Johann Conrad Beissel

Johann Conrad Beissel (1690-1768), German-American pietist, was the founder of the Community of Seventh-Day Baptists at Ephrata, Pa. He was also a prolific hymn writer.

Johann Beissel was born in April 1690 in Eberbach, Germany. His father was an alcoholic baker who died 2 months before his son was born; his mother died when Johann was 8. As a boy, he was apprenticed to a baker who also played the fiddle; from him Beissel received his musical education. Beissel was a diminutive person who may have felt all the more inferior in that he grew up in sordid circumstances without education. He showed genuine musical ability and early displayed compelling religious fervor. A conversion experience at the age of 27 convinced him that celibacy was a prerequisite to holiness. Later in life he thanked God for preserving him from female allurements.

After being expelled from the district where he worked as a journeyman baker because of his religious beliefs, Beissel and two friends went to America. He arrived in Boston in 1720 and proceeded to the Anabaptist community in Germantown, Pa., where he spent a year studying weaving with a Baptist pastor, Peter Becker.

In 1721 Beissel organized a community of Seventh-Day Baptist monks at Muelbach in Lebanon County, Pa. His disciples, unable to stand the rigidity of Beissel's asceticism, gradually deserted the colony. In 1725 Beissel underwent apostolic immersion at the hands of Becker, assuming the rebirth name of Friedman Gottrecht.

Beissel founded the cloister at Ephrata on Cocalico Creek, 65 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1732. The community thrived, and by midcentury he was directing 100 converts, Spiritual Virgins, Solitary Brethren, and married couples pledged to celibacy. Several prominent people joined the cloister: Conrad Weiser, a Lutheran elder; Peter Miller, a theologian; and Frau Christopher Sauer, who deserted her distinguished printer husband to answer the call and later became a prioress. The congregation wore hooded monks' habits and, in addition, the women were veiled. Each of the brethren wrote a weekly confessional which Beissel read to the assembled congregation. The colony excelled in making books and illuminated manuscripts.

The community kept alive some of the enormous number of choral works and hymnals composed by their founder. Beissel's 1747 hymnal (in German), The Song of the Solitary and Deserted Turtledove, Namely the Christian Church, numbered 900 pages. His musical compositions had as many as seven parts, the lowest for instruments and the rest for voices. A choir of up to 25 men and women rehearsed 4 hours in the evening, and in processions at sunset and midnight concertized skillfully with soft, precise intonation; either Beissel or his song leader, Sister Anastasia, had perfect pitch.

His choral compositions present primitive realizations of the harmony of paradise, which Beissel claimed he received from angels. He relied mainly on women's voices, had little sense of meter, and avoided dissonance on accented words—the reverse of universal practice. As a relief from the full chorus, he employed antiphonal sound. He went so far as to set the entire Song of Songs twice for this "aeolian-harp" singing. Only 441 of his "thousands" of choral works are extant. When Beissel died, Peter Miller became leader of the declining community.

Further Reading on Johann Conrad Beissel

The basic materials on Beissel are found in Brothers Lamech and Agrippa, Chronicon Ephratense (1786; trans. 1889), and Julius F. Sachse, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister (1903). The latter includes Beissel's preface to the Turtledove hymnal. The most important modern assessment is Hans T. David, "Ephrata and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania: A Comparison, " in Papers of the American Musicological Society, 1941 (1946). Robert M. Stevenson, Protestant Church Music in America (1966), gives a good brief discussion. Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus (1948) contains a surprising passage on Beissel's music.