Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1833
Jane Ward Lead 1623-1704
English essayist, autobiographer, and poet.
The mystic and prolific prophet Jane Ward Lead was retrieved from an almshouse in Stepney by her admirers to become the leader of an English Protestant religious sect with adherents in both Germany and Holland. Her theology emphasized the feminine aspect of the divine, embodied in Sophia, the Christian figure of Wisdom, and her followers came to associate Lead with that “Woman Clothed with the Sun” mentioned in the biblical Book of Revelations. Championed by modern feminists as an early developer of a woman-focused spirituality, Lead was also seen by her devotees as a means for women's spiritual empowerment. Her fellow Philadelphian Society member Richard Roach predicted that, through Lead, Wisdom would “Excite and Animate that sex whereby She is represented; and Endow them with her peculiar Graces and Gifts, in such degrees that they shall Out-run and Exceed the males themselves.”
Born Jane Ward in 1623 in the county of Norfolk, Lead began life as an Anglican of middle-class status. She was the youngest of twelve children parented by Mary Calthorpe and Hamond Ward, both from respectable landed families. Her brother, also named Hamond, may have been an early member of the East India Company, and her cousin Christopher Calthorpe accumulated substantial landholdings in colonial Virginia. Lead received a typical young woman's education, consisting of domestic skills along with limited reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her initiation into mysticism began when she was fifteen or sixteen. According to her own report, during a Christmas dance she heard a voice saying, “Cease from this, I have another Dance to lead thee in; for this is Vanity.” She subsequently endured three years of melancholy, obsessed with the thought that a lie she had told earlier would be the cause of her damnation. That period ended when, at age eighteen, she experienced another vision, showing her a pardon with a seal. She soon went to London to visit her brother, a merchant, and explored the various dissenting sects that flourished during the Cromwell era following the English Civil War. Lead reports that she found a desirable mate while in London, but he was rejected by her parents. She then briefly maintained that, as a bride of Christ, she would never submit to an earthly marriage; but in 1644 she married a distant cousin, William Lead, who shared her dedication to the spiritual life. Together they had four daughters, only two of whom survived to adulthood.
During her married life, Lead became influenced by a growing concern that the new millennium was soon to come. She joined with a small group of Boehmenists, followers of the German Protestant mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). The group was lead by Dr. John Pordage, the Rector of Bradfield, Berks (a position he later lost due to his radical preaching); in their ceremonies they believed they communed with angels and experienced the indwelling of Christ in both their souls and bodies, sometimes entering into ecstatic trances. Shortly after Lead joined the group in 1663, the sect was subject to the 1664 Conventicle Act of the newly restored monarchy, which forbade religious gatherings not sanctioned by the Anglican Church. The Boehmenists welcomed her “gift of revelation,” but her family strongly disapproved. William Lead died in 1670, and within a few months of his death Lead began experiencing regular visions, often centered on the figure of Sophia, the Christian embodiment of Wisdom, who was also prominent in Boehmenist philosophy. Eventually the Wisdom figure told Lead that she would no longer appear to Lead, but would speak through her. Financially Lead was in dire circumstances. By 1674 she had moved in with Pordage, whose first wife, Mary, had died in 1668. Her decision was generally considered scandalous, although theirs was merely a spiritual partnership; Pordage remarried, though little is known of his second wife. Lead's family and children urged her to take up residence with her brother, threatening to withdraw any future possibility for support. Lead nonetheless stayed at the communal home of the Pordages, keeping the journal that would later be published as A Fountain of Gardens, Watered by the Rivers of Divine Pleasure and Springing Up in All the Variety of Spiritual Plants (1696-1701). When Pordage died in 1681, Lead became the leader of his sect and shortly afterwards published her edition of Pordage's Theologia Mystica (1684). At some point during the 1680s, Lead was compelled to move into a house of charity in Stepney, where she was “discovered” in 1693 by Oxford scholar Francis Lee, who had sought out the woman now famous in Germany and Holland for works of prophecy, including The Heavenly Cloud Now Breaking (1681) and The Revelation of Revelations (1683). With Lee she founded the Philadelphian Society in 1694; Lee, along with fellow Oxonian Richard Roach, published the society's Theosophical Transactions. Lee also married Lead's daughter Barbara, the widow of Izaac Walton. In the late 1690s Lead lost her sight and relied on Lee to transcribe her visions. She also established a friendship with Baron Kniphausen of Germany, who gave her enough money to move out of the almshouse. In 1702 Lead published A Funeral Testimony, a kind of farewell to her followers. After struggling for several months with debilitating illness, she died in August, 1704, at the age of eighty-one. At her request, she was buried in Bunhill Fields, and Roach, her colleague in the Philadelphian Society, delivered the sermon.
Lead was a prolific writer, generating several books of mystical prophecy interspersed with poetry. Her journal, A Fountain of Gardens, was published in four volumes spanning 2,000 pages. Her work addressed myriad themes, especially feminine representations of God in the figure of Sophia, union with Christ, predictions of the coming millennium, and the doctrine of universal salvation. In addition to the influence of Pordage and Boehme, Lead's writings reflect her acquaintance with the dissenting poet John Milton. In particular, the prefatory poem to her journal, entitled “Solomons Porch: or The Beautiful Gate of Wisdoms Temple,” reveals the influence of Milton's religious epic, Paradise Lost (1667). But Lead's adoption of Boehmenist philosophy significantly altered her view of the nature of God and salvation, in ways that Milton would not have endorsed. Boehme's own work emphasized the union of Sophia, imagined as pure being or possibility, and the creative male God, and the union of Sophia and Christ, often in erotic terms. Boehme's mysticism also drew from the “Inner Light” theology of other Protestant sects, including Quakers; Lead would defend this aspect of her faith in the late work Wars of David (1700). Lead embraced Boehme's ideas and fused them with her own experience as a poor widow in a patriarchal culture, describing in early works such as The Heavenly Cloud Now Breaking and The Enochian Walks with God, Found out by a Spiritual Traveller (1694) a bridegroom Christ who settles on his follower an infinite dowry. She further developed the Boehmenist idea of Wisdom as the goddess Sophia in The Revelation of Revelations; that figure would continue to be Lead's guiding principle in later works. Wisdom is her “Tuteress” in The Tree of Faith: or, The Tree of Life, Springing up in the Paradise of God; From which All the Wonders of the New Creation, in the Virgin Church of the First-Born of Wisdom must proceed (1696), and the “Wonder-woman” in her Fountain of Gardens. One of Lead's significant breaks from Boehme, however, was her doctrine of universal salvation, which she first put forth in The Enochian Walks with God. She further explicated the idea in The Wonders of God's Creation (ca. 1695), and defended her doctrine in A Revelation of the Everlasting Gospel-message (1697), saying that universal salvation was not revealed to Boehme because it was not yet time. The work of universal salvation was to be achieved with the assistance of the goddess Wisdom, whose compassion for her “children” moved her to save even devils. Though Lead asserted that she was not interested in politics, the liberality of her theology was seen by many as a radical threat. In Signs of the Times (1699) she propounded the principle of communal rather than individual gain, and implied that private property was an obstacle to the unity required for the coming of the millennium. Her final work, A Living Funeral Testimony, called for the time when “Unity of Spirit” would transcend personal and national identity.
While Lead's ideas did not win wide acceptance in her home country of England, this obscurity served her well. Alhough she did not see herself or her Philadelphian Society as separatists or revolutionaries, her mysticism and her advancement of the importance of Sophia approached heresy, particularly in the repressive religious atmosphere of the Restoration. Moreover, in the early eighteenth century interest in church matters showed a marked decline, and the Quakers with whom the Philadelphians shared several tenets were particularly despised. In the preface to The Wars of David Lead alludes to the “discouraging” reception her works received in her native country, and in The Tree of Faith she warns her countrymen that they may miss their chance at salvation by ignoring her revelations. She also notes in these works that other nations “know how to value” her writings, particularly Holland and Germany. The popularity of her early works abroad saved her from both the almshouse and perpetual obscurity. Modern scholarship on Lead is sharply divided into pre- and post-feminist concerns. In one of the earliest, most substantial studies of Lead, Nils Thune critiques Lead's and Pordage's adaptations of Boehme's philosophy, including her belief in universal salvation, or apocatastasis. He also presents a lengthy discussion of the psychology of Lead's spiritual experiences, variously suggesting that some may have been fabricated, and some may have been hallucinations. He explores at length the hypothesis that Lead suffered from hysteria—a common diagnosis of mystics—and suggests that the erotic nature of her visions may have been influenced by the sexual frustration occasioned by her widowhood. D. P. Walker, in his study of Lead's doctrine of universal salvation, also questions Lead's sincerity in the description of some of her visions, noting that some appear lifted wholesale from Pordage's Theologia Mystica. Walker also finds fault with Lead's writing style, which he characterizes as obscure and awkward, and he calls her approach to addressing the inconsistencies of her doctrine evasive. Feminist scholars, however, have taken a very different view of Lead's work and of her importance as a writer. In particular, Catherine F. Smith has been a champion of Lead's potential contribution to feminist thought, arguing that her mysticism, with its female-centered theology of Wisdom, offers new resources to modern feminism. Smith frequently compares Lead's writing to that of such poets as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, and to Virginia Woolf. Smith also champions Lead's breaks from both Anglican orthodoxy and strict Boehmenist thought as proto-feminist spirituality. Yet, as Paula McDowell proposes in her study of women writers and the literary marketplace, Lead stands apart from better-known early feminists like Mary Astell or the Duchess of Newcastle, rejecting the individualism they advocated for more communal principles.