Book Preview: Mysticism and Millenarianism

This blog post discusses elements of Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book due out in April 2019. You can find out more about the monograph here.

The end of the seventeenth century in England witnessed a heightened belief in the imminent second coming of Christ. Millenarian works by writers such as Thomas Beverley and Edward Waple did much to ignite this fire of expectation, while events on the Continent, including the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and warfare against Louis XIV, fanned the flames of belief that an apocalyptic battle signifying the end of the world was close at hand. Beverley’s writings excited those who believed in the imminent arrival of the Philadelphian Church as described in Revelation 3:7-8. He berated anyone who ‘would shut the Door of the worship and ministration of Philadelphian witnesses’. He dated the arrival of the new millennium to August 23rd, 1697 and warned that there would:

‘Certainly be a Subsiding and Sinking down of all Mountainous Church power, into the Philadelphian Plain […] they of it shall worship the Ascending witnesses; For that whole State of things since the Reformation shall be look’d back upon with Repentance, and self Condemnation, as no way Comporting with the Kingdom of Christ, but as One Demeritorious Cause of Sealing the Thunders, or Staying the powers of the Gospel, from bringing forth the Kingdom of Christ. The whole Robe or Garments of that State shall be laid aside, as Defiled’

A group which combined this profound millenarian excitement with mystical beliefs was the Philadelphian Society, led by the prophetess Jane Lead. The Philadelphians had their origins in a small circle of followers surrounding the radical preacher John Pordage in Bradfield, Berkshire. In the early 1640s Pordage had apparently been part of a circle of Familists in London which also included Giles Randall, John Everard, Peter Shaw and Robert Gell. Early members of the society, especially Thomas Bromley, wrote works with many of the hallmarks of mysticism, including the goal of achieving ‘a continual apprehension of the Presence of God’. Lead joined this group in the 1670s, with Pordage’s death in 1681 almost collapsing the group from a lack of funds.

John Pordage (1607–1681), a founding member of the Philadelphians

Yet in the early 1690s Lead’s writings gained popularity in German and Dutch circles, with the wealthy Baron Dodo von Knyphausen funding the process of translating her works into German and also supporting her living costs in London. By the mid 1690s Lead had been joined by her two most important supporters, Francis Lee and Richard Roach. Lee was a non-juror who had heard of Lead while travelling on the Continent, while Roach was rector of St Augustine’s, Hackney. Lee eventually married Lead’s widowed daughter, Barbary Walton, and became Lead’s amanuensis when she went blind in 1695.

This small group did not remain private for long. In 1696 Lead received a vision in which a ‘Voice from out of the Throne of the Majesty on High did thus cry, saying; Unseal the living Testimony, wherein new and Fresh things will be revealed.’ Lead believed that the time had come for the ‘Dove-Flock’ to assemble to ‘wait in the Unity of pure Love, praying in the Holy Ghost’. Groups of Philadelphians emerged into public view in 1697, with two group meeting and reading aloud their founding constitutions on August 23rd, the very date Beverley had originally predicted the arrival of the Philadelphian Church.

Unlike Beverley, the Philadelphians maintained that the second coming would initially be in the ‘Kingdom First of the Spirit, and Inward Power’, i.e. an arrival of Christ in the soul of believers before the physical arrival of Christ on earth. As a result, Roach and Lee set up their own publication, Theosophical Transactions, to document the spiritual outpourings witnessed across a multitude of countries and to provide evidence of this arrival. Roach himself was recorded as experiencing an opening of his ‘Spiritual Senses’ in a ‘more pure & Sublime way, difficult to be explained’, while Lee believed there was evidence of ‘eruptions’ of mystical sentiment in many countries which demanded union with ‘Fellow Waiters for the same glorious Prize of the first Resurrection’.

The Philadelphian Society was established as a way for those from all denominations who were experiencing this opening of the kingdom of God within their own souls to gather together. Lead, in her own writings on mysticism, had described this as the final step on the mystical path. When writing about purgation, illumination and union, she added a fourth stage: descension. Lead proposed that those who had undergone mystical experience were to gather together as a ‘Holy Separated Fraternity’, waiting primarily for the ‘Day of God’. Lee was especially keen to develop a network of those interested in mysticism or experiencing it directly, proposing an international network of publications and activities to support this.

The continuation of the world beyond August 23rd, 1697 somewhat dampened this mystical millenarianism. The Philadelphian Society continued to hold public meetings until 1703, at which point they declared the ‘Finishing at this Time their First Testimony’. The death of Lead in 1704 only further cemented this decline. Roach continued publishing works of Philadelphian mysticism well into the 1720s. Lee would somewhat turn his back on his Philadelphian phase in his later works, but his death in France in 1719 amongst followers of the mystic Madame Guyon suggests this interest never truly faded.

Chapter 5 of my monograph explores the Philadelphians in great detail, focusing especially on their downfall and the harsh criticism they endured before, during and after their public meetings.

Mysticism in Early Modern England is available to pre-order/buy now by following this link