Hermits of the Wissahickon

A mystical community awaiting the apocalypse in colonial America.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Lutheran Pietists
Founder: John Kelpius
Founded: 1694
Ended: 1708
Location: Wissahickon Valley, Pennsylvania, United States

In the late 17th century, a unique religious group, known as the Hermits of the Wissahickon, settled in the wilderness of the Wissahickon Valley near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Led by Johannes Kelpius, a mystic, musician, and scholar from Germany, this group of forty Pietists embarked on a spiritual quest driven by apocalyptic prophecies and a desire for religious freedom.

The sect, officially called “The Society of the Woman of the Wilderness,” drew its name and inspiration from a passage in the Book of Revelations, interpreting it as a divine call to prepare for the End Times in the wilderness. Their journey to America in 1694 was motivated by the promise of religious liberty in William Penn’s colony, where they sought to live out their days in anticipation of the world’s end, which Kelpius predicted would occur that very year.

Upon their arrival, they established a monastic community, building a complex that included a tabernacle for worship, living quarters for the monks, and a botanical garden for medicinal herbs. They were noted for several firsts in the New World, including establishing the first formal group under a spiritual leader to await the Last Judgment, creating the first astronomical observatory in America for their celestial observations, and initiating the first medicinal garden in the colony. Their lifestyle was austere and dedicated, characterized by celibacy, fasting, and a deep engagement with the natural world, which they studied through the lenses of astrology, alchemy, and botany, as well as through their own mystical practices​​.

Despite their preparations, the predicted apocalypse did not occur in 1694. However, the group did not disband immediately; instead, they continued their communal life, deeply involved in the study of the stars and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, until Kelpius’s death in 1708. After his passing, the society gradually dissolved, with members either assimilating into the local community or joining other religious groups. Their legacy, however, lived on through their contributions to the local culture, including their musical compositions and their influence on local folklore and esoteric traditions​​.

The cave where Kelpius was said to meditate, along with the remnants of their settlement, remains a historical curiosity. It symbolizes not just the Hermits’ spiritual quest, but also the broader quest for religious freedom that characterized much of early American colonial history. The site, now known as the Hermitage, was later owned by the Righter family and eventually became part of Fairmount Park.

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