Amana, Iowa is located approximately 23 miles west of Iowa City, Iowa and at one time was the largest of seven villages established between the years 1854 – 1859 by the Community of True Inspiration, who incorporated themselves in 1859 as the “Amana Society.” While the Community of True Inspiration certainly came to be much better known in Amana, Iowa (ever seen an Amana refrigerator?), they had their American roots in what we refer to today as the Town of West Seneca, New York. I say ‘refer to today’ because back in 1840s, this area of New York was still owned by Native Americans and was called the Buffalo Creek Reservation. After the Community of True Inspiration came to settle here, they named the area the Village of Ebenezer and from that time until moving to Iowa were known as the Ebenezer Society. So, to summarize, the current Amana Society (in the State of Iowa today) is the incorporated name for the Community of True Inspiration, who also used to be called the Ebenezer Society (when they lived in West Seneca, NY)…got it?
It is hard to say whether the Community of True Inspiration actually exists today, but in the year 1930, the Amana Society voted to separate the church from the economic functions of the society and thereby abandoned their communal way of life (referred to by Amana residents as the “Great Change”). This split of business from religion definitely led to a decrease in membership and also led to the diminishment of the name ‘The Community of True Inspiration.’ The Amana Society continues to thrive as an agricultural corporation, but the original Amana colonies are nothing more than a tourist attraction (which if we are ever in Iowa we will definitely go to because that’s how we roll!!!). However, that does not mean that the Community’s descendants do not continue to practice their own spiritual beliefs and some do continue to call themselves “Inspirationalists.” While we are certainly interested in the Amana Society today, we are definitely more intrigued by the earlier history of the Ebenezer Society since it is right here in our own back yard of the Burned Over District!
After doing some research, Chris and I found out that there are actually a few remaining ‘sites’ of the Ebenezer Society in West Seneca today, but a good place to start is at the Town of West Seneca Historical Museum. We called ahead and spoke with Fran, who willingly came in on her day off to give us a private tour of the museum. As we made our way inside, we then met Fran face-to-face and also her husband John. Though Fran’s health didn’t allow her to run up and down the stairs, that didn’t hold her back from quickly getting down to business and sharing the history of everything we were looking at. We were immediately told that we had just walked in to an actual original Ebenezer Society home, albeit the front part of it. Fran explained that the house we were standing in was originally located a few blocks to the north of where we were and had been relocated to its current location and was then added on to, so much of the house was not actually original, but the front part was authentic Ebenezer. Fran then told us that besides the house itself, there was only 2-3 items in the whole place that were original to the Ebenezers since they took nearly everything they owned when they moved to Iowa. While I think I speak for Chris when I say this was a bit disappointing to hear, we quickly forgot because a.) there was still a plethora of historical stuff in the museum that was fascinating to see, and b.) Fran and John are very knowledgeable of the Ebenezer Society and can definitely explain a lot of its history. Chris and I were led around all three floors of the museum learning about everything there is to know about the Town of West Seneca for quite some time, but here’s what we learned about the Ebenezer Society:
Due to the desire to freely practice whatever religion they so desired, immigrants started to come to the land of the Americas in droves throughout the 17th and 18th century and even ultimately helped America become its own country. In the early 1700s, in what today is the country of Germany, the Lutheran Church began to experience protests over what was an acceptable ritualistic “form” of worship and this eventually led to open rebellion in the year 1714. The group that came to be formed out of this rebellion called themselves the “Community of True Inspiration.” This group was quickly labeled as a cult and its followers were repeatedly prosecuted for the next several decades. The Community was led by two men named Eberhard Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock who had the power of revelation or as they called it “inspiration.” However, as these original leaders became older and eventually passed away, the Community began to decline. Then, in the early 1800s there was a revival in the Community of True Inspiration as the gift of “inspiration” was revealed to have been given to a man named Michael Krausert. However, the still existing elders of the Community did not like certain attributes of Krausert leading this revival, so the elders supported another man by the name of Christian Metz, who they deemed also had the gift of “inspiration.” It was this man Christian Metz that would bring the Community of True Inspiration to the Americas and was considered a prophet by many.
Metz began the burdensome quest of finding somewhere where the Community could live together communally and practice their religion how they wished, free of persecution. After moving around several places within Germany, Metz decided upon immigrating to the relatively new country of the United States of America. On October 27, 1842, Metz and a select group of men landed in New York City in the hopes of purchasing land to finally be free. What they did not expect was how hard it was going to actually be to get this land. In order to not bore you to tears, I will have to summarize what occurred over this purchase of land because it is very convoluted and confusing. In essence, Metz and his men bought land at the Buffalo Creek Reservation without knowing that the land wasn’t able to be sold by non-Native Americans. Picture this…here you are in a brand new country, you know nobody, you do not speak English, you have no idea what Native Americans even are or what an Indian reservation is, you have little to no money and despite all of that, you think you have found a good deal. Well, Metz and his men then tell their people back in Germany, “Hey, this is going to work out, come on over.” Then after you and a hundred of your people start to settle in by cutting down some trees and building some houses, the Native Americans get upset and say, “Hey, this is our land, you can’t do that!” and even start to become violent towards you. If you ask me, that would be a little disheartening. It wasn’t until 1846, after several lengthy legal battles and literally drawing up new treaties with the Native Americans, that the Community of True Inspiration finally came into undisturbed possession of the land.
By this time the Community of True Inspiration had grown to approximately 800 members and had formed four separate hamlets known as Middle Ebenezer (today known as Gardenville), Upper Ebenezer (Blossom), Lower Ebenezer (known simply as Ebenezer today) and New Ebenezer (no longer exists). The word Ebenezer originates in the book of 1 Samuel 7:12 – “Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” According to the book The Ebenezer Community of True Inspiration written by Frank J. Lankes,
“The Community of True Inspiration at Ebenezer was primarily a religious institution. Religion was the sole reason for its existence. The various agricultural and industrial enterprises associated with these people were instituted only to provide a livelihood for themselves so that they could live apart from the world for more complete devotion to their religious ideals, and yet be assured of a sufficiency of food and of necessary manufactured goods.”
And the following,
“The scriptures were no different at that time than they are now, so it appears that the fundamental doctrine of their [the Inspirationalists] faith rested upon revelation (ie. inspiration); upon the belief that revelation was as real and as potent to them in their time as it had been in the day of the biblical prophets. (Here we must accept the Old Testament as our authority on the quality of the ancient revelations).”
The Community of True Inspiration officially incorporated itself as the Ebenezer Society in 1846. At the same time, the Society also had their own 21 article constitution actually recognized by the State of New York, but not for the purposes of business but instead purely for the Society to be able to govern itself. For some time, Christian Metz and Metz alone was solely responsible for the well-being of the Ebenezers since he was the only one who had the gist of inspiration. In time though, a woman by the name of Barbara Heinemann was also revealed to possess the gift and she and Metz were then able to share their duties. These two prophets can be regarded as the leaders of the church while it was in Ebenezer (West Seneca) and there also existed a group of elders who were the spiritual fathers of the community. This group of elders was chosen by the two prophets and it was the elders who conducted religious services. The congregation of followers (minus the elders) was broken up into three spiritual “orders” which were made on the basis of piety. The highest, most pious members of the congregation were assigned to the First Order, the lesser pious members being in the middle or Second Order, and finally the least pious and also the children belonged to the lowest Third Order. Each of these orders had their own separate religious services from one another, although they would occur simultaneously. Religious services were held every day in a meeting house and were mandatory, while some days had multiple compulsory services. If someone failed to attend a single service without sufficient cause, they ran the risk of being banned to attend any services for up to a year (which seems to be the equivalent of being shunned). A meeting house was completely bare, very simple and absolutely forbidden to portray any religious iconography, no stained glass, no pews, no bells, no pulpits and anything that resembles a “church of the world.” Services consisted of a row of elders sitting at a table at the head of the room, with the congregation facing them sitting in wall-to-wall length benches, with men on one side and women on the other. Hymns typically opened a service, testimonies from a prophet were then given, bible verses were then read (with no sermon) and a hymn was sung in closing. Men left through their door, while women left through a completely separate door.
The Ebenezers observed all Holy Days, but they also had two unique ceremonies they observed as well. One ceremony was the yearly examination of all members to determine each person’s degree of piety and to then make assignments to the various orders. This examination also included the elders of each order, who had to be examined by the elders of another order. Christian Metz himself was also sought out for a more thorough probing of members since it is thought his “spiritual insight was like no other.” The second ceremony the Ebenezers would celebrate unique to their tradition was known as “Liebesmahl.” There is no particular day this ceremony was celebrated and instead would be received through inspiration as to when it should take place. When it did, all four of the individual hamlets of Ebenezer would come together, and the three orders of each village would combine with their respective orders in the other villages. So a First Order congregation comprised of all four hamlets would start the ceremony and would meet in the meeting house for two days straight and would end with a ceremonial foot washing. The Second Order would then meet for their rites and would meet for approximately one day and without the foot washing. Rites for the Third Order would then meet a few days later for most of a day and again without foot washing.
Middle Ebenezer was considered to be the headquarters of the four individual hamlets and it contained a headquarters office and an Ebenezer post office. Besides that, each hamlet had their own saw mill, two had a woolen mill, and each hamlet also had several shops and was set up to be its own agricultural unit. As it was mentioned earlier, the Ebenezer Society lived communally amongst each other and any surplus that was produced was sold six miles to the east in downtown Buffalo. While dozens of homes were built for the Society’s members, each house was built only for the purpose of sleep. Often times, several families would live together and often times would have to live with someone completely unrelated to them. Possessions were minimal since everyone generally shared everything. Food was made and served in a communal kitchen where people would go for their meals, so there were no kitchens in any of the Ebenezer houses. From the time an individual left the house in the morning to go to work, they never returned to the house until they were ready to go to sleep at night. Time was spent farming and devoting one’s life to their faith…kind of sounds like the Amish, huh? Well in fact this is what Fran compared the Ebenezers to in order to help us understand better what they were like.
As our tour at the West Seneca Historical Museum started to wind down, we learned from Fran and John where other Ebenezer Society sites are in the area. Even though the sites are sparse, Chris and I feel like if we are going to see a place, we must see everything having to do with it and if we don’t, then it doesn’t count until we do. We only drove up one block and down the street a bit to get to the next site we wanted to see, which was the Lower Ebenezer Cemetery or as it is also known by “The Old Main Cemetery.” I am probably going to get some of this story wrong and you may read about it more at length on Chris’s other blog soon, but apparently in the year 1821, a female member of the Seneca Tribe named Kauquatau was accused of witchcraft. In response to her “evil ways” she was murdered and then buried underneath her cabin. Jump ahead to the 1840s when the Ebenezer Society arrives to claim their new land. While the Ebenezers were clearing the land for future homes, they temporarily stayed in some of the former shelters of the Senecas, one of which was the cabin of Kauquatau. The Ebenezers eventually learned of the legend of Kauquatau and how the land was haunted. In response to this legend, Christian Metz himself spent a night in the cabin and reported seeing a vision of an Indian woman in chains. After this occurred, Metz ordered that the cabin be burned to the ground and the land around it consecrated and after hearing this story, Chris and I absolutely had to go check this out! However, after walking around this cemetery, I can assure all of our readers, there is absolutely nothing to see related to this local ghost story.
We then drove out to the main street that goes through West Seneca, and only a few blocks down the street is the original home of Christian Metz. In fact, Christian Metz is not even the first person who owned this house and today, the house is in private hands and continues to be lived in. There is really not that much to see in regards to this house but I did take a picture of the historical marker just to check it off our list. Christian Metz’s house is literally in the shadow of the Fourteen Holy Helpers Roman Catholic Church. This church actually used to be the original Ebenezer Society Church. We walked up to the church and took a walk around the outside and again, I also took a picture of the historical marker. I had previously known of this church and its history to the Ebenezers, so I decided to call the pastor ahead of our visit, but was told that there was nothing to see original to the Ebenezers, so I would be wasting my time if that’s why I was visiting. While the Fourteen Holy Helpers Church certainly looks nice, Chris and I decided that if there was nothing to see to aid us in our journey of learning about the Ebenezers, we have visited plenty of Roman Catholic churches so we would not be going inside for a tour.
Our last stop on our trek to learn about the Ebenezer Society was at the Charles E. Burchfield Nature and Art Center. We had learned from Fran and John that located in the middle of the nature trails at this place was the actual cemetery of the Ebenezers, fenced off and still preserved today. This seemed a little weird to me that there would be a marked off cemetery in the middle of a nature trail, but Fran and John assured us it was there. They also explained that you wouldn’t know it was a cemetery if there wasn’t a sign explaining it because the Ebenezers did not want anything to designate it as a burial site. This actually intrigued us a bit more, so when we arrived to the nature trail we didn’t exactly know what to look for. We quickly found what we were looking for though, since there was in fact a sign just as Fran and John had said. The Ebenezer Cemetery is literally a big, overgrown grassy and weedy area in a nature trail with a large fence demarcating it from the rest of the overgrown grassy and weedy area. There are no headstones and nothing that would suggest it’s actually a cemetery. Fortunately, the sign does give a list of everyone buried in the fenced off area and you know it…we took a picture of that too. We then made our way out of the nature trail and back to the car.
It was in the year 1855 that the Ebenezer Society began their move to Iowa and to eventually re-establishing themselves as the Amana Society. The reason for their exit was due to the increasing encroachment by the City of Buffalo and the negative influence it had upon the Society’s ability to focus on their faith and live the way they desired. After driving through West Seneca, New York for a few hours, it is quite surprising how many things still have the word Ebenezer in them. There are still churches, street names, local businesses and sites that make reference to the Ebenezer Society. Often times, West Seneca lives in the shadow of the City of Buffalo, but I would really encourage West Seneca simply to look around to see their own history staring at them in the face and maybe when they can see it, we can start referring to West Seneca by itself rather than including it as part of Buffalo.