I’d first heard about and gone to see Ephrata when I was in high school and spending some time studying esoteric religions (though all I could remember of what I was the blocks of wood that the community used in place of pillows). Beissel seems to have fled Europe because of his beliefs after being influenced by the writings of German mystic Jakob Boehme and his beliefs are sometimes connected with those of the Rosicrucians, though this remains a contentious connection. Whether or not that connection is there, mystical and hermetic themes clearly run through the Ephrata community with Beissel putting more of an emphasis on individual experience than on creeds or formulae. When I walked through the buildings this time, I was struck by the connections with Pythagorean philosophy.
The community was originally set up on a piece of land largely triangular in shape with Bissel believing that triangles are the perfect shape. A strong connection was made between the actual tones of music and spirituality, with Beissel believing that the actual diet eaten in the one small meal allowed each day would have an effect on the individuals voice. Sopranos, therefore, were to eat a different diet than altoes, tenors, or basses. Records of how those diets differed no longer exist (or at least they weren’t mentioned anywhere) but they seem to have included the idea that meat generally hindered the cultivation of divine voices. (The exception to this meat deprivation was during the weekly love feast , a three part service that consisted of washing each other’s feet, a meal in which lamb was served, and then communion.) Other things that seem to have been prohibited included eggs, dairy, and honey. In true Pythagorean style, beans were considered “too heavy” and impure for voices that wanted to sing. And water was the beverage that was preferred.
The community seemed to be a pietistic, apocalyptic group. They lived austerely, sleeping on wooden benches that were only a little more than a foot wide. They slept only six hours a night, going to bed at 9 but rising for a two hour midnight service in which they watched for the parousia. They then returned to bed and slept from 2 to 5 am before beginning a full day of work (with gender divisions in what sisters and brothers could do) and prayer. Laughter and any unnecessary talk throughout the day was discouraged.
The community’s theology seems to have been both gender-restrictive in roles and yet gender- inclusive in divine language. They believed, for example, that God had (because of Lucifer’s actions in the earliest time) been separated out into male and female aspects. It was important therefore to unite the two back together, so Beissel spent a lot of time preaching on Sophia, especially using lover and mother images. As mother, Sophia helps reunite the gender division in God, bringing the male divine back into submission to the female divine.
When we left Ephrata, we drove side roads through Lancester County, figuring that, if we could get in, we’d eat dinner at one of the two Pennsylvania Dutch style restaurants, Good and Plenty or Plain and Fancy, that I remembered from the 1970s.
Back then, when the restaurants had just opened they’d seated about 100 people, each at tables of ten, and served what I remember as wonderful food—chicken pot pies or chicken and noodles, roast beef, the best fried chicken in the world, shoo fly pie, and apple crumb pie—all family style with endless supplies of each thing. When we got to Good and Plenty, we discovered that over the years the restaurants had become sites for tourist buses. We were seated in one of the dining rooms that had about fifty tables in it and given poor to mediocre food (though Kathy thought the fried chicken was good).