Writings of Dr John Palo


Johannes Kelpius
Began the Cycle
 
The Wissahickon Community
in Pennsylvania
 
by Dr. John Palo, B.S., D.C., F.R.C.
 
 
Traditionally, the Rosicrucian Order operates in two cycles, an active one for 108 years and a passive one for the same time. Simple calculation from 1909 tells us that, sometime in the last decade of the seventeenth century, the Order commenced activities in what is now the United States of America. What are the details of those activities? Who was involved? Where, when, and how did they start? These are intriguing questions.
 
The historian Sachse states that on June 24, 1694, Johannes Kelpius and his Chapter of Pietists, or Rosicrucians, landed in Philadelphia, walked to Germantown, and finally settled on the rugged banks of the Wissahickon River. But who was Kelpius and from where did these Rosicrucians come and why?
 
In conformity with certain plans previously made by Sir Francis Bacon, as well as with the raising of the body of C.R-C. at Cassel, Germany, the various Rosicrucian jurisdictions of Europe were engaged during the years 1691-1693 in selecting from their members those who would make the pilgrimage to the New World. Thanks to William Penn, they knew where in the New World they were going.
 
Persecution for unorthodox beliefs was rife on the continent. Penn himself had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for seven months for attacking the Church doctrine of the Trinity in an article, "The Sandy Foundation Shaken." While imprisoned, he also wrote, "No Cross, No Crown," one of his most celebrated works.
 
It is possible that the English authorities hoped to be rid of the troublesome, free-thinking Penn when they granted him land in the New World in payment for an $80,000 debt owed to his deceased father. The claim had been inherited by the younger Penn, and he accepted the land which included what is now the state of Pennsylvania.
 
With the land, he was granted the right to found a colony with such laws and institutions as expressed his views and principles. He saw in this his chance to offer a haven to the many throughout the Old World who were under constant harassment due to their religious or mystical practices.
 
As the champion of religious liberty, Penn was especially sympathetic to the plight of the Rosicrucians in Europe. These Pietists, or Rosicrucians, who reportedly were mixing Christian tenets with both the practices of the ancient Egyptians and some of the doctrines of the Persian philosopher, Zoroaster, were indeed unorthodox and hence undesirable in the eyes of the politico-religious powers of the day. Penn invited them to settle on his land in the New World.
 
With the pressure of persecution close upon them and the beginning of a new active cycle close at hand, they accepted the offer. Thus it came about that Penn's land served as the birthplace of the American jurisdiction of the Rosicrucian Order.
 
Officers Selected
 
At the appropriate time, Rosicrucian officers were selected, with full power and authority to establish the first American headquarters of the Rosicrucian Order. Each member was chosen because of special fitness: There were chemists, botanists, artists, printers, papermakers, musicians, an astronomer, mathematicians, alchemists, artisans of various kinds, and their wives and children.
 
Aided by Benjamin Furley, Penn's agent in Rotterdam, they chartered a special boat, the Sara Maria, and under the leadership of Master Johannes Kelpius of the Jacob Boehme Lodge set sail for the New World. During their long voyage across the Atlantic, they held daily ceremonies. On Saturday, June 23, 1694, they arrived at Philadelphia.
 
One of their first acts upon arriving is described by the historian Francis Burke Brandt. "On the evening of their arrival, some of this band of forty enthusiasts, tired as they were, betook themselves to a highland just northwest of the city proper, even then known as Fairmount, and there performed the mystic rites peculiar to St. John's Eve, ... a rite, indeed, celebrating the summer solstice and symbolizing the waning of the sun's power."
 
Kelpius was a mere youth of 21. He had replaced Johann Jakob Zimmermann, the original leader, who died at the harbor just prior to their leaving Rotterdam. Though young, the new leader, like Zimmermann, was brilliant. At the age of 16, he had been awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Altdorf. He had written a treatise on the "Ethics of Aristotle" and had already published three books on religious subjects before he was 17 years of age.
 
Kelpius and his band of 40 walked to Germantown. It seemed too crowded and worldly to them; so they retired to the nearby Wissahickon Valley along the banks of the Wissahickon River. Kelpius secured the rights to 175 acres of this land and proceeded to supervise the construction of a building upon it. A tower, reputedly built for mystical as well as astrological and astronomical purposes, surmounted it. Brandt tells us that legend has it that "on top of this [observatory] was the emblem of the Rosicrucians, a cross within a circle, so placed that the first rays of the rising sun would flood it with rosy light."
 
A communal society was set up, dedicated to study, meditation, and the betterment of mankind. Feeling the need for occasional further withdrawal, Kelpius dug out a cave for himself in the middle of the nearby hillside. He called it the "Laura." Here he could study, contemplate, write, and pray in silence and solitude.
 
William Penn took a more than casual interest in the Brotherhood. During his 1699-1701 stay in America, he made frequent visits to the Wissahickon mystics.
 
Through the generous donations of present-day Rosicrucians and the cooperation of the Imperator of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, and Pennsylvania state officials, a monolith was recently created and placed near the opening of the cave to serve as a memorial marker to Kelpius' "Laura" and the initiation of the Order's work in the New World.
 
An Ephrata manuscript relates, "Kelpius, educated in one of the most distinguished universities of Europe and having had advantage of the best resources for the acquirement of knowledge, was calculated to edify and enlighten those who resorted to him for information. He had particularly made great progress in the study of ancient lore, and was quite proficient in theology.
 
"He was intimately acquainted with the principal works of the Rabbins, the Heathen and Stoic philosophers, the Fathers of the Christian Church, and the Reformers. He was conversant with the writings of Tertullian, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Tauler, Eck, Myconius, Carlstadt, Faber, Osiander, Luther, Zwingli, and others, whose opinions he would frequently analyze and expound with much animation.
 
"He was also a strict disciplinarian, and kept attention constantly directed inwards upon self. To know self, he contended, is the first and most essential of all knowledge.... He directed a sedulous watchfulness over the temper, inclinations and passions, and applauded very much the counsel of Marcus Aurelius: Look within; for within is the fountain of good."
 
The surrounding villagers called these mystics many things, among them "Monks of the Ridge" and "The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness." The group, however, sought to avoid the tinge of denominationalism and preferred to be known as "The Contented of the God-Loving Soul." Although much of their time was devoted to spiritual matters, they also cleared ground, cultivated a garden, and planted an orchard.
 
The range of the subjects studied by these mystics was impressive. They poured their energies into mathematics, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, theosophy, the kabala, and mystical principles and rites. They experimented in chemistry and alchemy. They also conducted pharmaceutical experiments, raising various herbs for therapeutic purposes.
 
Near the Tabernacle, seven years after their arrival, they again celebrated St. John's Eve as well as the anniversary of their landing in Philadelphia. It is recorded that "whilst engaged in their accustomed services or ceremonies in commemoration of their arrival, which they observed with solemnity, a white, obscure, moving body in the air attracted their attention, which, as it approached, assumed the form and mien of an angel.
 
"It receded into the shadows of the forest, and appeared again immediately before them as the fairest of the lovely ... the luminary of the skies appeared above the hills and shed her cheerful rays to renovate the energies of the laboring man; but the bloom of darkness hung upon the waiting hermits." The mystically symbolic figure after three appearances finally disappeared. Seven years later, at the age of 35, when many great mystics achieve the state of Cosmic Consciousness, Master Kelpius died.
 
Among the notions held by the surrounding villagers was one that these "Monks of the Ridge" ate their religion. This idea arose from a unique custom among them to raise their moral or spiritual calibre. Each of the brethren carried with him a small basket in which were slips of paper upon which were written numerous Biblical verses or uplifting thoughts. If tempted to anger, envy, or any other forbidden feeling, he would reach in, withdraw a verse, and read it.
 
If he encountered anyone swearing or otherwise behaving in a blasphemous manner, he would hand the offender one of these slips to read. After the thought was read, the paper containing it was placed in the mouth. This little ritual may have symbolized the further digestion of the thought. The villagers, however, were literal and claimed that the monks "ate their religion."
 
A Center of Light
 
These mystics were a center of light. They were willing and eager to share their knowledge with others. All of their services--spiritual, educational, therapeutic, and celestial--were given gratis.
 
The cave Kelpius had dug out for himself for private meditation may have proved too much for his constitution. He contracted tuberculosis. After 14 years of building a thriving spiritual community in the forest along the banks of the Wissahickon, he lay on his death bed growing weaker and weaker. It had been his firm belief that he would not die, that he would be borne bodily to heaven.
 
The dying Kelpius turned disappointedly to his servant Daniel and said, "I am not to attain that which I aspire unto. It is that dust I am, and to dust I am to return. It is ordained that I shall die like unto all children of Adam."
 
He then handed Daniel a sealed casket to throw into the deepest part of the river. Instead, Daniel hid it. When he returned, Kelpius chided him for not fulfilling his wishes. Daniel then rushed back to the casket and heaved it into the water, more than ever convinced of Kelpius's mystic powers. Legend has it that a great explosion, flashes of lightning, and peals of thunder emerged from the spot where the casket struck the water.
 
Kelpius was buried in the orchard or garden near the temple in an unmarked grave. This temple has long since disappeared and the forest has reclaimed the orchard and garden. Kelpius's cave, however, can still be seen on a path leading up from the stone bridge at the foot of Hermit's Lane in what is now called Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. And somewhere nearby lie the remains of the body of that master mystic, Johannes Kelpius.
 
With the death of Master Kelpius in 1708, the first Rosicrucian group to come to America found themselves without a leader. Johann Seelig, Conrad Matthai, Dr. Christopher Witt, Daniel Gessler, and Christian Warner tried to keep the community from falling apart; but without the leadership of Kelpius, disintegration set in.
 
It was not until 1720 that Conrad Beissel provided the leadership needed to reorganize and build on the great work started by Kelpius. He came to America looking for Johannes Kelpius, seeking to join the reputedly thriving community of mystics. He found neither. The story of his work at Ephrata and his association with Peter Miller, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington form a chapter all its own in the unique history of the first cycle of the Rosicrucian Order in the New World.
 
 
Copyright 1965 Dr. John Palo
 

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