Please join members of the Kelpius Society at 11:30 a.m., Saturday, June 22, atop the great steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for a free, special program that commemorates a 300-year-old summer solstice ceremony.
The event, which takes place at the east side forecourt at the top of the stairs overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, reenacts the historic arrival of a small group of German Pietists, led by Johann Kelpius, who settled in the Wissahickon in the late 1600s. The public is welcome to observe the summer solstice program and also learn about this fascinating Philadelphian, known in his time as the Wizard of the Wissahickon.
After a brief introduction from a Kelpius Society founder, architect Alvin Holm, the and other members will set up a long banner pole, creating a temporary sundial on the paved surface above the Museum steps, which will trace the morning shadow to determine the precise moment when the sun reaches its zenith on one of the longest days of the year.
On June 23, 1694, Johann Kelpius and his small band of German Pietists arrived in Philadelphia intending to establish a millennialist community in Philadelphia. When they sailed into port on the Delaware River it was the Eve of the Feast of Saint John, which coincides with the traditions of the June solstice. The group came straight away over to the Schuylkill where they took part in a Solstice bonfire ceremony on top of the most prominent hill, an area now known as Fairmount. Shortly afterward the religious group moved on to the Wissahickon Valley where they built their utopian settlement.
Today, very little is known about this small religious sect, and over the years its history has been clouded by pervasive legends, many of them popularized by 19th century Philadelphia authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and George Lippard. The modern day Kelpius Society is a 501c3 organization actively engaged in academic research, exploring Kelpius history, and in restoring and preserving the original Wissahickon site.
For more information about the program or the Kelpius Society, please contact Thomas Carroll, president of the Kelpius Society, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While searching I found an interesting article titled “Prophesies and Revelelations”: German Cabbalists in Early Pennsylvania. Very interesting stuff! And gave me some significant clues about the Christian Cabbala touchpoint with the Zohar of the Jewish Kabbalah. The article was published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 109. No.3 (Jul 1985). Then I spied this footnote that will interest all members of the Kelpius Society. “The manuscript copy of Kelpius’s diary and letterbook is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I have checked Sachse’s translation against the manuscript and have found several errors, especially transcription errors. I have used Sachse’s translation for quotations in English, but where his errors have confused or altered the meaning of a passage, I have inserted my own corrections in brackets. The article is signed by a Elizabeth W. Fisher, Harvard University. Wow! Now here is a manuscript that needs to be ‘translated’ and republished as the written work of John Kelpius. No one up to now, except for Julius Sachse , has even seen any written work of John Kelpius.
Heinrich Bernhard Koster was a member of Kelpius’ original Wissahickon Society. When the New Millennium failed to materialize in 1694, Koster started to drift away. He became affiliated with the followers of George Keith, who in 1691 had begun disrupting the Philadelphia area Quaker world by trying to lead them back a more orthodox form of Christianity, while Kelpius and the others maintained a strong relationship with the Quakers.
Evidently Koster, Thomas Rutter, William Davis, and Thomas Bowyer teamed up and published a pamphlet of their radical views (in High German and in English) entitled “Advice for All Professors and Writers.” No copies have been found, but in 1697 Francis Daniel Pastorius, founder of Germantown, published a refutation of this pamphlet entitled “Henry Bernhard Koster, William Davis, Thomas Rutter & Thomas Bowyer, four boasting disputers of this world briefly rebuked, and answered according to their folly, which they themselves have manifested in a late pamphlet, entitled, Advise for all professors and writers.” This pamphlet does exist and it gives insight into the contents of the former publication and the activities of the four named men. It hints at a communal experiment called “Irenia” near Germantown.
To quote Pastorius:
“They stile themselves The Brethren in America, The True Church of Philadelphia or Brotherly Love, &c. This sounds mightily afar off, and some silly Women in Germany, who may happen to see their pamphlet, which probably for that end and purpose was printed in the high Dutch tongue besides the English will be ready to think this Church or Brotherhood something real and considerable. But to undeceive those, who prefer Truth before fictions and falsehood, I herewith must inform them that all these specious Names and Epithets in the pages above quoted, and more others, are mere Kosterian Chimera, an idle fancy. He, the said H. B. Koster, arriving here in Pensilvania, his heart and head filled with Whimsical and boisterous Imaginations, but his hands and Purse emptied of the money, which our Friends beyond Sea imparted unto him, and some in his Company, was so cunning as to entice four or five to a Commonalty of Goods, and so settled a Plantation near German-town, upon a tract of Land given unto them, calling the same IRENIA; that is to say, the house of Peace, which not long after became ERINNIA, the House of raging Contention, and now returned to the donor, the Brethren of America being gone and dispersed, and the Church of Philadelphia (falsely so-called) proving momentary, and of no moment.” Since Pastorius says “falsely so-called,” I assume he means there was no official connection to Jane Leade’s London group “The Philadelphian Society For The Advancement Of Piety And Divine Philosophy.”
In a manuscript of the Pennepek (Pennypack) Baptist Church, it is written that “Wm. Davis, with one Henry Bernard Koster, a German, and others made up a kinde of Society, did break bread, lay on hands, washed one another’s feet, and went about having a community of goods. But in little time they disagreed & broke to pieces.”
In 1743, Rev. Ernst Ludwig Rathlef published a German biographical sketch of Koster, based on an interview he had had with the subject in 1730. Rathlef states that after Koster helped to build the Wissahickon community “[He] together with two others, bought another tract at Plymouth, not far from Germantown, where he remained for a length of time.”
The Pastorius and Rathlef accounts differ as to how the land for Irenia was acquired, but as Pastorius’ was contemporary to the events, I’ll hazard a guess that the land was donated and later reverted to the original owner. The dates are a bit confused, but the following material from the Philadelphia County Commissioners records indicate that there are land documents referring to “Irenia Land” circa 1695 (I need to track down these records):
“At a Session of the Commissioners at Philadelphia the 23d of the 12th Mo’th, 1701. Present, Edward Shippen, Griffith Owen, Thomas Story, James Logan, Sec’ry… The Commiss’rs, by Patent dated 26th 9 mo., 1695 [sic], Granted 500 acres to Rob’t Longshore, Purchaser in Bristol Township, in the County of Philad’a, joyning on Germantown, Irenia Land, and Will’m Wilkins, of which by Deed dated 1st 4 mo., 1686, he sold to Samuel Bennet 200 acres, who by Deed dated 2, 4, 1695, sold 150 thereof to David Potts, who sold to Wm. Harman 50 acres now in the Possession of Peter Clever.”
Based on the above, together with the 1687 Holmes Map of Philadelphia area landowners, I’m going to hazard a guess that Irenia was not in Plymouth Township, which did not border Germantown, but rather in Bristol Township, on land donated by the Bowyer family, adjacent to land of Thomas Rutter and Samuel Bennett (which they had purchased from Robert Longshore). Thomas Bowyer seems to have played a rather minor role, as his three fellow communitarians figure in many later events, but his name disappears from history.
I would be interested to know if anyone has other information about Irenia, its members, and their activities.
by Fred Kelso