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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 515-533

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Enlightenment Enthusiasms and the Spectacular Failure of the Philadelphian Society

Paula McDowell

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.
Icrus like she flew to[o] near the flame,
Melted her waxen wings, and down she came.

An Elegy, Upon the Philadelphian Society: With the
False Oracles, Last Speech, and Confession
(1703), lines 1-9

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a text now generally understood to be among the most important early formulations of the philosophy of empiricism, John Locke states that he wants to find "the Horizon . . . which sets the Bounds between the enlightened and dark Parts of Things."My essay focuses on a millenarian group active in Locke's London, a group concerned, as he was, with the bases for human knowledge, but with areas of inquiry he deemed "not comprehensible by us." 1 The Philadelphian Society for the Advancement of Divine Philosophy was a London-based congregation with branches in continental Europe. Followers of German mystic Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), the Philadelphians held that divine wisdom was derived from mystical contemplation rather than reliance on Scripture, and they saw the established [End Page 515] church as one in which "all the Extraordinary Stirrings of the Divine Spirit are too generally Slighted." 2 The society can be traced back to the Interregnum, to the communal household of one-time Anglican minister John Pordage (1607-1681), who was expelled from the church in 1654. Pordage was one of the earliest English commentators on Böhme, whose works were widely read in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and elsewhere in Europe. 3

The leader of the society during its most public phase in England, from 1695 to 1703, was Protestant mystic Jane Lead (1623-1704). After Pordage's death, Lead assumed leadership of their congregation, edited Pordage's Theologia Mystica (1683), and immediately began publishing her own works. Over the next twenty-three years, Lead published at least seventeen books and tracts, including her three-volume, 2,500-page spiritual diary, A Fountain of Gardens, Watered by the Rivers of Divine Pleasure (1696-1701). The stream of works that she produced would make her one of the most prolific English women writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In 1694, after reading her works in German translation, English nonjuror Francis Lee sought Lead out and introduced her to Anglican minister Richard Roach. From this time on, this septuagenarian female mystic would have two Oxford-educated scholars to help transcribe her visions and shepherd them into print.

In 1695, the Philadelphians embarked on a mission to proclaim their cause to the world. They began printing keynote publications, and in 1697, holding public meetings—addressing their message of "Universal Love" and the unification of Christian churches to "all Nations and Languages and Kindreds." 4 The flood of texts that the society produced during the period 1695-1704 would make them a prime example of the intersection of millennial aspirations and mass marketing that Jonathan Swift was contemporaneously satirizing in A Tale of a Tub (begun 1696, printed 1704). Yet in 1703, the group suddenly stopped holding their public meetings, announcing in further publications that their intentions had been misrepresented. In particular, they claimed that they had been smeared with the "Imputation of Madness and Enthusiasm thrown at Adventure before the Case be distinguish'd and understood." 5 The two-hundred-line Elegy, Upon the Philadelphian Society delighted in the spectacle of the Philadelphians' apparent failure: "For after all her Vaunt Poor Philly's Dead." Calling on "Good English folk" to "shake" with laughter, this broadside ballad anticipates at the popular level the most important early-eighteenth-century work dealing with claims to divine...


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