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Kelpius Background

Kelpius Legend, lithograph by C.H. DeWitt

 

 

What follows is a truncated, generalized account of the background to the Kelpius story (see my previous post).

 

In 17th century Germany, Kelpius was part of a growing movement of dissent from orthodox Lutheranism, whose members were persecuted as a result of their nonconformity. Self-identifying as "pietists", they were intensely devout, striving to develop a personal relationship to God independent of intermediaries such as the clergy, or the establishment church. Though initially a marginalized movement within Lutheranism, pietism spread rapidly throughout Europe, and would ultimately gain considerable influence in North America, among the various German-speaking immigrant groups who settled there.

 

I might add that Kelpius and company were inclined towards mysticism, and especially the work of the great German mystic, Jakob Boehme. Their plan was to emigrate from Germany and settle in the New World, where they would establish a utopian community. Johann Jakob Zimmerman, their leader, was a noted astronomer who had observed a rise in the frequency of comet activity in the skies over Europe through the 1680s. He concluded that this must portend the imminent Second Coming of Christ, and predicted that the long-awaited event would occur in 1694. On that basis, the group decided to leave Europe post haste, to greet the millenium in America.  

 

They traveled to London to finalize plans for the voyage. Unexpectedly, however, Zimmerman died on the eve of their scheduled departure, and Kelpius assumed leadership of the group. The remaining members – some believe that the first Rosicrucians to arrive in North America were among them – boarded the Sarah Maria of Good Hope, and set sail. The ship docked at Philadelphia in June 1694, and the group set about establishing their settlement on the banks of Wissahickon Creek, near Germantown, which at that time was an outskirt of Philadelphia. At that location they established a medicinal herb garden, composed original music, and built an observatory, all the while watching the skies for signs of the Second Coming. This was the community that Josephine Herbst has described so effectively, in her book on John Bartram.

 

Kelpius died in 1708, but has since become a legendary figure, possibly due to miracles he is supposed to have performed, and partly based on his reputation as a wizard and mystic, meditating in a solitary cave located somewhere above the Wissahickon Creek. It's believed, for example, that Kelpius performed miracles at sea, in one instance saving the Sarah Maria from certain destruction during an especially violent storm. He is also looked upon as a master healer among the braucherei* of the nearby Pennsylvania German community. Indeed, over the years Kelpius has acquired a reputation as the "Wizard of the Wissahickon", or "Hermit of the Wissahickon". Undergirding this legendary status, Kelpius was said to have possessed the Philosopher's Stone, or some part of it  -- that elusive, magical object coveted by alchemists, who believed that, possessing it, they could transform base metals into gold.

 

Also according to legend, as Kelpius lay on his death bed within his hermit's cave among the rocks above the Wissahickon, he asked a follower to throw a small casket into the waters of that creek, or perhaps the Schuylkill River. The follower hastened away, then returned to report completion of the mission. Of course, he hadn't actually thrown the casket into the water, believing that its contents were sacred, or otherwise valuable. Kelpius was not fooled, however, and repeated the command. This time the follower obeyed, and as the casket hit the water there was a powerful explosion and a blinding flash of light. That box is believed to have contained the Philosopher's Stone.

 

For information on the brauche or Pennsylvania German powwow tradition (not related to the Native American pow wow), see materials relating to an exhibit put on recently at the Glen Cairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, near Philadelphia by visiting:

 

https://glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2017/3/2/powwowing-in-pennsylvania.

 

I'd add that Glen Cairn museum and associated buildings comprise an important Swedenborgian site.

 

 

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Johannes Kelpius

Portrait of Johannes Kelpius, attributed to Christopher Witt

 

 

It's not yet clear where to go next with this blog, meaning, which if any thread to develop and follow through with. That may not be necessary, in any case.  But as I noted in my initial post, the term "fourthriver" denotes (and connotes) something important about fieldwork practice, something I know relatively well. I'll certainly take that thread up again soon. But meanwhile, I want to respond to a comment from a reader who, noting my long association with Philadelphia, and more broadly with the state of Pennsylvania, asked whether I'd ever worked with Quaker or Mennonite communities. In fact, I've done fieldwork in Quaker communities over the years – I'd worked with Quaker farmers in Bucks County some time ago; I've also worked with Mennonites in the southern tier of New York, and elsewhere.

 

Generally speaking, the Quakers were of English origin, while the Mennonites were of German origin. In fact, a Quaker community was located at a very early date in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, settling there sometime in the 1680s. They occupied the area in and around Germantown, along with a German community that had settled there around 1690, under the leadership of Daniel Pastorius. Pastorius was an educated man, and a polyglot, who adapted to what were virtually frontier conditions in Philadelphia at that time, learning artisan trades and working with his hands to demonstrate and promote self-sufficiency within his community. Pastorius was the author of an interesting book, written in several languages, which he titled Bee-Hive, and of which he writes, "In these seven Languages I this my book do own", though the books seems to be written mainly in three languages – English, German, and Latin. Pastorius also wrote the first legal treatise in North America, among his many other contributions to the development of American culture and society.

 

When I moved back to Philadelphia after an eleven year sojourn in Pittsburgh, I was determined to become more involved, and to learn more about the city and its history. My guess is that almost everyone thinks of Ben Franklin when they think of Philadelphia. Probably fewer think of John Bartram, the great naturalist (and a Quaker, by the way). But how many people have heard of Johannes Kelpius? (That name Latinized from his birth name, Johann Kelp.)

 

I first learned of Kelpius in a roundabout way – while reading a book, a sort of biography, of John Bartram!  The book, written by an American writer named Josephine Herbst, was New Green World. And in it, she devotes a paragraph to Kelpius which piqued my interest. Here's what she wrote, in a discussion of Bartram's garden:

 

Though his [Bartam's] garden became famous for the variety of its native species, rivaling all other American gardens in that respect, it was not the first botanical garden nor the only one. Probably the first botanical garden belonged to the brotherhood of German mystics, led by Kelpius, who in 1694 built their steep-roofed cloister, Das Weib in der Wüste, on the banks of the Wissahickon. There they studied mathematics, experimented in alchemy, and, while they read the sky with telescopes, awaited the second coming of Christ. In their forest refuge, gardens ran down the glen, with a mainstay of herbs for medicinal purposes. Dr. Christopher Witt, who lived in Germantown, must have taken fire from Kelpius's garden as well as imbibing strong drafts of alchemy. A painter of sorts, he even made an oil portrait of Kelpius shortly after their acquaintance in 1704, the first year of his residence in America. Kelpius died that same year but some of his plants must have found their way to Dr. Witt's garden, and were passed on to Bartram. Dr. Witt's neighbor, Pastorius, cultivated herbs and plants, also, and in his Medicus Dilectus wrote of herbal remedies.

 

Kelpius died in 1708, not in 1704, though Herbst’s description is otherwise correct. That aside, there were a number of features of this passage that stimulated interest – the reference to alchemy, the group's observatory, the botanical herbs, and so on – and I decided to investigate in order to learn more. I'll report on some of what I learned in my next post.

  

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"fourthriver"

An early drawing of Fort Duquesne, showing the confluence of three rivers forming the Ohio, at what is now Pittsburgh

 

 

I've been self-employed for many years, beginning in 1983 when as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania I set up in business as an antiquarian bookseller and trader, operating under the name Supper of Ashes Books. My intention was to specialize in antiquarian books, and what was then known in the trade as "occult" materials -- but which for me signified ancient and early science (which would naturally include works relating to magic and alchemy too). As I began doing more and more fieldwork, however, I transitioned that business from bookselling and trading per se, to community-based research. I was able to pursue the latter on a full time basis until quite recently.

 

Having relocated to Vermont, I'm focusing much more time on writing, which involves both poetry and any nonfiction written over the years, some published and some not, but which also includes the many field reports and related materials I've generated. That said, I'm also devoting some time and energy to developing a field-based project here, since fieldwork has been my modus operandi for so many years, as well as a source of ideas and inspiration. I'm not quite ready to give that up.

 

I do however want to explain the title of this blog. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1992, and worked for a regional organization there for about a year before leaving to go back on the road as a self-employed fieldworker, working on a contract-by-contract basis. Soon after arriving in Pittsburgh, I learned that the steel city had a special though perhaps less well-known relationship with Varanasi, a religiously significant city in India, on the banks of the Ganges. Simply put, the relationship or correspondence between the two cities involves rivers. Many people are aware that Pittsburgh is known as the city of three rivers. What is less well known is that there's a fourth river, an ancient river that had once flowed beneath the city, and is still flowing underground in some areas. I suppose that this fourth river functions something like an aquafer, much as the great Cohansey Aquafer does in southern New Jersey.  

 

Varanasi, also known as Benares, is a city of three rivers too, but there is also a fourth, hidden river flowing underground, much as in Pittsburgh. Having had a longtime interest in India, especially Indian poetry and philosophy, I quickly decided to name my fieldwork business "fourthriver". I went ahead and registered the name with the state of Pennsylvania, but never registered the domain name since I saw little need for keeping a website at that time.  

 

But why did I adopt the name "fourthriver" so quickly? The answer is simple. I recognized almost immediately that the concept of a fourth or hidden river -- "fourthriver" -- perfectly expressed what I conceived my fieldwork to be all about. Which is to say, it has been about exploring and uncovering the hidden or unexpressed cultural resources in the many locales where I've worked over the years. This is especially so since as a folklorist, I've focused my attention on vernacular rather than on "official" culture; on local practice and local knowledge rather than on mainstream knowledge and practice. There's much more to say about that subject, but I'll leave it there for now.   

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