Lead’s Life and Times: (part one) Before Widowhood; (part two) The Woman in the Wilderness; (part three) The Philadelphian Society

Hessayon, Ariel. 2016. Lead’s Life and Times: (part one) Before Widowhood; (part two) The Woman in the Wilderness; (part three) The Philadelphian Society. In: Ariel Hessayon, ed. Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 13-90. ISBN 9781137396136 [Book Section]

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Part one: focussing on the period of Lead’s life before she became a widow in 1670, this chapter suggests that Lead was far more radical than has been supposed. Making use of a great many archival discoveries, which form the cornerstone of the painstaking reconstruction presented here, it provides mainly circumstantial but nonetheless cumulatively overwhelming evidence that Lead’s relatively well-known autobiography (printed in German in 1696) conceals almost as much as it reveals. Constructed to reassure its intended audience of continental Spiritualists, Behmenists and Pietists of Lead’s upright character, respectable social status and divinely bestowed gifts this so-called ‘Life of the Author’ adopts a similar strategy to that observable in a number of Philadelphian publications which masked private heterodox beliefs and rituals with public professions of irenic conformity. Accordingly key names, activities and teachings are omitted from Lead’s German biography because in the political, military and religious contexts of the mid-1690s detailing past associations would have damaged Lead’s reputation among her heterogeneous readership.

Part two: covering the period from 1670 to 1695 – that is from the beginning of Lead’s widowhood until she went blind – this chapter focusses as much on extensive and overlapping domestic and continental networks of assorted millenarians, prophets, theosophists and devotees of mystic and spiritualist authors generally as on Lead herself. It also traces an evolution of Lead’s thought as she came under successive influences and began to develop her own distinctive beliefs. This was a religious journey with staging posts: an initial Calvinist obsession with sin and predestination wedded to a conventional Protestant understanding of the coming apocalypse; then the introduction of Jacob Boehme’s teachings and accompanying visions of a female personification of divine wisdom; finally the adoption, albeit with inconsistencies, of the doctrine of the universal restoration of all humanity. It was the last together with Lead’s apparent dependence upon visions and revelations which repulsed certain former admirers of her writings, turning them into some of Lead’s most vehment critics.

Part three: this chapter covers the period from 1696 to 1704, that is from Lead’s first published message to the Philadelphian Society until her death and burial. It outlines how Lead’s little band of supporters intended to warn and prepare prospective believers of the coming Philadelphian age through a flurry of publications. Yet this co-ordinated publicity campaign abruptly fractured the Philadelphians’ precursor society, which hitherto had negotiated a path between secrecy and openness. Consequently only the minority who favoured a public testimony owned the Philadelphian name. Wanting to expose her visions and teachings to public view Lead was given the opportunity to do so through a succession of mainly male patrons and amanuenses. Accordingly she became synonymous with the Philadelphian Society. At the same time Lead’s principle supporters set about fashioning an image of irenic conformity and social standing for the Philadelphians at large. Hostile observers, however, readily compared Philadelphians with Quakers. Some even incorporated them within a catalogue of innumerable sects or else grouped them with foreign Quietists and Pietists. More damaging still was the allegation that Lead envisaged herself as the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1), indeed as the grandmother of a new Christ.

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Book Section

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German Translation, Spiritual Community, Dutch Republic, Spiritual Meditation, Glorious Revolution

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19 July 2016Published

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Date Deposited:

23 Jun 2016 14:26

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01 Dec 2020 09:30



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