by Kevin Dicciani
Johannes Kelpius believed the world was going to end in 1694.
Kelpius, a 17th century German Pietist and mystic, based his belief on the teachings of his mentor, Johann Jacob Zimmermann, who through astrology foretold the Second Coming of Christ, and was convinced the coming apocalypse would happen at the “edge of the wilderness.” This prophecy he attributed to a passage in the Book of Revelations about a woman who fled into the wilderness, where God had readied for her a place to await the impending rapture.
Zimmermann began negotiations with William Penn to obtain a land settlement in the Province of Pennsylvania so that he and his followers, “The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness,” could prepare for the day of reckoning. The 40 followers – 40 being a significant number for the society – were mystics who belonged to a Pietist sect in Lutheranism, and they chose Pennsylvania because of its reputation for religious tolerance.
In 1693, before the sect could journey from Germany to Philadelphia, Zimmermann died suddenly, leaving his disciple, Kelpius, a 26-year-old, as the society’s leader.
Kelpius was born in Transylvania, in the same town as Vlad the Impaler, to a Lutheran pastor, who helped foster in him as a young boy an interest in theology and philosophy. At the age of 21, Kelpius received a doctorate in philosophy, and a year later earned a master’s degree in theology at the University of Altdorf, not far from Nuremberg. Fluent in German, English, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, Kelpius went on to publish several works, devoting himself to his studies, which encompassed botany, alchemy, music, astronomy, medicine, astrology, and mysticism.
Setting out from Rotterdam and traveling aboard the “Sarah Maria Hopewell,” the group landed in Philadelphia on June 23, 1694. They hiked for four days to Germantown, where they stayed with the locals for a few nights before heading down to the Wissahickon Creek. There, Kelpius and his followers established their pious community of solitude and study at the base of a secluded ravine, lured by its remoteness, its natural spring waters, and its place on the 40th parallel.
Known to locals as “The Hermits of the Wissahickon,” the society began developing its land into a self-sustaining commune. They planted a garden that provided them with food, medicinal herbs and material they later spun into clothes. They erected a 40-square-foot tabernacle, aligned in perfect symmetry with the cardinal points of a compass, and used its first floor for religious and musical services, a schoolhouse for children, and worshipping and living quarters for members of the community. Atop the tabernacle rested an observatory, believed to be the first of its kind in America, which the society constructed so they could inspect the twilight for signs of the final resurrection.
Legend has it that Kelpius lived and meditated in a cave built into the hillside of the ravine. But, as with most legends, there is a sizable gray area in the story. The cave is said to have been an old springhouse, occasionally used by group members for meditating. Some sources do say that Kelpius spent some nights in a cave, but which cave they are actually referring to is unknown.
While members of “The Society of the Woman in The Wilderness” anticipated the end of the world, they spent their time hosting public services, bloodletting Germantown residents, studying religion, observing the stars and planets, and practicing alchemy and numerology. One of the focal points of their worshipping practices was music, and most of the sect’s members were musicians, including Kelpius, who some consider the first Pennsylvania composer. One of its members, Dr. Christopher Witt, supposedly built the community a pipe organ, which is said to have been the first one in America. Additionally, Witt painted a portrait in 1705 of Kelpius, now considered the first oil painting made in America. It is currently in the possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
When 1694 came and went without the Last Judgment, Kelpius and the society looked towards the year 1700. The advent of the new century, they believed, was certain to bring the finale of mankind. But when the year arrived and Jesus did not, the enthusiasm of the society’s members began to wane with each failed promise of the world’s demise.
That zeal and devotion would almost die out completely when Kelpius became ill with tuberculosis. In 1705, he was forced out of the tabernacle and had to move into a former member’s home in Germantown, where he would live out the rest of his days bedridden and weak, although he remained devout to his work, his writing and his music.
Another legend says that Kelpius, on his deathbed, gave his assistant, Daniel Giessler, a locked box that possessed magical items and the legendary philosopher’s stone, and told him to throw it into the Schuylkill River. When he didn’t do as asked, Kelpius supposedly knew, and demanded that he throw it into the river immediately. This time Giessler followed out his orders and tossed the box in the river. When the box touched the water, a flash of lightning splintered across the surface and a blare of thunder bellowed from the void as it sank to the bottom to never be seen again.
Kelpius died in 1708. His followers came and took his body back to the tabernacle and buried him in the garden, lowering his coffin into the ground at the same time they released a dove into the sky. The society, while surviving for another decade or so, though without the passion of Kelpius to lead it, eventually passed away without a trace.
The ravine where the community once lived can still be found today off Hermit Lane in Roxborough – the name of which can actually be traced to a letter that Kelpius once wrote about “foxes burrowing in the rocks.” If you walk about a half-mile through the woods, down winding paths to the base of the valley, which is enshrouded by trees and dissected with small streams, you’ll come upon the area now known as Hermit’s Glen.
The remains of the commune are either no longer in existence or have been obscured by nature and time. All that is left of “The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness” is the so-called “Cave of Kelpius.” Next to its opening is a monolith that was erected in 1961 by the Grand Lodge Rosicrucians, asserting that the cave was, in fact, used as a shelter and sanctum by Kelpius. Again, the further you close in on the story, the more the lines between truth and fiction blur.
Whether or not the cave is Kelpius’ authentic refuge doesn’t matter – it’s an astounding structure, an artifact of local history, and the legend that surrounds it only adds to its sense of mystery, to the sensation it imparts upon seeing it and touching it – one that distorts our perceptions of time and causes us to view the past, the present and the future not as separate eras, but as part of the same continuum.
Today there is nothing in the cave. Rocks scatter the dirt floor, water beads on the stones above, a silence permeates between the walls. There are no signs of life inside – humans, animals or insects – and the feeling this produces is quite surreal, if not outright eerie.
As I stood at the back of the cave, peering out of the entrance into the green grove glowing yellow in the blades of the sun, I couldn’t help but imagine Kelpius, more than 300 years ago, standing where I stood and looking out on the same world I was looking at in awe – a world of tranquility, a world of solitude, a world that never ended.
* The sources used for this article are HiddenCity Philadelphia, PhilaPlace, and Weird U.S.