This is the second local historical site with an interesting backstory that we have featured on the blog. Click here to view our first, on the Lower Swedish Cabin in Drexil Hill. Be sure to stay tuned in for more intriguing pieces on interesting places in the Philly-Metro Area.
In the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, deep within the Wissahickon Valley Park, there stands a remote cave-like structure that is subject of awe and debate. The cave rests on the known site of a ‘hermit’ religious congregation called the “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.” Tradition holds that the Society used the cave like a spiritual panic room, a place for the near 40-strong group of men belonging to the would pray for salvation or over the fabled philosopher’s stone. Skeptics of this interpretation have convincingly argued against this, pointing to the size of the man-made structure, location of a nearby spring, and known design features such as a chimney (which was destroyed by vandalism in the 1940s). Some aspects of the landmark are however not contested. It was built sometime after 1694 by German immigrants belonging to a spiritual movement of Lutheran Pietists, who congregated as a celibate, meditative community and waited for some date in 1694 when the world would end.
In a park in North West Philadelphia there rests the last remnants of colonial America’s first doomsday cult.
The leader of the “Hermits of Wissahickon” the namesake of the cave, Johannes Kelpius, was a man of intense belief in faith, humanity and transformation through passionate learning. Originally called Johannes Kelp, the soon-to-be spiritual leader was born in Schäßburg, Principality of Transylvania (modern day Romania) on January 1st, 1667. He attended the University of Altdorf in Nuremberg, where he received an education in theology, earning a Master’s degree by the age of 22. As per the Latinizing customs of the self-styled and respecting scholars of his age, the young Kelp added the suffix ‘-ius’ for his last name. These academic stylings, and the wide array of subjects he studied (theology, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, botany) demonstrate that Kelpius, was part of a growing but priviledge few in society, and held learning in high regard. Indeed Kelpius would later see education, thought necessary to become learned enough to be a paster, as essential to developing the inner self, a concept very important Pietism. The variety of subjects studied also points to wider social and intellectual rifts that were changing how religious communities came to understand and synthesize scientific methods into their beliefs.
While at university, Kelpius had a voracious if unconventional academic appetite. Sometime after 1685, Kelpius became a follower of former Lutheran Minister, mathematician, millenarianist and astronomer Johan Jacob Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s works include Scriptura Sacra Copernizans (1690) and Exerci-tatio theoricorum Copernico-coelestium (1689) both of which argued for a heliocentric understanding of the solar system, and sought to expand on the theological and metaphysical meaning of this discovery. Zimmerman’s beliefs in the necessity of a new theology of practicality, community and reform were influenced by the well-known German theologian and mystic Jakob Böhme (1575-1624)  and the father of Lutheran Pietism Philipp Spener (1635-1705). Spener laid down general Tenets of Pietism which advocated for more laity involvement in the practice of ‘church’ from its administration as well as interpretation, a focus on the ‘inner man’ as opposed to evangelizing and aggrandizing rhetoric, and a sympathetic treatment of those “heretics and unbelievers.” Kelpius, under Zimmerman’s tutelage, found himself in embroiled in an intellectual environment seeking truth in nature at the intersection of scientific understanding and religious belief. Commonplace throughout was that individual devotion and transformation lead to spiritual renewal. Zimmerman, however was unique for his application of Pietist principles to a belief in the nascent second coming of Christ.
Having noted the passing of two comets (even going so far as to correspond with English mathematician Issac Newton about the 1680 comet) and being particularly moved to action in this new time of religious tumult, Zimmerman became convinced of that natural evidence pointed to the imminent advent of a heavenly kingdom. Deeply influenced by the story of revelation 12: 5-9 as well as the influence of correspondence with Jane Mead and their experience or expected persecution in German institutions, both Zimmerman and Kelpius decided to flee to the wilderness of the new world, and to name for their new spiritual group after this “Woman of the Wilderness”. Before Zimmerman could help see out the groups plan to explore their faith in a safe place however, he died in 1693, although there is some evidence to suggest that he attempted to leave for the New World, but died en route. Kelpius was voted leader of the spiritual group, and continued with the divine mission. Though founded only in 1682, Philadelphia had already had a gained a reputation as a community friendly to German immigrants, and tolerant of nonconformist, free thinking Christian groups seeking refugee from oppression. Welcomed by governor William Penn, the group sailed for Philadelphia, by way of first landing in Bohemia Landing, Maryland and then onto Philadelphia and finally Germantown.
Despite their lifestyle choices, and their belief in a coming apocalypse, Kelpius and the rest of his “Society” were active members of the larger Greater Philadelphia community in ways that went beyond correspondence. It is believed that they were instrumental in documenting early botanical features of the land and shared medical knowledge freely, set up a school for children, held public almost non-denominational public services. Together, the ‘monks’ built an astrological lookout, maintained a botanical garden The largely German group even attracted followers from Great Britain, especially Christopher Witt.
However, after the millennium pasted, suffering too many promises of paradise, and very importantly, the death of Johann Kelpius in 1708 at the age of 35, the numbers of the community dwindled. Some married and remained in the general area, others moved to different, like-minded movements such as the Ephrata Cloister. The official presence of the Society was snuffed out with its last two remaining members, Johann Seelig and Konrad Matthaei who both died sometime in the 1740s. Still, the ideas espoused by Kelpius and monks have an impact in modern times: in 1961 the Grand Lodge Rosicrucian’s AMORC claimed Kelpius’s Society as the first of their colonies in America. While this claim in particular, as well as the claims of the cave’s use are dubious the want to connect Kelpius to modern day religious movements shows a powerful resonance of his beliefs and ideals.
Kelpius himself left behind a considerable archive and legacy for the short time he lived and the even shorter time he led his Hermit community. His original works, including his published and well known prayer book A Short, Easy, and Comprehensive Method of Prayer, which was republished several times for mass consumption, including as late as 1951, and a diary that is at once a useful botanical, astrological, and spiritual reference. Kelpius was also an accomplished musician, who most likely wrote the manuscript for The Lamenting Voice of the Hidden Love (1705) a 70-page songbook. This has led some to declare Kelpius the first composer in the thirteen colonies. Among other notorious first for Kelpius, were the first privately owned organ, and as subject of the first oil-based portrait painting, both created by Christopher Witt.
The cave is easily denoted by its man-made stone entrance. Getting to the cave, however, is a different story. Tucked away in the woods of Wissahickon Valley Park, it is said that most people looking for it struggle to locate footpaths in the park that lead to the cave. Luckily the Kelpius Society offers tours of area known as Hermits Glen, which includes but is not limited to the Cave of Kelpius. To arrange a tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kelpius.org to learn more. For those intrepid explorers among you, a general approximation of the cave within the park has been provided below.
Photo Credits for the site itself:
Much thanks to Jon Spruce whose post http://phillytrees.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-cave-of-kelpius.html provided some great visiuals for someone who has yet to visit this cool site.
Scott, Jonathan. The Woman in the Wilderness. (Middleton Books, 2011) (A historical novel, supports historical events. Develops a narrative of the context of Kelpius’ life in a literarily, meaningful way.)
Sachse, Julius F. The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, The PA German Society Press, 1896.
Kelpius, Johannes. “A Method of Prayer. A Mystical Pamphlet from Colonial America.” Edited and translated by Kirby Don Richards, Ph.D. Philadelphia: Schuylkill Wordsmiths, 2006.
—-“ Scylla theologica, aliquot exemplis Patrum et Doctorum ecclesiae … ostensa [The Theological Scylla]. Altdorfium, 1690. co-written with Magister Johannes Fabricius (from the Bavarian State Library / Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek)
Zuber, Mike A. ‘Copernican Cosmotheism: Johann Jacob Zimmermann and the Mystical Light’, Aries 14.2 (2014); https://www.academia.edu/7692264/Copernican_Cosmotheism_Johann_Jacob_Zimmermann_and_the_Mystical_Light
Winn, Christian T. et al. eds. The Pietist Impulse in Christianity (2012)
And these web based sources:
Direct Sources in Text
 Johann Jacob Zimmerman, Scriptura Sacra Copernizans (Hamburg: Zimmerman and Altona II. Theil, I Capitel pp. 37-41
 Boehme’s influence out of the four mentioned Pietists is clearly the most lasting a far-reaching for later philosophers, novelists, anti-authoritarian relgious communities and others. Some of the people influenced by his works include: William Blake, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Paul Tillich (one of the most influential theologians in the 20th century) as well as thematic influences in the literary works of Borges, Cormac McCarthy, C. S. Lewis, and Philip K. Dick, among others.
 Julius F. Sachse, The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, The PA German Society Press, 1896.
 Winn, Christian T. et al. eds. The Pietist Impulse in Christianity (2012)
 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. “And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. 7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
 Records of himself and some followers https://web.archive.org/web/20060323082651/ http://www.progenealogists.com/palproject/pa/1694smhope.htm
 Johannes Kelpius collection of German hymns Am.088 Historical Society of Pennsylvania.http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/k/Kelpius088.html