Monks of the Wissahickon: Part III

By Joe Tyson III

Johannes Kelpius always had a delicate constitution and weak lungs.  His health nosedived in July, 1706, when he contracted a series of “colds.”  Germantown tailor Christian Warmer and his wife Christina went to America with The Chapter of Perfection in 1694, and remained lay members.  They took Magister Kelpius into their Germantown home whenever he fell seriously ill. Based on what Sachse and Pennypacker tell us, Kelpius died of either consumption or pneumonia.  We do not know his exact date of death, however it occurred sometime between January 1, 1708 and March 1st of that year when a petition submitted to Pennsylvania’s Provincial Council by Johann Jawert officially categorized him as “now deceased.”

According to Lutheran minister Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Kelpius believed that “he would not die a natural death…but…be transfigured like Elijah…(and) translated bodily into the spiritual world.” As the end neared, he abandoned that delusion.  Reproving himself for grandiosity, he advised disciple Daniel Geissler:  “I have received my answer.  It is that dust I am and to dust I (shall) return. (Genesis 3:19.)  It is ordained that I shall die like …all children of Adam.” By way of putting his affairs in order, Kelpius handed Daniel Geissler a small case of magical artifacts, and instructed him to throw it into the Schuylkill River.  Geissler set out on a two mile hike to the Schuylkill, but decided to hide his master’s chest somewhere along that route.  When he returned to the Warmers’ house, Kelpius slowly sat up and fixed him with a stern, cockeyed gaze (accentuated by his sleepy left eye), exclaiming:  “Daniel, thou hast not done as I bid thee, nor cast the casket into the river, but… have hidden it near the shore!” Startled Geissler, without even attempting to make an excuse, retraced his steps, retrieved the box, and tossed it into the water.  As soon as he did so “the Arcanum exploded…with flashes like lightning and peals like thunder.” For years superstitious Germantown citizens thought that the Philosopher’s Stone laid on the Schuylkill’s bottom, near Philadelphia Canoe Club where Wissahickon Creek flows into the river. 

Judge Samuel W. Pennypacker doubted the veracity of this tale, which paralleled one of the Arthurian romance stories.  King Arthur ordered his aide Sir Bedevere to throw magic sword Excalibur into a lake.  Instead, Bevedere hid the gold-inlaid weapon under shrubbery.  Upon his return, suspicious Arthur interrogated him, divined that he’d failed to follow instructions, and angrily sent him back to carry out the original directive.  Bevedere hurried off, recovered the hidden sword, and hurled it out over the lake.  A thunderbolt struck the water with deafening noise, as a white-robed woman’s arm emerged from its surface, caught Excalibur, shook it three times, then slipped back down into the depths.

At sundown The Monks of the Ridge buried Magister Johannes Kelpius in their community garden, somewhere on the north side of Hermit Lane.  After the last spade full of dirt had been cast on his grave, someone released a white dove into the air to symbolize the return of Master Kelpius’s soul to God.  In unison his spiritual brothers chanted:  “God grant him a blessed Resurrection!”

Johannes Kelpius’s Chapter of Perfection practically disbanded after his death.  Most former brethren left the order to marry and adopt mundane occupations.  However, a hard-core remnant of six monks lingered under the direction of Conrad Matthai.  Mill hands along Wissahickon Creek recalled seeing holy men walking single file on the carriage road, wearing brown robes with hoods and sandals.  Evening strollers still occasionally spot six ghostly figures moving along Forbidden Drive.

Four of the loyalists were Johann Seelig, Conrad Matthai, Daniel Geissler, and Christopher Witt.  Seelig and Matthai continued to live more or less as hermits within the Wissahickon Gorge.  Though still ascetics, Geissler and Witt became more involved with the secular world.  From about 1702 until their deaths, they resided in the hamlet of Germantown.

Johann Gottfried Seelig was born in Lemgo, Germany c. 1668.  He briefly studied for the Lutheran ministry, but his radical views led him to join Johann Jacob Zimmerman’s Chapter of Perfection in 1694.  A scholar in his own right, Seelig became Johannes Kelpius’s closest associate between 1694 and 1708.  Because he had served so long as Deputy Magister, the Monks of the Ridge elected him Magister after Kelpius’s death.  However, due to his profound humility, “Holy John” declined that position.  A versatile individual, Seelig not only taught school, composed hymns, tilled the community garden, and discovered underground water sources by virtue of his gift for dousing, but also worked as a bookbinder and title clerk.  His stylized German script graced many of Germantown’s original deeds.  Local printer Christian Sauer hired him to bind books, including the Bible and The Ephrata Cloister’s 800 page hymnal.  Johann instructed some members of the Ephrata Brotherhood in this trade.  They would eventually operate Pennsylvania’s largest bindery.

 Germantown residents frequently approached Seelig for astrological advice.  He cast birth charts (“nativities”), and furnished prognostications based on planetary transits and progressions.  Colonists recognized him as one of Pennsylvania’s foremost practitioners of elective astrology, which ascertains favorable times for initiating events.  Thus, in 1698 the Swedish Lutherans who planned to erect Gloria Dei Church near the Delaware River enlisted Holy John’s services in selecting a propitious date to lay their building’s cornerstone.  His reckoning must have been correct, for this sturdy landmark (an Episcopal church since 1845) still stands at the intersection of Water and Swanson streets.

From the early 1720’s until his death in April, 1745, Seelig lived in a cabin on the Levering family’s farm near Henry & Monastery Avenues, Roxborough.  There he received many distinguished visitors, including Moravian evangelists Georg Boehnish, August Spangenberg, and David Nitschmann, and the Ephrata Cloister’s leader Conrad Beissel.  In 1741 and 1742 German religious reformer Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf met with Johann Seelig and Conrad Matthai several times.  Although they became friends, and the monks wholeheartedly agreed with Zinzendorf’s opposition to slavery, neither man would endorse the Count’s Church of God in the Spirit, which they perceived to be yet another Protestant sect.

Johann Seelig died on April 26, 1745.  He left all his possessions to William Levering, including ten volumes by Jacob Boehme, five bibles, 124 other books, and five bookbinding presses.  Seelig’s will directed that his walking staff be hurled into the Schuylkill River.  According to legend, it exploded “with a loud report” when it hit the water.  Judge Samuel Pennypacker also dismissed that account as apocryphal, once again citing its suspicious resemblance to the passage in Thomas Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, wherein dying King Arthur’s sword Excalibur precipitated a lightning flash and thunderclap upon being hurled into an enchanted lake by Sir Bedevere.

Conrad Matthai and Christopher Witt officiated at Seelig’s funeral on William Levering’s property, which was attended by many Germantown residents, as well as Moravians from Bethlehem, and Ephrata Cloister brethren.  Historian Julius F. Sachse described his requiem ceremony in The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania.  “As the last rays of the sun gilded the horizon, the relics of the old theosophist were lowered into the grave, the mystical incantation thrice repeated, while the released dove coursed in wide circles through the air until lost to view in the distance.”

Conrad Matthai emigrated from Switzerland to America in 1704 and joined Kelpius’s Chapter of Perfection.  According to tradition, he came from a wealthy Swiss family.  While at Harburg University, Matthai grew disenchanted with the strife existing among Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, etc.  Intolerant preachers resembled the babblers on the Tower of Babel.  Matthai believed that Jesus would have condemned such bickering, just as he criticized the senseless feud between Pharisees and Saducees in his own day.

The ecumenical attitude of Jacob Boehme’s Signatura Rerum spoke to Matthai’s condition.  The frontispiece of one edition showed an angel blowing a trumpet amid Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Muslims.  Its caption proclaimed that this work’s message was aimed at all nations:  “Christians, Jews, Turks, and Heathens.”  Matthai recognized the underlying Brotherhood of Mankind and Mystical Unity of Christ’s Church, in spite of theological differences.

Following Kelpius’s death in 1708, and Johann Seelig’s refusal to serve as Magister, the remaining monks nominated Conrad as their leader. The order gradually changed from approximately sixteen men living together in one building to a loose confederation of six anchorites occupying separate dwellings. The monastery on Righters’ Plantation, adjacent to present-day Hermitage Mansion, fell into disrepair. (A hurricane completely destroyed the dilapidated structure in 1770.)

Conrad Matthai possessed both healing powers and second sight.  He interpreted horoscopes, exorcised demons, prophesied future events, and had the ability to project his “astral body.”  In 1740 the wife of a Philadelphia ship captain consulted him.  She inquired about her husband who had left on a voyage to Africa more than six months previously.  In the past he had always sent letters informing her of his whereabouts. This time she’d received no communication from him at all.  Matthai excused himself, told her to stand by, then repaired to his small bedchamber for a “nap.”  After more than an hour of waiting, the woman peered in and saw him lying on his bunk, “pale and motionless as if he were dead.” When Matthai regained consciousness he informed the lady that her spouse sat in a London coffeehouse at that moment and would soon set sail for Philadelphia.


As foreseen, her seafaring husband caught fair winds and returned within two months.  After hearing his wife’s incredible story, he decided to visit the fortune-telling magus.  Upon setting his eyes on Matthai, the mariner declared that he’d encountered him before in a London coffeehouse just before sailing home. Turning to his wife, he said the old gent had given him a start by striding up to his table, delivering a brusque reproof, then disappearing into thin air. In an accusatory tone Father Conrad had muttered something like: “you’ve neglected to post so much as a note to your wife for well past six months.  She’s worried sick about you.”


Matthai and his Wissahickon comrades belonged to no organized religion, convinced that man communicated most effectively with God by means of heart and soul, not merely the unreliable human intellect.  In fact, righteous illuminations derived more from the heart, solar plexus, and gut than the brain. Sophistical arguments led votaries astray by distracting them from essentials such as spiritual evolution and good works. Predestination was doctrine to one faction and heresy to another.  The Monks of the Ridge disparaged theological constructs like Universalism, Trinitarianism, Unitarianism, The Atonement, etc. as figments of the human imagination. Satan employed such unprovable theories to fragment Christendom.  Those issues were beyond the ken of human minds.  Kelpius’s friend Jane Leade referred to dogmas as “lifeless shells.” William Penn noticed that “creed-making” and persecution went hand-in-hand.  Kelpius, Matthai, and their compatriots realized that God transcended defective human logic. Salvation must be achieved through love, faith, and charity, not metaphysical conjecture.

Such freethinking did not endear the monks to all clergymen.  Lutheran minister Henry Melchior Muhlenberg thought that “separatist” Wissahickon monks went too far. In his words: “they cared nothing for the sacraments…Holy Writ is a dead letter to them…They busied themselves with theosophy…and practiced alchemy.”

The Wissahickon monks did study theosophy, astrology, and alchemy, but never dismissed Holy Writ as a “dead letter.” On the contrary, they were obsessed with the Bible. Johann Seelig owned no less than five different translations of it. Kelpius filled his essays and correspondence with scriptural quotes. His May 25, 1706 letter to Hester Palmer cited over forty biblical references within the space of eleven hand-written pages.  Of course, like Jacob Boehme, the monks construed scripture symbolically instead of literally.  Hidden meanings took precedence over surface narratives. For example, Kelpius, Seelig, and Matthai viewed Exodus metaphorically, comparing Moses to the human soul. Like Moses, a properly developing soul must depart from Egypt (bondage to pagan sensuality) and journey toward the Promised Land (state of holiness.)

A familiar figure both in the forest and on Germantown’s streets, Conrad Matthai was described by Julius Sachse as “a well-knit man… with grave demeanor, long-hair, shaggy beard, (who wore) plain, homespun garb, ...sandals, … and carried a walking stick… He spoke but little.” Because of his broad-mindedness he enjoyed friendly relations with Moravians, Dunkers, Mennonites, Quakers, and Ephrata’s Brotherhood.  Shortly after his 1720 arrival in America, Ephrata founder Conrad Beissel had boarded with Matthai for several months.  Like the Moravians, Matthai condemned England’s tolerance of slavery and maltreatment of Native Americans.  He sympathized with Moravian zeal to convert the Indians, institute universal public education, and unite all Christian religions. He taught classes at their school in Germantown. When the Moravians brought three recently baptized Indians to him in 1742, he led a prayer of thanksgiving, then blessed all present.

Matthai’s health deteriorated in 1745, following the deaths of colleagues Johann Seelig and Daniel Geissler.  Moravian schoolteacher Jasper Payne and his wife aided the old mystic whenever possible.  Responding to their appeals, Moravian minister Richard Utley traveled from Bethlehem to assist him further.  Another friend, wine merchant Johannes Wistar, also helped Matthai during his final years, paying for food, clothing, medical care, and burial expenses.  While confined to bed on August 24th, 1748 Father Conrad sent a message to Jasper Payne requesting that he bring the school children to his cabin.  Payne showed up the next day with thirty-some boys and girls who sang “parting hymns” to their dying teacher.  When they finished, he rose from his bed, faced east, prayed with upraised hands, then blessed the children and dismissed them.  He died two days later.

On his deathbed Matthai stated that he wished to be laid to rest north of Hermit Lane with Master Johannes Kelpius—not beside him, but at his feet.  The September 1st, 1748 funeral of this non-sectarian recluse almost turned into an inter-denominational brawl.   Both the Moravians and Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata Brotherhood tried to claim Matthai’s corpse.  Johannes Wistar arbitrated this dispute by allowing each group to conduct graveside services—first Brother Timotheus of the Ephrata Cloisters, then Rev. James Greening of Germantown’s Moravian congregation.  Wistar then saw to it that Magister Conrad’s burial instructions were carried out to the letter.