Monday, November 27, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about the famous English “occultist” John Dee.

It is the 27th of November, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A very happy Monday to you all. I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving and are starting to round into the season- Advent, Christmas, or a fun blend of both as we celebrate at my house.

The question for today came from the Mailbag- from Badger in Idaho City- Badger is one of the more faithful listeners to this show and to my previous work- a long haul truck driver he has been writing in, commenting, and rating and reviewing almost as much as anyone. Idaho City, he refers to as “the ghost town that wouldn’t die”- and wowza- is he right. It was a one-time booming town during the Idaho Gold Rush in the 19th century, with as many as 7,000 inhabitants and, as recent as 2021, had a whopping 720 residents. It is just northwest of Boise- just south of the Salmon River mountains and adjacent to the Boise National Forest.

He writes: "[John Dee] seems to be misunderstood in his time (1500s) because he dabbled in the occult and magic. He probably doesn’t get a break with modern historians since he was a motivational force in British colonialism.” Badger found some sources and then asked, “All this to ask what are your thoughts about this man.”

Ok- So, Badger… John Dee is a fascinating character to whom much more has been ascribed than he actually did. Born in 1527, he lived during the reigns of Queen Mary and Elizabeth and James. He attended Cambridge and was a polymath (like a Renaissance man)- he was interested in all aspects of the natural world, from mathematics and the stars to biology and astrology. He was asked to read the astrological chart for the Queen Mary, as well as her half-sister Elizabeth. On account of his work for Elizabeth, he was thrown in jail by Mary and then promoted when Elizabeth became queen. You often see “astrology,” “alchemy,” and “the occult” associated with him because of his interests and his era. The “modern age” of science was initiated in 1620 by Francis Bacon- after Dee’s death. In this “pre-modern” era, the sciences were not well defined with rules of hypotheses, testing, repeatability, etc… the world was an enchanted place, and so, however you might try to understand the mysterious world, it was a more forgiving time.

Astrology and astronomy were essentially one and the same. Alchemy was at once a kind of early chemistry and only partially interested in turning base metals into gold. And the “occult”- this means “things hidden.” To study “the occult” was to consider the “strange things” and often with spiritual suggestions that a modern would dismiss. He served as a diplomat for Queen Elizabeth during his travels across the continent, leading to him being dubbed “the Queen’s spy” and the inspiration for 007. The 007 connection seems to be purely rumor while it is not shocking that a royal would want boots on the ground in other countries to get news and an astrologer to possibly help “divine the signs” as one more avenue to making good decisions.

His work with Edward Kelley is where he gets a little strange- attempting to communicate with angels and use a crystal ball- but who hasn’t had friends that they temporarily fell under the spell of with ideas ranging from eccentric to dumb.

He was a proponent of the Gregorian calendar, uniform mathematical symbols, and finding a northwest passage through modern Canada to the East. And, if that could happen, it would make fiscal sense to build a kind of extended empire- he used the term “British empire,” but this is nothing like that of later British Monarchs. Dee has a bad rap. Dee did some silly things. He was a pre-modern scientist asking “what if…?” about the natural world and spiritual realm. He was an easy target for “sophisticated moderns” but was a man- albeit near genius level- and eccentric- of another era. I recommend reading about him and similar ideas and people through the “Magic in History” series through Penn State Press- I have enjoyed Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe and Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England. Thanks for the question, Badger, and for the years of support- you can send me your questions at


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary and 2nd Timothy 2.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,
    we will also live with him;

if we endure,

    we will also reign with him.

If we disown him,

    he will also disown us;

if we are faithless,

    he remains faithful,

    for he cannot disown himself.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose coffee roasting would have likely garnered him charges of sorcery in a pre-modern past- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who just got back from Costco- where the guy checking the receipts told me that I looked “like I should be a captain on a ship out at sea”… hmmm… I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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