Sacred Subjects: Remembering Religion at the Ephrata Cloister

The forthcoming book on commemoration, published by Rowman & Littlefield

As readers of this blog know, I contributed an essay to a forthcoming book on commemoration, to be published Rowman & Littlefield for the American Association for State and Local History.

The editor has pitched the book as a practical, how-to guide for would-be practitioners. It is not an academic text. Rather, it’s intended for public historians, museum and historical site board members, and others who do the difficult work of interpreting the past in public. It’s exciting to be writing for this kind of audience. As a result, I’ve been trying to nail down some specific examples of how the religious past has been interpreted and exhibited in public.

As it turns out, there aren’t a lot of great examples. Sure, religious objects often find their way into museum settings; there’s a lot of great research about that. And it’s very obvious that many religious groups found their own institutions of public memory: museums, archives, historical sites, and more. Lauren Turek has recently drawn our attention to the topic of denominational museums at the Religion in American History blog, and I’m glad she has; we need to talk more about these kinds of institutions and their role in American religious life. But, as the historian Christopher Cantwell has pointed out:

. . . public history practitioners and educators are often reluctant to integrate religious studies scholarship into their work. Either a fear of reviving the “History Wars” of the nineties or a discomfort with the supernatural claims religious communities make about the historical record often lead many public historians to conclude that religion is best left out of the exhibit hall.

Faced with this reality, I’ve been struggling to come up with a solid example of how public institutions have successfully interpreted America’s religious past.

Two of the main buildings at the Ephrata Cloister historic site in Pennsylvania. Over the last decade the site has begun to interpret its religious history, in addition to earlier emphases on art and architecture (WikiMedia Commons)

Fortunately, a few examples do exist. The site I’ve chosen to focus on in my chapter is the Ephrata Cloister, a historic site partly operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Here’s a taste of the chapter:

Nestled in the rolling farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and surrounded by the region’s Amish and Mennonite tourist destinations, the Ephrata Cloister offers an instructive case study in how religion can be interpreted successfully at locally- , state- , and federally-sponsored sites of public memory.

The Cloister began its life in the early eighteenth century as an intentional community built by radical, millenarian Swiss-German Protestants who emigrated from Europe seeking freedom from religious persecution. The community lasted until the early nineteenth century and then disbanded; after a sustained period of deterioration, in 1941 the site came under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Initially, interpreters derived the Cloister’s historical legitimacy from the folk art produced by its original inhabitants, as well as its unique medieval Germanic architecture. Interpretive efforts followed suit. However, since 2000, a coordinated effort by site staff, religious studies scholars, archeologists, and the PHMC has resulted in an innovative re-interpretation of the site that centralizes its religious significance. Archeological and archival research conducted in the mid- to late 1990s yielded new information about the everyday lives and distinctive religious beliefs and practices of the site’s original inhabitants, providing new fodder for educational tours and exhibits. Meanwhile, a staff-led endeavor reframed the Cloister’s mission to focus on its significance as “a site . . . of religious toleration and intellectual freedom in the New World.” Religion now intersects with older interpretive foci, such as folklore and architecture, within the site narrative. Site staff report that the change, although not without challenges, resonates with the public at large, the region, and local vested interests.

As the Cloister demonstrates, state-funded commemorative sites can successfully introduce a sacred or “private” past into broader historical narratives.

My main source for this case study has been Darin D. Lenz’s fascinating essay “History, Theology, and Interpretation: The Ephrata Cloister—A Case Study in Public History,” published in the journal Concept. You can read the essay here. Lenz’s work raises so many additional questions for me about how religion gets interpreted at these sites, what it takes to reinterpret an old site through a new lens, and how public concerns intersect with these “private” pasts. There is so much more to be said about the Cloister, religion, and public memory. I’m hoping I can devote some time in the future to a more intensive study of this site.

You’ll be able to read my whole chapter on religion and commemoration when the new book is released in October. Stay tuned!


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