The Monks of the Ridge

Joe Tyson

Johannes Kelpius was born in Halwagen, Germany, near Denndorf about 1673.  He attended the universities of Tubingen, Leipzig, Altdorf, and possibly the University of Hehnstadt.  During his college years he came under the influence of several professors with occult leanings, including Fabricius and Philip Jakob Spener, whose writings inspired the Moravians and Church of the Brethren.  In 1693 the young scholar joined Johann Jacob Zimmerman’s Chapter of Perfection, a group of Protestant “monks” who planned to establish a religious colony in America.  Kelpius assumed leadership of the order when Zimmerman died in Rotterdam shortly before departure.  The Chapter consisted mainly of Pietists with Rosicrucian leanings.  Like the Anabaptist dissenters from orthodox Lutheranism, members of the order read sacred scripture closely, but supplemented Bible study with astrology, numerology, the Hebrew Kabala and Jacob Boehme’s writings.  

What do we mean by Pietists? Generally Mennonites, Dunkers, Moravians, and Amish are considered pietistic sects. These groups are not worldly, theater-going Episcopalians, but pious, Bible-centered folks who make a concerted effort to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The Rosicrucians are a secret order devoted to Theosophy-- the study of God and the spirit realm. Eclectic Rosicrucians such as Parcelsius, Jacob Boehme, Rudolph Steiner, and Max Heindel have combined Eastern religious concepts with Christianity, science, and the pagan arts of astrology and numerology in an effort to understand the spiritual world and afterlife.  

On January 7, 1694 Kelpius and his followers sailed from Rotterdam to London in foul weather, narrowly escaping shipwreck in the English Channel.  During a stopover in London Kelpius hobnobbed with Jane Leade, a prophetess who co-founded the Philadelphiast movement with John Pordage in 1670.  The Society took its name from the righteous Church of Philadelphia mentioned in Revelation 3:7.

As an aside—William Penn did not name his city Philadelphia simply because the word means “city of brotherly love” in Greek.  Like Jane Leade, his choice was influenced by Revelation, Chapter 3, where an angel of the Lord declared  the Church of Sardis dead, but the Church of Philadelphia  alive and well.  The Lord says to the Philadelphia Church:  “for you have strength, have kept my word, and have not denied my name…I will keep you from the hour of trial…”  In the north portico of City Hall you will find a plaque engraved with William Penn’s prayer, which echoes Revelation 3:7-8:  And thou, Philadelphia, virgin settlement of this province, named before thou wast born; what love, care, service, and travail there have been to bring thee forth and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee.  O that thou mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee, faithful to the end.  My soul prays to God for thee, that thou mayest stand in the day of trial, that thy children may be blest of the Lord and thy people saved by his power.”  (1684)

Jane Leade and John Pordage were influenced by Jacob Boehme, George Fox’s Society of Friends, and Rev. Richard Coppin whose idea of Universal Reconciliation held that all men and fallen angels would ultimately be saved through Divine Compassion.  Like the Quakers, Leade believed in direct communication with God and continuing revelation.

She described herself as a medium for “The Virgin Sophia,” who first appeared to her in April, 1670. (Quote from Jane’s “Fountain of Gardens:”  “In a solitary country place where I had great advantage of retirement, often frequenting lonely walks in a grove or wood, contemplating the happy state of the angelical world and how desirous I was to have my conversation there…an overshadowing bright cloud (came upon me) and in the midst of it the figure of a woman, most richly adorned with transparent gold, her hair hanging down and her face as the terrible crystal for brightness, but her countenance was sweet and mild…(She said)  “Behold I am God’s Eternal  Virgin Wisdom, whom  thou hast been inquiring  after.  I am to unseal God’s deep wisdom unto thee…”  (Jane Leade, “A Fountain of Gardens.)

Most Monks of the Ridge were well versed in the works of German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624.)  Wits later applied the malapropism “Bohemian” to devotees of Boehme.  In colloquial usage the noun Bohemian doesn’t mean “a citizen of Bohemia,” but an “eccentric non-conformist.” ( E. G. in the 1950’s beatniks were regarded as bohemians.)

A bootmaker by trade, Boehme was actually a seminal thinker who influenced not only Pietists, but also the Romantic poets, Transcendentalists, and  Rosicrucians.  Critics have labeled him a “Gnostic Pantheist” because he considered God and nature to be one.  Boehme conceived of God as “Eternal Unity, the Indivisible Source of All Being, Predecessor of the First Cause.” According to the Boehmean worldview, humans emanate from God.  Therefore, we can apprehend Divinity by looking within ourselves.  “Understanding of God must come from the Interior Fountain and enter the mind from the living Word of God within the Soul.  Unless this takes place all teaching about divine things is useless and worthless.”  (J. Boehme, Theosophical Letters XXXV:7)

This idea of the Interior Fountain became the basis for the Quaker notions of Inner Light and Continuing Revelation, which denied the need for priests as interpreters and mediators.  George Fox said: “God does not dwell in the temples made by human hands, but in our hearts.”  Boehme conceived the Immanent God manifesting as a Radiator and Man as a “radiatee.”  The influence of God extends through the “onion layers” from the spiritual, ketheric, mental, etheric, and physical worlds, but becomes intermixed with grosser matter within each realm.  Men are stuck on the dense physical plane, but their gaze should be directed upwards—in reverse order, so to speak, from the physical body toward the etheric, mental, ketheric, and divine—not downwards into the abyss of bestiality.

According to Boehme’s view most people are imprisoned by their lower natures, but they can become liberated from evil with God’s grace, which enables them to forsake materialism and spiritual pride. Souls accomplish this through faith, or surrender to God.  “I wrestled with God that his Blessing might descend upon me…I regarded myself as dead and sought the heart of Jesus.  A light foreign to my unruly nature broke through…God dwells in that which will resign itself up…”  Boehme characterized the leap from thought to belief as a transition from “imagination to Magia,” a miraculous process.  “In Magia faith is discovered..Man should give up willing to let (God’s) Creation take place through him…There is born within the earthly man…a new spiritual man with Divine perceptions and a Divine will, killing day by day the lust of the flesh and causing the inner spiritual world to become visible.”  (J. Boehme, Mysterium  Supplement, VII, cf. Ephesians 4:22-24.)”

Boehme accepted the esoteric maxim “as above, so below.”  Man, the microcosm, reflects God, the Macrocosm. In fact, an individual human being duplicates the Universe by consisting of both God and the devil.  Boehme discerned three worlds inside himself:   “1)  The Divine, angelical, or paradisiacal; 2) The dark world; and 3) The external, visible world… I saw and knew the whole Being in evil and good, how one originates in the other.”  (J. Boehme, Epistle XII: 8.)
In February, 1694, Kelpius and his band of monks boarded the “Sarah Maria” and sailed for America. French pirates attacked the vessel on May 10th, but Captain Tanner of the Sarah Maria out-maneuvered them.  All passengers disembarked at Philadelphia near the Blue Anchor Tavern on June 23rd.  The next day Kelpius and his disciples walked all the way to Jacob Isaac Van Bebber’s cabin in Germantown.  

The monks soon began constructing a monastery in the deep woods west of Germantown near present-day Hermitage Mansion, on Hermit Lane.  At that site, in accordance with Revelation 12:16, they would await the arrival of the Woman of the Wilderness and her Baby Son who was destined to rule the world.

The Chapter of Perfection’s late founder Johann Jacob Zimmerman had been an accomplished mathematician and astronomer. He made elaborate astrological calculations in an effort to predict the Millennium’s onset. The monks placed a telescope on top of their building and regularly scanned the heavens for signs of The 2nd Coming.  They didn’t want to be caught off-guard when the Rapture commenced.

Kelpius’s brotherhood considered the number 40 sacred. Their numerological reasoning held that 1 represented unity, 2 repeated unity, 4 harmony. The monks esteemed 40, the decade of 4, as the number of perfection, and pointed out its frequency in the Bible.  God made it rain 40 days and 40 nights at the time of the Deluge.  Moses spent 40 days and nights with God on Mt. Sinai. The Children of Israel roamed through the desert with Moses for 40 years.  Saul and David each ruled Israel 40 years.  The front of the Temple’s Sanctuary measured 40 cubits in Length (1 Kings 6:17.)  Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the desert (Matthew 4:2.)  The Risen Christ remained with the apostles 40 days after the Crucifixion (Acts 1:3.)

In deference to the number of perfection, Kelpius’s religious community usually consisted of 40 members, who lived together in a large cabin by Hermit Lane that measured 40 feet by 40 feet, with its corners oriented toward the four cardinal points of the compass. The monks even made their burial ground in Germantown 40 by 40.  Nearby the monastery they built a tabernacle inscribed with the Rosicrucian symbol-- a cross within a heart or circle, positioned so that the rising sun’s first rays would imbue it with rose-colored light.

Kelpius’s order became popularly known as The Monks of the Wissahickon or The Monks of the Ridge.  Each year they celebrated the anniversary of their arrival in the new world on St. John’s Eve, June 23rd.  Significantly, this feast also commemorates the waning of the sun as it enters the sign of Cancer. The holy fraternity always made a bonfire in the woods on this date.  As the flames died down they scattered embers to symbolize the sun’s gradual diminution from the summer solstice to the winter solstice, which occurs a few days before Christmas. After the rites on St. John’s Eve, 1701, those assembled beheld “a white, obscure moving body in the air, which, as it approached, assumed the form and mien of an angel…it receded into the shadows of the forest and appeared again immediately before them as the fairest of the lovely.”

Legend has it that Kelpius used to meditate in the stone hut still standing near Hermit Lane.  The Rosicrucian Society, which claims him as an adherent, erected a small monument next to this humble structure, which states: “Johannes Kelpius, PhD, 1673-1708, the contented of the God-loving soul, Magister of the 1st Rosicrucian colony in America, arrived June 24, 1694, then known as Monks of the Ridge;  Fra Kelpius used this cave as a shelter and as a sanctum for his meditations, lovingly erected to his memory by Grand Lodge of the Rosicrucians (AMORC) A.D. 1961.”

 Like William Penn, Kelpius respected the Indians and wondered if they might be one of the lost tribes of Israel.  He gave an account—probably second-hand—of a meeting between William Penn and a council of chiefs. At the Native American feast of Kintika c. 1701, Penn tried to preach to the Indians about belief in the Christian God.  One chief responded:  “You ask us to believe on the great Creator, and Ruler of heaven and earth, and yet you yourself do not believe nor trust Him, for you have taken the land unto yourself which we and our friends occupied in community. You scheme night and day how you may preserve it and that none can take it from you.  Yea, you even scheme beyond your life and parcel it out between your children…”

Johannes Kelpius led his religious order into the Wilderness because he embraced Jacob Boehme’s pantheistic idea that God reveals Himself in nature. Kelpius’s May 25, 1706 letter to Hester Palmer of Flushing, NY, expressed the notion that God employs nature to effect spiritual awakenings. “He may open one’s understanding in the hindmost valley.” (Hosea, 2) To support the contention that God enlightens humans through contact with nature, Kelpius cites David’s ten years in the wilderness, Paul’s 7 years in the Arabian desert, and Moses’ 40 year trek through the Sinai Peninsula and Palestinian frontier.  

You’ll recall that the Children of Israel were lead by a cloud in the sky during  daylight hours and a pillar of fire by night.  “In (the) Fruitful Wilderness we enjoy the leading Cloud by day, out of which so many drops of the heavenly dew as a Baptism of Grace upon us do fall.…The Holy Ghost moved and stirreth the waters in our hearts…But there follows a night also upon this day, wherein…the Pillar of Fire is our guide, refining us as gold in the furnace, which is the Baptism of Fire, and is indeed terrible to the old (self), but bright and light to the new (man.)” Kelpius envisions God as the Great Alchemist, who transmutes our lead souls into gold.  

Kelpius’s writings contain classic observations about faith, constant prayer, supplication, and the delegation of prayer to the Holy Spirit. His epistles aren’t just historical curiosities; they overflow with spiritual insight.  With regard to faith, Kelpius comments:  “Believe that God is all goodness and almighty—all goodness, never to forsake those who have devoted themselves to Him…The second point of this faithfulness is the resignation or blind giving up, which is void of self-interest and suffers itself to be led by God as a blind man by his leader.”

The Chapter of Perfection’s Magister believed that the devout could achieve incessant prayer by going on “cruise control.”  In 1 Thessalonians, 5:16-18, Paul states “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God.”  Kelpius describes a method of constant prayer.  “…There is a prayer which may be performed at all times and in all places, which by nothing can be interrupted but sin and unfaithfulness. This inward prayer is performed in the spirit of the inward man…Incessant prayer…consists in an everlasting inclination of the heart to God, which inclination flows from Love.  This love draws the presence of God into us; so that, as by the operation of divine grace the love of God is generated in us, so is also the presence of grace increased by this love, that such prayer is performed in us, without us or our cogitation. It is the same as with a person living in the air and drawing it in with his breath without thinking that by it he lives and breathes, because he does not reflect on it…” Continuous prayer can therefore take place in a fashion similar to the heartbeat, respiration, glandular secretions and other operations of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Kelpius recommends that petitioners pay some attention to etiquette when praying.  “In prayers( of supplication) the soul does nothing but lay her complaints before God; since he who loves discreetly does not concern himself how to pray for what he wants, but only to propose his need, leaving it to the Lord to do as He thinks best—after the manner of Lazarus’s sisters who did not send (Jesus) word that He should come and restore their brother to health, but:  “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.”  (John 11:3)

Johannes Kelpius considered silent prayer more efficacious than vocal or “thought-out” prayer. “…One may pray without forming or uttering any words, without consideration or speculation of the mind, without holding rational discourse, or making conclusions, yes, without knowing the least thing in a manner relative to the outward senses.   And this prayer is the Prayer of the Heart, the unutterable prayer, the most perfect of which is the fruit of Love…”

“When …we… (ask) God for something, we ought to be silent because we know not what to pray for, nor how to pray.  But if we are silent, the Holy Spirit Himself prays for us with unutterable sighs.”  In that sentence Kelpius interpreted Paul’s numinous words in Romans 8:26:  “The Spirit…helps in our weaknesses.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

My grandmother often used the expression “he doesn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.”  To some extent this was true of Kelpius, whose mind functioned on a level beyond common sense.  His untimely death apparently resulted from exposure during the cold winter of 1708.  

Devotion to the number 40 did not save Kelpius from death by pneumonia at the  age of 35. According to Lutheran minister Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the mystic believed that “he would not die a natural death…but…be transfigured like Elijah…(and) translated bodily into the spiritual world.”  However, as death neared, he disabused himself of this illusion and told disciple Daniel Giessler:  “I have received my answer.  It is that dust I am and to dust I (shall) return.  It is ordained that I shall die like …all children of Adam.”  Kelpius then began putting his affairs in order.  He handed Giessler a small box containing magical artifacts, and instructed him to throw it into the Schuylkill River.  Giessler set out on a mile hike to the Schuylkill, but decided to hide the chest somewhere along the way.  When he returned, Kelpius slowly sat up and fixed him with a stern gaze, saying:  “Daniel thou hast not done as I bid thee, nor hast thou cast the casket into the river, but hast hidden it near the shore.”  The startled Giessler, “without even stammering an excuse, hurried to the river… and threw the casket into the water…”  As soon as he did so “the Arcanum exploded…and out of the water came flashes of lightning and peals like unto thunder.”  Some believe that the Philosopher’s Stone still lies in the depths of the Schuylkill, close to Wissahickon Creek.

The Monks of the Ridge buried Kelpius someplace on the north side of Hermit Lane at sundown.  At the end of the funeral service an acolyte released a white dove into the air to symbolize the return of the master’s soul to God.  

Most of Kelpius’s apostles disbanded shortly after his death, returning to mundane occupations in Germantown and Philadelphia. A hard-core remnant of 6 monks lingered under the direction of Conrad Matthai. Mill hands along Wissahickon Creek would occasionally notice the holy men walking single file on the carriage road, wearing brown robes with hoods and sandals. Six ghostly figures are still occasionally seen moving along Forbidden Drive on moonlit nights.

Four of these six hermits were Daniel Giessler, Johann Seelig, Conrad Matthai, and Christopher Witt.  In addition to serving as Kelpius’s assistant, Daniel Giessler worked for years as Germantown’s court crier.  From 1718 to the end of his life he resided with fellow monk Dr. Christopher Witt not far from the Mennonite Meetinghouse at Germantown Ave. & Pastorius St.  Giessler died in the summer of 1745 and left his worldly goods to widow Maria Barbara Schneiderin, who evidently cared for him during his final illness.

Johann Gottfried Seelig was born in Lemgo, Germany c. 1668.  He briefly studied for the Lutheran ministry, but his radical views led him to join Johann Jacob Zimmerman’s movement in 1694.  The Monks of the Ridge elected Seelig Magister after Kelpius’s death.  However, due to his deep humility, “Holy John” soon stepped down from that position.  A versatile individual, Seelig not only taught school and tilled the community garden, but also worked as a bookbinder and title clerk. Many of Germantown’s original deeds were written in his stylized German script. Local residents frequently came to him for astrological advice.  From the early 1720’s until his death on April 25, 1745, Seelig lived in a cabin on the Levering family’s farm near Henry & Monastery Avenues, Roxborough. (About 1 mile north of this building. Leverington Ave., a couple blocks to the west, is named for the Leverings.)

“Holy John” left all his possessions to William Levering.  These included ten works by Jacob Boehme, five bibles, and 134 other books. Seelig’s will directed that his staff be hurled into the Schuylkill River. “This request was complied with and as the rod touched the water it exploded with a loud report.” (Sachse p. 339-340.) Conrad Matthai and Christopher Witt officiated at Seelig’s funeral.  Julius F. Sachse describes the ceremony in The Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania. “As the last rays of the sun gilded the horizon, the relics of the old theosophist were lowered into the grave, the mystical incantation thrice repeated, while the released dove coursed in wide circles through the air until lost to view in the distance.”

Conrad Matthai emigrated from Switzerland to America in 1704 and joined Kelpius’s Chapter of Perfection shortly after arrival. While at the University of Harburg he became disenchanted with the strife existing among Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists. They seemed like the prideful men babbling in foreign tongues on the Tower of Babel.  What would Jesus have said about this pointless inter-denominational bickering?

The ecumenical attitude of Jacob Boehme’s Signatura Rerum spoke to Matthai’s condition.  Its frontispiece showed an angel blowing a trumpet amidst Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Muslims.  The caption stated: “To Christians, Jews, Turks, and Heathens, to all the nations of the earth this trumpet sounds.”

Following Kelpius’s death in 1708 the remaining monks nominated Johann Seelig as Magister.  “Holy John” soon yielded in favor of Matthai. Gradually, the community changed from approximately sixteen monks residing together in one building to a confederation of 6 anchorites occupying separate cabins.

Conrad Matthai possessed both healing powers and psychic ability. He cast horoscopes, exorcised demons, prophesied, and had the ability to project his “astral body.”  In 1740 the wife of a ship captain consulted him. She inquired about her absent husband who had left on a voyage to Africa more than 6 months previously.  Matthai excused himself, then repaired to his bedroom for over an hour.  The woman peeked in at one point and saw him lying on his bunk, “pale and motionless as if he were dead.” (Sachse 394)  When Matthai emerged from his bedchamber he told the lady that her husband sat in a London coffeehouse at that moment and would soon set sail for Philadelphia.  

As predicted, the captain returned three months later.  After hearing his wife’s account, he decided to visit the fortune-telling hermit.  Upon seeing Matthai the captain declared that he had met him before in a London coffeehouse just prior to leaving for Philadelphia.  The old man had given him a start by walking up to his table and saying:  “you haven’t written your wife; she’s worried sick about you.”

Matthai and his colleagues belonged to no sect, believing that man communicated with God by means of mind, heart, and soul, not merely the intellect alone.  In fact, religion came as much from the heart, solar plexus, and gut than the brain.  Predestination was doctrine to one denomination and heresy to another. The Monks of the Ridge dismissed most articles of faith as misconceptions. Theological constructs such as Predestination, Universalism, and Dualism were all creations of limited human intelligence. Satan employed these devices to fragment Christendom.  Kelpius’s friend Jane Leade referred to dogmas as “lifeless shells.” William Penn observed that “persecution entered with creed making.”  Kelpius, Matthai, and other Monks of the Wissahickon believed that God transcends human logic. Salvation comes through love, faith, and good works, not fruitless metaphysical speculation.

This freethinking did not always endear the monks to the orthodox.  Lutheran minister Henry Melchior Muhlenberg thought that the Wissahickon hermits went off the deep end..   “They cared nothing for the sacraments… Holy Writ is a dead letter to them…They busied themselves with theosophy…and practiced alchemy.” (Sachse 148)

The Monks of the Wissahickon studied theosophy, but did not regard Holy Writ as a “dead letter.”  In fact, they were obsessed with the Bible.  Kelpius filled his essays and correspondence with scriptural quotes.  His May 25, 1706 letter to Hester Palmer contained over 40 biblical references within the space of eleven hand-written pages.  Of course, like  Jacob Boehme, the monks interpreted scripture symbolically instead of literally.  For example, Kelpius viewed Exodus metaphorically, comparing Moses to the human soul.  Like  Moses the evolving soul must leave Egypt (bondage to pagan sensuality) and journey toward the Promised  Land (holiness.)

Conrad Matthai believed in the Brotherhood of Mankind and the Mystical Unity of the Christian Church, in spite of silly doctrinal differences.  Because of his tolerant attitude, he generally enjoyed friendly relations with local Dunkers, Moravians, and Lutherans.  Conrad Biessel boarded with Matthai for several months in 1720 before establishing the Cloisters of Ephrata in Lancaster County. Moravian minister and schoolteacher Jasper Payne and his wife often helped the old hermit. Matthai sympathized with the Moravians’ zeal to convert the Indians, institute universal public education, and unite all Christian denominations. He occasionally taught classes in the Moravian school.  While confined to bed in August, 1748, Matthai sent a message to Payne requesting that he bring the school children over to his cabin. Payne showed up the next day with 20-some children who sang  “parting hymns” to the dying ascetic, who rose from his bed, faced east, prayed with upraised hands, then blessed the children and dismissed them.  He died two days later.

In his will Matthai asked to be buried north of Hermit Lane with his master, Johannes Kelpius—not beside him, but at his feet. The funeral of this non-sectarian recluse almost became the scene of inter-denominational conflict. Both the Moravians and Conrad Biessel’s “Zionitic Brotherhood” tried to claim Matthai’s body. Germantown merchant Johannes Wuster arbitrated this dispute by allowing each group to conduct graveside services—first Brother Timotheus of the Ephrata Cloisters, then Rev. James Greening of Germantown’s Moravian congregation.

The last surviving member of Kelpius’s Chapter of Perfection was English, not German.  Born at Wiltshire, England c. 1675 Christopher Witt studied anatomy, physiology, biology, and other sciences as a young man.  He emigrated to America in 1704 and soon affiliated with the Monks of the Ridge.

Witt excelled in many fields of endeavor, including medicine, astrology, botany, music, drawing, architecture, and clock making. He practiced medicine with consummate skill, utilizing science as well as folk remedies and faith healing. In 1738 Dr. Witt conferred Pennsylvania’s first medical degree on his intern, Dr. John Kaign of Haddonfield, New Jersey. Witt’s healing powers were so remarkable that some superstitious folk in Germantown called the doctor a “hexenmeister,” and crossed themselves after passing him on the street.  Most of us know that Amish farmers put hex signs on barns to repel evil spirits.  A “hexenmeister” is a kind of warlock who can impose and lift curses.

Botanist John Bartram and his British patron Peter Collinson both corresponded with Witt frequently. Bartram’s letter of 6/11/1743 to Collinson provides an interesting picture of the old physician.

“I have lately been to visit our friend Dr. Witt (in Germantown  near Washington Lane & Gtn. Ave.), where I spent four or five hours very agreeably—sometimes in his garden, where I viewed every kind of plant, I believe that grew therein…We went into his study, which was furnished with books containing different kinds of learning; as Philosophy, Natural Magic, Divinity, nay even Mystic Divinity; all of which were the subjects of our discourse within doors, which alternately gave way to Botany, every time we walked in the garden.  I could have wished thee the enjoyment of so much diversion, as to have heard our (conversation.)…”  (Sachse 407.)

Christopher Witt painted North America’s first oil portrait—of Johannes Kelpius—in 1705.  He also made numerous drawings of plants and animals. The first stone dwelling in Germantown was built under his supervision. A concert organist, Witt also built and repaired organs, spinets, and “virginals.” Julius Sachse credits him with assembling the first clocks to strike quarter hours in Pennsylvania, and with inventing the cuckoo clock’s pull-chain winding system.

Johann Jacob Zimmerman, the Chapter of Perfection’s founder, bequeathed his astrolabes and telescopes to Johannes Kelpius in 1694. Kelpius willed these same items to his most adept astronomer, Christopher Witt, who later left them to the Warmer family. According to Julius Sachse The American Philosophical Society at 104 S. 5th St. owned these instruments in 1896.  They were not on display, but dumped into a musty storeroom.  

In 1718 Witt purchased 125 acres of Germantown property for sixty pounds, thus attaining financial security at age 43.  He continued to render medical services to the poor gratis and the solvent for a fee.  Between 1718 and 1745 Witt lived in the same house with Daniel Giessler, near the Keyser Homestead (Germantown Ave. at Pastorius St.)  The two men remained in contact with Conrad Matthai, Johann Seelig, and other surviving Monks of the Ridge.

After Giessler died in 1745, 70-year-old Witt purchased a mulatto slave named Robert  Claymoore to help him with gardening, home maintenance, cooking, and other chores. Claymoore had unusual mechanical dexterity, so his master taught him clock making. (According to Julius Sachse, gossips in the vicinity spread word that Robert was  “Hexenmeister” Witt’s familiar.)

Christopher Witt died on or about January 30th, 1765.  He willed most of his land to the descendants of Christian and Christina Warmer, a Germantown tailor and spouse, who had shown great kindness to the Monks of the Ridge. Robert Claymoore received his freedom, a dwelling, small plot of land, furniture, clock-making tools, and other household contents. A sixty-pound bequest was made to Pennsylvania Hospital for treatment of the indigent. Witt also left a property at 5073 Germantown Ave. to his nephew William Yates.

Mourners wrapped Dr. Witt’s body in a linen sheet and put it in an unvarnished pine box.  As the early February sun set, they interred him beside Daniel Giessler, Christian Warmer, and a few anonymous Hermits of the Ridge in the community’s graveyard on High St. between Baynton & Morton Sts., which measured 40 feet by 40 feet. “Spectral blue flames were seen dancing around his grave…for weeks.”  (Sachse 422)   In 1859 the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia built St. Michael’s Church on top of the burial plot, which locals then called “Spook Hill.”  Some years ago the Episcopalians sold St. Michael’s to a black congregation, who renamed it The High St. Church of God.  A faded stone plaque on the side of the building still memorializes the Monks of the Wissahickon. Germantown historian David Spencer asserts that the remains of Daniel Giessler and Christopher Witt lie beneath this church’s altar.  

* * *
Sources:  Besides various web-sites—

Julius F. Sachse, The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, The PA German Society Press, 1896.

Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, The Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman, (condensed from his journals.)

© 2003 Joe Tyson

Joe Tyson was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia 55 years ago and has lately found himself drawn to the history of that area. His recent credits include an article on W.C. Fields' youth published in the Darby Historical Society Newsletter and a piece on writers associated with Philadelphia's Fairmount Park for Schuylkill Valley Journal.  Joe graduated from LaSalle University in 1969 with a B.A. in philosophy, and now works as an insurance agent.  He and wife Christine reside in Havertown, PA and have four grown children.  His hobbies include writing, local history genealogy, bicycling, and gardening.