ODD TRUTHS: THE WIZARD OF PENNSYLVANIA
In his poem The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) refers to a “weird” and wizard-like recluse who haunts the Wissahickon woodland:
The inspiration for this romantic woodsman-magus was none other than Johannes Kelpius, a Transylvanian theologian and mystic who emigrated from Europe to Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1694 to establish a rural utopian community along the Wissahickon Creek. Originally from Denndorf, he was educated at the universities of Tübingen, Leipzig, and Altdorf. A precocious student, Kelpius published his doctoral thesis Theologia Naturalis in 1689 at the age of sixteen.
Through his friendships with Dr Johannes Fabricius and pastor Johannes Jakob Zimmerman, he was introduced to hermetic philosophy, as well as the theosophical and Kabbalistic works of Jacob Boehme and Knorr von Rosenroth. Eventually, he adopted the millenarian views of his mentors, which were characterised by a belief in an imminent apocalypse and a commitment to communitarian ethics. After the death of Zimmerman, and at the age of twenty-six, Kelpius became the leader of the forty-member “Chapter of Perfection” and departed for the New World.
“Occasionally, we were amused by the gambols of the monsters of the deep, some having the form of calves, others that of horses, and still others that of whales. Especially at night they presented a fine spectacle, when vying, as it were, in speed with our vessel, they seemed just as moving through a sea of fire.”
Over the course of the voyage, the crew was nearly shipwrecked by tempests and blown to smithereens by pirate cannon-fire. The company’s miraculous safe passage was, for Kelpius, a proof of the blessedness of his mission. Coincidentally (or perhaps fatefully), the pilgrims arrived in Pennsylvania around Midsummer on St John’s Eve and celebrated by lighting an immense bonfire, a symbol of their rebirth in a new land. Although the term “Manifest Destiny” would not be coined until the nineteenth century, Kelpius and his community (which would soon be called “The Woman in the Wilderness” after a verse in the Book of Revelation) began to fully realise the limitless potential of their new home. One of his followers writes:
“What pleases me here most is that one can be peasant, scholar, priest and nobleman all at the same time without interference, which of all modes of living has been found to be the best and most satisfactory since patriarchal times. To be a peasant and nothing else is a sort of cattle-life; to be a scholar and nothing else, such as in Europe, is a morbid and self-indulgent existence; to be a priest and nothing else ties life to blunders and responsibilities; to be a nobleman and nothing else makes godless and riotous.”
William Penn embodied this composite ideal. After stints in the Tower of London and Newgate prison, the Quaker ex-convict rose to become Pennsylvania’s pater patriae. It was Penn’s advocacy and promotion of civil and religious liberties that incubated his society’s culture of universalism; attracting non-conformist Christians like The Woman in the Wilderness to the New World in droves. However, some have suggested that Kelpius was motivated by a Rosicrucian initiative.
In his work The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, Arthur Edward Waite, referencing Kelpius’s spiritual training, suggests that Kelpius was “integrated in the order”. The Rosicrucians were a theorised association of Christian illuminates (first described in the early 1600s). The secret society claimed to be an essentially humanist order that valued worldwide benevolence. Like the Rosicrucians who professed the civic benefits of occult practice and spirituality, members of The Woman in the Wilderness built a log tabernacle, cast horoscopes, practised herbal medicine, ministered to one another, and befriended Indians. With this is mind, it’s not hard to see why modern scholars such as Arthur Versluis have noted that “the actual lives of the group had much more in common with the Rosicrucian vision of the perfect society”.
After Kelpius’s death, his remaining followers, having lived through the millennium which never arrived, joined a neighbouring spiritual group called “Ephrata”. A century later, Kelpius’s connection to American supernaturalism was propagated in the fiction of authors George Lippard and Charles Brockden Brown.
Today, Kelpius is generally associated with the Kelpius Cave, his purported dwelling-place (now located in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park), even though the legitimacy of the site—according to Arthur Versluis—is disputed. Nevertheless, it’s true that the park, which partially includes Wissahickon Creek, was once the realm of one of America’s earliest mystical communities. In some way–at least in the literature of writers like Edgar Alan Poe, Mark Twain, and John Whittier–its legendary history and Arcadian appeal lives on.