An Introduction to Jane Lead: Freedom and Sophiology
I don't think enough people know about Jane Lead. This introduction is an excerpt from my book, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014).
Profoundly influenced by the mysticism of Jacob Boehme, Jane Lead (1624 – 1704) was a visionary mystic, a prolific author, and the leader of the Philadelphian Society, a religious group named for one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation. In her evangelical mission, Lead directed the Society toward “the Reformation of Manners, for the Advancement of an Heroical Christian Piety, and Universal Love towards All.” By the time the existence of the Philadelphians was made public in 1697, Lead was seventy-three-years old and rapidly losing her eyesight. Nevertheless, she continued to guide the Society until her death in 1704, a feat rare enough for a woman of the time without the additional social barriers of age and blindness...
In the ninth chapter of Acts, Paul undergoes what has become the archetype of Christian conversion and the template for religious experience, the event on the road to Damascus: “suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:3 – 4). The importance of this event—which is the importance of religious experience in general—is in the way it calls its subject to a new life and, hopefully, awakens in the reader a similar conversion. Following his encounter with Christ, Paul’s career abruptly changed direction and his life gained significance—for Paul as well as for Western culture. Jane Lead began her religious mission following a similarly aleatory encounter with the divine Sophia.
Sophia (המכח – Hokmah in Hebrew) appears as the personification of God’s wisdom in female form in several books of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Proverbs and in the deuterocanonical books of Wisdom and Sirach. In Proverbs, a theology of Sophia is laid out in imaginative form as she relates her history:
The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains
abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of
When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the
When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment:
when he appointed the foundations of the earth:
Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing
always before him;
Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. (Prv 8:22 – 31)
Inspired by Pordage, Lead’s understanding of Sophia is deeply indebted to Boehme who takes Sophia literally as a divine person. This was new theological territory in early modern times, potentially heretical. Boehme’s notion of Sophia is very complex. She is, in one sense, a spiritual analog for the Virgin Mary, who in turn becomes a kind of earthly Sophia-figure. As Mary’s participation with God in effecting the Incarnation of Christ, according to the traditional Christian understanding of the event, was necessary for the salvation of the world, so, according to Boehme, is Sophia’s participation in the individual soul necessary for individual salvation:
"When Christ the corner-stone, stirreth himself in the extinguished image of man, in his hearty conversion and repentance, then Virgin Sophia appeareth in the stirring of the Spirit of Christ, in the extinguished Image, in her Virgines attire before the soule: at which the soule is so amazed and astonished in its uncleanesse, that all its sinnes immediately awake in it, and tremble and shake before her. For then the judgement passeth upon the sinnes of the soule, so that it even goeth backe in its unworthiness, and is ashamed in the presence of its faire love, and entereth into it selfe, denying it selfe as utterly unworthy to receive such a jewell. This is understood by them who are our Tribe, who have tasted this jewell, and to none else. But the noble Sophia draweth neare in the essence of the soule, and kisseth it friendly, and tinctureth the darke fire of the soule with her Rayes of love, and shineth through the soule with her Kisse of love: then the soule skippeth in its body for great joy, in the strength of this Virgin-love, triumphing, and praying the great God, in the strength of the noble Sophia."
B.J. Gibbons has observed that with the abandonment of Marian devotion that was a feature of the Reformation an “emotional vacuum” opened up which Boehme and his followers filled with their sophiological speculations. There is certainly something to be said for such an opinion. Indeed, Boehme’s sophiological considerations have more than a few similarities to Catholic Marian devotion, just as his Mariology is never far from the idea of Sophia. As he writes in Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Sonne of God, “And so the Outward Mary became adorned and blessed with the Highly blessed heavenly Virgin [i.e., Sophia], among all Women of this World. In her, that which was dead and shut up of the Humanity, became living again; and so she became as highly graduated or Dignified, as the first Man before the Fall, and became a Mother of the Throne-Prince.” But what is important about this has even more personal and individualized ramifications—and just as significant. “Understand it right,” Boehme tells his readers,
"The Deity, hath longed to become Flesh and Bloud; and although the pure cleer Deity, continueth Spirit, yet is it become the Spirit and Life of Flesh; and worketh in the Flesh; so that we may say, when we with our Imagination enter into God, and wholly give up ourselves into him, WE ENTER INTO GODS FLESH AND BLOOD, and live in God."
The notion of “God’s flesh and blood” would eventually become very important to Lead.
Lead’s first vision of Sophia occurred in April of 1670, not long after her husband’s death. While on a visit to a friend in the country, she was preoccupied with religious questions, “contemplating the happy State of the Angelical World; and how desirous I was to have my Conversation there” (Fountain, 1:17). Lead’s contemplation was suddenly interrupted:
"… while in this debate within my Mind, there came upon me an overshadowing bright Cloud, and in the midst of it the Figure of a Woman, most richly adorned with transparent Gold, her Hair hanging down, and her Face as the terrible Crystal for brightness, but her Countenance was sweet and mild. At which sight I was somewhat amazed, but immediately this Voice came saying, Behold I am God’s Eternal Virgin-Wisdom, whom thou hast been enquiring after; I am to unseal the Treasures of God’s deep Wisdom unto thee, and will be as Rebecca was unto Jacob, a true Natural Mother." (1:18)
Three days later, Lead beheld the same figure “with a Crown upon her Head, full of Majesty” holding a Golden Book closed with three seals inscribed “Herein lieth hidden the deep Wonders of Jehovah’s Wisdom” (1:18). After six more days, Wisdom again appeared. This time she told Lead that she would no longer appear “in a Visible Figure” but assured her that “I will not fail to transfigure my self in thy mind….for I thy Glass for Divine Seeing shall evermore stand before thee” (1:20 – 21). Echoing the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s message in the first chapter of Luke, Lead told Wisdom, “According to thy Word let all this be fulfilled” (1:21). Lead’s experience of Sophia, however, was not fully realized in the spring of 1670 and her understanding of its full import unfolded over the rest of her life. Certainly, as I have already noted, her intuitions concerning Sophia owe much to Boehme as well as to her spiritual colleague Pordage, but it would be wrong to dismiss her theological aesthetics as derivative, as some have. Indeed, Lead was not a woman to be pushed around, as she showed when she rejected her family’s pleas to rely on their support following the death of her husband—a move she feared would cause her to abandon her Philadelphian work—and later when she embraced the concept of apocatastasis, breaking with both Pordage and Boehme who condemned the idea. Lead’s mission was not simply a matter of inspired reading or religious association. Rather, it was a case of an event.
For Alain Badiou, the event is something one experiences, something impossible for one to deny, and, most importantly, something “which compels us to decide a new way of life.” Badiou argues that the event discloses “truth,” but by “truth” he does not mean a body of doctrine or empirical evidence so much as “a real process of fidelity to the event.” The unfolding of this truth initiated by the event, moreover, represents “an immanent break. ‘Immanent’ because a truth proceeds in the situation and nowhere else…. ‘Break’ because what enables the truth-process—the event—meant nothing according to the prevailing language and established knowledge of the situation.” In Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Badiou argues for an understanding of the apostle as “a poet-thinker of the event,” describing Paul as one who, “[t]urning away from all authority other than that of the Voice that personally summoned him,” stays faithful to the event to the very end. Badiou attends to the ways in which the “Christian subject does not preexist the event he declares” and points to Paul’s rejection of the categories of Jew or Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, and even of gender as evidence of his immanent break. This results in a situation in which one finds that “the subjectivity corresponding to this subtraction continues a necessary distance from the State and from what corresponds to the State in people’s consciousness: the apparatus of opinion.”
Like Paul’s event at Damascus, Lead’s encounter with Sophia demarcated her own immanent break and, remaining faithful to Sophia’s voice, she attempted to transcend categories of class, gender, nation, and even the idea of a “church.” The three messages Lead issued to the Philadelphian Society, for instance, were not intended for the group of less than one-hundred Philadelphians affiliated with her circle in England, but to Philadelphians “Whithersoever dispersed over the whole Earth.” This is why Francis Lee addresses The Declaration of the Philadelphian Society of England (1699) to “the Catholick Church, Representative and Diffuse.” The notions of the corpus mysticum and the Communion of Saints deeply inform the Philadelphian vision of Christianity.
Lead, following Paul, entered into a religious consciousness that transcended categories of allegiance, class, and gender. Though critics often point to Lead’s “occult” tendencies, the deeper one looks into her work the more one sees the mind of a generally orthodox, though idiosyncratic and somewhat undisciplined, Christian thinker. Lead stayed true to this theological aesthetic, and it metamorphosed over the course of her career to become, one might say, suprauniversal, a religious sensibility certainly in accord with Paul’s. Indeed, Lead eventually came to embrace the theological concept of apocatastasis, the resurrection and glorification of not only the just but of all: sinful humans as well as the fallen angels. Apocatastasis was regarded as heretical in Lead’s day, and she knew it. But, like Paul, she remained true to her mission, ignoring official ecclesiastical doctrine and received opinion in order to retain that fidelity.
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including one on The Metaphysical Poets.
 [Francis Lee], The State of the Philadelphian Society or, The Grounds of their Proceedings Considered (1697), 7.
 Jacob Behmen [Jacob Boehme], The Way to Christ Discovered [Translation attributed to John Sparrow] (London, 1648 ), 57 – 58.
 Gibbons, Gender in Mystical and Occult Thought, 63.
 Jacob Behme [Jacob Boehme], The Fifth Book of the Author, in Three parts. The First; Of the Becoming Man or Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Sonne of God, That is, Concerning the Virgin Mary…shewing what True Faith is, trans. John Sparrow (1659), 64.
 Boehme, The Fifth Book, 65. I have modified the text somewhat: that which I render here in all capitals is represented in a much larger font size in the text.
 Hirst, Jane Leade, 28.
 As Apetrie notes, Lead’s “soteriology was considerably more radical than that of Boehme himself.” See her Women, Feminism and Religion, 228.
The German Behmenist and writer Johann Georg Gichtel (1638 – 1710) openly disapproved of this aspect of Lead’s teaching. See Arthur Versluis, Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999), 70 – 72.
 Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2001), 41. Emphasis in Badiou.
 Badiou, Ethics, 42.
 Badiou, Ethics, 42 – 43.
 Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). 2.
 Badiou, Saint Paul, 18 – 19.
 Badiou, Saint Paul, 14.
 Badiou, Saint Paul, 15.
Jane Lead, A Message to the Philadelphian Society, Whithersoever dispersed over the whole Earth (London, 1696), title page.
 [Francis Lee], The Declaration of the Philadelphian Society of England (1699), A1r.
 Kneidel, Turn to Religion, 16 – 17.