Tucked away in a remote section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the former meeting place of America’s very first doomsday cult. Named after the group’s leader, Johannes Kelpius, this 40-square-foot “tabernacle” is built into the side of a hill above the Wissahickon Creek. Thought to possibly be an old springhouse, legend has it that this stone-framed hideaway was once a safe place for 40 monks as they awaited the End of Days and the Second Coming.
In 1694, a group of German mystics and monks, dubbed “The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness,” settled along the Wissahickon Creek in the Fairmount Park section of the newly-founded Philadelphia. Their society was named after a woman in the Book of Revelations, who sought refuge in the wilderness during the apocalypse. The monks chose the location of their cave not only for easy access to clean spring water but because of its position on the 40th parallel. The group also created a 40-square-foot tabernacle including an observatory where the monks practiced astronomy—it’s believed to be the first observatory of the new world. Numerology was a sacred practice to the monks, and the number 40 held a special significance.
The Hermits of the Wissahickon
The “Hermits of the Wissahickon,” were led by the cave’s namesake, 26-year-old Johannes Kelpius. The Transylvanian mystic and scholar was born in the same village as Vlad the Impaler and earned an MA in theology from the University of Altdorf. Like many of the others in the group, Kelpius’s expertise was in medicine and music composition.
During his time at Altdorf, Kelpius was introduced to the Pietist religious movement. Pietism is a movement within Lutheranism that emphasizes personal holiness and devotion over mere compliance to church rituals. Kelpius soon joined a small group of young men called The Chapter of Perfection. Formed by German Pietist, Johann Jacob Zimmerman, the group believed they were on the brink of a new spiritual age and had to prepare for Christ’s return.
In 1692, The Chapter of Perfection was anonymously offered a free plot of land and free passage to Pennsylvania. Kelpius believed this to be an ideal opportunity as 17th-century Pennsylvania had a reputation for religious tolerance and many Quakers, Pietists, Communitarians, and free-thinking groups had sought refuge there.
Passing The Torch To Kelpius
Shortly before the group was set to depart for America, Zimmerman died and appointed Kelpius as The Chapter of Perfection’s new spiritual leader. Kelpius was determined to complete his mentor’s mission of awaiting Christ’s return.
It’s said that Kelpius and the rest of the group remained in the forest—even after the anticipated end of the world had come and gone—creating music and art, studying the skies, and medicinally helping those in the local community. In fact, it wasn’t until 1708 that the monks disbanded, following Kelpius’s death. Some of the members stayed in Philadelphia and eventually became lawyers and doctors.
Three centuries have returned the site to the unruly wilderness that the monks saw when they first arrived. Today, the meeting space for Kelpius’s monks is nothing more than a lone cave on a hill. A large, granite monolith was placed outside of its entrance by the Rosicrucians in 1961, a worldwide mystical brotherhood claiming roots in ancient Egypt and considers Kelpius the original American Rosicrucian.
By Stephanie Weaver, contributor for Ripleys.com