An Essential Element of Mysticism
By Kathleen Bernadette Freels
[This is an excerpt from author's thesis entitled,
"Edward Taylor's Rosa Alchemica: Rosicrucian Metaphor and
Puritan Conversion in the Preparatory Meditations."
The author's research concentrates on the influence of Rosicrucian
ideals upon Edward Taylor, a Puritan poet, philosopher and pastor
of 17th century New England. The Puritan clergy strongly identified
with the Israelites' exodus from Egypt which echoed many similarities
to their own persecution in England. The prominent Mather
family, who produced several members of the clergy, possessed Kabbalistic
texts and were no doubt inspired by the Kabbalah's mystical imagery.
The tree of life and its centrality in Rosicrucian literature more
than likely contributed to the Mathers' interest in Rosicrucianism
and led to the addition of Rosicrucian and alchemical literature
to the Mather library. As a pastor, Edward Taylor had access
to the Mather library and its Rosicrucian texts. It is, therefore,
not surprising that the imagery of Taylor's Preparatory Meditations
contains Rosicrucian symbolism, which on the surface, conflicts
with standard Puritan theology. However, Puritan preparationism
and its premise of arriving at spiritual perfection through various
stages, lent itself readily to Taylor's adoption of Rosicrucian
To substantiate Taylor's exposure to Rosicrucian literature, it is helpful to contemplate Rosicrucian and alchemical literary sources which were available in New England between 1682 and 1725, the duration of Taylor's opus. These holdings indicate that Taylor had access to Rosicrucian literature, and that although alchemy was derided by Thomas Hooker (1586-1647) pastor of Hartford, Connecticut, and one of the founders of the Connecticut Colony, as a "foolish conceit," the controversial nature of alchemy did not prevent further study (Exaltation 106). The presence of Rosicrucian literature in Puritan libraries also indicates a gradual softening of Puritan attitudes toward the alchemical art. Taylor's familiarity with the Rosicrucian system likely occurred through his friendship with Increase Mather, who possessed a number of alchemical works: Michael Maier's Laws of the Fraternity of the Rosie Cross or Themis Aurea, a gift of Mrs. Bridget Usher in 1676 (Tuttle 292); Helmont's Ortus Medicinae (Tuttle 291); Riverius' Practice of Physick (Tuttle 281), to which Taylor delegated substantial space in his portfolio (Stanford 508); John Dee 's Artis et Naturae cum Notis (Tuttle 289) which, according to Frances Yates' The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, influenced the Rosicrucian manifestos of Robert Fludd and Michael Maier (76); and Roger Bacon's Epistolae Fratris (Tuttle 289), listed among the bibliography of Rosicrucian writings (Gardner 606).
Another possible source for Rosicrucian literature was the alchemical laboratory and library of John Winthrop, Jr. (1606-1676), Governor of Connecticut, whose holdings R. S. Wilkinson describes as "the most significant and extensive alchemical library in colonial America" (33). The Winthrop library represented a substantial Rosicrucian holding and contained Andreae's The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616), the seminal work which fueled the Rosicrucian movement. Moreover, the Winthrop library contained four of Michael Maier's works and eleven writings penned by Robert Fludd, works which show remarkable similarity to Taylor's symbolism.
The extent of the influence of Winthrop's library escapes exact assessment, and it is difficult to ascertain whether Taylor would have had access to Winthrop's holdings. Ironically, Taylor's grandson, Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, recorded in his diary in 1787 a legend concerning John Winthrop, Jr.'s prowess as an alchemist, displaying an interest in alchemy which his grandfather may have stimulated (Wilkinson 33). In addition, Ezra Stiles chose Taylor's copy of the alchemical treatise, Metallographia, to write a short memoir dedicated to Taylor indicating perhaps a fond memory connected with Taylor's enthusiasm for alchemy (Stanford 508). Stiles addresses Rosicrucian ideology in his Literary Diary on July 1, 1777: "Interspersed among my miscellaneous Writings may perhaps be found Things respecting the Rosacrucian [sic] Philosophy ... The few ideas I have about it are only imaginary, conjectural, and speculative" (173-74). Although Stiles in the same passage disavows actual alchemical experimentation in a laboratory setting, he does, however, admit of a familiarity with Rosicrucian doctrine sufficient to stimulate speculative excursions.
J. H. Tuttle records that in 1642, John Winthrop, Jr. donated forty "choice books" to Harvard College where Taylor attended classes from 1668-1671 (275). Tuttle does not disclose the nature of the books, but knowing Winthrop's enthusiasm for alchemy, it may be presumed that at least one or two volumes of alchemical interest were included in the lot. Wilkinson notes that Cotton Mather was well acquainted with Wait Still Winthrop (1642-1717) who inherited his father's holdings and that Mather dubbed Wait the "Angel of Bethesda" as testimony to Wait's powers as physician (49). The fact that Wait "used the hieroglyphic monas which his father had borrowed from John Dee," coupled with the fact that this same monas appears in the original Rosicrucian monograph of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz (1616), indicates that Rosicrucian influences did not constitute heresy or dishonor among the leading men of letters of the time (Wilkinson 49). One may conclude that not only did such notable Puritans as Increase and Cotton Mather and John Winthrop Jr. and his son Wait have knowledge of Rosicrucian works, but that Rosicrucian philosophy, particularly in relation to the healing arts, was a source of lively speculation and interest. The testimony of Taylor's Preparatory Meditations remains an incisive commentary on the impact of the Rosicrucian pursuit on Puritan literature due to Taylor's reliance on Rosicrucian metaphor throughout his oeuvre as the fuel for Puritan preparation.
There is a sharp contrast between the tenor of Taylor's sermons and the devotional excesses of the Second Series of Preparatory Meditations, which communicate Taylor's Rosicrucianism most fully. The rhetoric of Taylor's Christographia does not echo the pyrotechnic display of Rosicrucian allegory found in the Prepnratory Medifations. Taylor does, however, indulge in ambiguous metaphors which can be found in both biblical and Rosicrucian writings. For instance, in a diatribe against the Quakers in Sermon IX, he mentions "Lumen Naturae" (295) or the light of nature which he compares with the Quaker's "inner light." Secret Symbols of tile Rosicrucians contains a drawing of the rose cross consumed by a mystical fire with the caption, "Harmonius Conception of the Light of Nature" (Appendix D) (Eckhardt 230). Sermon X contains alchemical vessel imagery, mentions "Aqua Celestis," a synonym for grace and the Summum Bonum, and describes Christ as a "Celestiall vessell Fild up to the brim with the Church" (307). Taylor states in Sermon XII that "the Whole heart is the house" in which the "Sun of Righteousness Shines," accenting the parallel between his containment imagery and the imitatio Christi (371). Michael Maier explains that the "heart is the sun's image in man" which symbolically relates to Christ's residence in the heart of the devotee, suggesting the compatibility of Rosicrucian imagery with Taylor's public persona (Jung 12: 343).
Although smatterings of Taylor's alchemical imagery appear in the Christographia, he does not refer to the mechanics or to the apparatus of alchemy in the sermons. As the evidence of the Mathers' holding of Rosicrucian literature and the Winthrops' involvement in Rosicrucianism indicate, esoteric alchemy provided intellectual stimulation for both minister and magistrate. A comparison of Thomas Hooker's assessment of alchemy as a "foolish conceit .... beyond the reach of any man" in 1638 with the Winthrops' and Mathers' lively interest in the art in the late seventeenth-century indicates the gradual acceptance of alchemy as a philosophy worthy of speculation as well as a rhetorical device (Exaltation 106). Perhaps due to the veiled nature of the writings and the education necessary for understanding their allegories, Taylor did not offer Rosicrucian alchemy to the parishioners at Westfield but reserved it for his private meditations and perhaps occasional metaphor in his sermons.
Copyright © 1994 Kathleen Bernadette Freels