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Voices of the Turtledoves: the Sacred World of Ephrata.

Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata. By Jeff Bach. Pennsylvania German History and Culture Series 3. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Co-published with the Pennsylvania German Society. xx + 282 pp. $35.00 cloth.

The historiography of the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Ephrata community is characterized by considerable conjecture and, in some cases, outright fabrication. The chief offender in this representational cortege was Julius F. Sachse, whose commanding two-volume history, The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania: A Critical and Legendary History of the Ephrata Cloister and the Dunkers (Philadelphia, Penn.: P.C. Stockhausen, 1899-1900), advanced claims that traveled well beyond the evidence Sachse had at hand. Unfortunately, Sachse was not only creative, he was also influential, for as Jeff Bach observes in a bibliographical essay that nicely complements his new Ephrata history, much of the more recent secondary literature on Ephrata "depends too uncritically" on Sachse's work (197).

Bach's main objective in Voices of the Turtledoves (a reference to the community's rendering of a pair of doves to symbolize the soul's fellowship with Christ) is to set the record straight. This is no mean task, since much of the primary literature, most of it in German, ensues from disenchanted members, disparaging outsiders, and defensive apologists whose words must be considered with care. In addition, many of the community's internal documents (for example, the writings of founder Georg Conrad Beissel) present bewildering interpretive challenges, couched as they are in mystical language and/or symbol-laden imagery. The secondary literature only multiplies these interpretive challenges, often repeating Sachse's assertions as if the nineteenth-century chronicler were an eighteenth-century eyewitness.

Only a researcher as thoughtful and thorough as Jeff Bach could succeed at this daunting task, deciphering the complicated and sometimes convoluted primary literature as well as tracing the genealogies of some well-traveled, secondary assertions. Beginning with two chapters on the Sabbatarian community's religious thought, then proceeding to consider its churchly practices, its gender expectations (celibacy, rooted in the notion of divine androgyny, was highly valued at Ephrata), its architecture, its artwork, and its interest in "heavenly magic," Bach describes and explains the community's arcane language, imagery, and practices in accessible terms. More than that, Bach traces the roots of Ephrata's religious world to various European influences, most notably to the writings of German spiritualist Jacob Boehme, to Boehme's popularizer Johann Georg Gichtel, and to the Radical German Pietist groups that embraced and adapted their ideas. In the end, Bach concludes that the Ephrata community was extraordinarily creative, but also quite derivative, fashioning "unique ways to speak about the presence of God" and a "unique monastic community" from "familiar and obscure sources in Radical Pietism, the Bible, and Christian belief" (195).

In all of this, Bach takes pains to avoid the sins of his historiographical forebears. His conclusions are measured, moderate, and liberally seasoned with caveats. In his chapter on heavenly magic, for example, Bach considers the question of Ephrata's Rosicrucianism (a status ascribed to them by historian Sachse) and stakes out a well-reasoned middle ground. For instance, Bach acknowledges the geographical and chronological proximity of Radical Pietism and Rosicrucianism, and he further notes that some Radical Pietists were quite interested in Rosicrucian notions. But Bach is careful to draw the line between "practicing" Rosicrucians devoted to a specific Rosicrucian rule and persons who embraced ideas that otherwise appear in Rosicrucian tracts. Indeed, says Bach, many of Ephrata's alleged Rosicrucian ideas and practices (for example, an interest in alchemy) were really part of a larger "matrix of nonconformist thought" that emerged in response to the Enlightenment and persisted among common folks in conjunction with Christian belief (190). All this leads Bach to conclude that Ephrata's Sabbatarians, while reflecting ideas often associated with Rosicrucianism, were pursuing a very non-Rosicrucian course, adopting alchemical and astrological metaphors primarily to augment their mystical, Christian devotional language.

Bach is at his best in this last chapter, partly because the historiographical stakes are higher and more readily apparent. Some of the book's other chapters do not succeed as well, in part because Bach's broader interpretations--and their relationships to other scholars' assertions--are more difficult to apprehend. This problem derives in part from Bach's writing style that needs a stronger voice and more explicit signals for his readers. More than that, however, it is the consequence of Bach's predilection for close description. Loath to make interpretive leaps, he is sometimes so focused in telling readers what he found (and, correspondingly, what he did not find) that the larger analytical issues get lost, or at least get short shrift.

One place where Bach's analysis is particularly thin is his consideration of Ephrata as an American religious phenomenon. While Bach is quite effective in limning the outlines of Ephrata's Old World intellectual influences, there is little consideration of the New World social context and its influence on Ephrata's development (other than his acknowledgment that the freedom afforded by Penn's Woods made the community possible and his references to Ephrata members' interactions with other Pennsylvania German-speaking groups). Granted, Voices of the Turtledoves is mainly an intellectual history, not a social history. Still, some consideration, for instance, of the primitivist impulse in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American life would have been helpful, particularly in light of the many ways the Ephrata Sabbatarians sought to restore the original, paradisaical order of things. Similarly, a broader analysis of Ephrata's gender constructions--an analysis conducted in conversation with treatments of North America's other gender-experimental communal societies--would have strengthened the book.

These criticisms should not be allowed to detract from the book's considerable accomplishments, however. In Voices of the Turtledoves, Jeff Bach has provided a convincing revisionist history of Ephrata, unpacking difficult texts in a manner that enables nonspecialists to grasp the motivations and objectives of this mysterious community. The book's thirty photographs and figures, while occasionally too dark, add to the book's effectiveness in recreating this lost religious world for contemporary readers. Voices of the Turtledoves will long serve as a leading authority, and perhaps the leading authority, on the Ephrata community.

David L. Weaver-Zercher

Messiah College
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Author:Weaver-Zercher, David L.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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