Who were the Philadelphian Society?

The Philadelphian Society emerged into public view in 1697 and declared themselves to be returning to the teachings of the ancient Church from the time of the Apostles. They took their name from the Philadelphian Church described in Revelation 3:7-8, which promised to ‘set before thee an open door’ which ‘no man can shut’. They strongly denied accusations they were a new sect, but rather insisted that they were a society under which those of all religious denominations could come together. They saw themselves as a way to heal the ‘Divisions and Sects of Christianity, all pretending to be the True Church, [which] can not be otherwise cured but by the Effusion of the Spirit’.

They were encouraged by the prophecies of the millenarian and Independent minister Thomas Beverley (d. 1702), who attacked anyone who ‘would shut the Door of the worship and ministration of Philadelphian witnesses’ to the coming millennium. He dated the coming of the new millennium to August 23rd, 1697, the very day the Philadelphians read out their constitutions at two meetings. Beverley believed that there would soon:

‘Certainly be a Subsiding and Sinking down of all Mountainous Church power, into the Philadelphian Plain […] they of it shall worship the Ascending witnesses; For that whole State of things since the Reformation shall be look’d back upon with Repentance, and self Condemnation, as no way Comporting with the Kingdom of Christ, but as One Demeritorious Cause of Sealing the Thunders, or Staying the powers of the Gospel, from bringing forth the Kingdom of Christ. The whole Robe or Garments of that State shall be laid aside, as Defiled’. 

The group had its origins in a small spiritual community guided and supported by John Pordage and his wife Mary, formed in the early 1650s, which used their home in Bradfield as its base. This group were loyal to the teachings of Jacob Boehme, and grew in notoriety for supposed visions of devils and angels. In 1649 Pordage appeared before Berkshire county committee on charges of blasphemy, and was eventually ejected from his rectory of Bradfield in 1655. Yet despite his pleas of innocence, Pordage played host to a variety of guests at his Bradfield home that the authorities would have found suspect. Among them was the prophet Elizabeth Poole, the ‘Ranter’ Abiezer Coppe, William Everard of the ‘True Levellers’, and Theaurau John Tany, the self-proclaimed Lord’s high priest of the Jews.

John Pordage (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1663 the prophetess Jane Lead joined this group, eventually living with Pordage after the death of her husband left her impoverished in 1674. Lead took over leadership of the group in 1681 after his death, writing the preface to his Theologia Mystica in 1683. She is recorded as staying in Lady Mico’s College for Impoverished Gentlewomen in Stepney in 1694, before being joined by Richard Roach and Francis Lee to form the Philadelphian Society. Roach and Lee both attended Merchant Taylors’ School in London, and later both matriculated at St John’s College, Oxford. Roach was ordained as a priest on 16 March 1690 and was appointed to the rectory of St Augustine, Hackney, a day after his ordination, where he remained until his death. Lee would abandon university due to his nonjuring principles in the summer of 1691, and instead travelled across the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, entering the University of Leiden in 1692 to study medicine. He returned to England in 1694 and married the daughter of Jane Lead, before assuming the main duties of guiding the Society with Roach after their emergence into public view in 1697.

From 1697 to 1704 the Philadelphians continued in their desire to revive ancient ecumenical Christianity, although their meetings were often interrupted by riots and they were subjected to intense criticism and mockery. In many circles they were compared to Quakers, and many feared they would prove to be just as disruptive. The Philadelphians attempted to disprove these claims, but never totally freed themselves from accusations of sectarianism, despite Richard Roach insisting they were still part of the Church of England. One Quaker who attended their meetings, Richard Claridge, described how:

‘A few People called themselves by the Name of the Philadelphian Society, having spread some Papers abroad relating to the said Society, and therein given Notice of their Meeting in Hungerford-Market, I was moved this 15th of the 6th Month Called August, 1697, […] to satisfy my self about the People, and their Worship, that made high Pretences to such a peculiar Dispensation of the Spirit, which no other Professors of Christianity, besides themselves (if they may be credited) were under’.

The Philadelphian Propositions, 1697

Claridge witnessed a man with arms crossed, head bowed and eyes shut speak of how God had entrusted them with a ‘pecular Dispensation of the spirit’ that had not been seen since the ‘Apostles Days’. He described a woman identified as Cresilla and dressed like ‘the Holy Women of Old’ who had talked of the ‘Spiritual Flesh and Blood of Christ’. The Philadelphians were apparently not to Claridge’s taste, as he concluded that ‘The Lord hath shewn me, that this Society is begun in Man’s Spirit and Will, and shall soon pass away as a Morning Cloud, or as the Early Dew’.

Claridge’s conclusion proved to be accurate, as the group largely dissolved after the death of their main prophetess Jane Lead in 1704. It was only Richard Roach who would attempt to continue the Society, combining it with the Camisard refugees referred to as the French Prophets in 1709. Francis Lee would abandon his Philadelphian principles after the death of his mother-in-law, and later featured in works criticising the French Prophets, his former Philadelphian allies, and visionary experience in general. Despite their almost naive enthusiasm for cross-confessional spiritual friendship and their very real belief in the coming millennium, they could not outlast the criticism levelled at them. A mocking elegy published after their downfall reveals the extent of the hostility and ridicule:

‘Good English Folk, come shake both Sides and Head,
For after all her Vaunt Poor Philly’s Dead.
Who in this Nation made such a fearful riot,
Folks could not eat and drink their common Dyet.
Nor play, nor fight, nor go to Church at quiet.
Whose notions soard above the starry Sky-Balls,
Beyond the reach of dim, and clearer Eye-Balls.
Icarus like she flew to near the flame,
Melted her waxen wings, and down she came’. 

Further Reading:

  • Apetrei, Sarah, Women, Feminism and Religion in Early Enlightenment England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chs. 6 and 7.
  • Apetrei, Sarah, ‘Epilogue: Jane Lead And The Philadelphian Society’, in Ariel Hessayon and Sarah Apetrei (eds.), An Introduction to Jacob Boehme: Four Centuries of Thought and Reception (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 92-94. 
  • Hessayon, Ariel, ‘Jacob Boehme’s writings during the English Revolution and afterwards: their publication, dissemination and influence’, in Hessayon and Apetrei (eds.), An Introduction to Jacob Boehme: Four Centuries of Thought and Reception, pp. 77-97.
  • Hessayon, Ariel, ‘Female agony and visionary experience: Jane Lead (1624-1704), her last days and its impact upon the Philadelphian Society, c. 1697-1704’, Insititute of Historical Research Podcast, Click here to listen.
  • Hirst, Julie, Jane Leade: Biography of a Seventeenth-Century Mystic (Burlington: Ashgate, 2005).
  • Johnston, Warren, Thomas Beverley and the “Late Great Revolution”: English Apocalyptic Expectation in the Late Seventeenth Century’, in Hessayon and Nicholas Keene (eds.), Scripture and Scholarship in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006), pp. 158-175.
  • Laborie, Lionel, Enlightening Enthusiasm: Prophecy and Religious Experience in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015). Forthcoming.
  • McDowell, Paula, ‘Enlightenment Enthusiasms and the Spectacular Failure of the Philadelphian Society’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2002), pp. 515–33. 
  • Raymond, Joad, ‘Radicalism and Mysticism in the Later Seventeenth Century’ in Joad (ed.) Conversations with Angels: Essays Towards a History of Spiritual Communication, 1100-1700 (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 317-340. 
  • Versluis, Arthur, Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).