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Beissel was born in Eberbach in Germany, and emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1720. Beissel had arrived in America with the intention of joining the commune of hermits founded by Johannes Kelpius, but Kelpius had died in 1708. Beissel met with one of Kelpius' associates, Conrad Matthaei, who became his principal spiritual confidant. The group around Kelpius had arrived in 1694. They settled on a ridge above the Wissahickon Creek. There they prayed, meditated, watched the stars looking for signs of the coming kingdom of Christ, and they educated children. Some were celibate until death; others married.
In 1732 Beissel established a semi-monastic community called the Camp of the Solitary, with a convent (the Sister House) and a monastery (the Brother House) at Ephrata, in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Celibacy was considered a virtue, but not obligatory. Each member adopted a new name, and Beissel was called Friedsam, to which the community afterward added the title of Gottrecht. Believing families settled near the community, accepted Beissel as their spiritual leader, and worshipped with the community on the Sabbath. They were influenced by German Baptist (Dunkard) thought.
Beissel served as the community's composer as well as its spiritual leader. He devised his own system of musical composition intended to simplify the process by relying on pre-determined sequences of "master notes" and "servant notes" to create harmony. This was mentioned in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus as a precursor to serialism.
Beissel's colony was noted for its printing facilities. After Beissel's death and the disruption of the war years of the American Revolution, the utopian community declined in population. Failing to attract sufficient members, its people assimilated into the general Baptist community.
Beissel was one of the first vegetarians in North America who was motivated by Christian religious belief. The entire Ephrata community reportedly abstained from meat eating, which Beissel considered spiritually undesirable.
ed. Peter C. Erb, Johann Conrad Beissel and the Ephrata Community. Mystical and Historical Texts, Lewiston, NY: 1985 (contains selected works)
- For the correct date of his birth see Alderfer, Everett Gordon: The Ephrata Commune, Pittsburgh, 1985, p. 14, 219.
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Beissel, Johann Conrad". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
- Iacobbo, Karen and Michael: Vegetarian America. A History, Westport (CT), 2004, p. 3.
- Klein, Walter C. Johann Conrad Beissel: Mystic and Martinet 1690–1768. Philadelphia, 1942.