The introspective humdrum life of an eccentric hexagenarian.

Visit my other blogs: "Elderberry Bike Rides of Delaware
," organized bicycle rides for families, senior citizens, and anyone interested in getting back into biking; and "Cloister Voices," the collected thoughts of modern and ancient hermits, eccentrics, solitaires, wanderers, mystics, and others who inhabit the monastery within.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Johannes Kelpius, A Mystic Amid William Penn's Holy Experiment



"For my country, I eyed the Lord, in obtaining it;

And more was I drawn inward to look to him;

And to owe it to his hand and power, than to any other way;

I have so obtained it, and desire to keep it;

That I may not be unworthy of his love;

But do that, which may answer his kind Providence;

And serve his truth and people;

That an example may be set up to the nations;

There may be room there, though not here,

For such an holy experiment."

William Penn

Over a decade ago I became fascinated with a little-known Pietist Mystic, Johannes Kelpius, who settled a band of intellectual monks in the wilderness surrounding Philadelphia in 1694.

I discovered mention of him during a road trip to Ephrata Cloister near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The gigantic egoism of Ephrata’s Conrad Beisell left me cold but the frail, pale, “madness” of Kelpius led me down the path of exploring the mystical settlement of Colonial Pennsylvania amid William Penn’s Holy Experiment that continues to this day….both the Holy Experiment and my exploration of it.

I wanted to understand how such a young man at Kelpius barely in his twenties felt the world was coming to an end soon and he wanted to experience it as “The Woman of the Wilderness” in the brave new world of America.

I wanted to know what he was thinking in his heart of hearts when only a few years later he would die before his Millennialist dream came true. From the fragments of history that I have found, I believe he died in peace and with a greater understanding of his transcendental fevers that still leave their mark today upon American mystics of every stripe.

I feel very protective of his memory and legacy and chafe at the multitude who claim him for themselves from the Rosicrucians to modern Peitists and to every flavor of New Age babes who follow the ley lines of his life with their trembling dowsing rods.

I believe Johannes Kelpius would like to be left in peace with no marker at his cave and only the sound of the river and the bird calls to sing praises with him of their celebration of the union of all things with the architect of the cosmos.



Or painful Kelpius [13] from his hermit den
By Wissahickon, maddest of good men,
Dreamed o'er the Chiliast dreams of Petersen.

Deep in the woods, where the small river slid
Snake-like in shade, the Helmstadt Mystic hid,
Weird as a wizard, over arts forbid,

Reading the books of Daniel and of John,
And Behmen's Morning-Redness, through the Stone
Of Wisdom, vouchsafed to his eyes alone,

Whereby he read what man ne'er read before,
And saw the visions man shall see no more,
Till the great angel, striding sea and shore,

Shall bid all flesh await, on land or ships,
The warning trump of the Apocalypse,
Shattering the heavens before the dread eclipse.

from “The Pennsylvania Pilgrim” by John Greenleaf Whittier

“As early as 1700 there were four hermits living near Germantown -- John Seelig, Kelpius, Bony, and Conrad Mathias. They lived near Wissahiccon and the Ridge. Benjamin Lay lived in a cave near the York Road at Branchtown.
John Kelpius, the hermit, was a German of Sieburgen in Transylvania, of an eminent family (tradition says he was noble) and a student of Dr. John Fabritius at Helmstadt. He was also a correspondent of Maecken, chaplain to the Prince of Denmark in London. He came to this country in 1694 with John Seelig, Barnard Kuster (Coster), Daniel Falkener, and about forty-two others, being generally men of education and learning, to devote themselves, for piety's sake, to a solitary or single life; and receiving the appellation of the "Society of the Woman in the wilderness". They first arrived among the Germans at Germantown, where they shone awhile "as a peculiar light" but they settled chiefly "on the Ridge", then a wilderness. In 1708, Kelpius, who was regarded as their leader, died "in the midst of his days", (said to be 35) -- after his death the members began to fall in with the world around them, and some of them to break their avowed religious intentions by marrying. Thus the society lost it distinctive character and died away; but previous to their dispersion they were joined about the year 1704 by some others among whom was Conrad Mathias (the last of the Ridge hermits) a Switzer, and by Christopher Witt (sometimes called Dr. Witt of Germantown) a professor of medicine, and a "magus" or diviner.
After the death of Kelpius, the faith was continued in the person of John Seelig who had been his companion, and was also a scholar. Seelig lived many years after him as a hermit, and was remarkable for resisting the offers of the world, and for wearing a coarse garment like that of Kelpius. This Seelig records the death of his friend Kelpius in 1708, in a MS. Hymn Book of Kelpius', (set to music) which I have seen -- saying he died in his garden, and attended by all his children, (spiritual ones, and children whom he taught gratis) weeping as for the loss of a father. That Kelpius was a man of learning is tested by some of his writings; a very small-written book of one hundred pages, once in my possession. It contains his writings in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, German and English; and this last (which is very remarkable, he being a foreigner) is very free and pure. The journal of his voyage to this country, in sixteen pages, is all in Latin; some of his letters (of which there are several in German, and two in English) are in Latin; they are all on religious topics, and saving his peculiar religious opinions, reason very acutely and soberly. From venturing with the thousands of his day to give spiritual interpretations to Scripture, where it was not so intended, he fell upon a scheme of religion which drove him and other students from the Universities of Germany, and under the name of Pietists, &c., to seek for some immediate and strange revelations. He and his friends therefore expected the millennium year was close at hand -- so near that he told the first Alex. Mack (the first of the Germantown Tunkers) that he should not die till he saw it ! He believed also that "the woman in the wilderness" mentioned in the Revelations, was prefigurative of the great deliverance that was then soon to be displayed for the church of Christ. As she was "to come up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved," so the beloved in the wilderness, laid aside all other engagements (i.e. being hermits, and trimming their lamps and adorning themselves with holiness, that they may be prepared to meet the same with joy), Therefore they did well to observe the signs of the time, and every new phenomenon(whether moral or preternatural) of meteors, stars, or colours of the skies, if peradventure the harbinger may appear". He argued too, that there was a three-fold wilderness, like state of progression in spiritual holiness : to wit, "the barren, the fruitful and the wilderness state of the elect of God". In the last state, after which he was seeking, as a highest degree of holiness, he believed it very essential to attain it by dwelling in solitude or in the wilderness; therefore he argues Moses' holiness by being prepared forty years in the wilderness -- Christ's being tempted forty days in the wilderness as an epitome of the other -- John the Baptist coming from the wilderness, &c. He thought it thus proved that holy men might be thus qualified to come forth among men again, to convert whole cities, and to work signs and wonders. He was much visited by religious persons. Kelpius professed love and charity with all -- but desired to live without a name or sect. The name they obtained was given by others. There are two of Kelpius' MS Hymn books still extant in Germantown; one of his own composing, in German, is called elegant; they are curious too, because they are all translated into English poetry (line for line) by Dr. C. Witt, the diviner or magus. The titles of some of them may exhibit the mind of the author :
"Of the wilderness -- or Virgin-Cross love"
"The contentment of the God-loving soul"
"Of the power of the new virgin-body wherein the Lord revealeth his mysteries"
"A loving moan of the disconsolate soul"
"Upon `Rest' after he had been wearied with `Labour' in the wilderness"
Although he looked for a qualification to go forth and convert towns and cities in the name of the Lord, it is manifest, that neither he nor his companions were enthusiastic enough to go into the world without such endowment. They often held religious meetings in their hermitage, with people who solicited to come to them for the purpose. Kelpius' hut or house stood on the hill where the widow Phoebe Riter now lives. Her log house has now stood more than forty years on the same cellar foundation which was his; it is on a steep descending grassy hill, well exposed to the sun for warmth in the winter, and has a spring of the hermit's making, half down the hill, shaded by a very stout cedar tree. After Kelpius' hut went down, the foxes used to burrow in his cellar; he called the place the "Burrow of Rocks, or Rocksburrow" -- now Roxborough.”


read more about Kelpius’ voyage to America in “Stories of Pennsylvania….”


A superb presentation, “Bacon’s “Secret Society”: The Ephrata Connection, A Slide-Show Tour of Esoteric History” put together by Linda S. Santucci that links the Ephrata Cloister to Kelpius

Joe Tyson, an even more serious Kelpius buff has written a succinct and intriguing biography of Kelpius and his band of “The Monks of the Ridge”

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


  1. Greetings from Baltimore. Kelpius is fascinating. This is a nice blog. I particularly liked your idea of leaving the Kelpius site as-is, because Kelpius would have wanted it that way--with just bird songs, etc. I believe the Kelpius Society (of which I am not a member)hopes to put up a statue of Kelpius someday. That would be kind of strange--a statue to a simple hermit who wanted no publicity.
    As for me, I translated his pamphlet on inner prayer (or meditation). It's available on Amazon. Just type in "Kelpius" into their search cell. My book is called "A Method of Prayer. A Mystical Text from Colonial America." However, the only connection between that text and Kelpius is a handwritten note left by a person from the next generation. We do know that the Kelpius group did follow the kind of prayer found in Method of Prayer, though. The method was described earlier by Madam Guyon.
    In any case, A Method of Prayer is a beautiful work of mystical prose that was printed in Germantown in 1756.
    Other than that, we do have Kelpius's journal (including some letters) and some poems.
    But most of all, as you say, we have the beauty of nature around the site where he lived, and this is probably the best expression of his spirit and ideals than anything.

  2. Thanks for the comment! There are so few sincere Kelpius fans that I wish you had left your contact info. Perhaps Amazon will help me out. I'm also anxious to see your translation of his work.


For previous blog entries, see the "Blog Archive" on the top right of the web page.