The Theosophical Transactions of the Philadelphians (No. 3)

The third volume of the Philadelphian’s Theosophical 

The movement faces its first criticisms

 Transactions reveals that the enthusiasm present in the first and second volumes was on the decline. It starts with a condemnation of an attack on the Philadelphian Society, published as The principles of a people stiling themselves Philadelphians (1697). The book was written by the exiled French Huguenot Daniel Lafite, who had been ordained as an Anglican deacon and priest in 1687. The Philadelphians protested that Lafite’s book had misrepresented them by taking a ‘maim’d extract’ of the beliefs they had outlined in volume two of their Transactions. The most controversial claim made by Lafite was that the Philadelphians had their origins in a sect known as the Family of Love. Familists, or the followers of the German Hendrik Niclaes, had been particularly influential in Elizabethan England. Niclaes taught a doctrine of perfection through union with God, or being ‘Godded with God’ and ‘Christed with Christ’. Although membership had largely vanished by the early seventeenth century, accusations that heretics like the Familists were spreading during the English Civil Wars formed the basis of many arguments made for a peace treaty with Charles I. It was not a great leap from the perfectionist beliefs of Familists to the radical libertine beliefs of groups like the Ranters. In order to discount the Philadelphian movement its critics sought to tarnish it with the worst of the radicalism spawned during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. This opening remark is interesting not only for the apparent concern the leaders of the Philadelphian Society had over the misinterpretation of their message, but also hints at the first public criticisms of their movement in print.

Regardless of these mounting criticisms, the volume continued in-depth discussions over visions, alchemy and Kabbalah that had been started in previous volumes. Translations were also still being published; volume three included Of the Heavenly New Jerusalem by the radical Pietist Johanna Eleonora Petersen, who was to become a leader of German Philadelphianism alongside her husband. Also included were extracts from ‘an Ambassadour in Muscovy’ about the religious traditions practiced in Asia. The extracts were provided in both Latin and English, hinting at the calibre of reader. Included was a discussion of the ‘Daley Lamma’ or Dalai Lama, whom it was reported ‘has lived for many Ages past’. It recounted how he changed with the moon, so that ‘in the New Moon he is as a Youth, in the First Quarter as a perfect Man, in the Full Moon an old Man, and in the last Quarter, as Decrepit and worn out with Age’. The Philadelphians seemed especially interested in his religious authority, for the translation notes that those trusted by the Dalai Lama to rule and govern ‘are all first to be Instructed and qualified in the Philosophical Colledge’.

The three figures produced in a fold out page.

For the first time the Transactions included a folded page of images, which is reproduced above. Figure 1 represented ‘Wisdoms Star’, which was also the name of a poem included at the back of the publication. The sun in the centre represented the love and wisdom of God, with the twelve beams of light signifying the twelve patriarchs and apostles.Figure 2 sought to show the mystery of the sacred cross in the dimensions of a cube. At the centre was the heart of Christ, wherein the ‘Wisdoms Star’ of Figure 1 could be found. Finally Figure 3 represented the seven stars of spiritual Wisdom, but also featured individually numbered segments which totalled 144. This was a direct reference to Revelation 21:10, which discussed the holy spiritual city of New Jerusalem. There it detailed how the city had twelve gates with the names of the twelve patriarchs, and twelve foundations with the names of the twelve apostles. Hence the number 144 was 12 x 12, taken from both such examples. As the Philadelphians were awaiting the awakening of a spiritual New Jerusalem within their souls, they likely had an intense interest in any visual representations concerning such a topic. The images show the complexity of visionary and mystical imagery prevalent among the group.

The third volume ended with a promise that the fourth instalment of the Theosophical Transactions for July was already going to the press, with editions for the rest of the months of 1697 ready to follow. As we will see in future articles, only a fourth and fifth instalment ever emerged.

Further Reading: 

  • Becker-Cantarino, Barbara (ed.), The Life of Lady Johanna Eleonora Petersen, Written by Herself (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  • Jung, Martin H., ‘Johanna Eleonora Petersen’, in Lindberg, Carter (ed.), The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 147-160.
  • Marsh, Christopher W., The Family of Love in English Society, 1550-1630 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Smith, Nigel, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion, 1640-60 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
  • Smith, Nigel (ed.), A Collection of Ranter Writings: Spiritual Liberty and Sexual Freedom in the English Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2014).