Divine or Demonic: Controlling and Testing Spirits in Godly Spirituality

Research output: Book/ReportBook

Abstract / Description of output

This work follows two threads of pastoral divinity and spiritual experience from the late sixteenth- to the late seventeenth-centuries, with the focus on the period between the Jacobean reign to the 1650s. These two threads, demonic possession and divine vision, are united by the difficulty of discerning spirits, identifying between the comforts of the Holy Spirit and the temptations of diabolic spirits. This will provide a useful means of examining the means of coping with tensions within the growing literature of practical divinity and its reciprocal relationship with the recorded experiences of the devout, and go on to contribute to our understanding of the unwelcome legacy of the divisions among the godly emerging in the different context of the 1640s and 1650s.

The introduction sets out the stall by explaining the use of the term ‘mystic’, providing an understanding of divine union and setting out the dangers of perceiving a trans-cultural movement and the necessary task of placing particular experiences within a more inclusive life account. Drawing attention to the social nature of the ‘mystic’ shows that language is constitutive and that ‘experience’ is, in itself, a matter of interpretation. Making the intentions of this work clear requires locating it within curiously separate historiographies of the puritan ‘mystic’, practical divinity, and spirituality, as well as the under-addressed porous boundary between vision and possession, and is also a means for explaining and justifying the particular clerics and laity chosen for what follows. The next chapter puts flesh on the bones of the idea of common ground between the experiences of demonic possession and divine vision, going on to examine the accounts of Katherine Stubbes, Katherine Brettergh, and Joan Drake, paying attention to the ambiguities of their experiences and the ways in which what could have been seen as demonic elements were, sometimes in a strained fashion, understood as divine. Throughout the following analysis, addressing related themes in a chronological framework, continuities and fissures will be signposted.

This provides an opening for two chapters on practical divinity. The first examines the blossoming of practical divinity as a means of reformation after the strong hand of Bancroftian discipline had lessened other means. This explores tensions between a necessarily arduous discipline and some means of relief, often through Canticles, moving on to the relationship between a disturbing ‘holy violence’ and a desire for union, all kept within the ‘trusted’ assessment of clerics, ordinances and the communion of the saints. This is delivered through the works of Richard Greenham, John Dod, Thomas Hooker, William Ames, Arthur Hildersham, Richard Sibbes and John Preston. The following chapter concentrates on the hard-earned comforts, raising the complicated question of agency, linked to the processual nature of spiritual development, and setting out the vicious circle of caveats, caution, and discernment with an ever greater need for solace. The values of an ambiguously defined ‘church’ as a defence and spiritual necessity are shown to take on a new, sharper, ‘political’ dimension with the publication of old accounts in the different context of the late 1630s.

While the study of practical divinity on its own is valuable and provides insights into threats and reliefs, to complete the analysis it needs to be complemented by its application and experience, both as a means of bringing experience under examination and as an addition of reciprocity to the formation of practical divinity. This is the focus of the following two chapters. The first opens by discussing the relationship between ‘experience’ and practical divinity, Scripture and writing, finding a controlled lay empowerment, operative within the parameters of Word and guidance. The first case study is of Margaret Hoby, finding a careful, largely self-constructed, spiritual discipline, engaged in readings including some of the divines treated earlier, successfully balancing ‘useful’ trials with pastoral relief, creating a profitable path between the demands of extreme temptation and need for visionary relief. This is followed by a change of genre, giving a close reading to two funeral sermons, those of Elizabeth Juxon and Jane Ratcliffe, with a different but complementary purpose to other treatments. As PR exercises and damage limitation efforts, they provide insights into what was considered ‘approved’ empowerment and what needed the employment of ‘spin’ to keep it within orthopraxis, with an informed and partly hostile audience and readership restraining any efforts at duplicitous hagiography. This can provide insights into gendered agency and spirituality as well as the tensions within the discipline and relief. Returning to more ‘personal’ texts, the chapter finishes with a preliminary discussion of the different experiences of three godly men, with similarities and contrasts, in dealing with the trials and temptations which were expected and real as part of the process of spiritual development. This stage focuses primarily on different levels of disorder and fear experienced as ‘orthodox’ demonic assaults. The analysis of these three individuals is taken further in the following chapter as the greater variety and length of their material allows a closer reading of the creation and maintenance of spiritual discipline and experience. It opens with their relationship with religious ordinances, particularly the Eucharist, connecting to the communion of the saints as a pastoral aid and understandings of ‘church’ with connotations of division and trial becoming sharper into the late 1630s. These experiences will be examined through the themes of the desire for death, passivity, and agency, providing the necessarily demanding context for the final section devoted to the occasional euphoric moments of connection, divine union, and ‘mystic’ visions. These last moments are captured through a revealing union through and with Scripture, a form of comfort and empowerment which will prove pertinent for the different context of the 1640s and 50s.

The move into the 1640s is prefaced by an engagement with the work of David Parnham and David Como as a means of setting the agenda for the following analysis. Como’s negative consensus proves insufficient to the new strains of the 1640s, and Parnham’s account of negotiated tensions is enhanced by the addition of actual spiritual experiences in the different context of the new free market economy, opening possibilities beyond the pre-war disciplinary framework. This differently divisive competition is opened with the heirs of the clerics discussed earlier, starting with Thomas Weld and Thomas Shepard, going on to close readings of related laity, initially Anne Venn and Sarah Wight and then more fractious accounts by Jane Turner and her opponent, Edward Burrough. These readings show potential heterodoxies kept on the ‘right’ side of divine rather than diabolic interpretations by clerical sympathizers for the first two but remarkably similar spiritual journeys ending with very different conclusions in the last two. With Scripture proving too loose to provide convincing parameters of assessment for them, ‘experience’ becomes an added and inherently ambiguous means of engagement, setting the scene for greater interpretive divisions in the next chapter.

The final chapter moves on to contentions between some of the clerics appearing above and the competitive critiques of the Quakers. This begins with analyses of the experiences of John Gilpin and John Toldervy. The contentious literature exchanged was agreed on what happened but irrevocably divided on what it meant. What was central to the argument was spiritual discipline, discernment of spirits and whether this was guidance by divine or demonic spirits. The ‘actual’ people are then shown to become detached from the reality, to become consistent tropes in the literature against the Quakers, from the popular to the learned, down to the end of the century. This is balanced by a reading of Quakers offering aid to the ‘really’ demonically possessed, with a mixture of caution to avoid guilt-by-association and audacious claims to healing capacities. Taking this beyond the Restoration shows an important contribution to the polemical construction of intemperate ‘enthusiasm.’ The conclusion steps back to extract the general from the particular, assessing divine vision and demonic possession, looking at agency, the desire for death, patience and passivity, along with the partial success of practical divinity and its unintended descendants. This finishes with reflections on language, Scripture and experience and the shifted location of divine visions and demonic possessions alike within the contested definition of ‘moderation.’
Original languageEnglish
PublisherBoydell Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • religion
  • spirituality
  • mysticism and demonic possession


Dive into the research topics of 'Divine or Demonic: Controlling and Testing Spirits in Godly Spirituality'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this