Sharing the Common Wealth showcases objects, artifacts, documents, structures and buildings from the collections of PHMC.
Cometen Buch, or Comet Book. Ephrata Cloister

Cometen Buch, or Comet Book. Ephrata Cloister

 

In the late winter of 1744 a bright comet with six tails that spread out like a fan was visible in the sky. It was so brilliant at its perihelion – its point closest to the sun – that it could be seen even in the daytime. Known as the Great Comet of 1744, the astronomical object mystified the world and led to speculation about its meaning in both scientific and religious circles.

In Pennsylvania, along the Cocalico Creek in Lancaster County, the austere community at Ephrata had its own take on the strange comet. They saw it as a warning from God, a sign not to be ignored, that worldly individuals must repent. The community presented this concept in a didactic German-language booklet printed in 1745 at Ephrata known as Cometen Buch, or Comet Book.

The Ephrata community had been founded 12 years earlier by the charismatic Johann Conrad Beissel (1691–1768), who led his followers in a spiritual lifestyle of private prayer, hard work and self-deprivation involving restricted diets, limited sleep and denial of other earthly comforts. The community consisted of celibate Brotherhood and Sisterhood orders as well as a component of married Householders.

In addition to farming and small industrial pursuits, members of Ephrata created devotional music and art and operated a printing center. The community produced more than 125 publications over 50 years. They printed their own literature, but also the works of other groups, such as a German-language edition of Martyrs Mirror for the Mennonites of southeastern Pennsylvania. Comet Book was one of Ephrata’s earliest publications.

The main text of the 14-page Comet Book is a hymn of 16 stanzas, each seven lines long. It is believed to have been written by Johannes Hildebrand (1679–1765), a Householder who later wrote a treatise about comets that was published by another early German-language printer in Pennsylvania, Christoph Sauer (1695–1758).

Ephrata Cloister, a PHMC-administered historic site, preserves several buildings and artifacts of the Ephrata community and interprets their history through tours, programs, events and collections. The site recently acquired one of only two known surviving copies of Comet Book. This unique example of early Pennsylvania printing, music and mysticism is currently on display in Ephrata Cloister’s visitor center.

 

Kyle R. Weaver is the editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.