The Heretics who Lit the Way for America

Exploring Our Secret Debt to a Group of Obscure Hermits

Then people think of Philadelphia’s role in history it most likely includes Benjamin Franklin and William Penn, the Liberty Bell and the Continental Congress. The city’s role in fashioning America begins nearly a century earlier, though, when a handful of “hermits” came to the city and moved into caves in what is now Fairmont Park. Their writings and their practices not only influenced William Penn but they also had an effect on George Washington and helped shape the birth of our constitutional government.

The Hermits of Wissahickon Creek as they were known were actually Pietists, a sect often considered with the nu­merous Protestant splinter factions that included Amish, Anabaptists, Brotherhood of Zion, Dunkards, Hutterites, Mennonites, Methodists, Moravians, Shakers and Swiss Brethren. But they had little to do with the philosophy of Cal­vin and Zwingli and a great deal to do with the Rosicrucian Enlightenment.

The Rosicrucian movement was an export of England, brought across the channel to Germany through the efforts of Dr. John Dee and Sir Francis Bacon. Rosicrucian thought was soon active in both England and Germany. The Duke of Brunswick and Lunenburg, Augustus, came to London to study a philosophy attributed to Bacon and secre­tive societies. Friederich Count Palatine of the Rhine married the daughter of King James, Elizabeth. Both were Rosi­crucians. During the Thirty Years War Rosicrucians and Freemasons were safe in England. Such protecion would not last forever.

From Francis Bacon to William Penn to Benjamin Franklin a spiritual torch of enlightenment would be passed along. Bacon, through his New Atlantis, helped form the basis of a free society although he himself was born too ear­ly to see it come to fruition. Penn put the goals of such a society into action. The dark corners of European thought gave way to the Great Experiment, as Penn called it. The future Pennsylvania became the central location for creating a democratic nation. Franklin risked life and limb to insure that it did.

The Land that Penn Built

William Penn is remembered as the founder of Pennsylvania. He was the son of Admiral William Penn and notably a Quaker. His famous statue, once the highest in the skyline of Philadelphia, shows a content Pillsbury Oats face. Penn, however, was actually a radical. He was regularly imprisoned for his writings and four times his father inter­ceded on his behalf to get him released from the Tower.

His work, The Sandy Foundation Shaken dismisses the Catholic Trinity and the Calvinist theory of justification. He drew a daring line and after frequent persecutions wrote a constitution for a colony in the New World. The co­author was Algernon Sidney, who was the grand nephew of Sir Philip Sidney and heir to the philosophy of Francis Bacon. Sir Philip is best known as the author of Arcadia, but he spent of lifetime of esoteric study with a group that included Bacon, Dr. Dee, Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe. The group called themselves the School of Night, although they were accused of being the School of Heretics.

Penn did not name his city “Philadelphia” because it meant “Brotherly Love” in Greek. Instead he had been influ­enced by Chapter 3 of the Apocalypse. In it, the phrase “He that hath an ear,” is used. Jesus used the same phrase nu­merous times and it meant those who were initiated. To those who could comprehend the lesson. The author was di­recting a letter to the “angel of the Church of Philadelphia.” In it the Holy One, the True One says that those who kept his word he will preserve from trial. Philadelphia was the city dedicated to those who kept the Word. And those who kept the Word were free from the persecution of the Church. This was Bacon’s role in describing the city of “Bensalem,” where all could worship and study freely. In City Hall today the quote taken from the Apocalypse is on the wall of the North portico.

A Philadelphia suburb took the name Bensalem.

Penn’s City became a refuge for free thinking in a way unequaled anywhere in the colonies. Philadelphia’s Pietists were free to study astrology, astronomy, botany and music, medicine and alchemy. At the time alchemy, the art of transmuting metals, was treated as though it were kin to witchcraft. The church’s dominance over science was more powerful then it is now. Commenting on the placement of the sun cost great thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Gali­leo everything. Galileo finished his life under house arrest. Bruno was put to death by being slowly roasted over a fire. Today, transmuting metals through chemical reaction is more the work of men in white lab coats. Scientists replaced the magic wands, but the work is otherwise the same.

While the Church would never have allowed the Pietists their practice in Europe, in Philadelphia they were safe.

The story of Philadelphia’s leading mystics begins with Penn who invited all to freely worship and practice. The Quaker doctrine was more genuine in its religious toleration than was Puritan society. The Society of Friends were Pacifist and even though Penn himself distinguished between wars of aggression and wars of defense, many in his community were against bearing arms at any cost. Through his efforts many Germans from the continent were re­cruited. By the time of the American Revolution, Pennsylvania was only one third English-speaking.

The Pietists arrived in Philadelphia led by a young man by the name of Johann Kelpius. Born Johann Kelp in Schassburg, he attended Bavaria’s University of Altdorf where he Latinized his name. At the age of sixteen he had his master’s in theology and had published several works. Part-Pietist and part-Rosicrucian, his studies were steeped in what the Catholic Church would declare heresy. His master was Johann Jakob Zimmerman who wished to create their own Chapter of Perfection in America.

Zimmerman died the year before the trip was made and the twenty-one year old Kelpius took his mantle as leader. He quickly stepped up to the role of a charismatic mystic who brought medicine, music and magic to this break-off Protestant sect. He had met a woman by the name of Jane Leade in London, who was a prophetess and the co-founder of the Philadelphia movement in 1670. She was a medium who claimed the ability to channel the Virgin Sophia.

The brotherhood of Kelpius took passage to America in 1694 and landed in Philadelphia at the Blue Anchor Tav­ern on St. John’s Eve. They lived as near-hermits in the wooded area known today as Fairmont Park on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek. Today street names such as Hermit Terrace and Hermit Lane recall the reclusive mystics. They constructed a monastery of wood to wait for the fulfilling of the prophecy in the Apocalypse. A great sign was to appear in the heavens. “A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (Rev. 12:1)

They called themselves the Society of the Woman of the Wilderness and blended a pagan Druidism with Rosicru­cian theology.

Many have compared this to a doomsday cult awaiting the end. The “end” was supposed to happen in 1694, the year they arrived, and then again in 1700. But it was not an end as much as a second beginning they sought.

Near Hermit Lane is the cave where Kelpius meditated and sometimes gathered his brotherhood. They measured the skies, practiced astrology, experimented with alchemy and studied numerology. On the eve of St. John the Bap­tist’s feast they had a celebration that was said to cause visions of angels. It was understood as the anniversary of their arrival, but to members it was understood as the day the sun enters Cancer. As had been done from most early pagan times, a bonfire was erected.

The brotherhood considered the number 40 to be sacred. It was a very important number in the Bible, Old Testa­ment and New. His community generally numbered 40 members. His wooden monastery was 40 x 40 feet as was their burial ground.

In 1708 the end was actually near. Kelpius contracted pneumonia, no doubt from the rugged lifestyle. He is said to have placed some important artifacts in a box and instructed a follower, Daniel Giessler, to throw the box in the Schuylkill River. When Geissler returned, Kelpius knew he didn’t complete his task. He instructed Guissler again and this time the job was done as assigned. When the box, called “the Arcanum,” hit the water an explosion took place complete with thunder and lightning coming out of the water. Legend has it that the box contained the Philosopher’s Stone, a much-sought-after tool needed in alchemy.

Wissahickon, the creek, became the “Ganges of the Rosicrucians” in America. It may surprise many to learn that George Washington had connections to several in the Pennsylvania Rosicrucian movement. He is described in one text as “an Acolyte” of the sect. Those who influenced Washington included Peter Miller, who would translate the Declaration of Independence into European languages, and Conrad Beissel, who would lead the Pietists/Rosicrucians to the Ephrata Colony west of the city.

The community at Wissahickon dwindled after the death of Kelpius. Six holy men remained and one was Johann Seelig. At his death, his staff was thrown into the Schuylkill and it also exploded upon hitting the water. The Monks of the Ridge, as they became known, were regularly called upon for help in finding a spouse or casting a chart.

Kelpius and his group, though, were not an ‘end’ but, in fact, a beginning for the philosophically like-minded col­onies to follow. Wave after wave would come, brought by religious persecution or war. It soon became a time of birth for the numerous sects of what were thinly disguised as “Protestant” religion. Many, like the Monks of the Ridge, de­rided such concepts like predestination and dualism as the limits of the human brain. They believed such philosophi­cal points of division allowed religious men to fall into doing the devil’s work. To what point would the True One have his children murdering each other over such concepts? He wouldn’t. Love, faith and good works were stressed.

Such ideals could have been proposed by Bacon himself for his New Atlantis.

The last surviving member of the six monks was an Englishman Christopher Witt. Witt had studied anatomy and biology in his home country before sailing to America in 1704. He was adept in medicine and conferred the first med­ical degree in Pennsylvania. He was also adept in architecture, astrology, botany and music. His healing powers mixed science and folk medicine and were prized by the community. The Germans regarded him as a hexenmeister, that is, one who can lift curses or, if one chose, place spells. The English equivalent would be a warlock. The Germans that settled further west, the Amish, are known for their hex signs to ward off evil.

In 1718 Witt bought 125 acres of Germantown which allowed him to charge or not to charge for his medical ser­vices as he wished. He lived out his life with Daniel Giessler, and kept in touch with the other wizards. When he died in 1765 he was buried alongside Giessler and other monks in the community’s High Street graveyard. Spectral blue flames were said to dance around his grave for weeks. The Hermits grave became known as Spook Hill until an Epis­copal Church named St. Michael’s was built over it in 1859. A black congregation later took over and it is now knows as the High Street Church of God. Giessler and Witt are said to lie directly under the altar.

By 1720 Rosicrucian chapters met in taverns throughout the city. According to Robert Hieronimus in Founding Fathers, Secret Societies, Benjamin Franklin had started his own lodge.

To Ephrata

Although the hermits were gone from Philadelphia, their influence remained in Pennsylvania. After Kelpius, one of the region’s most charismatic leaders was Conrad Beissel. Born in the German Palatinate in 1691, he was initiated into Rosicrucianism and may have achieved its highest rank. He was knowledgeable as a mystic, familiar with Para­celsus and the Kabbalah. His teachings were described as “Rosicrucian doctrine pure and undefiled.”

Beissel had a strong relationship to the Wissahickon Hermits but moved his group west. A great emphasis was placed on the sciences, on music, on astrology and learning in general. A clock made by hermit Christopher Witt re­mains in a structure called the Saron that stands today. The clock still strikes the hours.

Under Beissel’s direction, work began on this unusual chapter house in 1738 that when completed would be three stories high. The ground floor would be used for storage. The second floor was circular and was used for sleeping. The third floor would be 18-feet square and have four windows, each facing a cardinal direction. Secret rites of reju­venation were practiced in this temple area. Thirteen members would spend forty days that began on the first full moon in May. It involved purging the body through fasting and laxatives, shedding blood, and partaking of the grain of elixir. Whatever this substance was it caused convulsions, sweating and loss of speech.

They were called the White Brotherhood not in distinction to any racial group, but as an imitation to the Essenes of the Holy Land two thousand years before. The Brotherhood dressed in white, and walked barefoot, like the Essenes. Such a band of thirteen might draw comparisons to Jesus and twelve apostles; however, whatever secrets were con­tained within the chapter house at Ephrata remained secret.

Today the Ephrata colony is a popular destination for those visiting the “Amish country” in Pennsylvania. Ten of the original medieval buildings have been restored to recreate the atmosphere of the community.

Back in Philadelphia, the group of hermits that once lived along the banks of the Schuylkill are mostly forgotten. Though Fairmont Park is described as the world’s largest urban park, and is very popular with city residents, the Kel­pius Cave is out of the way and hard to find. In 1961, the Rosicrucians put up a plaque to commemorate the Hermits of Wissahickon as the leading force in bringing their philosophy to America.


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