Mysticism in Early Modern England explores and analyses a critical juncture in the history of mysticism. The book argues that the seventeenth century witnessed the final separation of mysticism from the established churches in the West, with mystical experience viewed as having little to contribute to theological and doctrinal discussions, a stark contrast to the privileged position it had often occupied in the medieval period. In exploring this significant change in attitudes towards mysticism, the book suggests that modern scholarly attempts to ‘validate’ or ‘return’ mysticism to mainstream histories of religion have origins in this rejection of mysticism in the seventeenth century.
Focusing on England as a case study, the book traces how mysticism featured in polemical and religious discourse in the seventeenth century. It traces the mounting criticism leveled at mysticism, exploring how it came to be viewed as a source of sectarianism, radicalism, and most significantly, as a source of religious enthusiasm. Both Protestant and Catholic mysticism was increasingly criticized as enthusiastic, with critics drawing on prevalent medical theories to discredit mystical experience as irrational and melancholic. At the dawn of the eighteenth century, it is argued here, mysticism was discredited by thinkers like John Locke as part of an early enlightenment emphasis on rationality, natural religion and politeness. The book also traces the positive reception of mysticism in many Protestants groups, including radical antinomian Puritans, Quakers, Ranters, Cambridge Platonists and Philadelphians, as well as discussions concerning mysticism among the members of the English Benedictine Congregation. All of these groups faced harsh criticism for adhering to mystical doctrines and reveal the mounting scepticism levelled at intense and ecstatic religious experience.
The book offers a number of correctives to the existing historiography. It suggests that there was a strong vein of mysticism running through various shades of English Protestantism after the Reformation, rejecting the idea that mysticism was a uniquely Catholic phenomenon. As a result, it argues that Protestants and Catholics shared much common ground in terms of devotional and spiritual tastes, as well as a shared interest in mystical experience. It also suggests that the seventeenth century should be acknowledged as the period in which spirituality became a wholly private concern, divorced from any influence in public institutional religion. It will be of interest to historians and theologians interested in Civil War radicalism, tolerance and intolerance towards Catholics and non-conformists, the transmission of ideas between Protestants and Catholics, and the impact of the early Enlightenment in England.