Esotericism in Early Pennsylvania

NOTE: This essay was written by our guest Greg Kaminsky the producer and host of the online podcast Occult of Personality. Greg has graciously allowed us to publish it here in conjunction with the Ouroboros Press release of the Rosicrucian Manifestos.
A Comparative Study of Rosicrucian Tendencies within Johannes Kelpius’ Woman in the Wilderness Community and Johann Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata Cloister.


I. Thesis Argument and Introduction

German settlers Johannes Kelpius and Johann Conrad Beissel, leaders of semi-monastic religious communities in colonial Pennsylvania, are labeled as Rosicrucian by some researchers and yet this label is disputed by others; although neither claimed to be such, both their communities’ beliefs and practices shared a remarkable number of similarities with Rosicrucianism. It has never been a simple task to label any individual or group as Rosicrucian, yet it has been done in the case of Kelpius’ and Beissel’s communities, causing scholars to examine this question, often without the benefit of the corpus of research available today.

There are several reasons why trying to connect an individual or group with the mythical Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross or later Rosicrucian inspired fraternities is a difficult proposition. The foundational documents of the brotherhood, printed in early seventeenth century Germany and commonly referred to as the Fama Fraternitatis, the Confessio, and the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, contain mystical and symbolica allegories which indicate that the brotherhood was an idea, not a group of men. So this fraternity was referred to as invisible because membership, let alone its actual existence, was based on myth. Regardless, these allegories, interpreted literally by some, created fervor in their time because of the significant number of learned men who wrote books about the fraternity, those who sought to join or form initiatory groups based upon the ideas of the Rosicrucian manifestos, and those who used the notion of an invisible brotherhood for political manipulation. As such, it was dangerous at times to be publicly identified with the ideas promulgated in these texts because of the perceived threat to church and state. Rosicrucian sympathizers did not describe themselves as brothers of the Rosy Cross, but publicly professed their Christian religion, as Rosicrucianism was agreeable not only to any denomination of Christianity,1 but other faiths as well. It is also possible to delineate between the original Rosicrucian movement and later Rosicrucian-inspired movements,2 so determining membership in, or direct connection to, any Rosicrucian fraternity before the nineteenth century is difficult at best. This delineation also leads to the recognition of a fundamental etymological issue with the term Rosicrucian – the traits that modern scholars attribute to the Rosicrucian movement(s), were not necessarily termed as such prior to the nineteenth century. It is significant that, like the mythological brothers of the Rosy Cross, these German settlers in Pennsylvania did not describe themselves as Rosicrucian, or their belief as Rosicrucianism. Even today Kelpius’ and his followers are most commonly referred to as Lutheran Pietists,3 an accurate classification without the underlying problem connected with the Rosicrucian label.

Nevertheless it is possible to define a set of philosophies, practices, symbolism, traditions, and esoteric currents that are connected with the suspected authors of the manifestos and their sympathizers. Rosicrucian philosophy was professed in the foundational documents. Alchemical symbolism is encoded in the Chemical Wedding;4 Cabalism is the key to understanding the Fama and Confessio5 and gnostic theosophy is a component of all three.6 These traditions and others are intimately connected, and when combined by spiritual seekers in seventeenth century Germany, formed what could be considered as components of Rosicrucianism, or part of the Rosicrucian tradition. Comparing knowledge of this tradition and its lineage with historical documentation, primary source commentary, and academic research allows for a methodical analysis of the subject.

Thus the goal of this paper is not to attempt to uncover some direct connection between an invisible Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross or later Rosicrucian inspired fraternity and Johannes Kelpius’ community, known as the Woman in the Wilderness, and Ephrata Cloister, but rather to compare these German settlers’ philosophies and practices to those accepted as part of Rosicrucian tradition. This comparison will confirm that their beliefs and practices were notably akin to those of Rosicrucianism.

II. Attributes of Rosicrucianism

In analyzing Rosicrucianism to develop a list of defining attributes, several approaches are required. The three foundational texts provide philosophical, theological, and theosophical ideals which form the basis of the movement. Next, the esoteric interpretations in primary source commentaries and the inspired writing and artwork of Rosicrucian sympathizers provide a wealth of knowledge about the inner meanings of the manifestos. Furthermore, scholarly research yields a coherent description of the historical connections between individuals, groups, various Western esoteric philosophies and traditions, and Rosicrucianism. Considered collectively, these sources prove to be fertile ground from which to draw forth an accurate portrayal of the components of Rosicrucianism.

The Fama Fraternitatis, Confessio, and the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz were first circulated in Reformation-era Germany by suspected authors Johann Valentin Andrae, a Lutheran priest, and Dr. Tobias Hess.7 These texts formed the basis of Rosicrucianism and were decidedly Protestant in tone. Because the Rosicrucian myths concerned a secret fraternity, both secrecy and organization became attributes of the movement. The Chemical Wedding employs Hermetic alchemical symbolism8 in the tale of a union of opposites, and the Fama refers to Paracelsus as having pursued a similar aim as the fraternity, indicating that Hermetic alchemy was another key component of Rosicrucianism. In addition, Rosicrucian sympathizers included practicing alchemists such as Thomas Vaughan, a Welsh alchemist and the English translator of the Rosicrucian manifestos. The Fama also indicated that the fraternity’s intention was for reformation of society, “… not through the churches, but by means of a universal spiritual science in which the heart and mind are united.”9 Andrae, in addition to his Rosicrucian writings, also authored Christianopolis, a Utopian-themed story, therefore the ideas of societal reformation and Utopianism could be considered as components of Rosicrucianism. As the Fama told the story of Brother C. R. C. and his travels in foreign lands, so travel or pilgrimage could be counted as a Rosicrucian characteristic. Among the six agreements the brothers made in the Fama were two that could be deemed attributes of the tradition: to profess only to heal the sick (and for free) and to follow the customs and dress in the manner of the country in which they lived (i.e. not be conspicuously different or exclusive and relating to a disdain for divisiveness caused by religious sectarianism). As Frances Yates wrote in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, “… one of the most important aspects of the Rosicrucian movement, [is] that it could include different religious denominations.”10

The Fama and Confessio also have distinct inner meanings encoded with gematria, a Cabalistic system of determining relations between Hebrew (or Greek) words and phrases based on the numeric values assigned to the letters, so the tradition of Cabala is a key attribute of Rosicrucianism. The seal, mark, and character of the fraternity, “R. C.,” can be interpreted as the Hebrew word referring to “tenderness or compassion”11 and Rose Cross can be interpreted as “Church of the Gnosis” using Greek gematria.12 In addition, despite the exoteric profession of Protestantism in the manifestos, the encoded inner meanings also point to an appreciation of a universal gnosis or state of enlightenment, beyond religion, indicating that Rosicrucianism is akin to gnostic theosophy. Theosophy is also linked with German mystic Jacob Böhme who published his first book entitled Aurora in 1612, shortly before the Rosicrucian furor began. In Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition, Arthur Versluis writes that, “…Böhmean theosophy was closely allied to Rosicrucianism in Germany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that it is often difficult or even impossible to separate them. Essentially, both movements have as their basis a very similar Hermetic science, and indeed, share so much symbolism and terminology as to be at times identical.”13 In addition to these attributes, Christian theosophy, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism have a number of further intersection points with Rosicrucianism: (1) the concepts of the fall of man and a return to paradise14, eschatology,15 (2) the use of astrology and astrological correspondences,16(3) the use of symbolic language17 and imagery,18 (4) the practice of meditation towards the goal of sublimation,19 and (5) sacred music20 (i.e. Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens). These combined elements form some of the trademark attributes of the Rosicrucian movement and the basis for comparison with the esoteric currents in early Pennsylvania.

III. Background on Rosicrucianism in Early Pennsylvania

The historical analysis currently available regarding Kelpius’ Woman in the Wilderness community (1694-1708) and Ephrata Cloister (1735-1812) provides sufficient information about their beliefs and practices to conduct a comparative analysis. Most research on this subject considers possible connections with Rosicrucianism because of the work of Dr. Julius Friedrich Sachse (1842-1919) in promoting a link between the Rosicrucian movement and these communities of German settlers. As a historian of German people in Pennsylvania and president of the Pennsylvania German society, Sachse acquired historical facts, primary source documents, and actual relics from these communities.21 One of these relics was known as the D.O.M.A. (abbreviation for Deo Optimo Maximo Altissimo22) manuscript, a symbolic, Cabalistic, and theosophical text attributed to the Rosicrucian movement (see single image on p. 15 for an example).23 Another was Johannes Kelpius’ diary. Because of the evidence he possessed, the authority with which he expressed himself, and the dearth of other scholarly analysis at the time, Sachse’s legacy is significant. The scholarly debate on this subject partially stems from his historical analysis and writings. In The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania: 1694-1708, Sachse writes that Kelpius and his followers “… came to the western world to put into execution the long-cherished plan of founding a true Theosophical (Rosicrucian) community …”24 He also relates that, “… with the decline of the first organization [Kelpius’ Woman in the Wilderness], the scene shifted from the Wissahickon to the Cocalico, at Ephrata, where the Mystic Theosophy Phoenix-like rose again from its ashes. In that retired valley beside the flowing brook, the secret rites and mysteries of the true Rosicrucian Philosophy flourished … for years …”25 In German Sectarians of Pennsylvania: 1708-1742, Sachse recounts the initiation of Johann Conrad Beissel, the leader of Ephrata Cloister, into a secret Rosicrucian fraternity in Heidelberg, Germany26 and also states that, “The speculations and mystic teachings of Beissel and Miller [Beissel’s successor] were nothing less than the Rosicrucian doctrine pure and undefiled …”27

It is important to note that some prominent scholars dispute Sachse’s claims regarding Rosicrucianism. These include Arthur Edward Waite in The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross (1924); Manly P. Hall in his introduction to the Codex Rosae Crucis, D.O.M.A., A Rare & Curious Manuscript of Rosicrucian Interest (1938), and Jeff Bach in Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata (2003). Other sources, including Walter C. Klein’s Johann Conrad Beissel: Mystic and Martinet, 1690-1768 (1942), Elizabeth W. Fisher’s “Prophecies and Revelations: German Cabbalists in Early Pennsylvania” (1985), and Peter C. Erb’s introduction to Johann Conrad Beissel and the Ephrata Community: Mystical and Historical Texts (1985) agree with Sachse’s claims of Rosicrucianism. Other scholars remain neutral on the question; though indicating that the possibility of some connection to the Rosicrucian movement is valid. Arthur Versluis’ Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (1999) and Jan Stryz’s “The Alchemy of the Voice at Ephrata Cloister” (1999) fall into this more impartial category.
The scholarly debate on this question also serves as a reminder that to label an individual or group as Rosicrucian is never a simple thing because of the inevitable interpretational conflicts which arise due to the mythology of Rosicrucian fraternity which eventually manifested in the real world. In addition, there is also the underlying etymological issue with the term itself. Scholars may refer to someone as Rosicrucian, or part of the Rosicrucian movement, but before the nineteenth century very few individuals referred to themselves that way. Ultimately, Sachse’s work, as well as all the research by other scholars along similar lines, provides crucial information about the beliefs and practices of these communities.

IV. Analysis of Historical Research on Johannes Kelpius and the Woman in the Wilderness

The comparison with Rosicrucian attributes begins with an examination of the background, beliefs, and practices of Johannes Kelpius and the Woman in the Wilderness community. Kelpius was born in 1670 in Denndorf, Germany, graduated university at age 16, was “possessed of a profound religious genius,” and was well-versed in theology, theosophy, and esoteric disciplines.28 As an educated philosopher and Lutheran theologian in seventeenth century Germany, his background was very similar to the suspected authors of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Evidence also shows that one Christopher Friedrich Schlegel, one of Kelpius’ followers, was also the sixth generation of a family which was on the periphery of the Rosicrucian furor in Germany.29 Secondly, Fisher’s research indicates that Kelpius was active in Böhmean theosophical, Pietist, Philadelphian, and Cabalistic circles while living in Germany. In “Prophecies and Revelations: German Cabbalists in Early Pennsylvania,” She states that Kelpius’ “… later writings indicate that the decisive influence on him was mystical theosophy and that he was well acquainted with the Rosicrucian Confessio. [Christian] Knorr von Rosenroth [author of the acclaimed Kabbalah Denudata] probably introduced Kelpius to these studies through the cabbalistic circle in Sulzbach.”30 Kelpius’ community possessed a copy of the D.O.M.A. manuscript.31 In addition, Sachse describes an equal-armed cross within a circle, known by contemporary Rosicrucian groups as a rose cross symbol, which was erected atop the community’s crude observatory.32 As stated previously, Cabala and eschatological gnostic theosophy are hallmarks of the Rosicrucian movement, often associated with mystical symbolic artwork or diagrams designed for contemplation.

With regard to the multiple esoteric and secret groups with which he associated, Kelpius “regarded the different strands within this web of reformers as many manifestations of the same movement.”33 In a letter he wrote in 1699, Kelpius describes this movement as “conscientious objectors to the corruptions existing in organized theologies.”34 This desire for reformation combined with utopian ideas, led Kelpius and others to form a “Chapter of Perfection” to travel to the New World, analogous to the Rosicrucian traits of secret organizations and the proclivity for traveling to foreign lands. Sachse writes that, “The men who composed this Chapter of Mystics were not only Pietists in the accepted sense of the word, but they were also a true Theosophical (Rosicrucian) Community, a branch of that ancient and mystical brotherhood who studied and practiced the Kabbalah …”35 In addition to Cabala and gnostic theosophy, astrology also played an important role for Kelpius and his followers, not only in the manner typical for theosophists, but also as a method to track spiritual cycles and determine the time of the apocalypse.36 This proclivity for the apocalypse of the Book of Revelation in their sermons, and because they chose no name for their own group, caused other settlers to eventually name the community “the woman in the wilderness.”37 “The wilderness was for Kelpius a symbol that knit together several facets of this theology, eschatology, and devotional discipline.”38 Kelpius group’s concern with eschatology and millenarianism also shows a similarity with that attribute of the Rosicrucian movement.

Next, “The Kelpius settlement … said that they belonged to no denomination,” and this fact “underscores their refusal to participate in sectarianism … [because for them] religion was a matter of the heart’s illumination, not adherence to a name,”39 further illustrating their devotion to a mystical gnostic theosophy. This reluctance to associate with a specific denomination is analogous to the attribute of Rosicrucianism being acceptable to all denominations. This community was monastic in nature and practiced solitude, meditative contemplation, and asceticism, all recognized as trademarks of the Rosicrucian tradition.

Finally, it is alleged that Kelpius himself was a “master alchemist” and “… was known to practice alchemy, as did some other elders of the Wissahickon community, and he was reputed to have a laboratory and alchemical library. He and the other elders were said to practice the Hermetic science on certain nights when the stars and planets were in proper alignment …”40 The practice of Hermetic alchemy is most definitely linked to Rosicrucianism through the symbolism in the Chemical Wedding and the subsequent writings of Rosicrucian sympathizers.
In summary, as a Lutheran theologian from seventeenth century Germany, Kelpius’ background and the locale he hailed from was similar to that of the suspected authors of the Rosicrucian texts. The chapter of which he was a member was a secret society (before they left Europe) desiring a reformation of existing theologies. They were involved with the esoteric traditions of theosophy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Cabala, astrology, eschatology, and alchemy. Kelpius and his followers traveled to the wilderness to establish a utopian theosophical community without sectarianism and spent considerable time in meditation and devotion. When seen in this context, Kelpius and his followers’ backgrounds, philosophies, and traditions are remarkably similar to those accepted as traits of Rosicrucianism.

V. Analysis of Historical Research on Johann Conrad Beissel and Ephrata Cloister

The analysis of the background, beliefs, practices, and actions of Johann Conrad Beissel and Ephrata Cloister yields comparable results with those of Kelpius and his community. In fact, it is useful to view Ephrata in the context of a continuation of the community founded by Kelpius in 1694. One reason is that Beissel intended to join Kelpius’ community when he left Germany in 1720, not knowing that Kelpius had already passed. Another reason is that some of the men who were Kelpius’ followers joined the monastic group at Ephrata. Therefore, we find evidence of the same background and set of philosophies and practices carried forward to Ephrata as those of the Kelpius community itemized previously.

Born in Baden, Germany in 1690, Beissel’s contacts with Lutheran Pietist, Böhmean theosophical, Philadelphian, and Cabalistic groups in Heidelberg are well documented. Beissel’s A Dissertation on Man’s Fall (1765), published shortly before his death, documented his mystical and gnostic theosophy.41 His writing also conveyed a “… distaste for steeple house Christianity… and [he] despised the subsidized churches of his native land.”42 Beissel traveled to the New World and eventually became the leader of a new settlement named Ephrata in 1735. Meditation practice, monasticism (both male and female), and prayer were hallmarks of daily life at Ephrata. The music of the Ephrata choir has been described as “sacred” and “alchemical.”43 In 1738, the monastic men of Ephrata built a temple and formed an initiatory fraternity named the Zionitic Brotherhood. They engaged in meditation, prayer, alchemy, esoteric Freemasonry, Cabala, theurgy (angelic magic), and astrology.44 The women of the cloister formed The Spiritual Order of the Roses of Sharon.45 Finally, Ephrata served as a hospital after the Battle of Brandywine during the Revolutionary War. Even though they were pacifists, the brothers and sisters cared for the American wounded and sick.46 Their behavior was analogous to the Rosicrucian agreement which professed only to heal for free and could be construed as support for societal reformation by way of the Revolution. Consequently, the beliefs, practices, and actions of Beissel and his followers at Ephrata bear a remarkable similarity to those accepted as part of the Rosicrucian tradition.

VI. Conclusion

Through a methodical analysis and comparative study of the historical evidence and research sources, the resemblance between the philosophies and traditions of these German settlers in Pennsylvania and those defined as belonging to Rosicrucianism is significant. For all the reasons enumerated previously, it is not necessarily possible to know whether these mystics were directly connected with any Rosicrucian fraternity. But the similarities between their philosophies and traditions indicate that these communities represent important milestones in the history of esotericism, as well as the religious history of America. Even though these communities no longer exist, their legacy continues to shine for modern spiritual seekers and mystics through the numerous Rosicrucian-inspired fraternities, societies, and orders that claim them as predecessors.47
  1. Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 2008), 134. []
  2. Roland Edighoffer, “Hermeticism in Early Rosicrucianism,” in Gnosis and Hermeticism: From Antiquity to Modern Times, ed. Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 197. []
  3. Elizabeth W. Fisher, “Prophecies and Revelations: German Cabbalists in Early Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 109, No. 3 (July 1985): 299. []
  4. Edighoffer, “Hermeticism in Early Rosicrucianism,” 202-207. []
  5. Paul Foster Case, The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order: An Interpretation of the Rosicrucian Allegory and An Explanation of the Ten Rosicrucian Grades (Boston: Weiser, 1989), 29-36. []
  6. Arthur Versluis, Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 100-101. []
  7. Tobias Churton, The Invisible History of the Rosicrucians: The World’s Most Mysterious Secret Society, (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2009), 59-82. []
  8. Edighoffer, “Hermeticism in Early Rosicrucianism,” 202-207. []
  9. Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 64. []
  10. Yates, Rosicrucian Enlightenment, 134. []
  11. Case, True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order, 41. []
  12. Case, True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order, 60. []
  13. Versluis, Wisdom’s Children, 100. []
  14. Edighoffer, “Hermeticism in Early Rosicrucianism,” 197-198. []
  15. Yates, Rosicrucian Enlightenment, 46. []
  16. Yates, Rosicrucian Enlightenment, 104. []
  17. Edighoffer, “Hermeticism in Early Rosicrucianism,” 202-207. []
  18. Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy and Mysticism (Los Angeles: Taschen, 2006), 8-17. []
  19. Case, True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order, 81. []
  20. Joscelyn Godwin, “Music and the Hermetic Tradition” in Gnosis and Hermeticism: From Antiquity to Modern Times, ed. Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998),183. []
  21. Manly P. Hall, Codex Rosae Crucis, D.O.M.A., A Rare & Curious Manuscript of Rosicrucian Interest, (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, Inc., 1971), 33. []
  22. Julius F. Sachse, The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania: 1694-1708, (Philadelphia: printed for the author, 1895), accessed December 15, 2010. []
  23. Hall, Codex Rosae Crucis, D.O.M.A., 33. []
  24. Sachse, German Pietists, 38. []
  25. Sachse, German Pietists, 7. []
  26. Julius F. Sachse, The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania: 1708-1742, (Philadelphia: printed for the author, 1899), 39-40, accessed December 15, 2010. []
  27. Sachse, German Sectarians, 354. []
  28. Versluis, Wisdom’s Children, 90. []
  29. A. Russell Slagle, “The Schlegel Family and the Rosicrucian Movement,” in The Rosicrucians and Magister Christoph Schlegel: Hermetic Roots of America, by Manly P. Hall (Los Angeles: The Philosophical Research Society, Inc., 1986), 213-231. []
  30. Fisher, “German Cabbalists,” 320. []
  31. Hall, Codex Rosae Crucis, D.O.M.A., 33-38. []
  32. Sachse, German Pietists, 72. []
  33. Fisher, “German Cabbalists,” 321. []
  34. Hall, Codex Rosae Crucis, D.O.M.A., 34. []
  35. Sachse, German Pietists, 62. []
  36. Versluis, Wisdom’s Children, 93. []
  37. Versluis, Wisdom’s Children, 93-94. []
  38. Fisher, “German Cabbalists,” 322. []
  39. Versluis, Wisdom’s Children, 93-94. []
  40. Versluis, Wisdom’s Children, 98-100. []
  41. Jan Stryz, “Alchemy of the Voice at Ephrata Cloister,” Esoterica 1(1999): 133-59. cited December 15, 2010. []
  42. Walter C. Klein, Johann Conrad Beissel: Mystic and Martinet, 1690-1768, (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, Inc., 1972), 14. []
  43. Stryz, “Alchemy of the Voice,” 133-144. []
  44. Sachse, German Sectarians, 350-363. []
  45. Stryz, “Alchemy of the Voice,” 149. []
  46. E. G. Alderfer, The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), accessed December 15, 2010. []
  47. Klein, Mystic and Martinet, 184-185. []