The Monks of the Wissahickon: Part I

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By Joseph Tyson III

Historian Julius F. Sachse portrayed the Monks of the Wissahickon as “a company of theosophical enthusiasts—call them Pietists, mystics, Chiliasts, Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Cathars, Puritans, or what you may.” They were devout seekers of Divine Truth who believed that the end times had arrived.

Johannes Kelpius, the monks’ Magister from 1694 to 1708, was born Johann Kelp in 1667, at or near Halwagen, Transylvania (present day Sighisoara, Rumania.)  His father, Georg Kelp, served as a Lutheran pastor. Johann had two older brothers:  Martin and Georg.  Their father died on February 25, 1685. Aware of Johann’s intelligence, three of Reverend Kelp’s friends—Count Valentine Franck, Burgomeister Michael Deli, and Notary Johann Zabanius—agreed to subsidize his education. Thus, the studious youth attended Altdorf, Leipzig, Helmstadt, and Tubingen universities. During his college years he came under the tutelage of several professors with occult leanings, including Philip Jakob Spener, whose writings inspired the Moravians, and theologian-astrologer Johannes Fabricius.  After earning his masters degree from the University of Tubingen in 1689, twenty-two year old Kelp latinized his name to Johannes Kelpius.

As an adjunct to his academic studies, Kelpius read the works of mystical philosopher Jacob Boehme. Wits later applied the malapropism “bohemian” (lower case) to devotees of Boehme.  In colloquial usage the noun “bohemian” doesn’t mean “a citizen of Bohemia,” but a nonconformist who cherishes oddball notions.  For example, conventional Americans in the 1950’s regarded Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other beatniks as “bohemians.”

A bootmaker by trade, Jacob Boehme was an authentic visionary who influenced not only Pietists, but the Romantic poets, New England Transcendentalists, and Rosicrucians.  Critics have labeled him a “Gnostic Pantheist” because he considered God and Nature to be One.  Boehme conceived of God as “Eternal Unity, the Indivisible Source of All Being, and Predecessor of the First Cause.” According to the Boehmean worldview, human souls emanate from God.  Hence, we can apprehend Divinity by looking within ourselves.  In Epistle thirty-five of his Theosophical Letters, Boehme wrote:  “Understanding of God must come from the Interior Fountain and enter the mind from God’s Living Word within the Soul.  Unless this takes place all teaching about divine things is useless and worthless.”

Boehme’s Internal Spring formed the basis for Quaker notions of Inner Light and Continuing Revelation, which denied the need for hiring priests as mediators, and building “steeple houses.”  Society of Friends prophet George Fox asserted: “God does not dwell in temples… made by (human) hands, but freely in the hearts of men.” 

Boehme wrote of his own personal struggle in Mysterium Supplement VII:  “I wrestled with God that his Blessing might descend upon me…I regarded myself as dead and sought the heart of Jesus.  A light foreign to my unruly nature broke through…God dwells in that which will resign itself up…”  Boehme characterized the leap from idle speculation to belief as a transition from “imagination to Magia,” a miraculous process.  “In Magia faith is discovered.  ...Man should (passively) give up willing to let (God’s) Creation take place through him…There is born within the earthly man…a new spiritual man with Divine perceptions and a Divine will, killing day by day the lusts of the flesh and causing the inner spiritual world to become visible.” 

Boehme accepted the esoteric maxim “as above, so below.”  Man, the microcosm, crudely reflected God, the Macrocosm.  In fact, an individual human being mirrored the physical Universe by consisting of both good and evil.  In Epistle XII of his Theosophical Letters Boehme discerned three interconnected worlds inside himself:   “1) The Divine, angelical, or paradisiacal; 2) The dark world; and 3) The external, visible world (containing a mixture of darkness and Light)…I saw and knew the whole Being in evil and good, how one originates in the other.”

Between 1690 and 1693 Johannes Kelpius supported himself by teaching and writing.  In collaboration with Dr. Fabricius, he wrote and published his master’s thesis.  That sixteen chapter work compared and contrasted the theological views of Augustine, Tertullian, Pope Stephen I, Arius, Marcellus, Pelagius, Faustus, and others.  One admirer of this learned treatise, neurotic genius Johann Jacob Zimmerman, met Kelpius in Nuremberg, and welcomed him to join his new religious brotherhood, The Chapter of Perfection.   The young scholar’s decision to accept that invitation changed his life forever.

Chapter of Perfection founder Johann Jacob Zimmerman (1642 – 1693), was a brilliant, though unstable, mathematician, astronomer, and Lutheran minister.   He graduated with honors from the University of Tubingen in 1664.  The Royal Society of London credited him with discovering and accurately plotting the Great Comet of 1680.  He also mapped the first conic projection star charts.  In 1671 he married, and entered the Lutheran ministry.  His superiors assigned him to a church in Beihingheim, Wurttemburg.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s life went awry in 1682, after he contracted a nearly fatal fever that probably caused brain damage.  Dr. Ludwig Brunnquell, an ardent champion of Boehme, treated him during that illness.  On Brunnquell’s recommendation, Zimmerman undertook an intensive study of Boehme’s works.  He soon began promulgating crackpot notions, doing so not only from the pulpit, but by means of inflammatory pamphlets published under pseudonyms.  In one manifesto Zimmerman prophesied:

“The downfall of Babylon in Europe; the
Millenium of the pious and universal
conversion of Jews, Turks, and Gentiles;
true Prophecies existing even now; and
certain doubts concerning (Luther’s) Augsburg
Confession and Apologia.”

Like Jacob Boehme, Zimmerman questioned Luther’s (Pauline) assertion that men were saved by faith alone.  He valued good works above faith. Moreover, Zimmerman doubted the doctrine of Atonement, which sacrilegiously portrayed God the Father as a primitive shaman. The Crucifixion had been a crime perpetrated by fallen mankind, not a pagan blood sacrifice arranged by Father Jehovah.  Zimmerman viewed Jesus’s Incarnation as God’s love offering to humanity.  Besides those heresies, he advocated Copernicus’s “unholy” theory that earth rotated around the sun—a patent contradiction of sacred scripture.

The Baden Synod fired Zimmerman from his pastorate in 1685.  An appeal hearing before the Lutheran Ducal Consistory upheld that action.  Its report judged Zimmerman as a raving crank who treacherously rebelled against the hallowed institution which paid his salary for over fourteen years. The court censured him for exalting Boehme “over the Apostles,” as well as his defamations against the established church.  In its written opinion the Consistory noted that Zimmerman’s anonymous publications—“covert so as to avoid the Light”—had bashed Lutheranism as “a Babel,” and “the Antichrist.” The report writer posed a rhetorical question:  “Why should a man who leads the people away from Lutheran principles still desire to be called a presbyter?”  Because Zimmerman did not take his sacking well, court documents added that

“He…acted after the manner of common people,
complaining greatly of the persecution he was forced
to endure.  He maligned our Consistory and talked
much concerning divine judgement which would
overtake the country on his account.”

Zimmerman allegedly gloated over “the misfortunes and death of his (former) superior,” and attributed France’s invasion of Baden to “nothing more or less than divine retribution.” The panel of judges exiled Zimmerman from Wurttemburg.  He first moved to Frankfurt am Main with his wife Maria Margarethe and their four children, where he established relations with a group of Boehme fanatics.  Shortly thereafter, Zimmerman accepted Heidelburg University’s Chair of Mathematics, a post which he lost due to his religious mania in 1690.  University trustees disapproved of his obsession with trying to foretell the Millenium by means of astrological formulae and quack Bible chronology. From Heidelburg, “the nutty professor” and his family moved to Hamburg.  There Zimmerman worked as a lowly proofreader for Brandt Publishing Company.  In Hamburg he met Johannes Kelpius’s teacher Philip Jakob Spener, and Benjamin Furley, President of William Penn’s Frankfurt Land Company.  He also assembled a small group of fervent believers which he named The Chapter of Perfection.  In consultation with Furley, Zimmerman hatched a scheme to emigrate to Pennsylvania.  His “scientific” calculations predicted the end of the world in November or December, 1693.  Christ’s Second Coming would commence simultaneously.  An ecstatic vision—or hallucination-- revealed to him that the New World would be Jesus’s most likely capital for The Thousand Year Reign. Thus, Zimmerman planned to “depart from these Babilonish shores to… American plantations, being led thereunto by the Divine Spirit’s guidance…” It turned out that the world did not end in Autumn of 1693, but Zimmerman’s life did.  He died suddenly in Rotterdam at the age of fifty-one, just before his party’s embarkation to London.

Zimmerman had recently appointed brilliant Johannes Kelpius as his chief assistant.  Although twenty-six year old Johannes keenly embraced the concept of establishing a utopia for saints in America, he had not anticipated that his master’s untimely death would put him in charge of not only their[PK1]  fledgling religious order, but Zimmerman’s widow and four children.

Kelpius stood no more than five feet, three inches tall, and weighed less than 130 pounds.  His left eyelid could not fully retract.  Therefore, it had a “hooded,” half-closed appearance, especially when his right eye opened widely.  Kelpius spoke softly and had a kind, gentle manner.  He dressed in a dark monk’s robe and usually wore the round felt cap of a 17th century German professor. (The Historical Society of Pennsylvania still possesses Christopher Witt’s 1705 portrait of Kelpius.)

On January 7, 1694 grieving Chapter of Perfection members sailed from Rotterdam to London.  During a stopover in the English capital Kelpius conversed with prophetess Jane Leade, who co-founded the Philadelphiast movement with John Pordage in 1670.  Their Society took its name from the righteous church mentioned in Revelation 3:7, exactly as William Penn did when naming his “green country town” Philadelphia.  Both the Philadelphiasts and Penn were influenced by Revelation, Chapter 3, where an angel of God pronounced the Church of Sardis (present-day Turkey) dead, but the neighboring Church of Philadelphia alive and well.  God assured Philadelphians that He would spare them from the Retribution. “For you have strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My Name…I will keep you from the hour of trial…” 

Leade and Pordage’s group incorporated ideas from Jacob Boehme, George Fox’s Society of Friends, and Rev. Richard Coppin whose concept of Universal Reconciliation held that all men and fallen angels would ultimately be saved through Divine Compassion.  Like the Quakers, Jane Leade and her adherents claimed to be in direct communication with Christ’s Inward Light.  In her essay, “A Fountain of Gardens,” she characterized herself as a medium for “The Virgin Sophia,” who first appeared to her in April, 1670. “…I had great advantage of retirement, often frequenting lonely walks in a grove or wood, contemplating the happy state of the angelical world and how desirous I was to have my conversation there…an overshadowing bright cloud (appeared to me) and in the midst of it the figure of a woman, most richly adorned with transparent gold, her hair hanging down and her face as the terrible crystal for brightness, but her countenance was sweet and mild… (She said:)  “Behold I am God’s Eternal Virgin Wisdom, whom thou hast been inquiring after.  I am to unseal God’s deep wisdom unto thee…” Kelpius tried to persuade Jane to come to America.  She politely declined.

On February 13, 1694 Kelpius and his band of monks, bound for America, boarded the Sarah Maria Hopewell, a cargo and passenger vessel equipped with four cannons.  A destructive gale nearly sunk this ship in the English Channel.  Captain Tanner had to put in at Downs for two months of repairs.  On April 25th they set sail again, escorted by British warship “Providence” to protect them from piracy.  Indeed, French pirates did attack the Sarah Maria on May 10th.  In his diary Kelpius recorded a four hour naval engagement.  He witnessed a French rifleman “rent to pieces” by a British cannon ball while attempting to shoot Captain Tanner.  Kelpius wrote that “the merciful Father made the enemies’ balls drop into the water before our ship… Only one (flew) overhead.” While this battle raged, Kelpius and his monks retreated below to pray for deliverance.  A few moments later the ship’s first mate yelled:  “Ahoy, ye lubbers, the captain wants all o’ ye topside on the double!”  The Magister and his followers promptly complied.  Once on deck they spied the French corsair heading straight toward them, with the obvious intention of landing a boarding party onto the Sarah Maria.  When the French captain saw thirty-some hands on deck, all dressed in dark brown “uniforms,” he mistook them for a platoon of tough marines, and veered off.  The Providence later captured the French boat.  One of the prisoners, a Huguenot who claimed that he’d been kidnapped by the swarthy privateers, subsequently came aboard the Sarah Maria, and participated in the monks’ prayer service.

The Sarah Maria Hopewell sailed smoothly for the rest of this voyage, except for one incident.  Kelpius’s more aggressive assistant, Henry Bernhard Koster (who would soon quit the Brotherhood to set up his own ministry as a fiery evangelist,) had seen fit to excommunicate Chapter of Perfection member Daniel Falckner, a Lutheran minister’s son.  No one today knows the actual reason for that punishment, but conflicting hearsay attributed his downfall to either copulating with a “wench” on board, or getting drunk with Sarah Maria crewmen. Though defrocked, Falckner had no alternative but to remain in the company of his former associates for the next few weeks.  On June 12th the Sarah Maria cruised into the Chesapeake Bay.  All passengers disembarked and trekked overland to New Castle (Delaware,) then caught a sloop to Philadelphia, which arrived on June 22nd or 23rd at the Delaware River’s junction with Dock Creek.  Kelpius and his entourage called upon Philadelphia Captain-General Benjamin Fletcher, who asked Kelpius to explain his reasons for settling in Pennsylvania.  Satisfied with his answers, Fletcher administered the colony’s loyalty oath to the whole assemblage.  At that time Philadelphia had less than five hundred buildings, and very few inns.  Nevertheless, its constabulary strictly enforced vagrancy laws.  To avoid any offense, the Chapter of Perfection marched two-by two like school children to the woods of “Fairmount” (22nd & Market streets, near the Schuylkill River), and slept outdoors.  The next morning, in the same line of pairs, the Germans strode back to Blue Anchor Tavern (Market St. above the Delaware River.)  Of course, Philadelphia had no trains or buses in those days.  After breakfast the monks and Zimmerman family plodded up 2nd Street, past Mulberry (Arch) Street to the edge of Philadelphia’s woodlands. From there, in the company of a guide, they hiked nine miles on a game trail through the wilds of “Fairhill” (North Philadelphia,) until reaching the Germantown residence of Jacob Isaac Van Bebbers, who put them up for the next five months.

Maria Margarethe Zimmerman and her four children—Philip, Matthias, Jacob, and Maria—remained in “Germanopolis” (the original name of Germantown.)  Daughter Maria would eventually wed Ludwig Biedermann, previously a Chapter of Perfection brother, and have a daughter by him.  The boys eventually married and raised families.  Many of their descendants still live in Pennsylvania today.