Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Ephrata Cloister and the End of the World

Have you heard about the Christians convinced Jesus will come back on May 21, 2011? Maybe you've seen the news articles or the billboards. The claim has attracted a good bit of laughter and/or scorn from all quarters, including a much-commented-on recent article at Jon Acuff's Stuff Christians Like ("Precisely Predicting the End of the World").

Got me thinking about something I saw on my informal religious history tour in Pennsylvania back in 2009. The Ephrata Cloister was founded by a German Anabaptist mystic who took up William Penn on his welcome to settlers seeking freedom of thought just when Germany was really cracking down. Yes, that's what brought America "Pennsylvania Dutch" of all flavors.  

Like the guys at Family Radio who are planning on a May Judgment Day, Conrad Beissel closely studied the scriptures for clues about the Second Coming. He also had the benefit of a personal revelation from God that the end was going to come during his lifetime. So Beissel set up a community committed to living as much as possible as people in training for heaven.

I like this basic principle - living as people made for the world to come - but how to apply it? Not sure how I feel about what these guys came up with.

Since there will be no marriage in heaven, Beissel strongly encouraged celibacy on earth. Since there will be no eating, drinking, or sleeping in heaven, he and his followers limited themselves to one simple, vegetarian meal a day and as little sleep as possible. Although certain concessions were made for followers who did not make all these commitments, the inner circle lived a remarkably disciplined, ascetic life. They were in training.

When God gave Conrad his revelation he had spoken to him in German - clearly, God's language. So those in the Ephrata Cloister did not consider it worthwhile to pick up the local language (English) for their remaining days on earth. Nor did they train up any leaders to join or follow Beissel; successors would not be required. And, since Christ was to come like a thief in the night and his followers were urged to watch and pray, members of the Camp of the Solitary (as they called themselves) kept vigil every single night, not returning to their narrow planks and wooden-block pillows for a few hours of sleep until the wee hours had passed.

Beissel's death before Christ's return was something of a crisis. Without their charismatic leader and the sense of an eminent end of the world, the order did not last.

So here's my question: Do you think one of the dangers of a focus on the next life could be a blindness to the unique purposes and opportunities of this one?


Scott Fields said...

Your question just nailed the heart of the issue. What earthly good is a person who's so focused on heaven's imminent appearance? Our purpose is not simply to make ourselves ready for what is to come (since, ready or not, it'll come for you one way or another), but to prepare others for what's coming. And not by indoctrinating them with a message of paranoid terror, but with an understanding that this isn't the "real" world at all--that something greater awaits us. If, of course, we know Christ as Savior.

But what part of that last message appeals to people who are given a picture of Christ as a destroying menace. . . ?

Scott Fields said...

Loved your title for this, by the way. ;-)

Marti said...

I can't tell if the Ephrata Cloister was evangelistic; certainly it represents the "failure" of Beissel's several attempts to get away from it all and live by himself in the woods. People were just drawn to him.

And while they gave the best of whatever energy they may have had under such a stringent lifestyle to prayer and worship, they also worked hard to support their cloister and community by running a farm, a thriving printing/publishing house, and schools for local children (all in German, of course).