Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver

Richard Mammana
4 min readOct 7, 2022
A bookplate at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Alexander Lawrence Ames, The Word in the Wilderness: Popular Piety and Manuscript Arts in Early Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021) Pietist, Moravian, and Anabaptist Studies, 240 pages, US$112.95 (hardcover) and $29.95 (paperback).

In northern Lancaster County there is a small town called Ephrata, the home of a cluster of buildings called the Ephrata Cloister and now managed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Hard by the Cloister Laundromat and the Kloster Motel, the site was the base of a German-speaking protestant monastic community beginning in the 1730s. The last member of a daughter group of the Cloister died in 2008 at the age of 98, closing a chapter of American religious experimentation to which an extraordinary meetinghouse, kitchens, farm buildings and living quarters now stand silent witness. The walls and shelves are covered with illuminated manuscripts that would have embarrassed a medieval Roman Catholic monastery for their size, ornateness, and their visual prominence in the life of people gathered in the wilderness to watch without sleep for the coming of Christ.

The manuscript arts of Ephrata are a standout in any survey of early American culture because of the intensity of a spiritual vision they demonstrate. Color, words, decoration, musical notes, frames, and the paper or vellum backgrounds combine to give concrete evidence of extreme labor spent on religious texts ultimately consumed by the eyes rather than heard by the ears through preaching or explanation. In Alexander Lawrence Ames’s masterful new book The Word in the Wilderness, the Ephrata manuscripts are but the tip of an iceberg for pervasive and popular piety in German-speaking Pennsylvania from the late 1600s until the late 1800s.

Ames looks at the material culture of settler Europeans in the new territory of Pennsylvania through the objects they used and saw in daily life: Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals, bookplates, the ubiquitous birth and baptismal certificates and equally frequent confirmation and marriage illuminations that turn up readily still in thrift shops and bookstores from Macungie and Moorestown to Tatamy, Lebanon, and Annville. The material is generally subsumed under the catchall “fraktur” in museum or auction catalogues, but our author works with each calligraphic or illuminated object as its own piece in a greater cultural reality.

Rather than providing the usual artistic appreciation of these items for their aesthetic value and background alone, however, Ames situates the frontier Pennsylvania scribe and her or his work in a transatlantic context during a moment when handmade and pen-written religious texts were still shifting in fits and starts to printed and mass-produced equivalents. He does this in active conversation with other decorative arts in textiles, woodcarving, stone, furniture, and pottery within an entire visual-religious world. He writes the scribe as a religious practitioner, poised during a moment of cultural and linguistic change with a degree of focus and skill acquired through both training and imitation. The frequent anonymity of the creators of religious artifacts does not obliterate their significance, and in some sense reinforces it: the art is popular in origin and purpose — transplanting and transforming European antecedents into a new thing.

Ames works with material created, owned, and used by people in all of the diverse groups that made up experimental early religious Pennsylvania: Mennonites, the Amish, German Reformed, Lutheran, Schwenkfelder, and Moravian communities, as well as the sui generis Ephratists and the usually-overlooked Dunkers. He brings these cultures into conversation about the holiness of penmanship with the Anglophone Quakers and Puritans who came to dominate and somewhat supplant their German neighbors. There is careful analysis of content and form over hundreds of examples in the study, showing that post-Reformation literacy found many types of visual expression that go in measurable contrast to the flawed conceptualization of Protestantism as a tradition of words at the expense of allied imagery.

The artistic work of the scribe — sometimes a child, and sometimes a specialist artisan — emerges as a widespread phenomenon valued over the course of the ensuing centuries within the families and churches where it was done. Continuities of medieval spirituality will jump out at the reader, and Ames is adept at drawing them forth using social, theological, linguistic, and material situations. He posits a rewarding and clear five-part conceptual framework for understanding this body of material: as itself a revelation, as a social commodity as an object, as a participant in a “sign system,” as a visual art, and as its own expression of theology.

The single flaw of the book is that its three dozen illustrations are in black and white rather than in color — a real drawback for the reader who tries to enter visually into a compelling narrative. The Word in the Wilderness carries forward the efforts of Jeff Bach (Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata), Craig Atwood (Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem), and Paul Peucker (A Time of Sifting: Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety in the Eighteenth Century) as excavators of distinct religious worlds within the colonial middle Atlantic that continue to repay examination and revisit. Ames gives a new lens through which to read the Ephrata Codex and thousands of smaller objects like it—a happy and inestimable gift.

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Richard Mammana

Richard Mammana is a father, author, book reviewer, archivist, web developer and ecumenist. https://linktr.ee/richardmammana