Religious History Sunday – “Heaven on Earth” – Mystics and Pietists as Early American Utopians

brothers houseIn 1682, William Penn came to America to establish a colony based on religious freedom, a so called “Holy Experiment”.  Two of the early groups to answer Penn’s call are discussed below.

Society of the Woman in the Wilderness

Near the end of the 17th century (June 23, 1694), a group of monks (scholars and mystics) arrived in Pennsylvania seeking refuge to await the coming Millennia, which they were convinced would occur in 1694.  The group gathered on a hilltop near Philadelphia that first night and held a ceremony to ward off evil spirits.  Philadelphia had been founded in 1682 and had already come to be known as a place that was tolerant of pietists, communitarians and free-thinkers.

The group of forty called themselves “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness” which was based on Revelation 12: 6 – “and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.”  This group of mostly scholars had left Germany, led by Johannes Kelpius (but had been founded years before by Johann Zimmerman).  1694 was the year that Zimmerman, a mathematician and astronomer, had predicted the new millennium would begin.

Zimmerman thought the number “40” held some special religious meaning and had earlier given the group the name “Chapter of Perfection”.  Zimmerman was convinced that William Penn’s decision to name his city Philadelphia was not coincidence and reaffirmed his reading of scripture concerning the millennium (the 40th parallel spanned the northern hemisphere near Philadelphia and the ancient city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor – also referenced in Revelation).  Zimmerman died shortly before the group was to leave for America, however, and leadership fell to young Kelpius.

Soon after their arrival, the monks began building a monastery west of Germantown.  This is where they would await the arrival of the Woman in the Wilderness.  The monks even placed a telescope on the roof to scan the heavens for signs of the Second Coming – they didn’t want to miss the Rapture.

The world did not end in 1694, of course.  In 1708 Kelpius died at the young age of 35 and Conrad Matthai took over.  The group held on for several more years, but in 1765 Christopher Witt (an Englishman), the last of the mystics, died.

Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel was born in Germany in 1691 and was orphaned at the age of 8.  He learned the baker trade and traveled the region to hone his skills.  Along the way, he became acquainted with the Pietists who were seeking to reform the Protestant establishment churches.  He joined the Pietists and was eventually banished from his homeland.  He left Germany in 1720 and headed to America.

He, like Zimmerman and his followers, were attracted to William Penn’s colony because they felt they would be able to freely follow their beliefs.  Beissel lived in Germantown for about a year before moving west to the Conestoga area.  Coincidentally, he was met by the Conrad Matthai, now the leader of the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness group.  There Beissel joined a group of Anabaptists, the Brethren.  By 1724 he had been appointed to lead a church, the Conestoga Brethren Congregation.  Beissel held radical views in regard to Saturday worship and celibacy and as a result the church split and he left in 1728.

He was still a charismatic leader, and in 1732 he left Conestoga to live a hermit’s life along the Cocalico Creek, joined by like-minded men and women who wanted to follow his teachings.  The community became known as Ephrata Cloister or Ephrata Community.  Beissel’s theology was a combination of pietism and mysticism, encouraging celibacy, Sabbath worship and creative expression.  The group became known for its self-published a capella music and Germanic calligraphy.

The Solitary Sisters and Solitary Brethren lived in separate buildings.  Another group, the Householders, lived in family groups.  The group faced some internal struggles along the way, leading to the expulsion of one member who challenged Beissel’s leadership.  When Beissel died in 1768, decline came quickly.  Peter Miller succeeded Beissel but quickly realized that the monastic life was not sustainable (nor attractive to new generations of believers).  Miller wrote to Benjamin Franklin, “the mind of Americans is bent another way.”

In 1813 the last of the celibate members had died and the next year the married members formed the German Seventh Day Baptist Church.  Poorer members of the congregation moved in and took over the facilities and buildings.  But, by 1929 the remaining members had experienced disagreement over the disposition of the property and its historical artifacts, and began to take legal action against one another.  In 1934 the federal court system revoked their charter of incorporation and the Church of Ephrata was dissolved.   What is left of the property is today a Pennsylvania historical site.  The last remaining member of the German Seventh Day Baptists, Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher, died in 2008.

Discussion Topics:

  • Why did many of these utopian groups stress celibacy in their beliefs?  Wouldn’t that be a bit short-sighted in regards to growing their communities?

Next Week:  The Shakers

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!


  1. I love reading old history about religious groups, Can you do one on the people coming over on the Mayflower?

    • I did think about writing today about the early Pilgrims, but saw it made the article a bit too long .. I’ll put that on the list of topics though.

    • Maybe I’ll do an article about the Pilgrims during the week of Thanksgiving .. good idea!

  2. great article
    I hadn’t know about the 40th parallel people

    • I suppose that came from the astronomers and mathematicians… who else would calculate a theory that precisely.



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