Anti-Immigrant Sentiments from 18th Century Used to Reflect Upon Modern Immigrant Experience

Tucked away in a borough of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are the ghostly remnants of an 18th century commune. It was founded by a religious sect that viewed piety as a commitment to hard work, austerity, and charitable giving. The members endured struggle and hardship to establish their homestead, and tried to ingratiate themselves to the surrounding community. They created stunning artwork and made impressive technological advances. Yet this trailblazing collective was the target of fear and hostility from outsiders because many of its members were immigrants. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which manages the historical site, is now providing tours that allow visitors to see the cloister through the lens of immigration.

Known as the Ephrata Cloister, the commune was established in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, an orphaned German baker who immigrated to Pennsylvania when he was 29. The cloister was intended as a refuge for those disillusioned with the government-backed Protestant church that dominated much of Europe at the time. Beissel’s self-styled religion focused on celibacy, sparse living conditions, and daily prayer as an avenue to spiritual awakening. At the cloister’s peak, in the mid 1750s, it was populated by roughly 80 devotees, known as brothers and sisters, many of whom were fellow German immigrants escaping the confines of Protestantism.

This drew the ire of the surrounding townspeople, who viewed the cloister as part of a largely unwelcome influx of German immigrants who entered Pennsylvania in the mid 1700s. The objections from the locals are eerily familiar to the harmful anti-immigrant rhetoric that is prevalent today, a fact that is not lost on those trying to keep the narrative of the Ephrata Cloister alive. As Michael Showalter, the museum educator, noted to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “You can quickly make connections to modern life.”

Despite the unwelcoming reception from their neighbors, the cloister members used their skill and ingenuity to contribute to their community. They built schools and housing for incoming settlers and cared for hundreds of Continental Army soldiers during the harsh winter of 1777-1778. They also published a popular book with their own German printing press, created masterworks of calligraphy, and wrote more than 1,000 a capella hymns.

Even when faced with their multitude of accomplishments, many people in the region remained fearful of the cloister and its immigrant faction. One of their most vocal critics was founding father Benjamin Franklin, who spent much of his life in neighboring Philadelphia and feared that the Germans arriving in his colony would never learn English or adapt to local culture.

“It’s our job to show folks what lessons can be learned from history,” explained Sue Fisher, a member of the volunteer Cloister Associates. The associates lead themed group tours daily that visit the nine remaining original buildings that were part of the cloister. During the holiday season this year, the theme is immigration. Visitors are asked to take on the role of immigrants and then are confronted by an actor voicing an anti-immigration rant. The associates hope that the interactive experience will leave visitors with a more empathetic perspective of the immigrant experience, both past and present. [See In Pennsylvania’s Conservative Heartland, a Historic Cloister Explores the Immigrant Struggle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 09.Dec.2019.]


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