Ephrata Cloister, 632 W. Main St., was one of America's earliest communal societies. The cloister was established in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, a German immigrant who came to Pennsylvania to be able to worship freely under William Penn's policy of religious tolerance. The charismatic Beissel espoused a life of solitude and self-denial that included celibacy and Saturday as the main day of worship.
A small group of followers joined him, and at its height in the mid-18th century the community consisted of 80 celibate Brothers and Sisters and a group of approximately 200 known as the Householders, married family groups who supported Beissel with funds and assistance but were unwilling to live the austere life of the Brothers and Sisters.
The community of religious celibates practiced a Spartan, regimented lifestyle, emphasizing spiritual goals rather than material ones. They wore long white robes, ate only one meal a day, were allowed only 6 hours of sleep each night and built and occupied a distinctive group of European-style wooden buildings.
The cloister was an early center for publishing and printing, and the residents were known for their detailed hand-illuminated books and German-style calligraphy known as Frakturschriften. The self-reliant Brothers made their own ink and paper and had their own bindery. They also composed their own a cappella music and hymns. After Beissel's death in 1768, the community began to decline; the last celibate member died in 1813.
Nine of the original buildings on the 28-acre site have been restored and furnished to re-create the atmosphere of the 18th-century communal village. Following a 15-minute introductory film in the visitor center, 45-minute tours are conducted by knowledgeable costumed guides. The five-story, half-timbered meetinghouse and the four-story dormitory known as the Sisters' House can only be seen on the guided tour. Self-guided and cellphone tours also are available. Special events are offered throughout the year.
Guided tours are available. Picnicking is permitted.