The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Wandering Soul: On Meeting Theadora Wilkin

A guest post by William Cook Miller

While at the Folger Shakespeare Library over the summer, I came across a manuscript so exciting, so intriguing, so multifaceted, that I spent a full week combing through it, photographing it, trying to crack its mysteries. That manuscript is by a little-known—or rather, as far as I have been able to find, totally unknown—writer named Theadora Wilkin, and it bears the daunting title, The WANDERING SOUL in Conference with ADAM, NOAH, and SIMON CLEOPAS (Folger MS W.a.131-132)

Title page of Folger W.a.131

While the manuscript is not dated, it was probably a work long in progress. It runs to two volumes, and a grand total of 939 neatly hand-written pages, and the watermarks indicate the use of many batches of paper. It was certainly completed, or rather set aside by its author for the last time, before Wilkin’s death in 1733, at the age of sixty-five.

The manuscript consists of interviews with the title Biblical figures, conducted by the Wandering Soul. The interviews with Adam and Noah are comparatively short, covering their respective experiences of the prelapsarian and antediluvian worlds, and the well-known stories of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The interview with Simon Cleopas (known spelled Cleophas) takes up 829 pages, and covers the history of the world from Abraham forward. I was surprised to find a disciple mentioned only once in the Gospels, as one of the two who encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25), play such a prominent role. But Cleophas did figure more centrally in Eusebius and other early Christian authors, where he was considered the brother of Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph.

While The Wandering Soul is anchored in the (very thorough) retelling of Biblical stories, the flexibility of the format allows for long excurses on contingent subjects as well: astronomy, natural philosophy, and what we would now call comparative religion. As indicated in footnotes and marginal commentary, Wilkin integrates into her retelling a scholarly apparatus ranging from ancient historians to Church Fathers to medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophers to early modern theologians like Hugo Grotius, Joseph Mede, Thomas Jackson, and John Lightfoot. At times, citations and commentary crowd the text nearly off the page.

A sample of Wilkins’ commentary, Folger MS W.a.131, p. 99

On the whole, the manuscript comes off less as a series of dialogues than as an attempt at an encyclopedic story of the world. This is history at once as passionate conversation—the Biblical interlocutors frequently pause to weep and dry their eyes as they recount the miseries they’ve seen—and as an act of prophetic erudition.

Wilkin’s manuscript is, at bottom, a free and greatly expanded translation of a long section of a Dutch-language book by the Mennonite author, Jan Philipsz Schabaelje (1592-1656). This book, the Lusthof des Gemoeds (“Pleasure-Garden of the Mind”), was exceedingly popular in its day. First published in 1635 and expanded in 1638, the book eventually ran to more than eighty editions, and remained in print in Dutch, German, and English well into the twentieth century.

According to the Schabaelje scholar Piet Visser, the Lufthof is by far the most popular work of Mennonite literature ever written. Schabaelje belonged to the Waterlander congregation of the Mennonite denomination, and the tolerationist and moderately spiritualist theology of the Waterlanders is evident throughout the Lusthof, with its depiction of the Wandering Soul as wondering, sympathetic, philosophically curious, and unfailingly courteous. Wilkin’s manuscript is the first English translation—or better, adaptation—of this text. I could only find one other English language version: a nineteenth-century translation by Israel Daniel Rupp from a later German edition of Schabaelje. Simply considered as a landmark in Dutch-English translation, then, Wilkin’s manuscript is quite significant.1

It became still more interesting when I began to track Wilkin’s changes to Schabaelje’s Dutch text. Where Schabaelje glosses over much of the Bible, Wilkin skips nothing. Her Cleopas recounts every book, every story, and much of non-Biblical history as well. Further, Wilkin has an English style all her own, including a gift for literary lists—as, for instance, after Adam’s Fall: “Immediately after sentence had been pronounced, the Messengers of Death were sent, & we became weakened, subject to Head-ache, Tooth-ache, &c. but since we have experienced far greater Indispositions, as Fevers, Convulsions, Epilepsies, Catarrhs, Gravel, Stone, Colick, Ulcers, Gout, Consumptions, Dropsies, Asthmas, Rheums, Phrenzy, Melancholy, yea such innumerable Distempers, that ye Eye alone is incident to 303.”

A catalog of complaints, Folger MS W.a.131, p. 527

The effect, again, is at once conversational and encyclopedic. All of these additions inflate the source text drastically. After more than nine-hundred pages, Wilkin has only arrived at the Babylonian Captivity. (Schabaelje’s text, which would likely have continued to serve Wilkin as a narrative spine through a third and fourth volume, ends with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.) But the additions are essential to the value of the manuscript. They show how Wilkin reads. They amount to an enormous gloss on the Bible—and on knowledge in general—performed to satisfy a reader’s own insatiable curiosity. Wilkin seems to want to make the Bible a homelier and handsomer thing, closer to ordinary experience, and also to integrate the new sorts of learning emerging in her lifetime with the prophetic verities found in scripture.

Further work on the manuscript should yield many insights, for instance into Wilkin’s understanding of gender and sexuality. Intriguing suggestions along these lines emerged when, at the suggestion of the research librarians, I used a light sheet to try to reveal parts of the manuscript that had been patched and overwritten.2 At a few points, especially during the recounting of the Books of Samuel and Kings, Wilkin appears either to censor herself, or to be censored by some later owner of the manuscript (more likely, I think, the former case). When Absalom, acting on Achitophel’s advice, sleeps with his father David’s ten concubines, Wilkin is understandably aghast. The underwriting attacks Absalom as “guilty of Incest” in “defiling the Ten Concubines of his Father,” and complains that “this deed of Darkness was acted in the Day-time in the sight of the Sun, and of all Israel.” But pasted over this written attack on Absalom we find a slip of paper in Theadora’s hand with a far soberer summary: “as I have said before of defiling the ten concubines of his Father’s that were left in Jerusalem.”

Left: Absalom and the concubines.
Right: The original gloss, illuminated by the light sheet.
Folger W.a.132, p. 476

A few pages later, during the retelling of the Judgment of Solomon, one finds in the undertext a short account of Wilkin’s reasons for thinking that the two women disputing over custody of the baby were not “Harlots” but rather “hostesses, or Victuallers, for it cannot well be thought of, that they were licentious, since Pious David, nor Solomon, would ever tolerate such Women … Neither durst any such women have presented themselves before so wise and just a Judge as Solomon.” This judgment, too, is pasted over and blotted, and the story continues without editorial comment. (I wonder whether Wilkin recalled, while rereading her manuscript, the many indications that both David and Solomon did, in fact, tolerate a spot of licentiousness.) I felt in these moments Wilkin’s desire to tangle with and reshape the Biblical text. I could see her weighing the extent to which the Bible’s depiction of sex should inspire commentary, apology, or silence.

Left: Second thoughts.
Right: And first thoughts, viewable thanks to a light sheet. Folger W.a.132, p. 507

Reading this manuscript, I naturally grew quite curious about Wilkin herself. She was born in 1668, possibly in Zeeland (also Schabaelje’s place of origin), a daughter of Johannes Heinsius, who was the governor of Dutch Suriname from 1678-1680. Heinsius died in Suriname in 1680, after leading a combined army of Dutch settlers and Arawaks against a Carib attack on the colony. Theadora was twelve years old at the time of his death. She eventually married the younger son of a long-time Vicar of Heathfield and moved to England. Her brother-in-law was Richard Wilkin, the London printer who had a close working relationship with Mary Astell, among other literary figures. All of these connections multiplied the intrinsic interest of the manuscript. To what extent can we interpret Wilkin’s engagements with Biblical and pagan history in light of her father’s colonial career? More to the point, how does this background inflect the treatment of race in this manuscript, and its apparent erasure of the history of the so-called New World? How does it fit into the early modern subgenre of literature about “the Wandering Jew”? How reliant might Wilkin have been on her brother-in-law’s literary networks? How did her husband’s Anglican family receive this Mennonite—that is, Anabaptistical—translation? What were her own religious proclivities? Was this a book designed to be educational? If so, for whom? How was it used in the years after Wilkin’s passing? For now, these remain for me the best kind of questions—those without ready answers.

Wilkin’s Wandering Soul sums up well the joys of the Folger, and of the archive more generally—the possibility of finding a window, complex and clear, into so many interesting things all at once.


William Cook Miller is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Rochester. He is finishing his first book, titled The Enthusiast: What Radical Religion Did to Character.

  1. For more about Schabaelje and the Lusthof, see Piet Visser, “Jan Philipsz Schabaelje, a Seventeenth-Century Dutch Mennonite, and his Wandering Soul,” in From Martyr to Muppy: A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands: The Mennonites, eds. Alastair Hamilton, Sjouke Voolstra, and Piet Visser (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), 99-109.
  2. Deepest thanks to Rachel Dankert, Kristen Sieck, and everyone at the Folger Library Reading Room for being so immensely helpful all the time.


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