What does this crystal-ball have in common with this collection of books?…
… both have been described as ‘mystic’.
It was not always the case that mystics were so kind on prophets. This post examines one example of how the mystic’s claims to divine inspiration and the prophet’s claim to receive divine communication came into conflict. This happened in 1709, when several mystics in Scotland converted to a group of prophets who had first emerged on London’s streets three years earlier.
This is quite a long post, reflecting its origins in a paper delivered to friends and colleagues at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, when I was myself in a rather ecstatic state since sitting my viva the previous day on no sleep. I’ve used it, despite (or because of…) the bad night, as I think it is still one of my best pieces. Even if my ideas have changed a bit in the time since, I still think this is a good introduction to people with no idea about early modern mysticism and prophecy.
First, I’ll introduce the Scottish mystics, who were, I’ll claim, the first to bring a positive conception of ‘mysticism’ to a British public. Then, we’ll examine the mission of French Protestants who arrived in 1709 proclaiming that Christ had come to redeem the nations. The conversion of a mystic, Lady Abden, to the French prophets’ cause, proved decisive: her ‘Last revelation’ convinced many of the mystics to take up prophecy. But many remained sceptical. In short, this was because, whereas mystics had traditionally claimed to receive inspiration from within, the prophets who appeared in Edinburgh in 1709 claimed to receive it from without: they were passive receptacles who simply mediated the voice of God, speaking through the Holy Spirit. Lady Abden won out. She delivered her ‘Last revelation’ in a series of ecstatic utterances like the prophets; but, following the mystics she called people inwards. Her mix of prophecy and mysticism proved controversial with her Scottish friends, and the London prophets alike. But Abden won the day. Her ‘Last revelation’ was widely circulated among both groups, and convinced many that prophecy and mysticism went hand in glove. This explains why we can now call a prophet, like Meg, a mystic.
A whirlwind tour among the Scottish mystics
In the late seventeenth century, there can be no doubt that mysticism was centred North of the Tweed, among a group of people who expressed the importance of a retreat from the world. I like to think of their communities as forerunners to modern Anglican retreats which merge monastic ideals with a commitment to open doors to anyone who wants to abandon the hustle and bustle of the world temporarily.
I want to focus on two groups in Banffshire in the North-East, and Fife, just north of Edinburgh.
In the North, they gathered at Rosehearty on the Moray Forth, ancestral home of Alexander, 4th Lord Forbes at Pitsligo (p. 31), who had given the estate to his friend, the minister George Garden in 1701 after Garden had been deprived of his parish for publishing an apology for the Flemish mystic, Antoinette Bourignon, with whom the northern mystics became associated. Further south, Sir Thomas Hope’s estate at Craighall played host to another community of mystics. It was at Craighall that we find the original converts to the mission of prophets who arrived in Edinburgh in August 1709.
It is important to recognise that ‘mystics’ is the term the Scots used for themselves, and they were the first to take up what was, for seventeenth-century Protestants, a word with resoundingly negative connotations. This was starting to change however, thanks to the work of the French Reformed pastor, Pierre Poiret, who led a project to disseminate works of mystical literature throughout the continent. Poiret had connections to many of the Scottish mystics, and they were responsible for translating works from his list of mystical writers into English. They formulated a proposal to ‘Print Books of Mystical Divinity, Philosophy and History’ in order to ‘propagate the Knowledge and Life of Religion, in an age wherein it’s become so frozen’. They arranged the publication and distribution of works of mystical theology in manuscript and printed form. Their clients included John Wesley, the founder of Methodism; William Law, the eighteenth century’s most widely read mystic; and Katherine Falconar, the mother of the Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume. If you look at the spirituality shelves of Waterstones, many of the books will have originally been published by this group.
This proposal to use mysticism ‘to propagate the Knowledge and Life of Religion’, and its wide circulation, is curious: think for a second about the word ‘mystic’. In our modern sense, it originated in Britain in the 1630s where it replaced an earlier English usage to describe works of ‘contemplation’ which would be used to bring a believer closer to God. If we look to its first usage, in the works of the seventeenth-century Benedictine monk, Augustine Baker, we find that the term ‘mysticism’ was used because it was a form of devotion reserved for a very few: something was ‘mystical’ because it revealed secrets that only those advanced in the contemplative life could ever grasp. By proposing to distribute works of mystical theology to the British public, we might say that the Scots were demystifying mysticism.
If we turn to the works of Forbes of Pitsligo, we will find that this popularising of mysticism is exactly what was intended. If we remove the obscurities in which ‘mysticks’ commonly speak, Pitsligo argued, the central message of the Gospel could reach a much wider audience. The Gospel taught us our duty to abandon the religions dividing the world and be guided only by the Spirit of God. Only by practicing a continual form of silent prayer could we hope to achieve spiritual ‘enlightenment’, or union with God. This is not as difficult as it might sound: it adds up to a belief (to borrow modern evangelical lingo) that we ‘think what Jesus would do’ whenever we act, although for specialists like Pitsligo, it could also entail a more focused retreat from the world. It was just such a retreat that he set up at his home in Rosehearty.
Like modern spirituality, Pitsligo thought mysticism’s inward focus provided an ecumenical solution to the world’s divisions, since it returned Christians to fundamentals shared by all religious traditions. It is of no small importance that the mystics’ proposals to print spiritual literature included Jewish and Muslim mystics as well as Christian authors. A fascinating trove of evidence survives about the controversial project to print the Sentences of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammad’s son-in-law. This was perhaps the first time Islamic spirituality had been deemed useful for Christian readers.
The arrival of the ‘French Prophets’
The ‘French Prophets’, as contemporaries knew them, emerged among the refugees from France who held out against the French state after 1689, when Louis XIV revoked his grandfather’s policy of toleration for the Calvinist minority centred in the south of the country, and began a policy persecution. Among this group, several prophets appeared who claimed that God was on their side — they delivered ecstatic warnings which predicted the downfall of Louis and the Pope. Christ would descend to earth, and the final battle between good and evil would begin. Many Englishmen and women responded with gusto to their warnings. The government of Queen Anne was committed to pursuing an international strategy which would secure the Protestant succession. Her ministers were supportive of Huguenot refugees, and some even listened with interest to the prophets who were loudly proclaiming the millennium on London’s streets.In 1709, the prophets came North to Edinburgh under the leadership of a Yorkshire lawyer, Thomas Dutton, who would lead the prophets’ Scottish mission till he broke decisively with them a few years later. Their arrival was reported in detail by one of the Scottish mystics, Archibald Lundie, who offered a very useful description of the warnings delivered by the prophets, including Ann Topham, who spoke (according to Lundie’s account) ‘of our Lord’s coming to cleanse the whole Creation of filthiness, so that no unclean thing should remain therein’. The passage recalls Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians to mend their ways in order to be saved by Jesus Christ. The prophets’ warnings all follow the Apostle’s message in calling for the moral reformation of sinful humanity in the face of Christ’s second advent they believed was at hand.
Prophets and mystics
In late 1709, the mystics began to convert to the prophets’ mission. In October, Katherine Pringle, the Lady Abden, took up with the group, after the death of her young husband brought her into contact with her mystical neighbours, who encouraged her to journey across to Forth to witness the prophets causing a stir in the Scottish capital.
Abden delivered several dozen warnings in October and November 1709, which were collected in a manuscript publication grandly proclaiming itself the ‘The last revelation that shall be putt in print to the sons and children of men’. Abden’s prophecies merge the ideas of Bourignon with a defence of the mission recently arrived in Edinburgh. Thanks to the efforts of Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, The last revelation was widely circulated, and convinced many mystics to accept the new dispensation as harbingers of Christ’s second coming, which the movement had been expecting for some time. The synthesis of mysticism and prophecy is stranger than we might expect, because Bourignon had warned against prophets going out to proclaim the end of days. These warnings were headed by many in the Scottish fraternity, who condemned the new prophets as imposters.
The bulk of Abden’s Last revelation is taken up by ‘meditations’ on the Bible and on the theological issues in the Scottish church, said to be delivered direct from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit insists it ‘is sending no new doctrine’. Instead, the design of the prophetic dispensation is ‘to enjoin people to putt in practice what has been revealed to them already’ in the Old and New Testaments. Responding to ‘the common objection’, that there isn’t any need for prophecy now that ‘we have the Scriptures and preachers to explain the same’, the Spirit reiterates that ‘there would be no occasion for this extraordinary appearance … if the preachers were all of one mind all teaching the same doctrine’. God’s word is needed because ‘preachers and teachers’ disagree over the interpretation of Scripture.
Abden argues, like Bourignon, that the Gospels teach a duty to suppress our wills, Satan’s route into our souls. In order to achieve this state of spiritual ‘mortification’, we must lay aside all activity. Worldly action brings back the ‘natural part of man’, by exposing our senses to the Devil. Only by ‘Continuall Prayer’ can the Man’s Adversary be overcome. ‘Continual prayer’ was key to Bourignon’s teachings. She argued that practicing continual prayer would make us immune from Satan’s delusions. By praying constantly, man ‘is alwayes by his Will united to God, and has no need of other Means’. Through prayer we achieve union with God, the ultimate end of all Christian endeavour.
If Abden’s work had been a simple exposition of Bourignon’s ideas, it wouldn’t have caused the controversy it did. It was her claim to be speaking words delivered by the Spirit of God which proved problematic. Abden argued that the prophets’ call for moral reformation tallied with the Gospel message and therefore should be trusted. The prophets do not ‘call’ people to action by ‘soft peaceable gentle roads’ but instead ‘to rugged thorny uneasy roads’. This showed they were not fakers. Even though we need to go through trials to discern the true spirit (inspired by God) from his false brother (inspired by the Devil), any person that ‘has the least desire to seek and serve God’ will not be deceived by false spirits. If we are following the true Christian path, we will not be deceived by false spirits.
Abden argues that Christ will shortly appear. He is ‘advancing towards the Earth’ to ‘gather together all that have effectively believed in the Holy Ghost for renewing the Spirit that proceeds from the father & the Son’. Then the New Jerusalem will descend from the clouds ushering in an era, as Abden sees it when all men will be united in one mind.
Such a literal interpretation of Christ’s second coming was anathema to thinkers in the continental mystical tradition. The great counter-Reformation mystic, John of the Cross, produced the most detailed treatment of the subject in his Ascent to Mount Carmel. He argued that visions seen and words spoken could not be trusted as evidence that they came from God, even if they in fact did so. When news of the ‘Last revelation’ reached Andrew Michael Ramsay, in London at the time, he sent selections of John’s work to Scotland, with commentary by Pierre Poiret, the brains behind the late seventeenth-century European mystical renaissance. Poiret’s interpretation shows his contempt for the prophets in Scotland. The kingdom of god, he argued, is within us, and does not require that we listen to the ‘crying up of Christ’s kingdom’ by prophets in the world. Christ’s kingdom cannot be demonstrated by external signs and wonders. For Poiret, as for Bourignon, the Kingdom of God was spiritual, not temporal.
The most dramatic condemnation of Abden’s prophecies, however, came from another prophet: the London lawyer Thomas Dutton.
In letters to the Scottish prophets, Dutton argued that the light God has given the prophetic dispensation supersedes any that could have been had from the mystics. He thought the prophets’ arrival marked ‘the dawneing of the day which will cause those other starres to dissapeare whose lightes were appointed for the night only’. The error of these ‘other starres’, the mystic authors, is to assume that we should engage in ‘silent prayer’ all the time, rather than follow the examples and advice of Jesus and his apostles ‘to aske from God such thinges as we stand in need of yet alwayes with a resignation to’ God’s providence. He saw (rightly) that ‘The last revelation’ contained such mystical exhortations. Abden’s ideas couldn’t be inspired by God because the mystics, and are hardly in keeping with warnings the true prophets had previously delivered. Dutton’s doubts led him to order the prophets to mark all copies of the ‘Last revelation’ as ‘condemned by the Spirit’ to caution any other prophet who might be influenced by the diabolic mystics.
In the end, Dutton lost out: Lady Abden’s ‘Last revelation’ was not subject to any such censure. It widely circulated in both Scotland and England. Abden’s combination of mysticism and prophecy convinced many mystics to follow the prophets.
Our best evidence relates to James Cunningham, who was a regular at Hope’s mystical consociation at Craighall. When the prophets first arrived in Edinburgh, Cunningham had been recuperating in one of Bath’s fashionable spas. When he returned North, he saw Abden delivering warnings in the Scottish capital. The overlap between these prophecies and his own mystical inclinations convinced him she was the genuine article. Cunningham saw ‘his own sentiments, which she could know by no human means represented to me’ in Abden’s warnings. He realised they ‘cou’d be exposed to no delusion’. He believed that Abden and her cohorts marked a new prophetic dispensation, and he wanted to be a part of it. In mid-1710, he became inspired by the holy spirit, and delivered his own warnings in which he called people inwards in just the same way that Abden had done. We should have ‘no wills of our own’ but only God’s. In order to achieve a union of our wills with God, we must ‘disengage the Heart, from this world’. Cunningham, with his Scottish friends, would deliver thousands of warnings of this nature until 1715, all calling people to follow the advice of Bourignon and Lady Abden and disengage from the world which they associated with religious division.
Cunningham’s own influence on the mission was dramatic: from the early 1710s we find that the prophets in London had retreated into ‘communities of the inspired’ modelled on the mystical communities at Rosehearty and Craighall. Here, Lady Abden’s ‘Last revelation’ was widely circulated.
Yet it was not just in a British context that Abden’s mystical prophecy was most influential.
From Scotland, the prophets led a mission across the continent. The Last revelation was read by a group of mystical Pietists based at Halle, many of whom became prophets of the last days. The connections of Scottish mystics with France and the Dutch Republic also encouraged the emergence of prophetic-mystical communities there: after coming into contact with Bourignon in 1710, Dutch prophets published warnings which followed Abden’s brand of mystical prophecy.
Like Mystic Meg then, in the early eighteenth century, there were people who saw themselves as both mystics and prophets. My suggestion has been that the connection is not straightforward; that in the early eighteenth century prophecy and mysticism were seen as opposed – one was concerned with outward inspiration the other with inspiration from within. It was an obscure Scottish noblewoman, Lady Abden, who combined the two systems in her ‘Last revelation’.
This article is based on extensive manuscript research carried out in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. A selection of my sources will shortly be published in Ariel Hessayon and Lionel Laborie (eds), Revisiting Early Modern Prophecies (Brill), with an accompanying article, which is under review for Scottish Historical Review.
The classic treatment of the Scottish mystics can be found in the works of G.D. Henderson, especially his Mystics of the North-East (Aberdeen, 1934). A notable exception to the dearth of writing in the years since is Geoffrey Rowell’s 2014 article, ‘Scotland and the mystical matrix’, available here to subscribers of the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church.
Lionel Laborie has recently published an account of the French Prophets’ London mission: Enlightening Enthusiasm: Prophecy and Religious Experience in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester, 2015). There is still much of use in Hillel Schwartz’s The French Prophets: The History of a Millenarian Group in Eighteenth-Century England (Berkeley, 1980).