Johann Philipp Maul and the Healing Waters of Schwelm


Built in 1790, this neat ‘Brunnenhaus’ still marks the spot where the healing waters once flowed in Schwelm. In Maul’s own day, there was only a simple wooden construction.

At the truly exciting conference that was ESSWE4 (University of Gothenburg, June 26-29), I presented a paper on the virtually forgotten Johann Philipp Maul (1662-1727). This Reformed Pietist, physician and pharmacist found his life’s calling at the newly discovered healing spring near Schwelm (Germany). And in the course of three publications ranging between 32 and some 1300 pages, he then pleaded the case for Protestant unification. This noble goal was to be achieved through kabbalistic chymistry which, according to him, was ‘entirely different from today’s experimental or mechanical chymistry’ (Maul, Medicina theologica, 16). Interestingly, Maul’s vision of Protestant unity flowed directly from the Schwelm spring—pardon the pun.

According to Maul’s chymical analysis, the Schwelm water contained a ‘golden spirit’ (spiritus aureus) that shared significant properties of drinkable gold (aurum potabile), a very potent medicine that many chymists had been searching for centuries already. First of all, there was a visibly golden hue that disappeared after a while if the water was taken away from the source and not kept properly. Next, Maul emphasized that it was impossible to extract physical gold—just as it was impossible to re-extract the gold that had gone into making true aurum potabile. But most important were, of course, the healing powers shown by the golden spirit of the Schwelm spring.

In Praxis Schwelmensis (1707/08), something of a narrative advertisement, Maul described some of the striking cures that had taken place through the healing waters of Schwelm, divine providence—and the medical expertise of Maul himself, who never tired of selling his powders, pills and potions to supplement the spa treatments of his patients. Modelled on New Testament precedents, these mini-stories bring to mind the miraculous cures of Jesus Christ: people suffering from cataracts or otherwise failing sight were able to see again, others suffering from gout to such an extent that they couldn’t walk anymore were able to leave behind their crutches and so on.

Already in Acidulae Schwelmenses (1706, roughly: ‘The Mildly Acidic [Waters] of Schwelm’), Maul had stressed the providential component of the newly-discovered healing spring: as fountains of healing were also fountains of peace—people refrained from carrying weapons when going there—the Schwelm source was not only good news for thousands of patients who flocked there but also for all of Europe as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713/14) was raging. Maul had especially high hopes of Frederick I of Brandenburg-Prussia (r. 1701-13) who not only happened to rule over the territory of Schwelm but also shared Maul’s longing for Protestant unity. This king was to bring the ‘gold of peace’ to Europe (Maul, Medicina theologica, f. a3r).

If it was common practice for rulers of small and impoverished duchies to advocate religious tolerance, the Calvinist king of Brandenburg-Prussia did so on a much larger scale, ruled over mostly Lutheran subjects and welcomed Pietists as well as Huguenot refugees forced to flee France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). His court preacher, Daniel Ernst Jablonski (d. 1741), and none other than Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (d. 1716) were the driving forces in lengthy negotiations (negotium irenicum, 1697-1706) over Calvinist and Lutheran differences that, unfortunately, failed to achieve the desired unity.

And precisely at this point, Maul hoped to bring the solution through his ‘theological, chymico-irenic and christiano-kabbalistic medicine’ (Medicina theologica, chymico irenica et christiano-cabbalistica), as his monumental work of 1709 was called. He presented Sulamith—the beloved in Solomon’s Song of Songs, traditionally interpreted as the church, i.e. Christ’s bride—as suffering great pain and anguish due to the internal division of Christianity, brought about by scholastic theology and its disputations. For Maul, the antidote to such confessional strife was to be found in ‘the chymical, medical, kabbalistic and mystical theology’ (Medicina theologica, f. b4r).

Now, for Maul chymistry and kabbalah were really the same thing, and the same went for chymistry and Christianity. Hence, it was possible to settle theological controversies by recourse to chymistry—understood as a universal science of all natural processes, it would shed light on the correct interpretation of Scripture. In this way God’s two books, Nature and Scripture, mutually shed light on one another. Maul was very explicit about the crucial role of chymistry in the process of settling theological differences: ‘The chymists shall yet melt together the religions [Lutheranism and Calvinism] and draw a quintessence, so that they would finally reach unity’ (Medicina theologica, 193).

Whether Maul’s proposed solution for all confessional disputes was widely considered or not, of one thing we can be quite certain: dedicating his magnum opus to Frederick I landed him a job. Only one year later, in 1710, Maul was appointed ‘fountain physician’ (Brunnen-Medicus) and held this post until his death in 1727, by which time the number of visitors to the Schwelm spring had dwindled down to a mere trickle. It wasn’t until five years later that a successor was appointed, Johann Heinrich Schütte (d. 1777), whose analysis of the Schwelm waters was considerably less fanciful than Maul’s.

[EDIT: For more on the practice of drinking spa waters, see the great post by Prof. Amanda E. Herbert over at The Recipes Project. As it somewhat detracts from the grand prophetic vision, I hadn’t included this before but Maul also had to admit that the Schwelm water was far from pleasant: animals refused to drink it, and it tasted ‘not entirely lovely, … but sharp, contracting, dividing, acidic, somewhat bitter and salty’ and, if carried away from the spring, ‘the taste is rather disgusting’ and ‘very difficult for the stomach to digest’ (Acidulae Schwelmenses, 31). That’s a very nice way of saying that people were likely to throw up after partaking of the Schwelm water.]


Johann Philipp Maul, Acidulae Schwelmenses (Dortmund/Schwelm, 1706).

Praxis Schwelmensis, 2nd ed. (Dortmund, 1707/08).

Medicina theologica, chymico irenica et christiano-kabbalistica, 2nd ed. (Wesel, 1713).


8 responses to “Johann Philipp Maul and the Healing Waters of Schwelm

  • Supriem Rockefeller

    Another fine post, sir.
    What strikes me – as a dilettante – is the “anti-mechanist” sentiment the cited text shows so early. That, combined with the kabbalistic interpretation of alchemy makes me want to ask a question, which may show up to be naive: Has anybody traced the links (or possible links) between the pietist interpretations of alchemy and the ones of the 19th century occult revival?

  • Mike A. Zuber

    Excellent question, Supriem! Pietist interpretations of alchemy may be considered the core interest of my PhD research (, so I hope to make a small step towards answering it over the next few years…
    As for the ‘anti-mechanist’ bias, actually, Maul is interesting because he doesn’t dismiss Cartesianism, which Pietists on the whole did not appreciate. Maul even drew on Descartes every now and then, though he criticized the Frenchman’s lack of chymical insight.
    Especially when it comes to minor figures, my take on this whole issue is that the ‘vitalism vs. mechanism’ case has been much overstated for the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: many felt at ease to combine the two to various extents.

    • easprem

      “the ‘vitalism vs. mechanism’ case has been much overstated for the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries”. This sounds about right to me: A “rational reconstruction”? I also think it holds true for later periods (post-18th), especially when we look outside of those relatively limited groups of people who knew their science *and* their philosophy. Certainly for the occult revival, where explicitly mechanist concepts can be co-opted to fit “vitalist” notions, and “vitalist” notions may implicitly (and probably unwittingly) be cast in “mechanistic” terms. Try and determine what’s vitalistic and what’s mechanistic in any post-HPB Thesophist. Not easy.

      • Mike A. Zuber

        I agree that the whole ‘vitalism vs. mechanism’ thing can be a helpful ‘rational reconstruction’ of grand developments (maybe a bit like disenchantment) but most people seem to be unaware that this is the case and take it at face-value instead.
        Also, I’ve been thinking that vitalists in general seem to find it easier to integrate mechanism into their systems than the other way around. This probably reflects the philosophical premises of either camp: if everything is alive, even the parts of a mechanism are; conversely, if everything is mechanical, why would it be alive? Hybrid forms may well be expected from vitalists but less so from mechanists.

  • Supriem Rockefeller

    What I find telling, however, doesn’t have so much to do with the “vitalist” controversy, as with the sentiment against “today’s chymistry” expressed in the citation, and Maul’s placing himself within an alternative tradition (“kabbalistic chymistry”). It’s that distancing oneself from scientific society of the day, and stressing the importance of a non-mechanical and non-experimental dimension (mystical? spiritual? occult?) of this alternative chymistry is what seems so evocative of the later revivals (unless it is merely a theoretical statement à clef, so to speak, of the kind you can still encounter in modern academia). It is interesting to see someone tracing a border, already at the break of the 18th century, between what we would now call “chemistry” and what we would now (following 19th century occultists more than 18th century heralds of Enlightenment) call “alchemy”, but from the standpoint of the latter. That’s why I’m asking about continuity.

    • Mike A. Zuber

      Well, I could hardly agree more with this. As for Maul, I don’t think we can attribute to him too much influence on later developments but that doesn’t make him any less interesting for the very reason you outline.
      As with other developments in the world of the esoteric (e.g. the reception of Villars’ Comte de Gabalis), I’m currently tempted to think that it might be a kind of ‘productive misunderstanding’: when people like Heinrich Khunrath (1595) and Michael Maier (1617) began to distinguish themselves from fraudulent practitioners that fooled others into believing they had just made gold, their true alchemy might have been misconstrued by, most importantly, Jacob Boehme who took the whole thing ‘spiritually’.
      Fast forward another eighty years, and the fundamental principles of Boehme’s theosophy play a crucial role for Maul. There are some intermediaries as well, notably John Pordage and his “Epistle on the Philosophical Stone” that is only extant in German translation. Unfortunately, much more work remains to be done to arrive at a better understanding of how Victorian spiritual alchemy came about.

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