Cave of Kelipus: A Place Where Ardent Believers Waited for the Second Coming
Non-believers say that it is merely an old springhouse. Yet many believe that the hard-to-find cave is where the (perhaps) first death cult of the United States sought sanctuary as they awaited the end of the world. The Pennsylvanian cave is located on the side of a hill above the Wissahickon Creek. The uncanny beauty of the Wissahickon Valley, now a National Natural Landmark of the US, has long attracted the attention of visionaries, including the poet Edgar Allen Poe and the social advocate John Greenleaf Whitter. At the end of the 17th century, the Valley attracted a different sort of admirer. In an elaborate interpretation of the Book of Revelations, Johannes Kelpius believed the end was neigh. And the one place he and his followers could remain safe was in the ancient forests outside the city limits of Philadelphia.
Johannes Kelpius was an ethnic German from Transylvania (then under dispute between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, today part of Romania). He arrived from the in Pennsylvania in 1694 at the age of 27. Kelpius had a master’s degree in theology from the University of Altdorf (located near Nuremberg). While at university, he had become enchanted with Pietism, an austere version of Lutheranism. In particular, Kelpius became an avid follower of Johann Jacob Zimmerman, a renowned German astronomer, mathematician, and cleric.
Johannes Kelpius ( Public Domain )
Based on mathematical calculations, the passage of Hailey’s Comet in 1680, and close study of Chapter Seven of the Book of Revelations, Zimmerman determined that the second coming of Christ was imminent. These views, along with his criticism of the inaction of the state church, ultimately led to Zimmerman being kicked out of the church in 1685. Realizing that the establishment in the Old World would never heed his warnings, Zimmerman and his followers (including Kelpius) decided to journey to the New World. However, just before setting out for America, Zimmerman died unexpectedly. Thus, Kelpius became the movement’s leader.
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Much of what we know about Kelpius and his doomsayers comes from his meticulously kept travel diary. We know that they stayed in England for several months before departing for the Americas. While there, they became friends with some Quakers who made the journey with them to Pennsylvania but did not necessarily adopt their beliefs. We know that Kelpius and 40 men and women traveled on the Sarah Maria Hopewell to Maryland and from there, went north to Germantown, Pennsylvania. The group was doubtless attracted to William Penn’s proclamation of a “Holy Experiment” where people of all creeds could come and practice their beliefs in peace. Also, the number 40 seemed to have special significance for Zimmerman (or perhaps Kelpius): the group had 40 members and they settled in Philadelphia, a city which is located at the 40th parallel of latitude which coincidentally (or maybe not) is also the position of the ancient city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), a city referenced in the Book of Revelations. When they finally settled down, they built a 40-foot by 40-foot tabernacle, which has since been reclaimed by the wild.
Philadelphia at the time was still a very small town with perhaps 500 families; however, it was too big for their purposes. Instead, Kelpius led his devotees to the quiet outskirts of the city, into the Wissahickon Valley. There, they could study and meditate in peace. They were not totally isolated. Accounts relate how they offered education to local children and freely shared any medical knowledge they had (several followers had been studying medicine at the University of Altdorf). They were also supposedly gifted musicians. They helped anyone who sought them out, regardless of skin color, and did not charge a fee.
By the end of the 17th century, Kelpius had established himself as Philadelphia’s first mystic-guru. His clan was known by many different names, including the Hermits of the Wissahickon, the Mystic Brotherhood, the Chapter of Perfection, and the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness. That last name comes from a verse in the Book of Revelations: “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.” (Rev. 12:6) The group quietly pursued their lives of prayer, simplicity, celibacy, and poverty while also studying such topics as theology, astrology, numerology, and alchemy. On top of their tabernacle, the worshipers set up a telescope and kept watch for Christ’s return. Some historians said that the monks lived communally but most likely they lived in small groups of two or three in the many surrounding caves.
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Unfortunately for the ardent believers, the Second Coming did not occur. The community gradually disbanded as members moved away, married, or gave up. In 1708, Kelpius died of tuberculosis. With his death, the remaining monks left the forest and settled in Germantown.
For more information, check out the Kelpius Society’s website: http://www.kelpius.org/index.html
Avery, Ron. "Cave of Kelpius." Philadelphia Oddities. Independence Hall Association, 2013. Web. http://www.ushistory.org/oddities/kelpius.htm
Historical Markers. "Kelpius Community Historical Marker." ExplorePAHistory.com. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2011. Web. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-3E5
Kelpius Society. "Visitors Welcome!" Kelpius Home Page. Kelpius Society, 2010. Web. http://www.kelpius.org/index.html
Netsky, Aaron. "Cave of Kelpius." Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 2016. Web. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cave-of-kelpius