The Wissahickon Hermits

ON THE 24TH DAY OF JUNE, 1694, a band of German pietists and mystics landed at the port of Philadelphia. They numbered forty, the symbol of perfection. They had come to the New World from all parts of Germany to find religious haven, but especially, like the woman of Revelation 12:14–17, to go into the wilderness to meditate and prepare for the coming of the Lord. For this reason the Brotherhood was known by the symbolic name, “The Woman of the Wilderness,” although they called themselves “The Contented of the God-loving Soul.” Their leader was the twenty-one year old Johannes Kelpius, visionary and introspective, a man of great devotion and imagination.

After a brief sojourn in Germantown, the Fraternity settled on a large tract of land “amid the silence and rugged banks of the Wissahickon,” whence the names, “The Wissahickon Hermits,” and “The Mystics of the Wissahickon.” There the members of the Brotherhood meditated and studied, worshiped together in their Tabernacle, and engaged in works of mercy, teaching, tending the sick and evangelizing.

Many of the members were musicians, and had brought musical instruments with them from Europe—strings, woodwinds, brass and keyboard— indeed, they are credited with bringing the first organ to the New World. They regularly used instruments in worship for voluntaries and accompaniment to the singing of hymns, just as did their more famous spiritual successors, the community at Ephrata. A number of them were also hymn writers, the best known being their leader, Johannes Kelpius, whose hymns are contained in two manuscripts of which only one has musical notation. Other writers among the Brothers were Heinrich Bernhard Koster, Johann Gotfried Seelig, and Justus Falckner, whose most famous hymn, “Rise, ye children of salvation,” is still sung.

Falckner is especially noteworthy because he was the first Lutheran pastor to be ordained in America. His ordination was an impressive occasion. It took place on November 24, 1703, at Old Swede’s Church in Philadelphia in the building that stands to this day. The Wissahickon Brotherhood participated in the service, singing and playing the organ (probably their own), viols, hautboys, trombones, trumpets and kettledrums.

The Brotherhood flourished until the untimely death of its Magister Kelpius in 1708. Attempts to keep it going under other leadership were not successful, and it soon died out. CH

By Robert Borneman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #10 in 1986]

From Robert Borneman, Fire Hymns from the Hymnbook of Magister Johannes Kelpius (1976). Used with permission of Fortress Press.
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