January 1, 1667|
|Died||January 1, 1708
|Unknown in Pennsylvania|
Johannes Kelpius (1667–1708) was a German Pietist, mystic, musician, and writer, interested in the occult, botany, and astronomy, who came to believe with his followers in the "Society of the Woman in the Wilderness" that the end of the world would occur in 1694. This belief, based on an elaborate interpretation of a passage from the biblical Book of Revelation, anticipated the advent of a heavenly kingdom somewhere in the wilderness during that year. Kelpius felt that the seventeenth-century Province of Pennsylvania, given its reputation for religious toleration at the edge of a barely settled wilderness, was the best place to be. Philadelphia had been founded in 1682, but the city and the Province of Pennsylvania had quickly become a tolerant haven and refuge for many pietist, communitarian, or free-thinking groups who were leaving an intolerant Old World for the congenial religious climate of the British colony. Kelpius and his followers crossed the Atlantic and lived in the valley of the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia from 1694 until his death. It is reported that they lived communally, though they also spent time in solitary meditation in caves and small cells scattered about their common living quarters. Though no sign or revelation accompanied the year 1694, the faithful, known as the Hermits or Mystics of the Wissahickon, continued to live in celibacy, searching the stars and hoping for the end.
The so-called Cave of Kelpius is located by a small tributary stream of the Wissahickon in Philadelphia's present-day 1,372-acre (5.55 km2) Wissahickon Valley Park, which is part of the 9,200-acre (37 km2) Fairmount Park system of 63 city parks. Though the structure is alleged to be only a springhouse by some, as late as the 1940s it still had a chimney and fireplace, subsequently removed after some vandalism.
Kelpius was born Johann Kelp in 1667, (American documents incorrectly placed his birth in 1673), near the town of Schäßburg, Transylvania (now Sighişoara, Romania) and attended the University of Altdorf, near Nuremberg, where his name was Latinized to Johannes Kelpius according to the custom of scholars of his days. By the age of 22 he had taken a master's degree in theology and published several works, including one in collaboration with Johannes Fabricius. At the university he had been drawn to Pietism, initially a reaction against the formalism of orthodox Lutheranism, but a term that sometimes included various esoteric or heretical Christian ideas. He became a follower of Johann Jacob Zimmermann, a mathematician, astronomer, and cleric, whose pastoral position had ended in 1685 due to his prediction of the imminent advent of a heavenly kingdom, as well as his criticism of the state church. Zimmermann was himself attached to the ideas of theosophist Jakob Böhme. After Zimmerman's sudden death, shortly before the group's departure for the New World, Kelpius became the group's magister or leader.
The travel diary of Kelpius has been preserved. Some of the forty or so who traveled with him aboard the Sarah Maria Hopewell  were Heinrich Bernhard Koster, Daniel Falckner, and Johann Gottfried Seelig. They disembarked at Bohemia Landing, Maryland and proceeded to Philadelphia and Germantown. On arrival in Philadelphia (which barely had 500 houses at this time) they moved to Germantown and then to the Wissahickon. There they established a regular program of private study and meditation. They eventually erected a large building for their meetings; some say they lived there communally, but others that they lived separately in caves and other rude shelters and cabins. They created a school for neighborhood children, held public worship services, and shared their medical knowledge. A few newcomers, including Conrad Matthai and Christopher Witt joined the group, but the community began to decline, especially after the death of Kelpius.
Little is known of his death except for an account from years later which states that Kelpius had believed that he would not suffer physical death, but be translated to another existence. The same account suggests that Kelpius possessed the legendary philosopher's stone, which at his direction was cast into the Wissahickon or Schuylkill River shortly before he died near Germantown in 1708.
His literary legacy is a collection of original hymns, a journal that includes many of his correspondences, and a book on prayer and meditation, A Short, Easy, and Comprehensive Method of Prayer, first published in English in 1761, and republished in 1951. However, this old translation has some inaccuracies, and English has changed over the more than two centuries since it appeared. Fortunately, a completely new translation has been completed by Kirby Don Richards, Ph.D.: A Method of Prayer. A Mystical Pamphlet from Colonial America. Dr. Richards' book includes both the German original and the new English translation. It also contains background materials that help explain the pamphlet and put it in its historical context. The book is now out of print.
Kelpius was the subject of one of the first oil portraits in the thirteen British colonies; the painting was by Christopher Witt and is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, also home to Kelpius's journal, two collections of his original hymns, and other research source material.
Kelpius was a musician, and he and his followers took with them instruments that became an integral part of church life. Kelpius was also a composer, and is sometimes called the first Pennsylvanian composer, based on his unproven authorship of several hymns in The Lamenting Voice of the Hidden Love. The 70-page hymnbook which he is believed to have composed is the earliest extant musical manuscript compiled in the thirteen British colonies. It is likely that he wrote the text, though the tunes are mostly based on German songs; four come from Christian Knorr von Rosenroth's Neuer Helicon (Nuremberg, 1684), and another four are from other German sources dated 1690 and later. The harmonies show considerable musical talent and skill. The English translations in the collection are attributed to his disciple Christopher Witt, an Englishman who joined the mystics. Witt is said also to have built them a pipe organ, said to be the first privately owned organ in North America.
Until the recent novel Woman in the Wilderness by Jonathan D. Scott, Kelpius was remembered only in a few scattered references in literature. The nearly forgotten novelist George Lippard mentions "the monks of the Wissahikon" in his The Rose of Wissahikon. John Greenleaf Whittier borrowed from one of Lippard's short romances, based more on what should have been than on what actually happened, to include Kelpius in his 1872 poem Pennsylvania Pilgrim:
Or, haply, pilgrims from the Fatherland,
Weak, timid, homesick, slow to understand
The New World's promise, sought his helping hand.
Or painful Kelpius 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.
Or meek-eyed Mennonist his bearded chin
Leaned o'er the gate; or Ranter, pure within,
Aired his perfection in a world of sin.
Given the tone of the poem, it's worth noting that Kelpius and his followers were men of university training, with considerable knowledge in languages, sciences, and music, strange though they may have seemed to their contemporaries - and to us.
Jonathan Scott's book (mentioned above) has a quite different tone. Scott imagines Kelpius shortly before his death offering this advice to a fellow seeker of wisdom: " . . . how precious are friendships and how difficult are goodbyes! . . . grow into a full life of joy as well as wisdom. . . . I beg you not to defer your life in expectation of some promised tomorrow, for our gift is the present."
- Cave of Kelpius
- "Middleton Books".
- Pennsylvania - German Passenger Lists, Sarah M. Hopewell 1694
- I Love My Jesus Quite Alone
- A Short, Easy and Comprehensive Method of Prayer: Johannes Kelpius [1673 - 1708] On-line Manuscript
- Amazon.com: A Method of Prayer. A Mystical Pamphlet from Colonial America: Books: Johannes Kelpius and Kirby Richards; Ph.D.,Kirby Don Richards; Ph.D
- ExplorePAHistory.com - Image
- Woman in the Wilderness
- "Kelpius, Johannes". Grove Music Encyclopedia.
- Miller, Randall M and William Pencak, eds. Pennsylvania: a History of the Commonwealth. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Univ Pr, 2002.
- Scott, Jonathan. The Woman in the Wilderness. (Though a novel, notes support the historical events and separate them from created or imagined events. Evokes the context of Kelpius' life in a clear and meaningful way.)
- Kelpius, Johannes. "A Method of Prayer. A Mystical Pamphlet from Colonial America." Edited and translated by Kirby Don Richards, Ph.D. Philadelphia: Schuylkill Wordsmiths, 2006.
- Kelpius Society - historical organization based in Philadelphia
- 1871 map of Wissahickon / Fairmount Park - notes Kelpius Spring by so-called Cave of Kelpius
- 1876 map of Wissahickon / Fairmount Park - notes Kelpius Spring by so-called Cave of Kelpius
- photo of the Cave of Kelpius
- Claus Bernet (2004). "Johannes Kelpius". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 23. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 778–786. ISBN 3-88309-155-3.
- "Kelpius, John". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1892
- Cave of Kelpius
- New info on birth date
- Monks of Wissahickon
- The Legend of Wissahickon
- The Johannes Kelpius collection of German hymns, containing hand-written hymns by Kelpius and others, is available for research use at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.