Book Preview: Puritan Mysticism

This blog post discusses elements of Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book due out in April 2019. You can find out more about the monograph here.

The phrase ‘Puritan mysticism’ has caused many scholars colossal headaches. Firstly, what exactly do we mean by ‘Puritan’ and ‘Puritanism’? Historians have spent decades trying to unpick the terms, debating exactly who should be known as a ‘Puritan’ and whether our labelling of individuals as such is misrepresentative. It is well known that at the time the appellation ‘the godly’ was preferred to terms such as ‘Puritan’ and ‘precisian’ which were largely used as terms of abuse and social stigmatization. Adding ‘mysticism’ to the mix makes this situation even more complex. Scholars have also debated the nature and scope of Puritan mysticism. Some have argued it was impossible, while others have insisted it was more widespread than we appreciate.

As my chapter argues, the latter debate is possibly rendered mute when we look at the work of Francis Rous, a well-known ‘godly’ writer who directly referred to his own work as ‘mystical divinity’. Regardless of the arguments of modern scholars, it would seem some ‘Puritan’ figures were more than comfortable associating their spiritual writings with mysticism.

Rous’s early life was lived in solitude. After finishing his education he spent many years in seclusion in Cornwall and occupied himself with theological studies. From 1604 onwards he built up a reputation as a leading Parliamentarian, becoming Speaker of the House during the Barebone’s Parliament. In 1657 he was offered a seat in Cromwell’s House of Lords, but did not take it. The precisionist strain of Rous’s religiosity was made apparent in one of his earliest publications, The diseases of the time (1622), which lambasted theatres as the ‘Churches of Satan’ and criticized drunkenness and swearing.

Portrait by by William Faithorne (1657)

Rous’s most mystical work was undoubtedly The Mysticall Marriage (1631). He viewed this work as part of the ‘mystical and experimental divinity’ given to God’s elect as proof of their predestination. He described, in sections inspired by the Song of Songs, how the soul was to be purified and eventually come into a ‘mediate union’ with God through Christ via a mystical marriage within the soul. Rous described how his soul ‘thirsteth, and panteth for thee the living God’, observing how it ‘lusteth after spirituall objects; wherof Christ Jesus is the chiefest’. This union was a love beyond feeling, a peace beyond understanding, and a joy beyond words.

Rous was not alone in his promotion of mysticism in precisionist circles. Isaac Ambrose, a contemporary of Rous, was equally ambitious in his mysticism. A recent book by Tom Schwanda (Soul Recreation, 2012) has made this point very clearly. Alongside Rous and Ambrose, we can count a number of other figures, including Paul Baynes, Richard Sibbes, Richard Greenham and William Perkins, as part of a thriving ‘Puritan mysticism’. All these authors are discussed in more detail in a recent edited collection I featured in called Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe.

Rous gained many admirers for his mystical outpourings. One such writer was Francis Taylor, whose Grapes from Canaan (1658) was dedicated to Rous. In it he wrote verses inspired by Rous, including examples such as:

Earth’s an Impostumated Bubble
A Map of Misery and Trouble
Our Silver here is mixt with Dross
Our sweet with sour, our gain with loss
No comfort here without a cross.

Taylor, Grapes from Canaan

Rous’s mystical works also attracted audiences of a far more radical nature, including figures such as Robert Norwood. Norwood had fought on the side of Parliament in the Civil Wars, as well as leading a division of cavalry in the Irish campaign of 1649. Returning to London in 1650, Norwood began supporting the activities of TheaurauJohn Tany, the self-proclaimed prophet and Lord’s high priest of the Jews. Norwood cited Rous in his defences of his own heterodox opinions, believing that linking himself to Rous could prove his orthodoxy.

Chapter 2 of my monograph explores Rous’s mysticism in great detail, while also exploring the radical spirituality of figures like Norwood and others including groups of Familists and Ranters.

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