Recent Kelpius Society Discussions and Directions

The Kelpius Society has been meeting on a monthly basis for several years now, except during the summer months. We're fortunate to have a wonderful and commodious space for our meetings – the Physick House, located at 4th and Delancey Streets in Society Hill – where J. Del Conner, a scion of the distinguished Physick and Syng families, is our host and fellow member.

Our meetings are usually well attended, are always productive, and are sometimes contentious. As I see it, this is a sign of health in an organization. When people are motivated to come to meetings, and beyond that, participate in friendly argument and debate, then all that's left to do is make workable plans and follow through on them. But over the years our priorities – or perhaps our emphases -- have changed. In earlier times the focus was on fundamentals -- establishing the parameters of the site, getting the historical marker in place, reconstructing – and then performing – the music, and publishing essential documents and reports. Our task these days is to live up to the standards set by our founders, while following the paths they've opened, onto higher ground.

One of these paths has led to the digital universe. The Kelpius Society website was established in the early years of the society's existence, and was later redesigned and launched at a new address by the society's pioneer webmaster, Jacque Brough. Even so, we've been guilty of benignly neglecting the site, and slow to take advantage of the tools and opportunities that online technology offers. That's changing, as we begin to latch more firmly onto the digital wave that's pulsing through the general culture now. We're exploring ways to use the website as a productive tool for communication, for interaction, for links with other sites and organizations, for the usual announcements and calendar notices.

Thanks to Jacque Brough, the online basics are already in place – the web page itself, a Facebook page, email capability, this newsletter, and a blog site (now under construction). Our challenge is to activate and then mobilize usage of the site among our members, and also increase the numbers of "visitors" to the site. Within this challenge there's great potential, and I'm confident that our virtual community will grow and thrive as we provide more information, more links, more opportunities for visitors to interact and become involved. The electronic version of our newsletter should help promote this sort of interaction, along with the other tools I've mentioned. If you've accessed this longer version of my article, you're already taking part with us in the interactive process.

As readers of this newsletter know, the Kelpius Society has issued its edition of Tabernacle on the Wissahickon, a novel about the 17th century Kelpius community, written by J.A. Weishaar and originally published in 1921. The print version of the book is available through our website, where sales have been modest but persistent. To enhance availability of this publication and increase sales, a downloadable eBook version of the book is now available. Jonathan Scott, the society's very capable and imaginative editor, has set up the eBook version, which has been uploaded and is available at a modest price. By the way, you can also purchase print versions of Jonathan's books, along with books by other authors, when you visit our website.

Kelpius and his followers were part of the early history of Philadelphia; and were implicated in the growth and development of the Germantown colony; the opening of the Wissahickon Valley to early settlement by Europeans – and more. These histories were crucially important to national development, and perhaps especially its hidden or esoteric dimension.

Needless to say, the Kelpius story clearly intersects with the esoteric movements of that time. On the one hand there is the millenarianism of the Kelpius settlers themselves, which motivated them to immigrate here and establish one of the earliest utopian communities in North America. Their vision drew upon the deeper connotations of the phrase "New World", which had motivated visionaries of all types to venture forth, putting the corrupted Old World behind them.

There were many sects, cults, and alternative communities that flourished and subsided before and after Kelpius's time, and which contributed to the early development of this country. More importantly, I think, they fed the deeper currents of American consciousness and worldview. This utopian strain in our national character has persisted, and lives on in other forms (in the array of intentional communities, for example). Whether past, present or future, these communities remain an important hedge against mainstream complacency and conformity. To be sure, the Kelpius Society has incorporated this array of ideas and ideals into its overall mission, within a framework of scholarly research, informed discussion, and productive debate.

I think it fair to suggest that an abiding question for us has been, how much do we know about Kelpius, and how much of what we know is accurate? In my view, it's hard to say for sure. We have a firm grasp of the basic outlines of the Kelpius story, and we have a generalized knowledge of the Kelpius site, located in what is now Fairmount Park. We've supported research at the site, but there have been frustrating delays. For example, we still lack a comprehensive knowledge of the archaeology of the site. Yet we persist. At some point, hopefully before too long, we'll seek funding for a large scale archaeological survey, to test our assumptions and deepen our understanding of the original Kelpius settlement and subsequent historical development of that area.

But as I say, what do we really know about Kelpius? The provisional answer may lie in how we know what we know. Much of our information derives from the work of a single individual – Julius Frederick Sacshe – a Germanist who flourished in the late 19th to early 20th century. Sacshe was associated with the University of Pennsylvania, did original research into the Germantown community and its founder, Daniel Pastorius, and also did the basic research on Kelpius.

Sacshe was an interesting figure, and was conversant in a variety of subjects. But doubts have been raised about his writings. Sachse's lecture on early photography in Philadelphia, given at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1892, is a case in point. The editor of the online version of that lecture notes: This text should be used with caution. While Sacshe provides important information including source references, not all assertions regarding Philadelphia priority are accurate. This is the problem, in a nutshell. [This document can be accessed online at]

Arthur Versluis, in his book Wisdom's Children, devotes a full chapter to Kelpius (a portion of that chapter focuses on Johann Conrad Beissel, founder of Ephrata Cloister). Versluis is more generous in his evaluation of Sacshe. He allows that Sachse's writings may be problematic, but concludes that the work is generally reliable anyway. The problem, he notes, is that other scholars haven't been able to examine Sacshe's sources. That's our problem too. For now, we have to accept Sacshe's word for what it is -- useful, but questionable. His book, The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, remains a standard reference on Kelpius. But as far as I know, it's the only substantive English language source we have.

We are addressing this lacuna by reaching out to scholars of Early America who are researching the relevant history. We want to open a dialog with them, identify ways to collaborate with them, and align their interests and ours in a common focus. We'll also contact archives in Europe holding primary source materials germane to our interests. Who's working with those materials? What are they learning? We want to know. Catherine Michael, a member of the Kelpius Society, has been compiling a Kelpius bibliography. Her work is important in its own right, but it should come into fuller play as the research process takes hold. We'll be providing a link to her bibliography on this website in coming weeks.

Our commitment to the Kelpius site, located in what is now Fairmount Park near the Henry Avenue Bridge, endures. However, some of our members recently visited the site with questions. The locations of the Tabernacle and the botanical herb garden remain unknown, our assumptions about them largely conjectural. Nor has the location of the Kelpius cave been definitively established. There's a spring and springhouse dating to the 19th century at the site where the Kelpius cave may have been located. AMORC, the eminent Rosicrucian society, erected a monument there some years ago which has become a touchstone, and local landmark. Our view is that Kelpius may indeed have meditated there, or somewhere close by -- but maybe not. The geology of the surrounding area provides numerous openings and occlusions, any of which could be "our cave". We're not sure. We want to know more.

As I've already mentioned, we've sponsored archaeological research at the site, and expect to have new findings in hand by springtime, reporting on that preliminary work and suggesting next steps. And we've had discussions with a Drexel University botanist who's interested in conducting a plant survey there, to determine the local succession of plant species and establish the age of the older woody specimens. Alongside that inventory process, we want to catalog the various plant species, then begin restoring the native plants and removing the nonnative invaders.

This is an ambitious but necessary project, which could be a first step on the path of site improvement. A concurrent step would be to establish trails, and identify viable destinations for those trails. For example, we've had discussions about constructing a sundial or labyrinth adjacent to the historical marker on Hermits Lane. Getting that marker approved and planted was a major achievement of the Kelpius Society's founders. It marks the location, and also functions as a gateway to the site. We think that a trail could be laid from that area to the Rosicrucian marker, which would traverse the heart of the Kelpius settlement area, and lead to further development of that historic and symbolically significant locale.

These and other topics have populated our discussions at recent meetings, outlining ever-present concerns and defining our mandate at the Kelpius Society. You can be part of the conversation, by clicking the link to leave a comment, or by contacting us through this website.

Best wishes,
Tom Carroll, President
The Kelpius Society

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