Johann Conrad Beissel

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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

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. □

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Beissel, Johann Conrad

Beissel, Johann Conrad, German-American composer of religious music; founder of the sect of Solitary Brethren of the Community of Sabbatarians; b. Eberbachon the Neckar, Palatinate, March 1, 1690; d. Ephrata, Pa., July 6, 1768. He migrated to America in 1720 for religious reasons. His first attempt to build up a “solitary” residence failed, but in 1732 he started the community at Ephrata, which became a flourishing religious and artistic center. Beissel, who styled himself Bruder Friedsam (Brother Peaceful), was a prolific writer of hymns in fanciful German, publ. in various collections, some printed by Benjamin Franklin, some by the community at Ephrata. He composed tunes for his hymns and harmonized them according to his own rules. His compositions were collected in beautifully illuminated MSS, many of which are preserved at the Library of Congress and the Library of the Historical Soc. of Pa. Beissel was not a trained musician, but had original ideas; his religious fanaticism inspired him to write some startling music; in several of his hymns he made use of an antiphonal type of vocal composition with excellent effect. He left a tract explaining his harmonic theory and his method of singing. Beissel’s hymns are collected chiefly in Zionistischer Weyrauchs Hügel (1739), Das Gesang der einsamen una verlassenen Turtel Taube, das ist der christlichen Kirche (1747), and Paradisisches Wunder Spiel (two independent publs., 1754 and 1766). Only texts were printed in these vols., but the 1754 issue was arranged so that the music could be inserted by hand. Beissel’s life was first described in the Chronicon Ephratense, compiled by the brethren Lamech and Agrippa, publ. at Ephrata in a German ed. in 1786, and in an Eng. tr. by J.M. Hark at Lancaster in 1889.


W.C. Klein, J.C. B.: Mystic and Martinet (Philadelphia, 1942).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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