Contrary to popular opinion, “Protestant mystic” is not an oxymoron. Indeed, during the first century or two following the Reformation a great abundance of Protestant mystics flourished. The Silesian cobbler Jacob Boehme may be the most important and most influential of them, but he wasn’t the only one. The English non-juror William Law, the poets George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, as well as the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, George Fox, could also be accorded mystics as could John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. And what is the English poet, engraver, and visionary William Blake but a mystic? However, an important Protestant mystic much overlooked by posterity is the founder of the Philadelphian Society, Jane Lead (1624 – 1704).
Lead (sometimes spelled “Leade”) published at least seventeen volumes of her visions and mystical insights between 1681 and her death—all of them translated immediately into German and published on the Continent. Her spirituality was deeply influenced by Boehme and she found in his work a validation of her own religious experiences. She tells of the most important of these in her spiritual autobiography, A Fountain of Gardens:
“…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.”
Lead identified this figure with Sophia, the feminine companion of God described in Proverbs 8.
Lead’s spirituality leans heavily upon the idea of apocatastasis, the restoration of all—sinful humans as well as fallen angels—at the Second Coming of Christ. In this, she departed from Christian orthodoxy and even the position of her spiritual master, Boehme. But, unlike some of history’s whackier mystics, Lead relied on scripture to support her position. She pointed to 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 1 Timothy 2:6 as justification and defended her position in these words:
“for GOD was, is, and so hath designed in CHRIST to reconcile all to himself which was at odds with him; for it is not to be the least doubted but the Efficacy of Christ the second Adam by the merit of his Blood-shed, and his Spirit given therein which will make all good again, which the first Adam made evil.”
Unfortunately, Lead’s books have long been out of print, though some have recently been digitized (more often in their German than in their English versions, alas). This is a shame, for many readers could benefit from examining her writing, as her spirituality, while thoroughly grounded in Christ, embodies an optimism and ecumenism rarely encountered elsewhere in the mystical literature of her period. When she died at the age of eighty, Lead was blind and obese (which probably indicates that she suffered from diabetes), but she had continued to receive visions and relate them to her amanuensis until just before she died. At that time, she no doubt found the truth of one of her favorite verses from scripture:
“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
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This reminds me of Yeats’ phase 15–complete beauty. Coleridge captured something of this in his poem Limbo:
But that is lovely—looks like Human Time,–
An Old Man with a steady Look sublime,
That stops his earthly Task to watch the skies ;
But he is blind—a Statue hath such Eyes ;–
Yet having moon-ward turn’d his face by chance,
Gazes the orb with moon-like countenance,
With scant white hairs, with foretop bald & high,
He gazes still,–his eyeless Face all Eye ;–
As ’twere an organ full of silent Sight,
His whole Face seemeth to rejoice in Light !
Lip touching lip, all moveless, bust and limb,
He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on him !