The Theosophical Transactions of the Philadelphians (No. 1)

The Theosophical Transactions, or Acta Philadelphica, were a series of five small memoirs published by the Philadelphian Society between March and November 1697. Edited by leaders of the group, Richard Roach and Francis Lee, they were intended to be circulated amongst members to inform them of religious occurrences and newly published works. They were published in London and sold for one shilling. Surviving copies of the Transactions in England are rare; the Bodleian Library in Oxford only has the first of the five memoirs, while the British Library has a complete bound set of all five. In America copies survive in numerous places including the libraries of Harvard University, Oakland University and the University of Texas.

Front cover of the Transactions

The content of these five works varied considerably, and each volume of the Transactions will receive individual treatment in subsequent posts. For now focus is given to the first of the five volumes. In it stories relayed to members included an account of a ‘Black Bituminous Vapour’ in France which ‘arose out of the Earth, and did considerable Mischief’. This vapour destroyed fields, trees and 12 houses, but apparently passed over people if they laid on the ground. Elsewhere, in Germany a respected gentleman was awoken by a ‘little man’ and given the key to treasure hidden in a mountain (only to lose the key and face divine punishment). The members speculated wildly on what this account meant, and in the fourth Transaction even went as far as to suggest that in England such treasures remained from the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. These treasures had curses set upon them which would activate if the treasure was found in a way that differed from ‘a Way of Devoluton as was Originally Design’d’. The event was legitimated by being linked to a similar event in the life of German Lutheran Jacob Boehme, whom the Philadelphians were heavily influenced by.

A common feature of the Transactions were long and quite dense expositions on certain phrases of Scripture. These were undertaken in the form of a conversation between Roach and Lee (under the names of Philochrysus and Philadelphus). The first volume featured discussion on the subject of Revelation 21, specifically verses 18,19 and 21. Their exposition took the form of dialogue, poetry and illustrations, all presented for the benefit of the reader. Although obscure and difficult to read, these sections provide excellent evidence for the scriptural justifications the Philadelphians used to formulate their millennialist beliefs.

The first volume also featured extracts from authors including two testimonies of St. Barnabas the Apostle, The Nature of Truth by Robert Greville, 2nd Baron Brooke (1607-1643), and the second part of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies by Mary Astell (1666-1731). Extracts from the works of an ancient Christian writer, a deceased English Civil War Roundhead General, and a contemporary female author promoting the rights of women, serve to highlight the eclectic reading habits promoted among members. The final page of the memoir advertises other works published by the Society, including A Message to the Philadelphian Society and A Fountain of Gardens, both by their prophetess Jane Lead, which were published separately.

The first page of the translated song

At the back of the volume there is also a section on ‘A New Theory of Musick’, which proposes music should be viewed as ‘an outward Representation of the Harmony of the Divine Powers and Properties in the Nature of God’, as well as a song written by a German composer which had been translated from Latin. Whether this song was translated with the purpose of being sung at meetings of the Philadelphian Society is pure speculation, but more than likely. Because the Philadelphian Society was set up as an additional community in which members of separate churches could come together, the Theosophical Transactions give a sense of the nature of this community. United in their belief that the new millennium was close at hand, members of the Society needed a way to keep up-to-date with the miraculous events happening across the world, as well as discover newly published works which would satisfy their spiritual hunger. The Transactions therefore fulfilled a very practical purpose, to spread news of spiritual occurrences, and highlight that members of the group kept one eye firmly fixed on continental events which might signal the arrival of the new age. This is made plain by Roach and Lee themselves in the first volume, and serves as a fitting conclusion to this overview of the first of their Transactions:

We having an Establish’d Correspondency in most parts of Europe, relating to the Affairs of Religion, and most specially to such Passages therein Emerging, as are less Heeded, and Known by the Generality of Christendom (so called:) and likewise to the Extraordinary Appearances of God in Nature […] have been mov’d, in this Present Junture of Affairs, to bring forth our Light, that has been hitherto kept as it were under a Bushel; and to place it Now upon a Mountain, for the publick and universal good of all mankind, whom we esteem Our Friends and Brethren’.

Further Reading:

  • Apetrei, Sarah, Women, Feminism and Religion in Early Enlightenment England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Apetrei’s thoughtful work places both Mary Astell and Jane Lead within a wider impulse of feminist protest in the period.
  • Dixon, Tom, ‘Love and Music in Augustan London; Or, The ‘Enthusiasms’ of Richard Roach’, Eighteenth Century Music, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2007), pp. 191-209.
  • Hill, Bridget, ‘A Refuge from Men: The Idea of a Protestant Nunnery’, Past & Present, Vol. 117, No. 1 (1987), pp. 107-130. Hill engages with Mary Astell and her wider context.
  • McDowell, Paula, The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678-1730 (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1998). McDowell argues that the Philadelphians ‘used Lead’s name as a marketing tool’ (p. 174) in the Theosophical Transactions.
  • Skouen, Tina, and Stark, Ryan J., ‘Introduction’, in Skouen and Stark (eds.), Rhetoric and the Early Royal Society: A Sourcebook (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 1-52. Skouen and Stark suggest that the Theosophical Transactions were ‘designed specifically as a counterstatement to the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions’ (p. 27).
  • Versluis, Arthur, ‘Mysticism and Spiritual Harmonics in Eighteenth-Century England’, Esoterica, Vol. 4 (2002), pp. 183-194. Click here to read.