The Origins of Rosicrucianism

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

The first time Rosicrucianism appeared was in 17th century Europe. Religious hatred had divided the whole continent, and the reformation didn’t happen until a hundred years later. Secret societies historian Idries Shah states that the first signs of Rosicrucianism appeared in 1597.

The Well of Initiation located in Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal.
Well of Initiation, Portugal. The Rosicrucian Order is present in various countries. (Image: Unknown author/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The First Traces of Rosicrucianism

According to Idries Shah, in 1597, there were rumors about a mysterious alchemist who was going around the continent looking for recruits into ‘a society to carry out alchemist researches’.

In 1605, a Rosicrucian constitution emerged in Germany but disappeared quickly. In 1614, the first Rosicrucian manifesto, called the Fama Fraternitatis, surfaced in Germany. It was part of a more significant work called the General Reformation of the World. It was followed by a second manifesto a year later, under the title of the Confessio Fraternitatis. They depicted the story of Christian Rosenkreus -Christian Rose-Cross- a German monk. He, in his trip to the Holy land around 1400, encountered a secret society of wise men in Damascus. By acquiring the secret knowledge of the east, he gained initiation and then traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Spain, and finally, back to Germany.

Most of the knowledge he acquired was related to Gnosticism and Hermeticism. According to Gnosticism, the path of salvation is through knowledge, and Hermeticism provides that knowledge trough alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. Theurgy means invoking gods and spirits, or Black Magic. Realizing it wasn’t the right time to reveal this knowledge, Rosenkreuz decided to establish a secret society to hide it. He formed it with seven acolytes who were carefully hand-picked and swore oaths of secrecy. Through a principle called the Doctrine of Concealment, they would pretend to practice their own countries’ religion to avoid persecution.

They formed a network of initiation in which, each initiate chose a successor, who designated another, and so on. In 1484, Rosenkreuz died at the age of 106 and was buried in a concealed grave. His brotherhood continued to live secretly for 120 years. In 1604, one of the brothers opened his tomb and found “strange inscriptions and a manuscript in golden letters.” They decided it was the right time to publish the manifestos and announce the existence of the society to initiate new members. However, there is no proof of the existence of Rosenkreuz or such a brotherhood. Even Rosicrucians have different ideas about the truth of Rosenkreuz.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Different theories identify Rosenkreuz as other people. For example, it is speculated that Rosenkreuz was actually a Swiss alchemist Paracelsus living from 1493 to 1541. Another theory holds that Rosenkreuz was an Italian ex-monk who was burned by the Inquisition for heresy in 1600. He denied all the sacraments, including the divinity of Christ and the virginity of Mary.

According to another theory, Rosicrucianism was the result of radical Protestantism. Anti-Catholic ideas are largely represented in the second manifesto. In addition to concepts related to alchemy and Hermeticism, the Confessio declares that Rosicrucians aimed at destroying the society and building a better one rather than reforming and fixing it.

Learn more about the underworld of history.

Rosicrucianism in America

An image of Johannes Kelpius
Johannes Kelpius, the German mystic who introduced Rosicrucianism in America. (Image: Christopher Witt/Public domain)

Rosicrucianism was probably first introduced in Pennsylvania in 1694 by a German mystic called Johannes Kelpius. In reference to the book of Revelation, he founded a small religious order called the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness. Kelpius and his followers were involved in astrology, alchemy, and ritual magic, and lived in poverty and chastity. After he died in 1707, his society withered, although it influenced another sect that appeared in nearby Lancaster County.

The name of that sect was the Ephrata Community, which later led to another branch called the Zionistic Brotherhood. Their initiation took 40 days and was accompanied by eating psychedelic mushrooms.

Rosicrucianism in Other Religions

Illustration of Sabbatai Zevi
Sabbatai Zevi, the rabbi from Ottoman Empire. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Christianity was not the only religion influenced by Rosicrucianism. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East prayed for the arrival of the Messiah to save them from wars and massacres. In 1648, a young kabbalist and rabbi from the Ottoman Empire announced himself the Messiah. Sabbatai Zevi invalidated all religious laws and asked people to follow him and defy all religious rules. Infuriated by these claims, the orthodox rabbinate excommunicated him. He set out to wander the Balkans for most of the 1650s and attracted thousands of followers.

Although he had started to gain some acceptance among rabbis, Ottoman authorities arrested him in 1666. They told him he would either deny his claim and convert to Islam, or lose his life. He turned to Islam and asked his followers to do the same. He reasoned that it wouldn’t matter what religion one observed as all religions are all shams.

So, Rosicrucianism was not a movement or a secret society per se. It was an idea—or perhaps a philosophy— that had many branches and was present in many regions of the world. 

Learn more about the Medieval Cathars.

Common Questions about the Origins of Rosicrucianism

Q: When did the Rosicrucians begin?

The Rosicrucian order started in the 17th century. Before that, it had been around as an underground and highly concealed society.

Q: What do the Rosicrucians believe?

Rosicrucianism involves a combination of Gnosticism and Hermeticism. According to Gnosticism, the path of salvation is through knowledge, and Hermeticism provides that knowledge trough alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. Theurgy means invoking gods and spirits, or Black Magic.

Q: Who started the Rosicrucians?

The original Rosicrucian order was founded by a German monk called Rosenkreuz. Due to the religious conditions of that time, he decided to conceal his order and it wasn’t revealed until 120 years later.

Q: What is the Rosicrucian sign?

The Rosicrucian sign is a rose and a cross. There are various explanations about what these elements symbolize.

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