Monks of The Wissahickon: Part 2

By Joe Tyson III

In August, 1694 William Penn’s Surveyor General Thomas Fairman (possibly on Penn’s instructions) donated 175 acres of woods west of Germantown to the monks.  Kelpius and his men cleared land in the forest near today’s Hermit Lane, planted vegetables and herbs, then started building their priory: a log structure consisting of a “saal” (communal worship area, with tabernacle), small dining room (served by an outdoor kitchen,) forty “kammern” (monks’ cells), and a second story belfry with window, used as an observatory.  Behind that little tower’s window the monks placed Johann Jacob Zimmerman’s telescope, and daily scanned the heavens for signs of The Second Coming.  Heeding Revelation 12:16, Kelpius and his followers expectantly awaited the Woman of the Wilderness and her Infant Son, who was destined to rule God’s New World.

Kelpius’s brotherhood considered the number 40 sacred.  Their numerological reasoning, derived from Zimmerman, assumed that 1 represented unity, 2 repeated unity, 4 harmony.  They esteemed 40, the decade of 4, as the number of perfection, and pointed out its frequency in the Bible.  God made it rain 40 days and 40 nights at the time of the Deluge.  Moses spent 40 days and nights with Yahweh on Mount Sinai.  The Children of Israel roamed through the desert with Moses for 40 years.  Saul and David each ruled Israel 40 years.  The Jerusalem Temple’s sanctuary measured 40 cubits in length (1 Kings 6:17.)  Jesus’s public life lasted about forty months.  He fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the desert (Matthew 4:2.)  The period between his death on the cross (3 P.M. Good Friday) and Resurrection (7 A.M., Easter Sunday) was 40 hours.  The Risen Christ communicated with the apostles 40 days between his Crucifixion and Ascension to Heaven (Acts 1:3.)

In deference to forty, the number of perfection, Kelpius’s community initially consisted of 40 members, who inhabited a large cabin measuring 40 feet by 40 feet, with its corners oriented toward the four cardinal points of the compass. Years after Kelpius’s death, his successors even laid out their 1,600 square foot burial ground in Germantown 40 by 40 feet.  On their monastery’s tabernacle a monk with artistic skill carved the Rosicrucian symbol—a cross within a heart, positioned so that the rising sun’s first rays would imbue it with rose-colored light.

Kelpius’s Chapter of Perfection became popularly known as The Monks of the Wissahickon or Monks of the Ridge.  Each year they commemorated the anniversary of their arrival in the new world on St. John the Baptist’s Eve, June 23rd.  Significantly, that day nearly coincides with the Summer Solstice, when the sun moves from 29 degrees Gemini to 0 Cancer. In those days, before Smoky the Bear’s era, the Holy Brotherhood celebrated by igniting a bonfire in the woods.  As the flames died down they scattered embers to symbolize the sun’s gradual diminution from the summer to winter solstice (approximately December 22nd.).  After the rites on St. John’s Eve, 1701, those assembled (in present-day Valley Green Park) beheld “a white, obscure moving body in the air, which, as it approached, assumed the form and mien of an angel…it receded into the… forest shadows…and appeared again immediately before them as the fairest of the lovely.”

Legend has it that Kelpius used to meditate in a hut made of logs and stone known as “The Laurea.” There still exists a tiny hovel about 200 yards from Hermitage Mansion. The Rosicrucian Society, which claimed him as one of them, placed a small monument next to this humble shanty, which states: “Johannes Kelpius, Ph.D, 1673 (sic) -1708, the contented of the God-loving soul, Magister of the 1st Rosicrucian colony in America, arrived June 24, 1694, then known as Monks of the Ridge;  Fra Kelpius used this cave as a shelter and as a sanctum for his meditations, lovingly erected to his memory by Grand Lodge of the Rosicrucians (AMORC) A.D. 1961.” This man-made “cave”—littered with empty beer cans and other rubbish the last time I visited it—measures 16 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 8 feet high.  According to Julius F. Sachse it once had a small fireplace, plus shelves for books and alchemical equipment.  Amateur archeologists still disagree as to whether this structure was a monk’s cell, springhouse, or chicken coop.  (One hypothesis maintains that the little shack belonged to monk Conrad Matthai, rather than Kelpius.)

Some Germantown residents faulted the highly qualified monks for choosing to live so far from their struggling village, which needed all the help it could get.  In the Gospel of Matthew (5:15), Jesus said: “neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, so that it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”  The hermits’ monasticism—their priory in a remote forest; vows of poverty, chastity, obedience—smacked of medieval Catholicism.  The Protestant Reformation encouraged pragmatism, engagement with the “real” world, free enterprise capitalism, and utilization of modern technology to improve everyone’s standard of living.  University-educated men should not hide their light in the middle of nowhere.  His more bitter detractors bashed Kelpius as a “Papist, Jesuit, and Indian Deist.”

Actually, the monks never shut themselves off from society.  They invited neighbors and friends to their tabernacle for religious services every Saturday (the true Sabbath in their estimation.)  The brothers tutored both children and adults in various subjects, and provided free medical care to the sick.  Their religious services consisted of hymn singing, scripture readings, homilies, but not sacraments, or anything resembling a mass.  They did not perform baptisms, or distribute the Eucharist.  

A few monks helped out local farmers by locating subterranean watercourses for them. Expert dousers such as Johann Seelig would take a witch hazel branch in both hands between thumb and forefinger, with forked end pointing downward, while reciting an incantation.  When he reached an underground spring, the stick would bend toward the ground.

In 1698 the founders of Gloria Dei (“Old Swedes”) Lutheran Church invited the monks to their cornerstone-laying ceremony.  Johann Seelig had already cast a horoscope to determine an auspicious date for the beginning of construction.  His computations must have been accurate since Gloria Dei, the oldest house of worship in Philadelphia, still stands at 929 South Water Street (a.k.a. 916 Swanson Street.)

The Monks of the Wissahickon avoided sectarianism and encouraged ecumenical dialogue.  When Kelpius’s former professor, Dr. Johannes Fabricius, asked him in a letter if he had joined The Society of Friends, Johannes replied on July 23, 1705:

 “I have not become a Quaker.  Such an idea
hath never come into my mind, albeit, I love
them from my inmost soul, even as I do all
other sects that approach and call themselves
Christ’s, the Papists even not excluded … The
Brotherly Love, the Philadelphiac, remains with
me on a firm foundation.”

The monks hosted many pilgrims, including Seventh Day Baptists Abel Noble, John Rodgers, and William Hiscox, renegade Quakers George Keith and William Davis, and Episcopalian minister Evan Evans.  Some visitors, such as Conrad Matthai from Switzerland and Englishman Christopher Witt, joined the Holy Fraternity.  

Though Kelpius had no intention of isolating himself from the public, neither did he wish to become enmeshed in worldly matters.  Former Brotherhood member Daniel Falckner had sailed back to Europe circa 1698, and befriended Frankfurt Land Co. administrator Benjamin Furley.  He also schmoozed Catharina Schutz, a pious widow who owned 25 acres near Germantown, but had no intention of traveling to Pennsylvania.  Furley had grown weary of Frankfurt agent Francis Daniel Pastorius’s endless complaining and occasional negligence in handling the company’s affairs.  Therefore, he succumbed to persuasive Falckner’s pressure and appointed him Plenipotentiary of the corporation. Madame Schutz, who had no use for the land her husband had unwisely purchased across the Atlantic, agreed to hand it over to Falckner “for charitable purposes.”

Upon returning to Pennsylvania in August, 1700, Daniel Falckner stirred up trouble.  Pastorius, despite years of lamenting his thankless job as the Frankfurt Company’s real estate agent, deeply resented being undermined by such a shady upstart.  With some exaggeration, he berated his adversary as a “sot” and “rogue.”  To consolidate his position, Falckner enlisted upright Johannes Jawert and Magister Johannes Kelpius to form a “triumvirate” with him.  In a weak moment Kelpius consented to this dubious arrangement.  He might have disagreed with ex-deputy magister Henry Bernhard Koster’s excommunication of Falckner in 1694, and desired to make amends. In any case, Kelpius did sign dozens real estate transactions during the next year or so. However, he quickly regretted his involvement.  Falckner did not utilize Catharina Schutz’s land for charitable purposes, but his own profit.  Pastorius alleged that he sold a parcel of Frankfurt Company land to a confederate cheap, then bought it back at a drastically reduced price.  Whatever the truth of those charges, Magister Kelpius contacted attorney George Lowther in order to extricate himself completely from the Frankfurt Land Company’s affairs.  Lowther drew up an affidavit, signed by Kelpius circa June, 1702, in which the Magister declared himself “civilly dead.”

Like William Penn, Kelpius respected the Indians, and wondered if they might be one of Israel’s lost tribes.  He produced a pro-Native-American account—likely secondhand—of Penn’s 1701 meeting with a council of sachems at Pennsbury Manor (Andalusia, Bucks County). The Proprietor had preached to the Indians, exhorting them to have faith in Christendom’s God.  One skeptical chief responded: “You ask us to believe on the great Creator, and Ruler of heaven and earth, and yet you yourself do not believe nor trust Him, for you have taken the land unto yourself which we and our friends occupied communally.  You scheme night and day how you may preserve it and that none can take it from you.  Yea, you even connive beyond your life and parcel it out among your children…”

Johannes Kelpius led his religious order into the Wilderness because of Revelation’s prophecies. He also embraced Jacob Boehme’s pantheistic idea that God reveals Himself in Nature.  Kelpius’s May 25, 1706 letter to Hester Palmer of Flushing, New York expressed the idea that God employed omens in Creation (“the wilds”) to effect spiritual awakenings.  “He may open one’s understanding in the hindmost valley.” (Hosea, 2)   To support his conviction that God enlightened humans through contact with Nature, Kelpius cited David’s long retreat into the wilderness, Paul’s seven years in the Arabian desert, Moses’ peregrinations through the Sinai Peninsula, and Elijah’s withdrawal into wastelands prior to exterminating the pagan priests of Baal. 

During Exodus a cloud guided the Israelites by day, and a pillar of fire by night.  Kelpius wrote:  “In (God’s) Fruitful Wilderness we enjoy the leading Cloud by day, out of which so many drops of the heavenly dew as a Baptism of Grace upon us do fall.…The Holy Ghost moved and stirred the waters in our hearts…But there follows a night also upon this day, wherein…the Pillar of Fire is our guide, refining us as gold in the furnace, which is the Baptism of Fire, and is indeed terrible to the old (self), but bright and light to the new (man.)”   He envisioned God as the Great Alchemist, who transmutes our leaden souls into gold. 

Protestant denominations don’t canonize saints.  However, Johannes Kelpius certainly resembled that theological impossibility, a Protestant saint.  His writings rank with those of Meister Eckart, Julian of Norwich, and St. Francis of Assisi.  They provide acute observations about faith, constant prayer, and delegating supplication (the requesting of favors) to the Holy Spirit. Kelpius’s epistles aren’t just historical curiosities; they abound with insights.  With regard to faith he commented: “Believe that God is all goodness and almighty—… never to forsake those who have devoted themselves to Him…The second point of this faithfulness is the resignation or blind giving up, which is void of self-interest and suffers itself to be led by God as a blind man by his guide.”

Magister Kelpius held that the devout can achieve unceasing prayer by going on “cruise control.”  In 1 Thessalonians Paul wrote: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God.” Kelpius outlined his own technique in “A Short, Easy, and Comprehensive Method of Prayer.”  “There’s a prayer which may be performed at all times and in all places, which by nothing can be interrupted but sin and unfaithfulness.  This inward prayer is performed in the spirit of the inner man…Incessant prayer…consists in an everlasting inclination of the heart to God, which … flows from Love.  This love draws the presence of God into us; so that, as by the operation of divine grace, the love of God is generated in us, so is also the presence of grace increased by this love, that such prayer is performed in us, without … our cogitation.  It is the same as with a person living in the air and drawing it in with his breath without thinking that by it he lives and breathes, because he does not reflect on it…” Ceaseless prayer can therefore take place in a fashion similar to respiration, heart-pumping, glandular secretions, and other operations of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  The votary may accomplish it in the midst of constructive daily activity, or sleep, by directing love, praise, and thanks to God, via breathing, heartbeats, and brainwaves.

Kelpius recommended that petitioners abide by principles of etiquette when praying.  “In prayers (of supplication) the soul (should) lay her complaints before God; since he who loves discreetly does not concern himself how to pray for what he wants, but only to propose his need, leaving it to the Lord to do as He thinks best—after the manner of Lazarus’s sisters who did not send (Jesus) word that He should come and restore their brother to health, but: “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick (John 11:3.)”

Johannes Kelpius deemed silent adoration more efficacious than vocal or “thought-out” prayer.  “One may pray without forming … any words, without consideration or speculation of the mind, without holding rational discourse, or making conclusions, yes, without knowing the least thing in a manner relative to the outward senses.   And this prayer is the Prayer of the Heart, the unutterable prayer, the most perfect of which is the fruit of Love…When …requesting something from God, we ought to be silent because we know not what to pray for, nor how to pray.  But if we are silent, the Holy Spirit Himself prays for us with unutterable sighs.” In that sentence Kelpius interpreted Paul’s words in Romans 8:26: “The Spirit…helps in our weaknesses.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."