A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Pietism

A Better Life – Part Eight


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.


A Better Life – Part Six


The Harmony Society

There was a time when the United States was a place of haven for groups of refugees, fleeing from oppression and persecution.  Beneficiaries of this benevolence were a pietist band led by George Rapp who found themselves in hot waters in their native south-west Germany. Putting personal piety above formal displays of religious observance they believed that a child should only be baptised when it was old enough to make its own mind up, confirmation for children was unnecessary and rites such as confession and communion need only occur on a handful of occasions in the year. They refused military service and preferred to teach their children at home. The Lutheran authorities wanted rid of them.

So in late 1804, Rapp and some 400 followers arrived in the States and were able to secure a tract of land in Butler County in Pennsylvania. On 15th February 1805 the Harmony Society was officially constituted, the members pledging to hold all property in a common fund and raising working capital of $23,000. A member would give all their goods and chattels to the society and accept no wages for their work. The quid pro quo was that they would receive care as long as they were members. If they decided that enough was enough, they would get their money back, albeit without interest.

The Harmonists lived a simple life, convinced that Christ would return during their lifetimes, eschewing and practising celibacy – always a mistake for a community, I think, as it made recruiting further members essential for its continued survival. New recruits continued to arrive and after a year’s trial, they would be accepted as members. Before long, the community rose to about 800 in number.  Dress was simple, reflecting their German roots, although they wore fine clothing on Sundays and highdays.

The early years were dogged by disagreements and financial crises – the name of the community, Harmony, may have been inapt – but they worked through it and turned a profit from making yarn and wine. But the climate was not ideal for their crops and increasing disputes with their neighbours led them to decamp in 1814 to Indiana to the second Harmony settlement. Malaria nearly wiped out the community but in time they had established a thriving community with 150 log cabins, taverns, shops and mills. Again, though, they had trouble with their neighbours, this time on the thorny subject of slavery – the Harmonists were abolitionists (natch) – and in 1824 they sold up and moved back to Pennsylvania.

Their third settlement, Economy, consisted of 1,000 acres by the river Ohio and was much better situated for manufacturing and trade. They had woollen and cotton mills, a steam operated grain mill and a wine press, also pioneering the manufacture of silk in the States. In their social time may of the Harmonists were accomplished musicians and music played an important part in their life. Celibacy, however, was the elephant in the room and in 1832 many of the younger members, a third of the community, seceded. This meant that the Harmonists were increasingly reliant upon hired labour.

As the century progressed the Harmonists got involved in oil drilling and the expansion of the American railroad. At their height in the 1860s they had assets of around $2m but by the 1890s the impact of celibacy, restrictive membership practices and lawsuits from former members and their offspring left them on the verge of bankruptcy. Their trustee, John S Duss, settled the outstanding debts but with only a few members left, the remaining assets were sold raising $1.2m and the society dissolved in 1905.