Bibliomancy in Early Pennsylvania

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Bibliomancy in Early Pennsylvania

2017-09-14 10:33

Image is a photograph of a brown box of cards, with more cards fanned out around them. From HSP's collection, record number 14187HSP’s collection includes an unusual deck of cards. A small leather box holds 381 cards printed by Christoph Sauer, Sr. in 1744. Each card has a short bible verse written in German, with four lines of poetry written under it. The short poems, each relating to the accompanying bible verse, were written by Gerhard Tersteegen.

Sauer and Testeegen were radical Pietists who lived and worked in Pennsylvania during the 18th century. This deck of cards likely possessed some ritual significance in their religious practices.

It is probable that the cards were used for biliomancy. This is a fortunetelling method that uses a book (usually a holy text) to reveal answers to questions of great significance or a cosmic nature. Randomly-selected pages of a book meant that the answer derived from the text was guided by the spirit of God.

In the case of Sauer and Testeegen’s deck of cards, a practitioner of biliomancy could use these cards to address pressing inquiries through reflection on the bible verses and poems.

One card from the deck features the following text (translation below):


Siehe, Ich [jesus] stehe vorder Thür, un klopse an, so jemand meine Stimme hören wird, und die Thür aufrhun, zu dem werde Ich eingehen, und das Abendmahl mit ihm halten, und er mit Mir. Offnb. 3, 20.


So Seel! GOTT warted deiner drinnen,

Und du läuf’ft au smit deinen Sinnen:

Ach! Laβ Ihn nicht alleine stehn;

Kehr ein, Er möchte weiter gehn.



Behold, I [Jesus] stand before thee, and knock, if any man hear my voice, and raise up thee, and I will enter into it, and hold the supper with him, and he with Me. Revelations 3:20

Oh soul! GOD is waiting for you inside,

And you run out with your senses:

Oh! Do not let him stand alone;

Turn back, he will go on.


The men who made these cards were mystics. Pietists believed in biblical doctrine, individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life. Above all, they believed in replacing ecclesiastical religious practice (that is, having a human intermediary between oneself and God) with personal experience of the divine. Similar to the medieval mystics, radical Pietists saw their relationship with God as direct and intimate.

Pietism grew out of a number of religious movements in the late 17th century, as reformation swept across Europe. Radical Pietists split from their churches to found a ‘religion of the heart’, with a focus on ethical purity, inward devotion, asceticism and mysticism. They formed distinct and separate communities, and practiced their faith freely in the Pennsylvania colony.

Johannes Kelpius is perhaps one of the better-known radical pietists in the Delaware Valley.

By creating these small, carefully-written cards, Saur and Tersteegen were following the tenets of their faith. The cards were a way to directly interact with the Divine, with no other intercession needed. Tersteegen’s wordplay is experimental, using clever rhymes and puns to invite meditative association.

This small artifact, likely used to answer questions and help make decisions, ties a printer in Germantown to an 18th century religious revolution changing the ways that Christians in Europe and the American colonies interacted with God.

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