"Here Must a Beheading Go Before": The Antirational Androgynist Theosophy of Jane Lead's Revelation of Revelations

By Kemp, Theresa D. | CLIO, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

"Here Must a Beheading Go Before": The Antirational Androgynist Theosophy of Jane Lead's Revelation of Revelations


Kemp, Theresa D., CLIO


Among the most prolific women writers of her time, Jane Lead had a twenty-three-year religious career that included publishing more than fifteen books and tracts and serving as the spiritual leader of the small radical sect called the Philadelphian Society, a congregation named after "the church of Philadelphia mentioned at the beginning of the Apocalypse, signifying, as it were, a remnant of believers." (1) By 1672, the Philadelphians numbered more than a hundred, and during the late 1690s Lead's congregation had grown so large as to require two meeting places. (2) Unfortunately, complete editions of her works remain out of print and difficult to obtain except through rare book collections, microfilm, nonscholarly online sites, and brief excerpts in anthologies. None of these provide editorial apparatus such as notes and contextual materials needed to help modern readers make sense of such densely mystical writings. Indeed, Lead's writings seem to be of greater interest to nonacademic readers than to feminist scholars working on women writers neglected or lost to literary and historical canonization procedures. While Lead has not been entirely ignored by recent scholars--a scant few articles do exist--this paucity of scholarly interest is particularly surprising, especially given the quantity of her work and its extensive distribution in multiple English editions as well as in Dutch and German translations during her lifetime. (3) Lead's writings, along with her place in the development of seventeenth-century Protestantism and literary production, certainly merit further critical investigation.

After providing a brief biographical introduction to Lead and situating her work within the context of contemporary antirational movements, this essay will examine some primary images and ideas used in one of her most widely circulated books, The Revelation of Revelations (RR), her 1683 apocalyptic visionary writings on the book of Revelation. Here, Lead recounts the elucidation she received concerning Revelation, in particular the explication of the (rapidly approaching) apocalypse and the manner in which the final resurrection would occur. Drawing on a cabalistic notion that God and humanity were originally one, Lead's millennial resurrection involves the creation of a new universal, androgynous priesthood which is brought into fruition through the radical erasure of all differences, including those of sex. The eschatological androgyny of this priesthood is achieved through a cutting off--a beheading--of conventionally masculine rationality. After exploring Lead's androgynist theosophy, the essay will conclude by suggesting some possible reasons why Lead's writings, and particularly her radical theosophy, fell into obscurity despite their potential interest to literary scholars and historians.

In 1638, at the age of fifteen, Lead had her first, but by no means most significant, mystical experience with divine power: in the midst of the Christmas festivities, she was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of melancholy, and she heard an invisible voice whisper in her ear, "Cease from this, I have another dance to lead thee in, for this is Vanity." (4) She kept this mystical encounter to herself, however, and when she was eighteen she persuaded her parents to let her spend half a year in London. Attending numerous public and private religious meetings, she was greatly moved by the sermons she heard. She also met a young man of similar religious belief whom she desired to marry, but her parents disapproved and ordered her back home to Norfolk. There, she in turn rejected the several suitors presented by her parents, but in 1644 she married a distant cousin, William Lead. Very little is known about her experiences during her twenty-six years of marriage, but it is quite likely she led a conventional married life: she and William had four daughters together (two of whom survived to adulthood), and Lead never mentions the recurrence of mystical experiences during this period. …

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