The Cave of Kelpius: Where Philadelphia’s Mystic Brotherhood Held Mass

People have been attracted to religious cults throughout history. At the end of the 17th century many people were fleeing from Europe to avoid persecution and some headed for the new world, or America as we know it today.

John Kelpius, philosopher and supposed mystic, was born in Germany, in 1673. From a wealthy family, and educated at the University of Hehnstadt, he devoted himself to theological studies, becoming a follower of Philip Jakob Spener, the founder of the Pietists sect. While in London he met Jane Leade, the head of the Philadelphians, another mystic sect. His peculiar views met with opposition, for at this time there was a spirit of inquiry over Europe. The desire to live where religious liberty could be enjoyed led him and his followers to emigrate to the New World.

At the age of 21, with 40 others of like faith, he set sail from London on January 7, 1694, reaching Philadelphia in June. They arrived in Germantown a few days later, which at that time consisted of a single street. The next day the Pietists marched out of Germantown, their procession attracting the attention of the locals as they made their way dressed in the robes of the mystic. The Germantown residents, struck by the haunting vision of the Biblical verses that had inspired the Pietists’ pilgrimage, dubbed the group ‘The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness’.

Some also referred to them as ‘The Hermits of the Wissahickon’. Each Monk carried his few possessions in a sack on his back as Kelpius, staff in hand, led the brethren to their new home deep in the untamed woods. Kelpius selected a spot on the banks of the Wissahickon, where in a small valley he built into a cave, and walled a spring of water nearby. They also constructed the ‘Tabernacle of the Mystic Brotherhood’.

The ‘Tabernacle of the Mystic Brotherhood’ was built of trunks of giant oaks and pines trees in the Wissahickon Valley, in the years 1695-1696. Its dimensions were in multiples of four and built using sacred geometry. It was 40ft long on each side and oriented to the points of the compass. It contained a large assembly room for religious purposes, a schoolroom, and forty tiny cells for the forty members of the community. Four large windows let in light from the west, while the east wall had neither windows nor doors.

kelpius1Photo: veghead

On the roof the brethren installed an observatory. This observatory marks the first astronomical observatory in the American Colonies. Crowing the observatory was an iron cross within a circle, the mystic sign of the Rosicrucian order.
It was an iron sentry that over looked the treetops, so that the rising sun would flood it with rosy light.

There they lived as an unbroken brotherhood for about ten years. They were a complete self-sufficient community, growing corn and fruit. They started the first botanical gardens in the New World. They played many instruments and wrote their own music. They brought the first pipe organ to America for use in their concerts. They held religious services in the groves, and crowds of curious people assembled to hear the preaching of the Hermits. It is said that they taught little children that were brought to them.

Kelpius was a firm believer in the coming millennium, he said that he should not die till he saw it. The Society’s beliefs came from parts of many religions. They practiced their own unique from of pure religion and were very spiritual. His Latin journal, kept during his voyage across the Atlantic, is still preserved by the Historical society of Pennsylvania. In it are copies of several letters in English and German, which he wrote to important people in both in Europe and America. Among his legacies was the naming of Roxborough.

Kelpius called his cave ‘The Burrow of Rocks’ because foxes often burrowed into the rocky cellar. The name was eventually formalized into ‘Rocks Burrow’ when he used the term in a letter dated May 25, 1706. Eventually ‘Rocks Burrow’ was changed to the spelling we use today, Roxborough, and that is how the section of Philadelphia known as Roxborough got its name. Amazing to think that cults were indeed alive and kicking over 300 years ago. They are certainly nothing new, and this one even reportedly has a ghost!

Sources: 1, 2, 3