purplejuli (purplejuli) wrote,

What constitutes a "cult"?

On our Monday adventure, Wayne and I took a tour at the Ephrata Cloister. It was one of the first religious communities in the country, founded in 1731by this guy named Conrad Beissel. Beissel was orphaned young (age 8), took up the craft of baking, and was eventually kicked out of Germany and moved here, to central Pennsylvania, where he met some Anabaptists (who are the modern day Amish).

He was charismatic and had some radical ideas-- like celibacy was the way to be closer to God-- and gathered a following. They formed a religious hermitage in Ephrata composed of about 80 members, men and women, who were celibate, and about 200 "homesteaders," married couples and families who supported the celibates.  The brothers and sisters lived separately in separate areas

Weird enough yet? Beissel's weird theology encouraged giving up of every day comforts because they kept you from God. Celibates wore white hooded outfits to "muffle" the body, only took one vegetarian meal a day, spent several hours in their small cells praying every day, and when they slept, they slept on a wooden board, 15 inches wide, with a wooden block for a pillow. They didn't use a blanket unless it was freezing. Every night, Beissel would ring a bell at midnight to wake the community up from sleep (bedtime was 9 pm) and call them to church, where they'd spend two hours waiting for the second coming, because the Bible said Jesus would come "like a thief in the night. " Then they would return to "bed" for another three hours.  The only time the followers of Beissel were permitted to eat meat was during the celebration of communion when they ate lamb, because it was mentioned in the Bible.

Still aside from the monastic life, their beliefs allowes for families (for the homesteaders), limited industry and creativity. The community became known for its self-composed a cappella music and Germanic calligraphy known as Frakturschriften. They had their own complete publishing center which included a paper mill, printing office, and book bindery. The first book of hymns composed entirely in the (now) USA, Turtel-Taub, was written by Beissel.

When Beissel died, the monastic aspects of the community dwindled and then ceased. Their faith was later incorporated as the German Seventh Day Baptist Church, because they practiced a Saturday sabbath.

So I find myself wondering, what makes this celebrated religious community, that ultimately failed, any different from what we would today call a cult?  Is it because the remnants of the church were folded into what is today considered a conventional faith? How were these people different from the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the polygamist Mormons who were all over the news a few moths ago) or even the Branch Davidians? 

iskender- thoughts?

The main museum building, where you pay your admission and start the tour.

The dining room in the Sister's building.  The pillow-like thing in the foreground is a recreation of the type of bread they made at the Cloister.  It wasn't wheat (because wheat was a cash crop) so likely rye and it had to be eaten stale, because it would cause stomach cramps and other issues if eaten too fresh.  They also made baskets out of the rye grass because the smell of it kept insects and rodents away.

A cell in the Sisters' house.  This is the bed, a wooden bench, 15" wide, with a wooden block for a pillow.

The "Saal"-- meetinghouse, church.  Completely unheated in the winter.

Kitchen off the Saal.

Tags: citygirllost
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded