Sunday, December 9, 2012

Johannes Kelpius - Not America's First Rosicrucian

A significant portion of my youth was spent in Philadelphia and I was immersed in the stories and legends of the area, even though many of my contemporaries paid little attention to them. The most fascinating of these were doubtlessly the stories I heard about the mad visionary monk or magician who lived alongside the Wissahickon Creek. The legends were fantastic, and the fact that they seemed to contradict themselves and left room for the suspicion that the truth was something other, did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the most outrageous of them.

In graduate school I did a little more digging and found many fascinating facts about the magician of the legends I heard as a child. Unfortunately, I have found that most adults are not as interested in finding the truth as I was. So, a recent visit by a friend which led me to take him to see the sites associated with the legends if not the facts, has led me to publicly right a few of the most commonly circulated errors.

Johannes Kelpius
The man I am referring to was a well educated German Pietist from what is now Switzerland. Actually, this man, most commonly known today as Johannes Kelpius, was born in Transylvania. He was a radical pietist. For those who wish to make the claim that he was America's first Rosicrucian, including AMORC, I am sorry to burst your bubble. Radical Pietists were not Rosicrucians. They certainly influenced what came to be known as Rosicrucianism, but they were no more Rosicrucians than ancient Jews were Christians because the Christian faith grew out of Judaism.

The small band of German pietists who settled in the Wissahickon Valley in 1694 were initially recruited by Johann Jacob Zimmerman, a former Lutheran minister and professor at Heidelberg University, disenfranchised by the church and dismissed from his academic post for his Pietist and millennialist beliefs. Religious wars devastated much of Europe throughout the seventeenth century, particularly Germany, then the Holy Roman Empire, during the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648.

Root Cellar not really associated with Kelpius
Johannes Kelpius, the man who lead this group, was born in Transylvania around 1667. Born to a Lutheran pastor, he developed an interest in theology at a young age. Kelpius excelled as a scholar and received a doctorate of philosophy and the liberal arts in Nuremburg in 1689, where he received a "thorough scientific and religious education." He became fluent in German, English, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek and used his knowledge for religious study and philosophy. The young man continued his studies and attended the University of Altdorf, where Dr. Johannes Fabricus closely nurtured his academic ambitions. Kelpius's prowess was such that, during his first year at Altdorf, he collaborated with his mentor to publish two books in 1690.

During his life, Kelpius witnessed the growth of the religious and mystical movement called Pietism. It originally began as a faction of Lutheranism in Rome, but spread across Europe and grew particularly in Germany. Pietism rejected reliance on institutionalized religion and instead advocated deeper personal relationships with the spiritual world. Mystics especially found Pietism attractive because of its similarities to their own beliefs. Pietism's popularity spread quickly in Germany's intellectual community and shaped the academic environment that Kelpius studied in.

Although Kelpius guided the Pietists to America, he was not the group's original leader. Johannes Zimmermann, a noted mathematician and astronomer, took to mysticism and became convinced that Jesus Christ would descend from the heavens to begin the millennium in March of 1694. To prepare for the Second Coming, Zimmermann organized a group of forty devotees (including himself) to await the return of Christ in the New World. The work that Fabricus and Kelpius published impressed Zimmermann, and he sought out and recruited Kelpius as his Deputy Magister.

Wissahickon Monastery
Under Zimmermann's direction, the group planned to settle in the woods surrounding the scarcely-settled Philadelphia. Pennsylvania proved an obvious choice with its reputation for religious tolerance and secluded environment where the Pietists could devote themselves to perfecting their souls uninterrupted. The wilderness, they concluded, provided them with the best environment to receive divine revelation in the manner that Moses and Elijah had. Furthermore, the port at Philadelphia was near the fortieth parallel. Mystics considered forty to be the perfect number, as Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai, and Christ wandered in the desert for 40 days, among other things.

Ephrata Cloister
In the summer of 1693, Zimmermann's group of forty Pietists rallied in Rotterdam, Holland, where they prepared for their journey. A Dutch Quaker, believed to be William Penn's Rotterdam agent, Benjamin Furley, took an interest in the group and their beliefs and provided them with 2,400 acres of land in the new world and £130 for their passage. Zimmermann's unexpected death later that year delayed the group's journey. Kelpius took Zimmermann's place as leader, and after restoring the group's membership to forty, Kelpius, "convinced by God, resolved upon going to America." On February 13, 1694, Kelpius boarded the English Sarah Maria and set sail. After many adventures, documented in Kelpius' Diary, which survives, the band arrived in Philadelphia.

According to Philadelphia legend, they marched to Fairmount. For those of you unfamiliar with the historic names of Philadelphia geography, that is the location where several centuries later Rocky Balboa ran up the museum steps in the movie. where they lit fires and celebrated St. John's day.

Ephrata Song Book
Legend also neglects to note that Kelpius and his group lived a life that was anything but removed from the German speaking community which occupied what is still called Germantown today. They taught children, grew a large botanical garden to help heal illnesses on the site where the Philadelphia Cricket Club Golf Course now exists. Legend also makes no mention of the fact that the monks, including Kelpius made a killing in local real estate, and that Kelpius went on to win a legal suit against him for real estate fraud. Kelpius and his followers performed what may have been the first chamber music concert in North America in Old Swede's Church, and the portrait of Kelpius by Christopher Witt, who founded Pennsylvania Hospital, is the oldest portrait in the United States.

"Lady in the Wilderness" from Ephrata
The Pietists, who believed literally that the return of Christ was imminent, were disappointed when the appointed date came and went, and many ended up leaving to live in Germantown. Kelpius stayed on with Conrad Mathai. When Kelpius died in 1708, having had to be removed to Germantown to convalesce, this left Mathai and six of the original 40 still living at the monastery. This was the group which met Conrad Beissel who arrived in 1720 to join the group which locals had nicknamed "The Woman in the Wilderness," after the imagery of the New Testament Book of Revelations.

Beissel, went on to lead a group to found a similar Pietist community in Effrata, Pennsylvania in 1730. The community prospered while Beissel lived, but began to decline after his death. In 1814, the scant few remaining dwellers of Ephrata Cloister incorporated themselves as the Seventh Day German Baptist Church, a title which survived until 1934. With its future in limbo during the late 1920's, these few members recognized the end of their communal experiment but strongly disagreed on how to best dispose of the grounds, buildings, and artifacts which held considerable monetary and historical value. The arguments escalated into legal action against each other to such a degree that the courts revoked the incorporation of their charter and placed the property under receivership. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission assumed ownership of the grounds and buildings in 1941, with a program of research, interpretation, and careful restoration.

Nothing remains of the original Temple built by Kelpius and his followers, and while we know the general area where it was located, we do not know the exact location. The Monastery House most likely was built after Kelpius' death and is understood to have belonged to the group under Beissel's leadership which subsequently moved to the Cloisters in Ephrata, Pa. Of course, it might also have been used by the Dunkers, another Pennsylvania religious community which coexisted in the Wissahickon.

Böhmeian Philosophical Illustration
What exactly did they believe and teach? They were first and foremost Lutherans. They rebelled against the rigidity of the Lutheranism of their day, but they were essentially Lutherans with a mystical worldview. This was the same forge out of which what we today call Rosicrucianism was born. There were certain minor similarities and parallels, but there were also significant differences between the two philosophies. Sorry AMORC, your impressive plaque at the site of the root cellar both you and local folklore incorrectly identify as The Hermit's Cave is incorrect on two points. The first is that this location was not used by Kelpius, although he may have walked close by where it today stands. The second is that Kelpius was not a Rosicrucian, nor would he have self-identified as one. It is even quite possible that he was not familiar with the term. It certainly is not mentioned in any of the brief works we have which can be identified as his work. So, while it pleases me to see that you have honored Philadelphia's favorite esoteric son, for some of us at least, accuracy matters. Had your memorial sign read "Kelpius was a Radical Pietist whose faith in many ways anticipated modern Rosicrucianism" it would not have as much dramatic impact in your favor, but it would have been a lot more historically accurate, and that would be welcome. Instead, setting themselves up as an authority, they have perpetrated the spread of misinformation. That is unfortunate.

Kelpius was a follower of Böhmeianism  We might today call him a Bohemian, as the modern term it is claimed has been influenced both by the term Böhmeianism and the region known as Bohemia. One of Boehme's most influential works was named Aurora. In that book, he defined seven major qualities, planets and humoral-elemental associations:

1. Dry - Saturn - melancholy, power of death;
2. Sweet - Jupiter - sanguine, gentle source of life;
3. Bitter - Mars - choleric, destructive source of life;
4. Fire - Sun/Moon - night/day; evil/good; sin/virtue; Moon, later = phlegmatic, watery;
5. Love - Venus - love of life, spiritual rebirth;
6. Sound - Mercury - keen spirit, illumination, expression;
7. Corpus - Earth - totality of forces awaiting rebirth.
In "De Tribus Principiis" or "On the Three Principles of Divine Being" Böhme subsumed the seven principles into the Trinity:
1. The "dark world" of the Father (Qualities 1-2-3);
2. The "light world" of the Holy Spirit (Qualities 5-6-7);
3. "This world" of Satan and Christ (Quality 4).  

Grave of Conrad Beissel
Böhmeianism does not describe the beliefs of any single religious group, rather, it is a more general description of Böhme's interpretation of Christianity. Böhme influenced many anti-authoritarian and Christian mystical movements, such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Philadelphians,  the Gichtelians, the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness (Kelpius' group), the Ephrata Cloister, the Harmony Society, Martinism, and Christian theosophy. Böhme was also an important source of German Romantic philosophy, influencing Schelling. Richard Bucke, in his 1901 treatise Cosmic Consciousness, gave special attention to Böhme's spiritual enlightenment. Böhme is also an important influence on the ideas of the English Romantic poet, artist and mystic William Blake.


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