Historical Markers
Kelpius Community Historical Marker
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Kelpius Community

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Hermit Lane near Henry Ave., Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
April 17, 2004

Behind the Marker

 "And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days."

                                                                            -Book of Revelation 12:6

The Cave of Kelpius and Rosicrucian marker.
The “Cave of Kelpius,” Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA, circa 2010. ...
Tucked away in a remote section of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, Kelpius’s Cave serves as a reminder of the opportunities that Penn’s “Holy Experiment” provided for the thousands of immigrants of countless religious denominations who answered Penn’s call to establish a colony founded on religious freedom.  One such group, named for the Bible verse cited above, the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, answered this call in 1694, selecting the wilderness of Pennsylvania to await the Second Coming of Christ and the end of time.  

The small band of German pietists who settled in the Wissahickon Valley in 1694 were initially recruited by Johann Jacob Zimmerman, a former Lutheran minister and professor at Heidelberg University, disenfranchised by the church and dismissed from his academic post for his Pietist and millennialist beliefs. Religious wars devastated much of Europe throughout the seventeenth century, particularly Germany, then the Holy Roman Empire, during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648).

Latitude map  (Philadelphia PA 39th ancient city of Philadelphia 38˚ 21' N.
Map of the 40th Parallel, Northern Latitude.
By mid-century, the Lutheran Church had emerged as a hierarchal and ritualistic state church, unwilling to allow followers to make decisions concerning spiritual matters for themselves. Philipp Jakob Spener, a Lutheran pastor in Frankfurt Germany and the founder of Pietism, adhered to many facets of the Lutheran faith while promoting spirituality without unyielding clerical influence; this dismissal of central authority prompted their persecution throughout Europe.

A man of many talents, Zimmerman studied astrology, mathematics, and theology, devoting himself to understanding Biblical prophecy. Zimmerman studied Chapter Seven of the Book of Revelations, astrological charts, and mathematics, concluding that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in the fall of 1694. Facing widespread persecution and inspired by William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” and the opportunity of religious toleration that it provided, Zimmerman and his followers decided to settle in Pennsylvania. 

Johannes Kelpius led the first religious communitarians to settle in Pennsylvania.
Johannes Kelpius, by Christopher Witt, 1705.
The Chapter of Perfection, the name Zimmerman gave to his forty young followers, consisted of university-educated individuals, including doctors, lawyers, and theologians who believed in the impending return and subsequent 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ, followed by the end of the world.   Zimmerman’s millennialist beliefs dated to long before his involvement with the Chapter of Perfection. When the comet known today as Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies in 1680, Zimmerman viewed it as a sign from God foreshadowing Judgment Day. His interpretation of this and other signs led him to the conclusion that Jesus would return in 1694.

To Zimmerman the number 40 held deep religious meaning that he could use as a tool to determine the location of the imminent new millennium. William Penn’s decision to name his city Philadelphia reaffirmed Zimmerman’s reading of the scripture and laid before him a road map to the coming millennium; for the fortieth parallel of latitude spanned the northern hemisphere near both the new city of Philadelphia and the ancient city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), which is referenced in the Book of Revelation.  

Zimmerman arranged for his Chapter of Perfection to leave Europe in early 1694. Shortly before their departure, however, he died unexpectedly and leadership of the group fell to twenty-one year old Johannes Kelpius, a highly educated young Transylvanian who had graduated from the University of Altdorf in 1689. The group sojourned in England for nearly six months and there developed close ties to the London Quakers, who helped fund the group’s journey to Pennsylvania. Following an arduous voyage to Baltimore, Kelpius and his followers made their way to Philadelphia, and then set out on foot for Germantown, the first German settlement in America, which had been founded a decade earlier by a group of thirteen families from Krefeld, Germany, led by Francis Daniel Pastorius. 

Title page from "A Method of Prayer", by Johannes Kelpius
Title page from "A Method of Prayer", by Johannes Kelpius
In the woods between Philadelphia and Germantown, the small band of seekers, known by residents of Germantown as Weib in der Wuste, (the "Society of the Woman in the Wilderness,") devoted themselves to lives of simplicity, poverty, celibacy, prayer, and study of numerology, astrology, and alchemy. Settling along the Wissahickon Creek, the group built a forty-by-forty foot tabernacle. On the roof of the tabernacle, the monks erected a telescope they used to scan the heavens for signs of Christ's return.   Though they lived largely in isolation from neighboring communities, the monks offered their services as doctors, lawyers, theologians, and skilled craftsmen, free of charge to whoever sought them out, including members of the nearby Lenni Lenape tribe. Despite Zimmerman’s predictions, the Second Coming of Christ failed to occur in 1694. In the years that followed, the community gradually disbanded as some members married and others moved away. The monks who did remain continued their wait in the wilderness, passing their days in prayer and meditation, writing music and prayer books, gardening, and working on their alchemic skills.

Published in Philadelphia in 1700, Kelpius’s Eine Kurtz und begreifliche Anleitung zum stillen Gebet (A Short, Easy, and Comprehensive Method of Prayer) became popular among the German-speaking peoples of eastern Pennsylvania. One of the earliest devotional works printed in America, it also became popular among English-speaking Pennsylvanians after its translation and publication in 1761, for Kelpius's direct and accessible marker approach to Prayer.
Bakery Saal Saron exterior
The Bakery, (on the left), Saal (center), and Saron (right) buildings at the...
In 1708, Kelpius died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five, after which most of the remaining monks resettled in Germantown. Six remained in the wilderness under the guidance of Conrad Matthai. It was Matthai who greeted a young Conrad Beissel, founder of the markerEphrata Cloister in Lancaster County, when Beissel arrived in hopes of joining the Society of the Woman of the Wilderness in 1720.

The Chapter of Perfection, which ended with Matthai’s death in 1748, never witnessed the Second Coming, but its members did spread their Pietist beliefs through their connections with their German immigrant neighbors and the publication of Kelpius’s devotional book. In the centuries that followed, Philadelphians would remain fascinating by the mystical society. Philadelphia novelists Charles Brockden Brown and George Lippard would use Kelpius and his followers in their potboiling gothic novels of the 1790s and 1840s.

The memory of Kelpius and the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness also remained alive through the interest of the Rosicrucians, who in the 1800s claimed Kelpius and his followers as the first Rosicrucians in the New World. It was the Rosicrucians who erected a plaque at Kelpius’s Cave in 1961, commemorating Kelpius as the first Rosicrucian Master in America.
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