Mysticism in Early Modern England

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Liam Peter Temple
Studies in Modern British Religious History
  • London, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , April
     236 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Liam Temple’s Mysticism in Early Modern England tells the story of the rise, stigmatization, and rejection of mysticism from learned circles in 17th-century England. It argues that through the polemics and wars of the 17th century an experience-based mysticism was severed from learned doctrine and became the “anti-self” of the Enlightenment. What Temple adds to the literature on the topic of the separation of spirituality from doctrine is by the aid of a comparative approach to 17th-century England and a constructivist approach to mysticism.

The book first takes up the way that illicit “mystik authors” led Augustine Baker to convert to Roman Catholicism and how Baker, in turn, formed one of the first English canons of mystical literature to instruct the nuns at Cambrai (ch 1). Second, it turns to the use of similar books and themes by the Puritan Francis Rouse, the more radical John Everard, and the even more radical “Ranters” (ch 2). Third, it looks at the rejection of such an experiential (or experimental) approach to the knowledge of God as “Pagano-Papism” by Robert Burton and Meric Casaubon (with fascinating discussions of medical theories of melancholia). Fourth, it returns to Baker, but now through his follower and fellow convert Hugh of Cressy and his literary debates with William Chillingworth (mysticism was henceforth tarred as “enthusiasm”). Fifth, the book ends with a consideration of the “spectacular failure” of the Philadelphians and suggests that it was their associations with said mysticism that led to their cultural vilification.

Most compelling about the book is its constructivist approach to mysticism. That is, “rather than reading a modern definition of mysticism backwards onto history, we embrace what was understood as the mystical element of religion in different historical periods to be the definition of mysticism” (175). How the historian should approach the task of such reconstruction, though, is of course not straightforward. Should one begin with mystical themes (ecstasy, union with God, apophaticism, or theoeroticism), or mystical practices (mental prayer or contemplation), or mystical authors (Pseudo-Dionysius, Teresa of Ávila, or Bernard of Clairvaux), or mystical passages of scripture (Song of Songs, Moses’ ascent of Sinai, Paul’s rapture, or his “seeing through a glass darkly”)? Temple instead opts for a terminological approach; that is, the data points are taken from how the sources themselves used the term mystical (and its various cognates).

A terminological approach does not always help study a given figure’s mysticism. The term was most often used as an adjective to qualify the “mystical body of Christ” or “the mystical sense” of scripture. However, if one wants to study the development of the modern neologism mysticism itself, then a terminological approach becomes paramount. The closest semantic cousin of mysticism throughout the middle ages was mystica theologia, a technical term entangled in the reception history of one book, The Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius. Thus, from one vantage point, part of the story of the history of Christian mysticism has to do with how the Greek terminology mystica theologia expanded from an editorial title of just one small treatise to a technical term in Latin theology employed outside the Dionysian commentary tradition, and then to a category of devotional literature.

Temple’s book gives us a better understanding of this third category, the development of a canon of mystical literature, by actually looking at lists of books that were labeled as such. Not only did Baker draw up lists of “mystik authors,” but John Wilkin’s Ecclesiastes (1651), an influential catalogue intended to aid the task of preaching, included a list of works of mystical divinity. However, because Temple does not reproduce these lists in full, one has to return to the primary sources themselves to reconstruct the entire list. An appendix on the various canons would have been a great addition. It is likely that if one were to follow these early modern lists of mystical divinity (and not modern anthologies), then one would come across a few surprises. One of them, for instance, might be the importance of Blosius (Loise de Blois), who shows up in almost all the 17th-century lists. Likewise, any treatment of Puritan mysticism should likewise consider lists of “practical divinity” (also in Wilkins) because this was how the majority of Puritan divines styled themselves (also a category used by Rouse).

Michel de Certeau has traced the nominalization of “mystical” (mystique) to “mysticism” (la mystique) in France and suggested that the set of rules that governed the new canon of literature associated with the label was primarily linguistic in nature. The language employed oxymorons, grammatical infelicities, barbarisms, and forceful oppositions, to push language to its breaking point and thereby point to its own inability to name the nameless one. Temple’s analysis, on the other hand, suggests that the primary meaning of “mystical theology” and “mystical divinity” (and thereby “mysticism”), as it accrued in 17th-century English writings, had to do primarily with an experientialist approach to the knowledge of God. Thus, even though Baker drew up a canon of authoritative mystical authors, the principal authority for the nuns remained the direct working of God (under the criteria of passivity and ineffability), which only the one experiencing it could understand.

Temple’s work should be the first place one turns to begin a study of mysticism (however conceived) in 17th-century England. Its comparative approach and its focus on terminology help give clarity to an otherwise allusive theory in modern religion. For a first monograph, it combines just the right amount of historical detail, narrative, manuscript work, and theory to engage student and scholar alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel J. Dubbelman is a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Liam Peter Temple received his doctorate from Northumbria University, Newcastle.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.