George Washington & the Dunker Religious Sect

George Washington clearly knew from at least the mid-1750s who the “Dunkers” were, and even something more.

In 1755 and 1756 Washington was aware, for example, of the movements of the Eckerlin brothers, Israel, Gabriel, and Samuel.[i] These German immigrant brothers had been, in effect, the ‘business end’ of the Ephrata Society’s spiritual commune, setting up and running profitably the water-, wind-, and grist-mills there from the late 1730s into the mid-1740s.  The profits from the operation of these mills supported the very religious, celibate, and more celestial-minded Conrad Beissel and his acolytes. Think of Ephrata as the first American alternative lifestyle commune. Their leader, Conrad Beissel, was a charismatic Dunker preacher who dropped out of the Dunker sect and founded his own sub-sect which became North America’s first Protestant monastery, right near Lancaster. Beissel had visions and wrote hymns, and dabbled in mysticism while imposing draconian spiritual regimes and meager, vegetarian diets on willing followers. This was shocking for the Dunker denomination–  in a splash of modern drama not often mentioned, one of Beissel’s female commune members was the separated wife of Christopher Saur I, the entrepreneurial publisher who was fifty miles away in Germantown still married to his wife, but living with a woman “companion.” Saur alternately cooperated with persons at Ephrata and carried on a dispute with Beissel over a hymn. Both of them ran vigorous, German language printing presses catering specially to Mennonite and Dunker tastes….

So, Washington definitely knew who Dunkers were. But he also knew more: he specifically knew that they had a reputation for medical knowledge, evidenced by a letter of his to Gov. Dinwiddie in September 1756 in which Washington referenced that: “the Dunkers (who are all Doctors) entertain the Indians who are wounded here….”[i] It is not clear how he knew that they were doctors or whether he might have known that from personal experience during, for example, the previous July and August after the Braddock Expedition’s July 9 defeat[ii] when Col. Washington had a sickness of “5 weeks continuance.” [iii]


[i] Letter of George Washington to Gov. Robert Dinwiddie, from Winchester, Virginia, dated September 28, 1756, Papers of George Washington, W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds. Colonial Series (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1983-1995), vol. 5 (April-Sept. 1756), 421.

[ii] Letter of George Washington to Warner Lewis, Esqr. dated August 14, 1755, Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 1 (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1983-1995) (hereafter GW Papers), 360.

[iii] Letter from George Washington to Warner Lewis, Esqr., dated August 14, 1755, GW Papers, Colonial series, vol. 1, 360.


[i] Eckerlin spelled Ackerling, Eckerling, Eacherlin, and many other ways.

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