On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers

A satirical print of a Quaker preaching session, after a work by Egbert van Heemskerck I, produced c. 1690, and while satirical in intent, an accurate enough depiction of both Quaker clothing styles as well as the ubiquity of women in Quaker life and practice, their authority on ‘religious’ matters not a given as the very existence of such satirical prints would indicate. (BM 1854,0812.49)

Across the early modern world- in Afro-Eurasia and in the Americas, their population of European and African descent rapidly increasing- the world of the dream was an important ‘place’ in which people of all origins and backgrounds might receive knowledge of things unknown to them, prescience of events to come, and even divine inspiration. The importance of the dream world- a ‘landscape’ at once like and unlike that of the physical world of waking life- resonated among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and others, often in forms and in contexts of striking similarity. The following two dream accounts- one from an English Quaker woman, Elizabeth Webb (1663-1726) , the other from the Ottoman Syrian sufi, saint, and frequent presence on these pages ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)- come from milieus in some ways quite different from one another. Webb was a Quaker preacher whose career took her on a journey through the still young North American colonies along the Atlantic Coast; she passed but a few miles south of where I am now writing in fact, spending some time among the Quaker communities of Maryland and Virginia (sources of the tobacco that would feature quite prominently in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career, in fact). ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s travels took him throughout much of the Ottoman world, threading together communities of sufis and saints in the process, not unlike Webb’s work of joining Quaker settlements through her journeys. Both wrote accounts of their travels, and both presented themselves as beneficiaries of some degree of divine inspiration, not least of all through the medium of dreams.

In both the world of Ottoman Islam and of trans-Atlantic English dissenting Protestantism, dreams were potential sources of the resolution of confusion and of answers for outstanding questions. While dreams could also be themselves sources of confusion and in need of interpretation, particularly for people possessed of sanctity (or who claimed as such for themselves at least) the dream, sent by God to the dreamer, could just as easily be an agent of interpretation. In both of these dreams the dreamer had an outstanding issue- not only that, but their issues were remarkably similar, as were other features of their dreams. Let’s consider Webb’s dream first, which she related in the course of an autobiographical letter to the German Lutheran pietist Anton Wilhelm Böhme (1673–1722), long resident in London as a chaplain:

Oh! it is good to trust in the Lord and be obedient to him, for his mercies endure forever; so about the middle of the twelfth month [1], 1697, through the good providence of the Almighty, we arrived in Virginia, and as I traveled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed great numbers of black people, that were in slavery, and they were a strange people to me, and I wanted to know whether visitation of God was to their souls or not, and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them, so after I had traveled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland [2], after the sun was up and shone into the chamber, I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house, and when I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me and I went presently; but as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst, and as I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me, should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people which I saw in the chariot; when I came to call them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants, I was sent to call, and I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, why have you stayed so long? And they said the buckets were frozen, we could come no sooner, so I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white… [3]

At root here is the question of how Webb- and by extension, other Quakers- were to understand people of African descent, and how they were to relate them (or not) to the Quaker community. Webb is also making an argument for her own authority: in this dream God- implicitly, as she does not say so in so many words- authorizes her to incorporate blacks as well as whites into the Quaker community, resolving through a direct intervention her question. Continue reading “On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers”