A Pilgrimage Through Time

Explore local history in the Wissahickon: monks, Dunkers, and press pioneers. 

What better place to await the end of the world than the Wissahickon Valley—at least, that’s what the 26-year-old Transylvanian, Johannes Kelpius believed. Drawn to Pennsylvania by William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in religious freedom, Kelpius led forty monks to the New World, sailing up the Schuylkill River and arriving in Philadelphia at the summer solstice on June 22, 1694 – the year the world was to end.

Inspired by a biblical passage in which a “woman fled into the wilderness” to wait out the end times, (Revelation 12:6), Kelpius withdrew to a cave near Wissahickon Creek – at the time, the edge of known wilderness.

Shortly after the end of the world failed to materialize, Kelpius died – disappointed that he wouldn’t be raised up on Judgment Day? Sickened by disease? No one knows for sure. But his hermit’s cave remains, and you’ll find an easy hike to it here.

Imagining Kelpius meditating in his cave is only part of the draw. The real magic of a visit is experiencing how easy it is to step away from the present-day woosh of traffic on Lincoln Drive into the quiet woods that shelter a site dating back more than three hundred years.

You’ll pass through another wrinkle in time as you leave the busy streets of Mount Airy behind you and wander to the edge of Wissahickon Creek where the first Baptist baptism was performed in the New World. Sailing from Germany to the Philadelphia area in the early 1700s, the Dunkers believed in baptism by immersion – but only when believers were capable of personally experiencing Christ’s presence – so babies were not baptized.

The Dunkers’ emphasis on an individual’s direct experience of Christ threatened to give rise to as many interpretations of Christianity as there were individual believers. This meant that forming a community was like the proverbial herding of cats. But Peter Becker, along with Johannes Gumre and his wife, Anna, succeeded. On Christmas Day, 1723, they gathered 23 believers beside Wissahickon Creek where they baptized six new members.

To find a marker for the event, stroll downhill from the Kitchen’s Lane parking lot toward Wissahickon Creek. Just before Kitchen’s Lane Bridge, turn right onto the orange trail, and after about 50 yards, look for the marker on your left.

Kitchen’s Lane Bridge
Wissahickon Creek near historic marker 

Following the Christmas Day baptisms, the Dunkers returned to Gumre’s log cabin which stood near the current site of Monastery Stables (described below). Here they performed holy communion and feet washing. With this day’s efforts, their church, eventually known as the German Brethren Church, was now established in the New World. But by 1739, the herded cats began to scatter. Disagreeing on theological issues, some of them moved to the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, while others moved to Germantown.

The site where Gumre’s cabin once stood passed through several generations of owners, and by 1747, it had landed in the hands of Joseph Gorgas, a German Baptist. He built a mansion, barn, and paper mill on the site, and allowed the Brethren to remain. As a result, the site became known as the Monastery. The original mansion remains – a structure whose Georgian lines are as sweet and simple as they are elegant. The barn now boards horses, and so the current name of the site – Monastery Stables. As you enter the grounds, you may hear a horse or two whinny to greet you from the fields, but traffic is far from earshot.

To visit the site, leave Kitchen’s Lane parking lot behind you, and face Kitchen’s Lane. Bear left and climb a gently ascending dirt road until you see the sign for Monastery Stables.

Monastery Stables via Friends of the Wissahickon
Spring along Paper Mill Run aka Monoshone Creek, Historic Rittenhouse Town

To attract people to “Penn’s woods” (that’s what Penn-sylvania means), William Penn promised newcomers not only religious tolerance but also opportunities to start businesses. Heeding Penn’s call, the Mennonite, William Rittenhouse, sailed from Amsterdam, and, in 1690, he established the first paper mill in the colonies, close to Wissahickon Creek. The mill and its surrounding buildings became known as Rittenhouse Town, a thriving manufacturing hub with over 40 buildings in its heyday.

That same year, the Quaker William Bradford, who ran a printing press close by, partnered with Rittenhouse as a co-owner of the papermill. Bradford was a fierce advocate for freedom of the press, partly on principle and partly because by printing whatever came his way, regardless of content, he stood to gain financially.

Yet even peace-loving Quakers sometimes squabble, and several Friends considered a broadside that Bradford published seditious. Friction with his fellow Quakers didn’t slow down Bradford’s entrepreneurial drive. He gave up his contract to print for the Philadelphia Society of Friends and removed to New York in 1693 where his printing business expanded.

But Rittenhouse remained firmly attached to the mill town, and the Mennonite congregation elected him as their first bishop in the New World. To this day, many Mennonites make the pilgrimage to Historic Rittenhouse Town to see his homestead.  A visit won’t lead you through a magic space-time warp the way the other sites will. The sound of traffic on Lincoln Drive will keep you firmly rooted in the twenty-first century.  Still, with a stretch of the imagination, you can hear the spinning water wheels and horse-drawn carriages in this once bustling community.

Rittenhouse Homestead and bake house (c. early 1700’s)
Jacob Rittenhouse Home (c. 1811)

Historic Rittenhouse Town
208 Lincoln Drive, Wissahickon Valley Park

From sunrise to sunset, these lovely grounds along a gentle creek are a free public park with trails, benches, and even a little cafe. Main entrance is from Wissahickon Avenue. Download a village map here.

Take a tour — there’s so much to see, including the 1707 Rittenhouse Homestead and its Bake House (c. 1725) with a giant, walk-in oven (!). There are also great artifacts, furnishings, and architectural details in the charming Enoch Rittenhouse Home (c. 1845). Guides by appointment only, email amy@historicrittenhousetown.org to arrange. $15 pp (3 person minimum). Meet at the Rittenhouse Town Visitor Center at 208 Lincoln Drive.

PRO TIP: Follow @HistoricRittenhouseTown for a great calendar of events like papermaking workshops, nature walks, and community celebrations like Historic Rittenhouse Town Fair on Saturday, June 1st (11am – 4pm) where there’ll be free activities plus local food, drink, and vendors. PS. watch out for ghosts!

About Mary Blitzer Field 1 Article
Mary Field is a freelance writer living near Philadelphia. She holds a graduate degree in comparative literature from Columbia University and loves to dig up facts on any and all things historical. You can reach her at maryblitzerfield@gmail.com

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