accomplish the work of the spirit.

Since language is expressed through sound as well as writing, it should come as no surprise that Boehme speaks of sound as the means by which spirit "imprints itself into the similitude of another." The remaining imprint becomes the signaturea form, or type of mute instrument, "upon which the will's spirit plays; what strings he touches, they sound according to their property."[32] Boehme concludes that all of creation itself is but an "instrument of the Eternal Spirit, with which he melodises: and it is even as a great harmony of manifold instruments which are all tuned into one harmony . . . ."[33] Sound, then, participates in the work of creation by supplying a signature to each thing, which signature in turn enables each thing to serve as an instrument of the divine. Sound subsequently becomes an expression of both God and creation.

When Conrad Beissel established his singing-school at Ephrata, he may not have had these precise passages of Boehme's in mind. Certainly, he had been exposed to ideas concerning the celestial origin and influence of music which were common enough in hermetic circles. Concerning such ideas, the official record of the cloister's history, the Chronicon Ephratense, reflects that "This science [of singing] belongs more to the angelic world than to ours." Yet the statement that follows points to the way music unites earthly and heavenly spheres: "The principles of [this science] are not only the same all over the world, but the angels themselves, when they sang at the birth of Christ, had to make use of our rules." While same law governs the musical labors of both spheres, the curious reference to "our rules" seems to contradict the previous statement by suggesting that the rules belong to the earthly realm.[34] This conceptual inconsistency illustrates how the definitions of celestial and terrestial can blur in relation to music. The idea that music is a natural, pre-"Babylonical" language underlies the comment appearing just a couple sentences later: "It is also remarkable, that, although so great confusion of languages arose, the singing remained untouched."[35]

Those musical rules forming the basis of Ephrata song, which the author of the Chronicon considers universal, were actually quite idiosyncratic. As Ephrata historian Julius Sachse notes, "this singular system of harmony . . . was an original evolution from the brain of the Magus [Conrad Beissel], and [his preface to the Turtel Taube] has the additional distinction of being the first original treatise on harmony to be published in the western world."[36] Beissel's only formal musical instruction was second hand. The cloister sisters wanted him to take over the school from the singing-master who first ran it, and so they taught Beissel what they had learned "and as soon as they saw that he had mastered the art, they dismissed their school-master."[37] The thousand or more

melodies he composed over the course of twenty years exhibit only the most rudimentary knowledge of harmony. As one writer whose family had been associated with Ephrata described it, "In composing sacred music he took his style from the music of nature, and the whole of it . . . is founded on the tones of the Aeolian harp."[38] Sachse says that "the music in every case [was] subservient to the words [of the hymn]." Thus

The true musical value of the note, as understood in modern music, was not thought of; the first and other notes were frequently lengthened, probably to enable the voices to steady themselves, and the emphasized words in the course of the hymns were also frequently lengthened, so that we find indiscriminately three, four, five, six, yes, even seven notes in the bar, which in modern music would have but four.[39]

Yet this judgment based on considerations of meter and rhythm does not take into account Beissel's own insistence on the primacy of the note itself. In his "Dissertation on Harmony" that prefaces the Turtel Taube, he curiously refers to musical notes as "letters," and advises that in teaching the student, "Special care must be taken to bring out the distinguishing quality of each letter; and this requires such diligence and costs so much labor that we cannot here describe it."40] Beissel's terminology transforms musical notes into the essential elements of a language, and his emphasis on the need to attend to each "letter" suggests that more than just physical tone characterizes a note. Here we must turn to another art to glean the significance of the letter at Ephrata; the same painstaking effort was applied to the fraktur lettering that has become one of the cloister's most celebrated legacies. The relation between the art of manuscript illumination and the art of music at Ephrata cloister goes beyond the use of fraktur to embody the words in hymn-books.

The alphabet, as shown in an Ephrata manuscript tune-book.
As John Joseph Stoudt has pointed out, "the spirit of the mystical baroque was linked with the art of illumination" at Ephrata, and this art could not be separated from the music and poetry produced there, "for they express one spirit, one ascetic mood."[41] More specifically, if we imagine the letter to represent an essential expression of the spirit, rather than an arbitrary sign, then labor over the sound of the musical "letter" or the form of the written one both comprise instruction in the reading of divine script.

Beissel may have had little knowledge of or regard for the conventions of music in its secular character, where it stands as an isolated discipline. But in its character as a "noble and paradisiacal art," as he calls it, music is essentially united to the spiritual world. And so the rules he laid down to govern the melodies he composed accorded with his notions of divine order. The dominant notes or "rulers" in a four-part tune are the key-note, the next two successive thirds, and the octave. The remaining four notes of the octave are "servants," each of which must "be told how he must serve his fellow-servants, so that they may harmonize."[42] Hence proper relationships between elements treated as living entities characterize this art, just as in alchemy, where essential substances such as Mercury and Sulpher, as well as planetary energies like Sol and Luna, are spoken of as as characters that interact with one another. On one level, then, Beissel was concerned with the way that the internal structure of a musical piece created harmony through relationships.

There are seven "letters" the pupil must master in learning the musical alphabet (the eighth note of the octave repeats the key note), and it is unlikely that the spiritual significance of this number would have been lost on Beissel. In fact, the work of perfecting the expression of each note and making all notes harmonize with one another parallels Boehme's description of the "philosophic work,"

another term for spiritual alchemy. After cautioning that "we do not seek gold, or any temporal goods thereby," he gives the following summary:

The tree, understand the life, is divided into seven forms; now the curse of God is come into the seven forms, so that they are in strife and enmity, and one form annoys the other, and can never agree unless they all seven enter into death, and die to the self-will. Now this cannot be, unless a death comes into them, which breaks all their will, and be a death to them; as the deity in Christ was a death to the human also: The human will was changed in Christ into the eternal sun, viz. into the resignation in God; so must all the forms in the philosophic work be changed into one, viz. into Sol: Seven must become one, and yet remain in seven, but in one desire, where each form desires the other in love, and then there is no more any strife and contest.[43]

In arranging his tunes so that the seven "letters" become one, with the servants properly subordinate to the rulers, Beissel could create a model of heavenly harmony. But celestial music can only express itself through a properly tuned instrument, which means that to complete the philosophic work, he needed to attend to the singers.

The training, discipline and ritual that Beissel imposed on his choir members aimed to transform them into worthy channels of divine melody. It began with a strict dietary regimen, different for each of the different parts or voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and upper and lower bass). Though no record these specific diets exist, Beissel's general recommendation for the cultivation of an angelic voice includes prohibition of all meat and meat products, including diary products, eggs, and even honey, "which brings bright eyes and a cheerful spirit, but not a clear voice." Beans "are too heavy . . . and are liable to arouse impure desires." Water is the recommended

Illustration from an Ephrata hymnbook manuscript.

beverage, but should not be used in cooking to turn it "into an unnatural sort of delicacy." Yet he concedes that "the power to exercise divine virtue is not to be sought in the selection of this or that particular diet." Working with diet does effect change on the physical level by making "the voice flexible and clear." It also can "make the spirit teachable," and thus exert influence on a more subtle realm .[44] While this aspect of the discipline bears an alchemical aspect in its ability to work at the levels of both matter and spirit, it is not sufficient to effect the transmutation that re-unites heaven and earth.

Boehme speaks of how heaven has been "shut up" in the things of the earth as well as in man.[45] Similarly, the foreword to the Turtel Taube says that "by the unsanctified mind, heaven is constantly being locked up . . . so we found it necessary constantly to renew our diligence in practicing selfdenial [sic], if at all heaven should again be unlocked at our natural state, and the praise of God from thence brought out."[46] The rigor of the choir members' training must have been designed not only to perfect their outward vocal harmony, but to bring about the death of individual self necessary to attain the unity that produces spiritual harmony. They were clothed in white each time they practiced or performed, to give outward expression to the inward purity towards which they strove. Practice sessions lasted four hours, from eight in the evening until midnight, during which time Beissel attacked every fault and sought to wrestle each voice into perfect submission.

Undoubtedly, Beissel found the singers far less malleable than the notes he arranged on the page. The Chronicon reports that "At times he scolded for one or two hours in succession" and that "whoever did not know him, might have thought him to be a man of unchecked passions." The Chronicon tends to justify his behavior by implying he was acting as God's emissary, but Beissel's own account of his battles with

his masculine wrath raise suspicions that his admonitions were tinctured with fiery self-will. The singers' responses seem to have been influenced by gender, for the Chronicon reports that "a lesson seldom ended without tears; although within the Brethren the essence of wrath was stirred." Nobody ventured to challenge Beissel, however. When one Brother decided to leave the choir, that member "fell under the hatred of the Brethren, and his spiritual growth faded in consequence of it."[47] In the meantime, the Sisters of the choir found that they were continually quarreling amongst themselves, and concluded that the cause was "the difference of sex."[48] Their interpretation clearly was guided by Beissel's own definitions of masculine wrath and feminine gentleness, and on a practical level may have been a diplomatic way of presenting the fact that they could not deal with the ferocity of his criticisms. But the stage upon which a divine harmony was to have been created had become a scene of strife and contention, mirror of Boehme's description of the "curse of God."

Gender relations were obviously important in Beissel's life both personally and spiritually. While he may have "bade good-night to earthly women" sexually, he allowed women to follow him and his fellow hermits into the wilderness, in spite of some protests from the brothers. When the settlement became an established community, men and women donned similar monastic garb, designed to "hide the contours of the human body," and went about a strictly disciplined celibate life that often found them praying and working side by side. Yet there was a gender-specific division of labor, and brothers and sisters formed their separate orders. Sisters eventually took over the communal house that male and female members of the Solitary (the celibates of the community) shared, and brothers moved back into cabins. Eventually, certain of the brothers formed a more exclusive mystical society, Zion, and constructed a building within which they could live, study esoteric

Buildings of wood and of stone at Ephrata.

knowledge, and practice arcane rites. The independently functioning Brotherhood and Sisterhood now became estranged for various reasons as the leaders of the Brotherhood directed the community's labors towards economic growth. Beissel opposed this materialistic path, but had little influence over the brethren. He appealed to the prioress of the convent for the allegiance of the sisters, even though she had cooperated in some of the plans of his political rivals. Beissel and Mother Maria then reorganized the former"Order of Spiritual Virgins" into "The Spiritual Order of the Roses of Sharon," and afterward Beissel, as their "spiritual father and guide," was the only man "admitted to their meals, their secret sessions and rituals, and their confidence."[49]

Even years before this episode, Beissel had a special relationship with the sisters, who of course had specifically requested that he take over the singing-school from its original instructor. It is also significant that most of the parts in Beissel's arrangements were sung by women, which Sachse notes as a "curious feature of this Ephrata music."[50] But as we have seen, strife arose before the school could become well established, and it appeared that the Ephrata cloister would not produce its singular praise-song. The sisters agreed to withdraw from the school, and elected one "bold enough for such a mission," named Sister Tabea, to make the announcement to Beissel. Displeased, he "entirely withdrew favor from their house." Immediately afterward, Sister Tabea secretly became engaged to a young man of the community. When the wedding day arrived, Beissel called her aside, and, as the Chronicon describes,

took her under his protection; whereupon she dismissed her bridegroom and again entered the Sisters' House. To atone for the scandal she had caused she shed many tears of fervent repentence, by which she washed off the stain from her habit, wherefore also her name Tabea was changed to Anastasia, which means

A Sister at Ephrata, from a manuscript illustration.

'One risen from the dead.'[51]

Sister Anastasia then "influenced the others again to submit to the guardianship of the Superintendent, so that the school was re-commenced."

The Chronicon's authors add a long footnote regarding Sister Anastasia to this account, noting that,

She was accomplished and well-formed, endowed with fine natural gifts, and was an excellent singer, on which account she was of much value to the Order. She was fortunate also in enjoying the confidence of the Superintendent, and was his right hand in the important work of the singing-school, spending many a sleepless night over it. At one time he gave her many tunes of his composition to copy, which so fatigued her that she at last fell asleep, and cut his tunes into pieces.

It is tempting but far too simple to interpret the bond between Beissel and Sister Anastasia according to common notions belonging to our own society and time. One need only look at the short story based on this very incident, written by a late-nineteenth-century local color writer, to see how severely such interpretations can limit our perceptions. Edward Eggleston deals with the puzzle of Ephrata's mysticism by reducing it to terms that would be both comprehensible and appealing to the sentimental nineteenth-century mind. He speaks of how the Ephratans "rejoiced in a divine creature called in their mystical jargon Sophia, which I suppose meant wisdom, wisdom divorced from common sense."[52] In the scene where Sister Tabea approaches Beissel to say goodbye before she marries her intended bridegroom, we see the lofty monk descend, breaking into a confession against his will:

"Oh Tabea, you are not like the rest . . . . It is the vision of the life I might have led with such a woman as you that troubles my dreams in the night-time, when, across the impassable gulf of my

iirrevocable vow, I have stretched out my hands in entreaty to you . . . . I have had one comfort . . . . When I have perceived your strength of character, when I have heard your exquisite voice uttering the melodies with which I am inspired, I have thought my work was sweeter because Tabea shared it, and I have hoped that you would yet more and more share it as years and discipline should ripen your spirit."[53]

This trite passage should serve as a warning against crediting those interpretations that come to mind most easily.

Looking at Beissel's relationships with the sisters of Ephrata as an expression of the philosophy that was so essential to his life offers a newer and more balanced perspective than, for instance, an exclusively psychological reading. Nor is it appropriate to exclude the personal dramas from an account of his spiritual beliefs and practices. It is true that the Solitary of Ephrata sought to sacrifice personality, along with the exclusive relations that nurture it, in order to enable them to lose self in union with the divine. But the very process of making that sacrifice, with all of the conflict that may attend it, is part of the path to that union. It is particularly inappropriate to exclude such considerations from a treatment of spiritual alchemy; to do so divides mundane earthly concerns from heavenly ones, rather than joining them.

So from an alchemical perspective, Beissel's relationships with Sister Anastasia and the other cloister nuns might be tainted with some impurities. Nonetheless, they offered a way for him to connect with the earthly feminine priniciple in a spiritual way. His wooing of the Virgin Sophia did not play itself out only on the solitary, abstract stage of his own mind. Involvement in communal life forced him to try his philosophy on a more worldly stage. And his partnership with Sister Anastasia in the singing-school enabled the praise-song to manifest.

The efficacy of the philosophical work - if we can label the labors of the singing school this way - can be measured in terms of its results. The Chronicon reports that soon after Sister Anastasia influenced the others to re-join the school, "a choir of Sisters appeared in the meeting, and sang the hymn, 'God, we come to meet Thee,' with five voices, which was so well received in the Settlement, that everyone had his name entered for the choir, so that one did not know who should perform the outside work."[54] But the singing did not only have a profound effect on those within the community. Ephrata was known to the outside world for the unearthly quality of its singing, which most Ephrata scholars concede cannot be reproduced, since it was not a mere product of musical training. The idea that the sound was not a result of mere technique is echoed in Thomas Mann's novel, Doctor Faustus, where one man's memory of the music of Ephrata cloister is invoked: "'He had . . . sat in English, French, and Italian opera houses; that had been music for the ear, but Beissel's rang deep down into the soul and was nothing more nor less than a foretaste of heaven.'"[55] Still, perhaps it is most fitting to conclude with the impressions of one who had heard the music. The "sophisticated and worldly Reverend Jacob Duché, Anglican minister in Philadelphia, son of the mayor, and future chaplain to the Continental Congress" who visited Ephrata several years after Beissel's death, wrote:

The performers sat with their heads reclined, their countenances solemn and dejected, their faces pale and emaciated from their manner of living, their clothing exceedingly white and quite picturesque, and their music such as thrilled to the very soul. I almost began to think myself in the world of spirits, and the objects before me were ethereal. In short, the impression this scene made upon my mind continued strong for many days, and I believe, will never be wholly obliterated. [56]

To listen to some of the music of Ephrata, click here, courtesy of the Ephrata Museum and its director, Michael Schowalter.

This tape can be purchased from Ephrata Cloister Associates, 632 W. Main Street, Ephrata, PA 17522.

The grave of Conrad Beissel at the Cloister, Ephrata, Pennsylvania.



1Chronicon Ephratense, as quoted in James E. Ernst, Ephrata: A History (Allentown: The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1963), 15. For a brief discussion of the Philadelphian Society in Germany, see Alderfer, E.G., The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 20. While some of Alderfer's discussion is open to question, it is true that there were German affiliates of the English Philadelphian Society. More on this topic can be found in Nils Thune,The Behmenists and the Philadelphians, (Uppsala: 1948); see also Arthur Versluis, Wisdom's Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition, (SUNY: 1999).

2Whether the Philadelphian group Haller introduced Beissel to also had ties to Rosicrucianism is open to question. Sachse [The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1899-1900, rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1971] and Enrst support the idea that Beissel was exposed to Rosicrucianism in Germany. Jeffrey Bach, however, discusses the problems with defining any texts, tenets, or specific groups of people as Rosicrucian, and points out that no concepts or practices identified as Rosicrucian were ever introduced to the Ephrata community by Beissel. See Bach, "Voices of the Turtledoves: The Mystical Language of the Ephrata Cloister," diss. Duke University, 1997. It is undeniable that certain practices associated with Rosicrucianism, such as alchemy and astrology, were introduced by others to the cloister.

3Ernst, 48.

4Qtd. in Ernst, 56.

5This was Anna Eicher, the same woman who, thirteen years before, in 1730, had been falsely accused of bearing Beissel's child. After refusing her proposal and refusing to let Anna take his name without matrimony, Beissel appointed her sister, Maria, as prioress of the Sister's Convent. Presumably fired with jealousy, Anna then spread her story.

6Published in an English translation in 1765, the text's first published appearance in German is uncertain, but one account claims 1745 as the first publication date of Dissertation. See Bach, p. 97 for a discussion of the text's publication history.


7For Boehme's treatment of the feminine sex and the creation of woman from Adam see Drei Principia 13:9. Regarding how the "love-blood" of Venus helps overcome the darkness of Saturn and the fire of Mars, see Signatura Rerum 11:49. In the same work, see 12:33 for comments on the joining of the Virgin and the Bridegroom, and 12:36 for discussion of transforming wrathful fire into love and gentleness. See Mysterium Magnum 19:8 and 26:47 for treatment of the feminine matrix; 19:16 for discussion of the feminine sex and the centrum of the Angelic realm; and 58:46 on how Christ sanctified the feminine tincture. All citations are to chapter and paragraph, as found in Jacob Bohme, Samtliche Schriften, ed. Will-Erich Peuckert (Stuttgart: Fromanns, 1957), facs. reprint of Theosophia Revelata, 1730, 2 vols. A new edition of Boehme's works has recently been published: Werke, ed. F. Van Ingen (Frankfurt: Deutsher Klasiker, 1997) vol. 1 507ff.

8Beissel, Johann Conrad, "First Sermon from Deliciae Ephratenses," Johann Conrad Beissel and the Ephrata Community Mystical and Historical Texts, ed. Peter C. Erb (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1985) 116. This piece was mistakenly identified in the volume as Beissel's "First Sermon," but is actually A Dissertation on Man's Fall. All quotations from Beissel's Dissertation that appear here are taken from this edition, but cited as "First Sermon."

9Beissel, "First Sermon," 116.

10ibid., 118.

11ibid., 119.

12ibid, 119.

13ibid, 119.

14ibid, 124.

15ibid, 130.

16ibid, 129.

17ibid, 115.

18ibid, 130-31.

19See Bach, 96-116.

20For an account of the text's genesis and reception, and a general history of Rosicrucianism, see Christopher McIntosh, The Rosicrucians:The History and Mythology of an Occult Order (Nothhamptonshire, England: Crucible, 1987).

21Bach argues that the "significant differences between [The Chemical Wedding] and Beissel's sermon outweigh the likenesses. The dissimilarities argue against any suggestion that Beissel was

writing an explicitly Rosicrucian allegory." (116). This is undoubtedly true, since Beissel was more concerned with following the path of his own intuitive inspirations, rather than with adhering to the letter of any previously established interpretation. As Bach himself points out, Beissel never fully mastered the complexity of Boehme's thought, either (93). One could just as well argue that Beissel did not intend to write an explicitly Boehmean text in his Dissertation, yet the Boehmean influence is acknowledged in Bach.

22Beissel, "'Reflections' to A Dissertation on Man's Fall," in Erb, 146.

23See Carl Jung's Psychology and Alchemy (1953).

24Ronca, Italo, "Religious Symbolism in Medieval Islamic and Christian Alchemy," Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1998), 99.

25Gichtel, Theosophica Practica, V, 138. Qtd. in Arthur Versluis, "Alchemy and Christian Theosophic Literature," Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, 133.

26Ormsby-Lennon, Hugh, "Rosicrucian Linguistics: Twilight of a Renaissance Tradition," Hermeticism and the Renaissance (Washington: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988), 312.

27ibid., 312, 314, 316-19.

28ibid., 317.

29von Franckenberg, Abraham, The Life of One Jacob Behmen (London, 1644), qtd. in Ormsby-Lennon, 319.

30Ormsby-Lennon, 319-20.

31Philalethes, Eugenius (Thomas Vaughn), A Perfect and True Discoverie of the True Coelum Terrae; or, The Magician's Heavenly Chaos (London, 1650), in The Magical Writings of Thomas Vaughan, ed. A. E. Waite (London, 1888), qtd. in Ormsby-Lennon, 320.

32Signatura Rerum, 1:2,4. See The Signature of All Things

(Cambridge: James Clarke, 1969, rpt. 1981).

33ibid., 16:3.

34Chronicon Ephratense: A History of the Community of the Seventh Day Baptists at Ephrata, trans. J. Max Hark (Lancaster, 1889, rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), 160. The reference also has a self-congratulatory tone, for the writer later lauds Beissel's final collection of choral songs as becoming "prominent in the occidental parts of the world as a prevision of the New World, consisting of an entirely new and uncommon manner of singing, arranged in accord with the angelic and heavenly choirs" (Chronicon Ephratense, 167). While he holds the rules universal, it seems that he believes Beissel is their most recent discoverer. The principle source of meterial concerning Ephrata, the Chronicon was based on excerpts from a community diary kept by one Brother Jethro (referred to as Lamach in the title) until his death (the date of which is uncertain), when it was taken up by another brother. Prior Jaebez (Peter Miller) who edited the diary and published the Chronicon twelve years after Beissel's death, was presumably the succeeding diarist.

35ibid., 160.

36Sachse, Julius, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister (Lancaster: Pennsylvania German Society, 1903), 11.

37Chronicon Ephratense, 160.

38Fahnstock, William M., from "Historical Sketch of Ephrata," qtd. in Alderfer, E.G., The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985) 114.

39Sachse, Julius, The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, vol. II (Philadelphia, 1900, rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1971), 132-33.

40"Beissel's Dissertation on Harmony," trans. Rev. J.F. Ohl, in Sachse, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 70-71. The translator has added the term "note" in parentheses every time that Beissel

refers to a musical "letter." I have omitted the translator's addition here.

41Stoudt, John Joseph, Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1964), 283.

42"Beissel's Dissertation on Harmony," 73.

43Signatura Rerum, 12:30.

44Qtd. in Sachse, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 67-68.

45Signatura Rerum, 12:33.

46Qtd. in Sachse, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 55. The section given here is from the original English version of the foreword, translated by an Ephrata brother named Peter Miller. It is uncertain whether this part of the prefatory material was written entirely by Beissel.

47Chronicon Ephratense, 162.

48ibid.The author ignores the Sister's obvious meaning, presumably because however diplomatic and in line with Beissel's own rhetoric regarding gender differences, it still implies criticism of Beissel. Instead, he fishes out a stray anecdote about some Sisters who had once tried to steal a lock of Beissel's hair as a vague support for the cause being "the very opposite." Subsequent Ephrata scholars have accepted his interpretation uncritically.

49Alderfer, E.G., The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 103.

50Sachse, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 29. Four-part pieces were sung by three female and one male part; five-part pieces by three female and two male; six-part pieces had an additional female voice; and seven-part pieces had five female and two male parts.

51Chronicon Ephratense, 163-64.

52Eggleston, Edward, "Sister Tabea," Duffles, 3.

53ibid., 21-22.

54Chronicon, 164.

55Mann, Thomas, Doctor Faustus, qtd. in Alderfer, 201. Alderfer offers a more extended discussion of the place of Ephrata's music in Mann's novel.

56Alderfer, 115