Reference > Cambridge History > From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift > William Law and the Mystics > The “Behmenites” and the Founders of the Society of Friends
  Mysticism in the Seventeenth Century; “Children of Light” in Holland Life and Writings of William Law  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XII. William Law and the Mystics.

§ 3. The “Behmenites” and the Founders of the Society of Friends.

It only needed the release from the crushing hand of Laud, and the upheaval of the civil war, to set free the religious revival which had long been seething, and to distract England, for a time, with religious excitement. Contemporary writers refer with horror to the swarm of “sects, heresies and schisms” which now came into being,  3  and Milton alone seems to have understood that the turmoil was but the outward sign of a great spiritual awakening.  4  Unhappily, there were few who, with him, could perceive that the “opinion of good men is but knowledge in the making,” and that these many sects were but various aspects of one main movement towards freedom and individualism, towards a religion of the heart rather than of the head. The terrible persecutions of the quakers under Charles II  5  tended to withdraw them from active life, and to throw them in the direction of a more personal and introspective religion.  6  It was then that the writings of Antoinette Bourignon, Madame Guyon and Fénelon became popular, and were much read among a certain section of thinkers, while the teachings of Jacob Boehme, whose works had been put into English between the years 1644 and 1692, bore fruit in many ways.  7  Whether directly or indirectly, they permeated the thought of the founders of the Society of Friends,  8  they were widely read both in cottage and study  9  and they produced a distinct Behmenite sect.  10  Their influence can be seen in the writings of Thomas Tryon, John Pordage, George Cheyne, Francis Lee, Jane Lead, Thomas Bromley, Richard Roach and others; in the foundation and transactions of the Philadelphian society; in the gibes of satirists;  11  in forgotten tracts; in the increase of interest in alchemy;  12  in the voluminous MS. commentaries of Freher, or even in Newton’s great discovery; for it is almost certain that the idea of the three laws of motion first reached Newton through his eager study of Boehme.   6
  The tracing of this mystical thought, however, during the period under discussion and later, mainly among obscure sects and little-known thinkers, would not form part of a history of English literature, were it not that our greatest prose mystic lived and wrote in the same age.   7

Note 3. See, for instance, Pagitt’s Heresiography, 1645, dedication to the lord mayor; or Edwards, who, in his Gangraena, 1646, names 176, and, later, 23 more, “errors, heresies, blasphemies.” [ back ]
Note 4Areopagitica, 1644. [ back ]
Note 5. 13,562 Friends suffered imprisonment during the years 1661–97, while 198 were transported overseas and 338 died in prison or of their wounds. See Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, by Barclay, pp. 474–8. [ back ]
Note 6. For further observations on early quakerism in its connection with literature, see Vol. VIII, Chap. IV. [ back ]
Note 7. Charles I, who, shortly before his death, read Boehme’s Forty Questions, just then translated into English, much admired it. See a most interesting MS. letter in Latin from Francis Lee to P. Poiret in Dr. Williams’s library, C 5. 30. [ back ]
Note 8. “Jacob Behmont’s Books were the chief books that the Quakers bought, for there is the Principle or Foundation of their Religion.” A Looking Glass for George Fox, 1667, p. 5. But Boehme was not wholly approved of even among the early quakers; see Inner Life of the Religious Societies, p. 479. For the influence of Boehme on Fox and Winstanley, see Studies in Mystical Religion, pp. 494–5; cf., also, Fox’s Journal for 1648, 8th ed., vol. I, pp. 28–9, with Boehme’s Three Principles, chap. XX, §§ 39–42; also, life of J. B. in “Law’s edition,” vol. I, p. xiii, or the Signatura Rerum. [ back ]
Note 9. See Way to Divine Knowledge, Law’s Works, vol. VII, pp. 84, 85; Byrom’s Journal, vol. I, part 2, pp. 560, 598; vol. II, part 2, pp. 193, 216, 236, 285, 310–11, 328, 377, 380. [ back ]
Note 10. See Richard Baxter’s Autobiography, Reliquiae Baxterianae, 1696, part I, p. 77. [ back ]
Note 11
He Anthroposophus and Floud,
And Jacob Behmen understood.
Hudibras, I, canto I, cf. A Tale of a Tub, sect. V, and Martinus Scriblerus, end of Chap. I.
[ back ]
Note 12. See Aubrey’s Lives. [ back ]

  Mysticism in the Seventeenth Century; “Children of Light” in Holland Life and Writings of William Law  
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