The Theosophical Transactions of the Philadelphians (No. 2)

The second of the Philadelphian’s Theosophical Transactions was published in April 1697. The front cover contained a quote from Revelation, ‘Behold, I have set before thee an Open Door: and no Man can shut it’ (Rev 3:8). This second memoir contained letters from actual members of the Philadelphians concerning subjects brought up in the previous months publication. Despite this, it was substantially smaller than the first, suggesting that Lee and Roach had expended most of their original material in the previous volume.

Title Page of Transaction Number 2

One of the most interesting letters comes from a member of the Philadelphians based in Niederndodeleben in Germany. Writing to a member in London, the author recounts meeting a 30 year old man from Denmark who was preaching erroneous doctrines. The man apparently believed that in the near future virgins would begin to give birth without ‘conjunction of man’, and that their children would be sanctified in the womb, having no original sin or need for spiritual regeneration. The German Philadelphians had debated with the man and tried to disprove his opinions via scripture. ‘He is not a Cheat, or Beguiler, who should wilfully delight to impose upon or deceive any’ the German correspondent insisted, ‘but is of an upright Heart, and one that seeks in good earnest to please God’. The man from Denmark had featured in the previous transaction, where he gave an account of his experiences of an ‘unexpressible Rapture of Joy’ and his belief that he had discovered the unborn child that would become the second Christ. The Philadelphians had managed to convince the man he was wrong about the child, and hoped to continue to convince him of his error concerning sanctification. They finished their letter by praying for God to ‘pour down of his Love and Mercy upon us’ so they could continue to overcome such deceptive spirits. According to Elizabeth Bouldin, this letter was likely written by Johann Wilhelm Petersen, one of the Philadelphian’s closest continental allies.

The letter shows how the Philadelphians’ were actively looking for new spiritual happenings. From Denmark, to Germany, and then back to England, there was clearly an extensive communication network that can only partially be recovered from historical records unearthed so far. As this letter, and many others, have not been located in their original form, it would suggest that a substantial portion of the Philadelphian’s letters have been lost. The reliability of some of these letters is questionable to say the least. In a letter from Hereford, a member describes an account of a spiritual apparition which he had been told about ‘some time ago’ by a friend. This friend had heard the story while in York from a Mr Wright, making the Philadelphians recipients of third-hand information. The story itself is rather humerous- Mr Wright, while trying to sleep, saw a shadow move at the end of the bed. Thinking it was his dog, he was shocked to discover it was in fact a friend who had died two years earlier, dressed in ‘a Night-cap and a little Hat’. The apparition had several messages to pass on to his still alive wife, and tasked Mr Wright with delivering them.

Roach sets his own poem to music

Another important connection for the Philadelphians was the Quietist Pierre Poiret. Poiret was incredibly influential on Lee and Roach, and was a noted translator of mystical and devotional texts in the seventeenth century. He was the gateway through which the Philadelphians were connected to Pietist and Quietist groups on the continent. This second Theosophical Transaction contains an extract of his Le Berger Illumine, first published in 1690, translated into English as The Enlightened Shepherd, or a Spiritual Conversation betwixt a Shepherd and an Ecclesiastick. The story tells of a simple shepherd boy who, despite no education and only being a teenager, spoke ‘with the Inward Gifts of the Spirit’ due to his education by God in the ‘spiritual life’. This was typical of the Philadelphians’ belief that God guided the weak and uneducated to become his greatest messengers.

The final section of the publication features part of Roach’s poem ‘Solomon’s Porch’ set to music. The poem had previously appeared in the first part of Jane Lead’s diary, published in 1696. Here the mystical poem serves a communal purpose. According to Roach the poem had been adapted to fit with ‘Natural Recitative Musick’, suggesting that the poem was meant to be communally recited more as a chant than a song. This again, like in the first volume of the Theosophical Transactions, allows us a glimpse into the likely content and happenings of a Philadelphian meeting.

Further Reading: 

  • Bouldin, Elizabeth, Women Prophets and Radical Protestantism in the British Atlantic World, 1640–1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Durnbaugh, Donald F., ‘Jane Ward Leade (1624-1704) and the Philadelphians’, in Lindberg, Carter (ed.), The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 128-46.
  • Schneider, Hans, German Radical Pietism, trans. Gerald T. Macdonald (Plymouth: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2007).
  • Shantz, Douglas H., An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2013).
  • Thune, Nils, The Behmenists and the Philadelphians: A Contribution to the Study of English Mysticism in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckeri AB, 1948).