The Heavenly Cloud Now Breaking: A Message from the Philadelphian Society
Seventeenth-century England was a rotten time and place to live. Civil wars, various iterations of religious persecution, enclosure of the commons, plague. Stuff like that. Stuff like that of our own times. Yet it was also a time of great optimism and inspiring religious intuition and communitas. Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick celebrated communitas in his boisterous, jovial, and often messy collection Hesperides, holding a magic mirror up to society to show what human flourishing could look like while avoiding the temptation propose a utopia. Thomas Traherne, another Anglican prelate, articulated in his poetry an ethos of returning to the Kingdom by learning how see, by becoming childlike. “How like an angel came I down!” And then there was the Philadelphian Society.
The Philadelphian Society, formally founded in 1694, but active from at least in the middle of the century, dedicated its efforts to “the Reformation of Manners, for the Advancement of an Heroical Christian Piety, and Universal Love towards All.”1 Inspired in great part by the writing of Jacob Boehme which had been published in English translation beginning in the 1640s, the Philadelphians were the first Englishmen to propose a sophiological Christianity, and their writings bear witness to the reality of Sophia as divine person as well as to an accompanying ecumenism and universalism (two elements never far away when Sophiology appears).
The group first formed around the Anglican priest and physician John Pordage. The group was noted for its female visionaries: Ann Bathurst, Joanna Oxenbridge, and, especially, Pordage’s first wife, Mary Pordage—all later to be superseded by the dynamic Jane Lead. Another member of the community was Thomas Bromley, author of one of the great, though neglected, classics of Christian spirituality, The Way to the Sabbath of Rest.
Following Pordage’s death, the widowed Jane Lead became the leader of the community. She was apparently a gentle, kind, yet nevertheless inspiring leader, and her disciples were devoted to her. Her own mystical experiences and writings were documented in the many books she published between 1681 and her death in 1704, most notably her multi-volume series A Fountain of Gardens.
The sensibilities of the Philadelphians were decidedly ecumenical. All believers were to be included and none of the members were expected to leave their churches of origin. Protestants of every stripe and Roman Catholics were members. Lead, obviously following the indications given in the Book of Revelation that there were seven spiritual churches, interpreted it in this way: “the Seven Churches throughout the World disperst, as first, the Ancient Church of the Jews, that was, and is not, and is to be. 2. The Roman Church. 3. The Greek 4. The Æthiopian. 5. The Lutheran. 6. The French Reformed, or Calvinistical. 7. The Ancient Church of the Valleys.”2 I have to think that if she’d known about Sufisim she would have found a way to include the Sufis. As I argue in my chapter on Lead in my book Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, Lead was nothing if not suprauniversal in her religious sympathies.3 Lead’s ecumenicism even upholds an ecumenicism of gender, as she writes in The Revelation of Revelations:
“As to the outward Sex there shall be no distinction, though the Typical Priesthood admitted none but Males in its day: All of that is done away with, for Signs and Figures in this Ministration do fly away like a Cloud: Male and Female are alike here, therefore the holy Ghost doth include both in one, swallowing up all in the Newness, Strength, Power and Glory of his own springing new Birth, according as it is witnessed, Where there is neither Male nor Female, but Christ is all, and in all.”4
So why I am I invoking the Philadelphians (and especially Lead) in this hour of our despair? I’m invoking them because they offer the Way to the Sabbath of Rest. Their belief was that all are welcome to the Feast of the Bridegroom, the hieros gamos of God and Creation through the metaxu of Sophia (which Herrick also proposes in his poetry—but in such a different idiom!) We are surrounded by joy. The Philadelphians, in their great generosity of soul, their magnanimous religious openness, more than almost anyone were emblematic of St. Paul’s words in Galatians:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)
What would happen if we brought this spirit to our times? Would we create the Kingdom?
“Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets.” (William Blake, paraphrasing Numbers 11:29)
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and 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.
1. [Francis Lee], The State of the Philadelphian Society or, The Grounds of their Proceedings Considered (1697), 7.
2. Jane Lead, The Messenger of An Universal Peace: or, The Third Message to the Philadelphian Society (1698), 2–3.
3. Michael Martin, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014), 165.
3. Jane Lead, The Revelation of Revelations… (1683), 105–06.