Public Lecture: Mystical visions of God in the 17th Century

Earlier in June I was delighted to launch my book, Mysticism in Early Modern England, with a public lecture at Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Darlington. I had previously worked with the church to raise over £300 for their restoration works and continued that fundraising effort through ticket sales at the book launch.

During the lecture I talked about many elements of my new book and a recent book chapter on George Herbert, as well as about mysticism more generally. It began by discussing exactly what mysticism was in the period, taking as its basis a great introductory quote from the English Franciscan friar Nicholas of the Holy Cross in 1670:

Mystick Divinity is defined an experimental knowledge of God… by which Man tastes the sweetness of God, and by this experience teaches the understanding what God is: Now this savour, tast, or spiritual feeling may be said to be a kind of knowing; because love it self according to St. Austin is a knowledge; but a knowledge so secret as unintelligible to any but the person in whom it is; as it is commonly said of a smart pain, none can so justly conceive it as he that suffers.

It also harnessed examples from various periods of Christian history, including writings by Catherine of Genoa on purgation, Gregory the Great on illumination and Bernard of Clairvaux on union with God. This opening section sought to highlight how mystical writings have often been the most beautiful and personal accounts of the Christian faith throughout history, giving us a snapshot of the rich variety of spiritual experience documented across the last two millennia.

The first major section of the lecture focused on the life and writings of the poet and priest George Herbert. Born in 1593, Herbert was a member of the powerful and aristocratic Pembroke family. His education at Cambridge was followed by a period as an Orator at the university in 1620 and then as a Member of Parliament in 1624. In September 1630 he was ordained priest, living with his wife and three adopted children (from a deceased sister) as Rector of two villages near Salisbury. Less than three years later, in March 1633, he died.

Herbert wrote two major works during his three short years as a village priest. The Temple was a long collection of poems about different virtues and vices, different times of the church calendar year, the actual physical church building, and other far more abstract poems on emotions and stages of life. The Country Parson was a guide on how to live a good and successful life as the priest of a small village, including advice on the types of people who inhabit the countryside and their expectations of their local priest.

Launch night (there was something on the screen at the time, honest!)

The lecture stressed the constant duality present in Herbert’s poetry. Poems like ‘Obedience’ not only stressed his dedication to following Christ’s example and leading a pure and holy life, but could also be seen to represent a form of mystical passivity to the inner presence of God:

O let thy sacred will
All thy delight in me fulfill!
Let me not think an action mine own way,
But as thy love shall sway,
Resigning up the rudder to thy skill.

Herbert, ‘Obedience’.

Equally, the first section of his poetry was labelled as ‘The Church-Porch’, as this would have been the first section of the church entered by his parishioners. Here Herbert outlines how those entering should forget the world and all its concerns. This again was advice not only for those entering for a church service, but also for those attempting the first step on a mystical journey. Thus the important goal of self-abnegation and Christ-like behaviour was the aim of both body and soul.

The lecture moved away from Herbert to explore mysticism of a much more ‘radical’ nature. It discussed the ‘Ranter’ writers, exploring their origins and explaining about the nature of religious radicalism before, during and after the English Civil Wars. The Ranters, if we believe writings of their enemies, were sex loving blasphemers who loved nothing more than drinking and parading around in the nude. Yet, as historians have shown, much of this information was made up by conservative writers producing pamphlets and newsbooks intended to produce a wave of moral panic amongst the population about the extremes of religious radicalism.

One figure the lecture focused on was Joseph Salmon, a New Model Army preacher between 1647 and 1649. He suggested that just as the army were purging the earth of all tyranny and persecution, so too was God simultaneously acting within them in a similar manner. In his Divinity Anatomized (1649), he expanded on this purgative experience, claiming God was ‘mortifying & subduing, changing and transforming’ to the point that ‘the soule comes to be so gloriously metamorphosed & changed, so wrought up by the power of the spirit, into a union with God!’

The Ranters never fail in raising a few eyebrows

In stark contrast to this was Salmon’s later work, Heights in Depths (1651). In this recantation of his former beliefs, Salmon described how in prison he was retired from the world, ‘cloystered up’ from his former friends, and ‘having greates on the one side… and my doore fast bolted on the other’. Salmon told of his experiences of reaching beyond himself to ‘contemplate an incomprehensible glory’, which could not be achieved by man, but rather by God’s action of consuming and melting ‘into the same nature and likeness’. Salmon served as an interesting case study due to his remarkable spiritual journey, one which started by using mysticism to embolden the New Model Army into action and ended with an account of the passive mystical experiences of a man determined to retire from the world.

In the final part of the lecture I discussed the rise and collapse of the Philadelphian Society, a group who largely bookended the findings of the monograph. It explored the influence of the Book of Revelation on writers such as Thomas Bromley, who wrote over 40 works exploring the prophecies contained therein. One such prediction by Bromley, that Christ’s return would occur on August 23rd 1697, was taken very seriously by the Philadelphians.

The Philadelphian Society, setting up meetings in London, believed they were beginning to gather together true believers from all different denominations and awaiting the return of Christ. Unlike some figures predicting the physical return of Christ, the Philadelphians believed that Christ would first appear in the souls of true believers. Thus these souls would be reformed by the presence of God before the world was reformed and changed.

The group was guided primarily by the prophetess Jane Lead, who wrote many works of mysticism. Lead’s writings had been particularly popular abroad in Germany, where her influential followers made donations to support her. One of her major outputs was a three-volume spiritual diary called A fountain of gardens which totalled around 2,500 pages, while her total outputs numbered something like a dozen original works.

Despite their enthusiasm, the group only lasted six years in the public eye before retiring into private. In 1702 they published The Vindication and Justification of the Philadelphian Society and complained of the ‘usual Imputation of Madness and Enthusiasm’ they had suffered from. A year later in 1703, their Protestation painted an even bleaker picture, declaring their withdrawal from public meetings due to the fact they had ‘been spurn’d at for the most part’.

Chatting to visitors afterwards was a rewarding experience

The lecture ended by discussing what the Philadelphians can teach us about the prevalent attitude towards mysticism in England at the dawn of the eighteenth century. One such concept that audience members particularly engaged with was the rise to dominance of ideals we might see as precursors to the Enlightenment; rationality and genteel or ‘sensible’ religion. This caused experiences like those discussed in the lecture to be pigeonholed as belonging to those of a ‘lively fancy’ or ‘gloomy mind’. These experiences were no longer valued as genuine Christian experiences, now described in terms of natural illness such as melancholy, or much later as depression, schizophrenia or psychosis. The reasons for the decline of mysticism were many, but this was by far the most destructive.

Overall the launch was a great success and a fitting celebration for the new book. I am grateful to all those who attended and to family and friends who supported the event behind the scenes.