ODD TRUTHS: JANE LEAD, PROPHETESS OF A NEW AGE
“She, I believe, carried to its practical extreme the Paracelsian doctrine concerning the magical power of faith…”
-from Hours with the Mystics, vol. II, by Robert Vaughan (1856).
In April of 1670, Jane Lead (or Leade) had a vision that would change her life forever. While walking in the woods and contemplating the wisdom of King Solomon, Jane suddenly found herself face-to-face with an unearthly woman. The being, who descended in a splendorous cloud, introduced herself as “God’s Eternal Virgin, Wisdom”:
After this proclamation, the spirit departed, leaving Jane emotionally shaken. Jane then started making regular visits into the “silent woods”, hoping to see the mysterious woman again. She spent three days “sitting under a tree”, and the spirit, apparently responding to her devotion, manifested herself in greater majesty than before. This time, she gave herself a new epithet: “Mother.” This vision was followed by another Poimandres-like revelation in London, during which the spirit promised to transform Jane’s mind and grant her the power of prophecy.
These mind-shattering visitations were just the beginning of Jane’s extraordinary spiritual career as the main apostolic luminary of The Philadelphian Society, a London-based religious group that took its inspiration from Jacob Boehme and a melange of Hermetic and Neoplatonic ideas. The society’s magical leanings were partly due to the influence of Jane’s partner, Dr John Pordage. Pordage was an in the know “wizard” and cleric from Berkshire who sometimes conversed with angels. He also brushed shoulders with the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, a well-known associate of astrologer William Lilly. Among Pordage’s acquaintances was an anarchist named William Everard. Everard was said to have spirits at his beck and call, and on one occasion his conjured fiend appeared in the form of an anthropomorphic dragon:
“He saith that, a fiery dragon, so big as to fill a very great room, conflicted visibly with him, many hours; that one appeared to him in his chamber, in the likeness of [William] Everard, with boots, spurs, etc.”
Despite the obvious occult undercurrents of Pordage’s entourage, Lead and Pordage’s partnership was a match made in heaven. Pordage played a central role in fleshing out Lead’s theories and getting her works published. After his death in 1681, Lead succeeded him as the leader of the Philadelphian Society. In essence, Lead’s gospel was one of action and urgency. Considering herself to be a prophetess of the new age, Lead believed that a millennium would be ushered in through the unified willful efforts of “adeptists” and “Heavenly magicians”:
“Yet here the way is laid open to attain to this all-powerful activity, in the magia of the Holy Ghost, to encourage and provoke us to set upon the work, giving praise unto him, who hath been pleased to reveal where the key of the magia doth lie, which will open that treasury that can fully enrich all impoverished souls: wherefore it is worth the lending our ear to wisdom’s renewed call and cry, and no longer to delay, but hasten to get through all her gates, and to be planters of a new paradisical earth…but wisdom’s children shall be able to set themselves free, as they become students in the art of this divine magia.”
Lead died in Hoxton in 1704. Her works, which received significant attention in spiritual circles on the continent, also helped to spread Behmenist thought. To get a better understanding of Lead’s influence, we caught up with Dr Ariel Hessayon, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and the editor of Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy (2016).
The Custodian: What would you say are the key elements of Jane’s method of prayer?
Ariel Hessayon: Difficult to say; what we do know is that she put great emphasis on personal experience, and particularly on visions, dreams and the like.
C: What were Jane’s views on magic and the so-called “globe-eye”?
A: Again, difficult to say; it may well be that she was influenced by John Pordage here although she subsequently developed her own views. Here it’s well worth quoting the letter from the patristic scholar Henry Dodwell (1641–1711) to Lead’s son-in-law Francis Lee:
“I know not how your Mother in law is qualifyed to write the style in which her Books are penned. But this I have observed, that there are many things ingredient in that style, which are quite out of the way of the education, or conversation, or even reading of women. It consists of many Latine terms, of terms of Art, of the old Platonick Mystical Divinity, of all the modern Enthusiasts, of Jacob Behm, of the Judicial Astrologers, of the Magic Oracles, of the Alchymists, of which too many are in English, but not ordinarily to be met with. I very much doubt whether she would be able to give an account of the terms used in the writings which go under her name, if she were critically examined concerning them. But I think I have discovered the footsteps of another and a more likely Author of them. I mean Dr. Pordage. I find she has been intimate with him ever since the time that she has set up for Prophetick visions … These things make it very suspicious to me, that the words and style of all her Books are that Drs, and none of hers.”
C: Did Jane meet with any opposition when she succeeded John Pordage as leader of the English Behmenists? –
A: The “succession” is not as clear cut as we are lead to believe since she was a divisive figure. The Philadelphians’ precursor society actually fractured when one faction (Lead’s) embarked on a coordinated publicity campaign.
C: What was Jane’s reception like outside of her religious community?
A: Outside a small community of believers, Lead’s writings were largely ignored in her own country. Instead, they enjoyed a widespread if mixed continental reception among an audience of assorted Spiritualists, Behmenists, and Pietists – not to mention occasional curious readers.
C: What was Jane’s relationship with her children like? Did they approve of her mysticism?
A: Unfortunately we don’t even know all their names; of those that survived into adulthood it seems that one wanted Lead to leave London while the other seemed quite drawn to it. The former was called “R.”; as noted in my essay, all the while Lead’s family were anxious about her welfare, and perhaps also the company she was keeping. Thus on 30 August 1676, about six months after she had moved in with Pordage, Lead was visited by her daughter R. who informed her mother that an opportunity had opened for Lead’s “Redemption out of all Straits and Cares”.
Urged to forsake her current arrangement Lead was invited to leave London and instead live with her brother, who would provide for her for the remainder of his life. She recalled that he dwelled some hundred miles from the capital which makes it almost certain that this sibling was Jane’s eldest brother James Ward of Twyford, Norfolk. Indeed when James composed his will on 26 April 1678 he bequeathed Jane £5 and appointed her one of his executors. Nonetheless, acting upon a “Divine Impulse” Jane had drawn up a “Spiritual Contract” with Pordage and resisting temptation refused to break her covenant with her ‘elect’ friend. The other daughter was Barbary (b.1653). She was widowed and subsequently married Francis Lee. Critics alleged that Lead hoped that Barbary would give birth to the messiah; it’s possible. Certainly Barbary took the religious name Lydia.
C: Is there any evidence that Jane’s works influenced Illuminist circles in the eighteenth century?
A: Not sure; certainly several people attracted to Emmanuel Swedenborg’s teachings were also readers of Lead. I’ve checked Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin’s correspondence and he was certainly very interested in Lead and indeed read some of her key works.