Kelpius, Johannes (1673–1708)
Johannes Kelpius, the founder of the first occult group in
North America, the Chapter of Perfection (also known as the
Society of the Woman in the Wilderness), was born 1673 in a
German community in Halwegen, Transylvania. He received a
good education and at the age of 16 wrote a treatise on natural
theology. He subsequently wrote several learned texts that
eventually brought him to the attention of Johann Jakob Zimmerman,
a scholar and Lutheran pietist leader. Pietism was a
movement that grew within Lutheranism at a time when the
state church emphasized the more formal aspects of worship
and church life and tended to be aloof from the religious needs
of individuals. Across Germany numerous informal groups developed,
centering on prayer, singing, and encouragement in
the spiritual life. While many of these groups were quite orthodox,
others veered off into mysticism and occultism. Such was
the group that gathered around Zimmerman, who wished to
find a means of combining science (including astrology),
Christian theology, and mystical occultism.
In the late 1680s, encouraged by increasing government
disapproval of pietisim and by his own expectation of the imminent
return of Christ, Zimmerman planned for his followers to
migrate to the British American colonies. Pennsylvania was already
the home of a number of German religious refugees.
However, before the group could leave, Zimmerman died, and
his successor, Kelpius, oversaw the migration of the small body
to Germantown. They arrived in June 1694.
Kelpius secured land on Wissahikon Creek (now a park in
Philadelphia), where they built a forty-foot cube, which became
the all-male group’s headquarters and home. Discovering the
local children were without a school, he founded a school and
became their teacher. He also set up an astrological laboratory
where members of the chapter watched the heavens for astrological
and other signs of Christ’s coming. He developed tuberculosis
in the harsh weather, but hoped for Christ to return before
he died. Meanwhile, he and the brothers gained some
income from providing various healing and occult services for
the surrounding community.
When Christ did not appear, Kelpius grew increasingly disappointed,
a condition not helped by his failing health. In bed
during most of the winter of 1706–07, he composed his most
substantive writing and the hymn ‘‘A Loving Moan of the Disconsolate
Soul in the Morning Dawn.’’ Kelpius finally succumbed
to tuberculosis in 1708 at the age of 35. He was succeeded
by Conrad Matthai. Because the hope for Christ’s
return was the only force that held the group together, as that
hope died, the group disintegrated. Some of the men who
stayed in the area continued as healers, astrologers, and occult
practitioners and their presence gave rise to what became
known as powwow, or hexing, the peculiar form of folk magic
practiced in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Sasche, Julius F. The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia, 1895.

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