Book Review: Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy

Jane Lead and the Philadelphian Society are not particularly well known figures to most scholars of late 17th- and early 18th-century religion. Born in 1624, Lead experienced a spiritual awakening aged 16. On Christmas Day 1640, while her family danced and celebrated, she was overwhelmed with a ‘beam of Godly light’ and a gentle inner voice offering spiritual guidance. After the death of her husband in 1670 she received daily spiritual outpourings, finding comfort in a spiritual community based in London and guided by John Pordage, a follower of the German mystic Jacob Boehme. Going blind in 1695, she helped form the deeply millenarian Philadelphian Society for the public gathering of the chosen in anticipation of Christ’s return in 1697. After several years of meeting, writing and publishing the group retired in 1703, losing further momentum after Lead’s death in 1704.

Ariel Hessayon’s edited collection, Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy, offers a body of corrective scholarship for a field of research that is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy. The result of a one-day conference ‘Blessed Virago: The International Mysticism of Jane Lead’ held in London in 2012, the work is testament both to the quality of scholarship now applied to Lead’s works, and the growing realization that Lead and the Philadelphians, though small in number, can offer us significant insight into Puritanism, millennialism, religious radicalism, and mysticism. Chapters by several of the authors, including Hessayon, Warren Johnston, Lionel Laborie and Philip Lockley, often give a genuine sense of discarding what has gone before. Some older generalizations and misapplications of Lead’s work and influence have been rejected in favour of a new and more nuanced analysis driven by solid archival research and a sensitive reading of the source material. Engaging with this collection of essays leaves the reader with a sense that the prevalent understanding of Lead as the matriarch of a peaceful and genteel religious community is rapidly and purposefully being undone. Rather, the collection ‘radicalizes’ Lead, proposing that she was never a central unifying figure among the Philadelphians, but was rather shunned by the reserved and private majority of the group when her small band of followers decided to deliver a public testimony from 1697 onwards. The volume thus offers a three-fold reconsideration of Lead’s legacy; an exploration of her audience while she was alive, a reconstruction of her posthumous readership, and a re-evaluation of her role in modern scholarship.

Overall this is a valuable and timely collection of essays that offers new direction to those concerned with studying the Philadelphians. As the chapter by Sarah Apetrei reveals, new manuscript sources of Lead’s works are still out there to be discovered, and it is to be hoped that the volume inspires more researchers to explore Lead’s important role in late 17th- and early 18th-century religion. Apetrei’s archival findings are generously reproduced in full, along with Laborie’s extensive list of known Philadelphians, providing scholars with the very latest findings to aid future research. The volume is well presented with generous scholarly endnotes. It will be of interest to students and scholars alike, especially anyone with an interest in female religiosity, alchemy, radical spirituality, mysticism, and the links between English and continental religious movements.

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