Ecclesiastical life in German-speaking Europe in the eighteenth century allowed next to no deviation from a pattern set down two centuries before: the ruler of a territory determined which of three legally tolerated religions his subjects would hold–Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Lutheranism, or Reformed. Anabaptists, persons who delayed baptism until adulthood, and Jews–who did not baptize at all, of course–existed on the margin of society, at times tolerated, at times persecuted. Any other religious expression could expect to be promptly nullified. Thus Pennsylvania, fostered by dissenter William Penn and offering a haven for nearly all forms of religion (or none at all)to its citizens, became a region of religious impulses unwelcome in Europe.
One of the most striking of these was the Ephrata Cloister (1732–1813), a monastery for men and women established on the banks of Cocalico Creek in northern Lancaster County by the German Seventh-Day Baptists, who celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday. It was one of few areas of colonial German life to attract international attention, and it offered constant hospitality to both the curious and religious seekers. In classic monastic tradition, the members gathered for worship many times a day. As Protestants, their worship consisted of hymns rather than chants, and their hymnody poured from the pen of the founder, Georg Conrad Beissel (1691–1768), and other members of the group. The tunes were specific to the order as well. Over and over again, collections of these hymns were published, eventually in the cloister's own print shop, which was founded between 1742 and 1745. One of the chief activities of the monastics became the preparation of Mittel Bucher, or tunebooks, for these hymns, each equipped with a printed index. Yet they became obsolete as soon as more hymns were written and a new hymnal published.
Whether drawing on medieval monastic traditions or simply indicative of the ebullience of the cloister members, most of these tunebooks were decorated with graphic elements that filled empty music bars or blank spaces on pages and with decorative capitals in the prose titles of the hymns. Members gifted in calligraphy and decoration participated in a scriptorium, or writing room, at the cloister. Distinctive Ephrata motifs include stylized lilies, carnations, and pomegranates. Various members worked on the decoration, and since none of the work is signed, we shall probably never know their identities. Of the several dozen tunebooks that survive, nearly all are in public collections. While they have attracted scholarly attention and have been the subject of seminars and exhibitions, the painstaking study necessary to arrange the tunebooks chronologically remains to be done. Nor has more than a fragment of the pictorial material been published.
Ephrata's daughter cloister, Snow Hill (1798–1895), across several mountain ranges to the west, in Franklin County, developed in the nineteenth century. Tunebooks and other materials used in the practice of religion there were brought from Ephrata and also produced in the new cloister. Congregations of married persons always worshiped alongside the cloistered celibates, but all used the same hymns as long as the German language prevailed. Most of the work done at Snow Hill was far more modest and far less accomplished than that at Ephrata, but the tunebook that bears the name of Brother Jacob Ritter–which may well have been decorated by one of a number of persons by that name–contains brightly colored fraktur-type images that remain the best examples of what was produced there.
Frederick S. Weiser, "Ephrata Cloister Tunebook," in Stacy C. Hollander, American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 473-474.