The Chapter of Perfection
A combination of the turmoil caused in central Europe by the Thirty Years War, the emergence of the Lutheran Protestantism as a hierarchical and state church and the offer by William Penn of a safe haven for religious refugees in the nascent colony of Pennsylvania meant that groups of religious dissidents were encouraged to cross the Atlantic in search of their utopia. One such group formed around the recently defrocked pietist pastor, Johann Jacob Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was convinced that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1694, after which would follow a thousand years of Christ in charge and then the end of the world. He gathered around him a group of some forty young followers, mainly doctors, lawyers and theologians, the Chapter of Perfection. The appearance of Halley’s comet in 1680 confirmed Zimmerman’s view that something celestial was afoot. The group decided to migrate to America in early 1694 via London but, doubtless disappointingly in the light of the imminent revelation, Zimmerman pegged it and leadership of the group passed to the 21-year-old Johannes Kelpius. The links the group made with the Quakers in London provided the funds to cross the Atlantic.
On arrival at Baltimore, the group made their way to some woods between Germanstown and Philadelphia where they established their community. They kept themselves to themselves, living a simple lifestyle with vows of celibacy and poverty, whiling their time away studying numerology, astrology and alchemy as well as peering into the sky using telescopes in the hope of getting an advance warning of the Second Coming from the roof of their 40-foot square tabernacle.
Although isolationists, the group offered their services to the local communities, including a tribe of native Americans, as doctors, lawyers and craftsmen gratis. They were dubbed by the local German community as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, a quote from chapter 12, verse 6 of the Book of Revelation, “and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and three score days” – a strange sobriquet as they were all chaps.
Christ didn’t appear in 1694 and this rather took the wind out of the sails of the Society. In 1695 some left to get married – so much for celibacy – while others moved away. But some still clung to their simple life in the woods, hoping that Christ was still on his way, passing the time in prayer and meditation in the adjacent caves, gardening and writing music and prayer books. Kelpius’ A Short, Easy and Comprehensive Method of Prayer, published in 1700, became popular amongst the German-speaking colonists and when it was translated into English in 1761 it fuelled Pennsylvanians’ interest in the strange band of brothers.
Kelpius, who was the subject of one of the first oil paintings in the colonies, died in 1708, of TB, despite believing he would not suffer a physical death. His philosopher’s stone, as directed in his will, was thrown into the nearby river Wissahickon. Numbers depleted further but six stuck it out under the direction of Conrad Matthai. However, upon his death in 1748, the Chapter was closed. There is only so much disappointment you can take, after all.
Kelpius and his followers had made their mark on Philadelphian society through their writings and musical compositions and appeared in the gothic novels written by the likes of Charles Brocken Brown and George Lippard. But they would have had a long wait.