Skip to content

Heinrich Bernhard Koster and Irenia

by on February 20, 2013

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

From → Uncategorized

  1. Fred Kelso permalink

    Following is the Google Books link to Johann Christoph Adelung’s 1789 re-print of Rathlef’s 1743 biography of Koster.

    Geschichte der menschlichen Narrheit, oder Lebensbeschreibungen, Johann Christoph Adelung – 1789 (History of human folly, or biographies)

    See page 103 of the pdf, page 86 of the original.

    And this is where to find the 1894 English translation of the Adelung version by Samuel W. Pennypacker:

    Hendrick Pannebecker, SURVEYOR OF LANDS FOR THE PENNS, 1674-1754, FLOMBORN, GERMANTOWN AND SKIPPACK, Samuel W. Pennypacker, Philadelphia, 1894

    See page 153 of the pdf, page 106 of the original for the intro. The translation starts on the next page.

  2. Fred Kelso permalink

    For anyone interested in accessing the original 1743 Ernst Ludwig Rathlef biography of Heinrich Bernhard Koster or Kusters (written while he was living, from notes Rathlef took during an earlier person-to-person interview), you can find it on Google Books at the link below. If you download the pdf, the bio starts of page 216 of the pdf file (p. 478 of the original document, but pagination starts in an earlier volume). The text is in an old German script, but it’s worth having in your files.

    Geschichte jezt lebender Gelehrten – Volume 6 , Johann Christoph Strodtmann, Ernst Ludwig Rathlef – 1743

    This translates roughly to “History of Now Living Scholars”. There were many volumes over many years, but this is the one you want.

  3. Fred Kelso permalink

    Tom, I just found Erben’s book on Google and it appears he also had read Jon Butler’s wonderful 1977 article “Into Pennsylvania’s Spiritual Abyss,” from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. It was this article that led me to the Pennepek Baptist Church minutes, which I found and copied at the LDS Library in Salt Lake City. I didn’t see any mention of Bristol Township in Erben’s book in relation to Irenia, and I haven’t seen anyone else refer to the 1701 Commissioners minutes I quoted above. If there is another source that lends credence to this location, I’d be very happy to see it.

    Regarding the Pastorius dispute with Rutter and friends, I find it intriguing that in 1707 Rutter was made bailiff of Germantown while Pastorius was the town clerk – seems there was eventually some common ground…

    Do you by chance have any contemporary references to Rutter visiting or corresponding with Kelpius? In the May 14, 1917 edition of The Sabbath Recorder, Julius Sasche states in an article entitled “Woman in the Wilderness” that “Letters and visits were interchanged between the members of the Kelpius Community, and Able Noble, Thomas Rutter, and others in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and soon led to communication being opened with the [Seventh Day Baptist / 7DB] brethren in New England.” Sasche offers no evidence of this, unfortunately, other than the letters of Kelpius to Stephen Momfort and Esther Palmer (who was a Quaker…). Sasche also indicates that in 1703 two 7DB leaders from Rhode Island journeyed “to the Wissahickon, and, with the assistance of Magister Kelpius, adjust, if possible, the difference which had been fomented by William Davis between the Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Sabbatarian churches.” I haven’t been able to find anything to corroborate Kelpius being an intermediary in this internal 7DB church dispute. It certainly makes sense that Kelpius would have communicated with Abel Noble, as he was the original disciple of sabbatarianism in Pensylvania, but I’d like to find documentation if it exists.

    • Thanks again, Fred. I can’t seem to recall where I saw, or might have seen, that reference to Bristol. Might it have been somewhere in Samuel Pennypacker’s history of Germantown? I’ll take another look. Adelung apparently has a biography of Koster in his “History of Human Folly” (vol. VII), which I may have seen some time ago. Seidensticker cites this and probably makes reference to Irenia, I believe, in his introductory notes to [Falckner’s?] account of the Kelpius group’s ocean voyage here — in PMHB January 1888 — and quotes Adelung as follows: “Thomas Fairmond [Fairman?] gave to Koster and his five learned companions a tract of woodland to be cleared and tilled by them; that they built upon it a little log house, and supported themselves mainly by raising Indian corn.” But I’ve also looked recently at Learned’s biography of Pastorius, and who knows, I might have seen the Bristol reference there. I’ll have to look again. Meanwhile, you may be aware that the records of the Germantown colony have been translated and published by J.M. Duffin under the title Acta Germanopolis, which covers the period 1691-1707 — which of course overlaps nicely with the active period of the Kelpius settlement. There might be something there of interest for you. I’d also note that the Kelpius Society recently published an edition of J.A. Weishaar’s Tabernacle on the Wissahickon, which focuses quite a bit on Pastorius and his struggles in leadership of the Germantown community. This is a fictional account, but I believe that Weishaar had access to primary source materials and may have used these in imparting a measure of verisimilitude to his novel. There are references there to the disruptive roles played by Koster and Falckner in their opposition to Kelpius’s leadership, and this accounting I think helps to configure if not establish the more or less divisive affect prevalent in the community at that time. I appreciate your reference to Butler’s article, which I’ve read, and especially value his closing remarks, where he suggests that “movements that ‘went nowhere’ played vital roles in the complex process that created Pennsylvania’s colonial religious heritage.” This might very well stand in as a charter of sorts for the Kelpius Society, or some portion of it. As for Sachse, he’s valuable but problematic, because a good portion of his references can’t be verified, as far as I can tell and which I think you also suggest in your comments. It’s interesting to think of Kelpius as intermediary in the dispute you mention; as far as I know he’s elsewhere depicted as refusing to become involved in political matters. There are some scant references to his activity in the Germantown records I’ve mentioned above, suggesting that he wasn’t entirely withdrawn from everyday affairs. Anyway, I’ll see if I can track down that Bristol reference, and will post that information here if I’m able to locate it. I’ve suggested to some of our members that they take a look at your post and make any suggestions they can think of. They’re much more knowledgeable in these matters than I am. Anyway, I appreciate the scope and depth of your inquiry into the primary source materials, and hope to see results of your work at some point soon.

      • Fred Kelso permalink

        Great to have the additional leads Tom. The Adelung reference turns out to be a re-write of Rathlef’s interview with Koster, which I quoted above. I found the original in German on Google Books and have attempted a Bing online translation of the text version, but haven’t gotten very far since the original is in Old German script and doesn’t convert to text very well. I could be wrong, but my interpretation is that the land transferred to Koster and friends by Thomas Fairman (a Provincial surveyor) was actually the Wissahickon property (not sure why only 5 friends are mentioned, though).

        Butler’s article is a wonderfully written and documented piece of research, but at least two of the three “movements of the past” (witchcraft, magic, and alchemy) that he seemingly agrees “went nowhere,” are undeniably alive and well, and it’s a matter of perspective as to their value. The practices of witchraft and magic have never left us. I know of people who to this day are frequenting pow-wow doctors in Lancaster County – they are certainly practicing a form of folk magic, and are filling an important psycho-physical niche in their communities. It’s the people like Kelpius throughout our history, living on the geographical and intellectual fringes of society, but still engaging in the transfer of old traditions and the interchange of new ideas, that make this line of research so fascinating. While it’s certainly true that many of the movements of the past have influenced the evolving mainstream culture, there are some ideas and traditions which have not been assimilated but have instead been passed down through our cultural byways.

        I really appreciate that the Kelpius Society has publicly reached out to initiate a cross-disciplinary discussion and sharing of data regarding the Brotherhood on the Wissahickon. Through this and similar efforts we will all gain a richer, more three-dimensional view of our shared cultural heritage than we ever got through our school-books.

  4. Fred Kelso permalink

    Thanks for the notes Tom. I’ll have to grab of copy of Erben’s book. My main interest has been Thomas Rutter and his dual “worlds” of religious seeker and ironmaster. This particular stop on his journey is quite fascinating, and the contemporary references seem to be few in number. I’m hoping to find others with a shared interest that can point me to additional material.

  5. Thanks for this post, Fred Kelso. Patrick Erben provides a similar accounting of the Irenia incident in his book, Harmony of Spirits (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He too quotes from the Pastorius pamphlet, mentions the lost pamphlet by Koster and his associates, and so on. I’ve read somewhere — was it also in Erben’s book? — that the settlement, such as it was, or in any case the property Koster had acquired, was indeed located in Bristol Township, but can’t recall the source of that impression. Plymouth Township is not “adjacent” to Germantown! (Although we might want to deconstruct that location and language before drawing any firm conclusions.) By the way, Pastorius apparently wrote again about the Irenia incident in his polyglot commonplace book, the Bee-Hive, in the form of a poem (in this case, the poem is in English). I believe this reference may also be from Erben. Koster does seem to have been something of an irascible character, but the stakes were high, weren’t they? High enough to provoke the otherwise circumspect Pastorius to issue a diatribe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: