7.2.1. Popular apocalypticism


7.2.1. The popular apocalypticism

After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the assurance of a Protestant dominion, England became an appealing refuge for the continental radicals oppressed by the long hand of Catholicism. Élie Marion’s L’Enfants de Dieu (“God’s Children”) is the best example of visionaries who, due to the religious conflicts in the French regions, went to Switzerland in 1705, and reached London in 1706. In the island they were nicknamed the “French prophets,” due to their extraordinary abilities: they had visions, made miracles, spoke in tongues and experienced ecstatic trances. At first they were welcomed, but their pessimistic sermons caused repulsion and panic. After the series of revolutions, the plague and the Great Fire, England was tired by catastrophes and millenarism. It was a period of religious and political calm, because most of the people did not want to hear about an overthrow of the Protestant monarchy or an iteration of political experiments such as the Commonwealth or the Protectorate. So, the problem of the French prophets was not their message, but rather their timing; they were arrested, found guilty of blasphemy and disturbing the peace and condemned to pillory.844

With a secure and stable Protestant government, England had no reasons to worry, and the people were able to concentrate on more secular things, such as trade and commerce. The geographical conquests were boosting the British economy and the Enlightenment was bringing fresh ideas and perspectives in all fields. The British Empire was rapidly expanding and the future looked promising. Yet, for some this shift of interest was not a reason to celebrate. On the contrary; at the beginning of the 18th century clerics such as John Wesley, his brother Charles Wesley and George Whitefield noticed that there was something wrong with the spirituality of the English people: the process of evangelization was too slow. All three began to search for answers and methods to correct this situation and all three noticed the advantages of outdoor preaching. This was the time when religious euphoria was reanimated through the work of a new kind of preachers, the revivalists.

The revivalistic preachers felt that the official religion of England failed to call sinners to repentance because it was influenced by the Enlightenment and became too formal. They believed that Anglicanism would soon share the horrible fate of the Catholic Church and the Papacy.845 In this context, John Wesley believed he was destined to revitalize the Church before Parousia and no opposition, persecution or obstacle could stop God’s will. In order to save as many souls as possible from perdition, he named itinerant, unordained preachers, usually inexperienced youngsters, to travel and to preach in a manner similar to the 12 apostles after Christ’s ascension. So, the name “Methodism,” as Wesley’s movement was called, comes from the word “method,” and it was a simplification of the Anglican procedure of evangelization.

Methodism was part of an intercontinental movement of enthusiastic evangelization, which manifested itself especially in America through the First Great Awakening. Both the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield stepped on American soil and spread their ideas among the colonists. John Wesley in particular constantly traveled, usually on a horse, preaching every day outdoors about Methodist theology, the means of grace (prayer, scripture, meditation and communion) and the state of Christian perfection in which believers can no longer commit sins. In 1738 the relations with the Moravians sent Wesley on a visit in the German regions, where he made contact with the apocalyptic writings of Johann Albrecht Bengel.846 Thanks to Wesley the work Gnomon Novi Testamenti was republished several times in England, and Bengel became part of the theological basis of the Methodist Church. The Anglican clergy refused to be associated with this mass of amateur theologians, so in 1739 the movement of the Wesley brothers split off from Anglicanism and became independent.847

Despite the fact that the American Revolution seriously altered the political relations between England and the American colonies, a religious connection continued to subsist between the two shores of the Atlantic. In 1791, while the guillotine was purifying the French people of the disease of the monarchy, the new American nation was preparing for the Second Great Awakening and England for a new wave of religious euphoria. It was a time when at the bottom level of society madness was still explained supernaturally, not psychologically. The retired sailor Richard Brothers heard the voice of an angel telling him about the fall of London, the real apocalyptic Babylon. One year later Brothers snatched a stick from a bush of wild roses imitating Moses and his staff. Brothers said that the Israelites were hidden among the population of Great Britain without knowing their biological identity – an aberrant idea that in time turned into the theory of British Israelism. He declared himself to be the apostle of a new religion, the nephew of the Almighty and the literal descendant of King David destined to lead the Israelites back in the land of Canaan. In 1795, inspired by the execution of Louis XVI and the fall of the French monarchy, Brothers announced the death of the king and the end of the English monarchy. He was arrested, charged with treason and confined in an insane asylum.848

Joanna Southcott, a completely uneducated maid, was only 18 when the “spirit of truth” entered her and became her spiritual guide. In 1790 she joined the Methodists and two years later Christ warned her about upcoming calamities.849 Seven of the followers of Richard Brothers, who was in prison, dedicated themselves to Southcott. She named these the “seven stars” and she relied on their support for the upcoming spiritual work. Southcott identified herself with the women arrayed with the Sun from Revelation 12 and the Bride of Christ from Revelation 19. The spirit told her that she was destined to defeat Satan and to save the world from the bondage of impurity. After she signed a petition through which she overthrew Satan and established the Kingdom of God, each follower received a piece of paper inscribed “The sealed of the Lord, the Elect precious. Man’s Redemption to inherit the Tree of Life. To be made Heirs of God and Joint-Heirs with Jesus Christ.” The name of the follower was written above the inscription, while the signature of Southcott appeared below.

In 1814 Southcott prophesied that she would give birth to the future Messiah.850 His name was going to be “Shiloh,” a name that designates the Messiah in Genesis 49:10. Southcott was 65 years old at the moment of the vision; she declared she was virgin like the Virgin Mary, while the birth at an old age imitated the miracle performed by God to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). Southcott was examined by 21 doctors, of whom 17 concluded that she was pregnant. But in December 1814 she died of unknown causes, without giving birth to any son. After her death her followers were so convinced that she would return to life that they enveloped her body in textile material and preserved the temperature of her body with warm water for four days. Ultimately, an autopsy revealed that Southcott had not been pregnant, but no disease was found as well.

At the death of the prophetess the Southcottian sect numbered around 100,000 members. And, despite the fact that no messiah came out from the “Virgin Joanna,” her adepts quickly adapted: Shiloh was going to come in a few years on the clouds of heaven. But there was the problem of the leadership. Several followers claimed to be the spiritual successors of the dead prophetess, which caused schisms and power struggles. John “Zion” Ward was so desperate that he declared himself to be the incarnation of Shiloh.851 George Turner was more reserved, portraying himself as the forerunner of Shiloh, as John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. This position allowed him to be followed by the largest part of the Southcottian group. Turner continued Southcott’s absurd eschatological work and published numerous pamphlets. His writings were written in first-person singular, in a language that copied the biblical tone, as if God was speaking through Turner’s mouth:

I, the Lord of heaven and earth, now command thee, George Turner, to bring forward those things I have revealed to thee, concerning my Son Shiloh, which is the Son of Man, which I give to Israel the Jews for their Messiah, to gather them together, and lead them back to their inheritance, to the land I promised to Abraham and his seed for ever; that they may be informed of my mercy toward them: and I am now going to fulfill my promises to them, in establishing them in a kingdom – and people in their own land, which I promised to their forefathers, never more to be removed; but to inherit my blessings. Now bring them forward. I am the Lord.852

Disgusted by the assault of religious ineptitudes, the cleric William Scott launched an acid critique against Turner and the entire class of visionaries and prophets:

The fashion of the present day is to tolerate every thing; and to maintain that enthusiasm and hypocrisy are no checks to the progress of religion. If any of our readers shall be of opinion that Mr. John Turner ought to be permitted, in virtue of a sixpenny license, to preach the trash which we are about to quote, or that the dissemination of his blasphemies is harmless and innocent, we exhort them forthwith to become attendants upon his ministry; and have no doubt that they will be qualified to assist him in his labours.853

Some of the Southcottian leaders had strange ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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