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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part II – Ranters, Quakers & Dissenters, 1658-88.   Leave a comment

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Rival Visionaries – James Nayler and George Fox:

In 1659, the Quaker James Nayler, cruelly punished by parliament for leading a procession into Bristol which sought to emulate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem two years earlier, was released from prison and went to see George Fox, seen by many at the time and since as the ‘founding father’ of Quakerism. Fox was lying ill at Reading, in the grip of a mysterious illness caused by mental suffering. Though he took little or no interest in politics, he had shared the hopes of every Nonconformist in the coming of a Puritan government. The deposition of the Church of England and the abolition of the monarchy seemed to promise an era of religious liberty and equality of worship. But Cromwell’s Government had proved itself little by little to be as intolerant as its predecessor, and the internecine strife which had raged among the sects had only intensified since the common enemies, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians had been removed from the field.

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At the time of Cromwell’s death towards the end of 1658, 115 Quakers were in prison for expressing their beliefs in public, and nine had died in gaol. Added to this disappointment was a sense of impending disaster in store for the government and people of England and Wales which Fox and his followers had never ceased to warn them over the preceding months by letters, signs and messengers. But such was Fox’s condition that when Nayler, soon after his release from Bridewell, rode out to Reading to see him, he found the door to his room closed against him. It was clear that Fox had never forgiven Nayler both for his personal disloyalty in denouncing him and for the perceived injury which his followers had worked in Quaker ranks. Nayler now disclaimed the ‘Divine Leading’ which he had earlier justified himself by: I reasoned against God’s tender reproof … and he gave me up, and his Light he withdrew and his Judgement took away. This undermined any opposition which might be using his name within the Quaker movement, reaffirming the unity of the Spirit by which Quakers claimed to be guided. It also helped to answer the propaganda of their enemies, such as:

J.N. and G.F. at daggers drawn discover their cheat of both being led by an infallible Spirit.

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Fox (pictured in the 1650s above) was suffering from mental illness at the time of Nayler’s release, so Nayler was told that he could not see him, as he described in the letter he sent to Magaret Fell in the Summer of 1659. Yet whatever excuses might be made for his own disordered spirit, it is hard to fathom the unrelenting harshness Fox showed to Nayler in this crisis in his fortunes. Three years had passed since their last meeting, during which Nayler had suffered insult out of all proportion with his offences; whilst in his confession to Parliament and his penitent letters to Friends he had done all in his power to atone for his fault. Now that he was free to take up his broken life and move once more among his fellows, it was necessary above all things to be assured of Fox’s forgiveness. The continued refusal of Fox’s hand of fellowship placed him in the anomalous position of a ‘disowned’ Friend and discounted the welcome home given him by his brother ministers. Yet this rebuff only served to bring him back out most clearly the best in his nature in what he wrote to Margaret Fell:

But my spirit was quieted, in that simplicity in which I went, in that to return; and he gave me his peace therein as though I had had my desire … Still, his presence is with me in what he moves me to, which is my comfort and refreshment – and so his will is my peace.

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As Nayler had supposed, Margaret Fell had already heard of his abortive visit, from her daughter. In the same letter, she learnt that he had attended a meeting of Friends in London on the following day, a Sunday, but did not speak. This silence, however, was soon broken, even in the face of Fox’s discouragement. By the end of October, a month after his release from Bridewell, Nayler was addressing great meetings in London, and strangers who flocked to hear him went away convinced of the truth of his message. While still under the cloud of Fox’s censure, he seems to have recovered his position of the Friends’ spokesman, and through the autumn and winter, his pen was busy on public matters. Of the letters which he then wrote, perhaps the most important was an answer to two manifestos sent from New England in defence of the governers’ defence of the persecution of the Quakers. The following year, 1660, William Dewsbury succeeded in bringing the two men together, only a few months before Nayler’s death. Beside’s Dewsbury’s celebration of their reconciliation, it is notable how the vigour and power of Fox’s Journal revive after the date of his meeting with his old ‘comrade’, though it is disappointing that he gave no account of the reconciliation. It appears to have taken place at a public meeting at which Dewsbury recalled:

Mighty was the Lord’s Majesty amongst his people in the day he healed up the breach which had been for so long to the sadness of many. The Lord clothed my dear brethren G.F., E.B., F.H., with a precious wisdom. A healing spirit did abound within them with the rest of the Lord’s people there that day … and dear J.N., the Lord was with him.

‘J.N.’ wrote his own ‘song of joy’, a poetic piece which swept before it all the archaisms of his theology and the mannerisms of his usually more deliberate style:

It is in my heart to praise thee O God; let me never forget thee, what thou has been to me in the night … Then didst thou lift me out of the Pit, and set me forth in the Sight of mine enemies, thou proclaimd’st Liberty to the Captive, and called’st mine Acquaintance near me, they to whom I had been a Wonder, looked upon me, and in thy love I obtained favour in those who had forsook me, then did gladness swallow up sorrow and I forsook all my troubles; and I said, How good is it that Man be proved in the Night, that he may know his Folly, that every Mouth may become silent in thy Hand, until thou makest Man known to himself …

It was, no doubt, his general anxiety for the fragile community of Friends which led to Fox’s mental breakdown and precipitated his negative response to Nayler’s request to meet him, as well as his later rejection of John Perrot. Quaker scholars have concluded that in his anxiety for his ‘flock’, Fox did not trust enough in the power of the Spirit to preserve it, so that he unwittingly revealed a rejecting, authoritarian side to his personality. But some of the early editors of the letters and works of both Fox and Nayler sometimes felt obliged to suppress their accounts of miracles, denunciations, controversies, dreams and nightmares, thus contributing, from well-meaning motives to the provision of incomplete accounts of their experiences. This was an injustice to both men, who in their differing ways endured terrifying struggles with the evil in themselves and in the world; it also deprives historians and others of reaching a holistic view of their conflict and its resolution. From a practical point of view, Fox deserved the support which the great majority of Friends had offered him. But in condemning his friend for ‘running out into imaginations’. Fox may have allowed the authoritarian and practical side of his own natural instincts to suppress the more libertarian and visionary aspects which were so strong in Nayler.

But the whole episode deserves to be treated as representing an important transition from a serious breach in the movement to a way of resolving internal conflict. It also reveals that the movement was not as vulnerable as its enemies had hoped. Soon afterwards Nayler, who had already written a penitent letter to the Magistrates who had tried him, travelled to Bristol, where he made a public confession on the spot where his offence had first been committed. Those who had retained the clearest memory of his errors were melted into forgiveness. It is small wonder that Nayler’s popularity returned, but now no success could woo him from his attitude of willing submission to Fox’s leadership. He preached once more at the Meeting in the Strand in London. Then he set out on foot from London to see his wife and children in Wakefield in the summer of 1660. There was a prevalent ‘low fever’ in the city and the country, and it found easy prey in Nayler whose body had already been tried beyond endurance, and it succumbed very swiftly. He reached Huntingdonshire, where he was apparently attacked by robbers and left bound in a field, from where he was taken to a Friend’s house at Holm, near King’s Rippon, where he soon died. He was buried on 21 October, in the village of King’s Repton in the little graveyard of Thomas Parnell, his last friend and physician. His last words, which have come down to us preserved by friends who stood around his deathbed, seem to sum up the central message of the Inner Light at the end of the first ‘stage’ of Quakerism:

There is a Spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end: Its Hope is to outlive all Wrath and Contention, and to weary out all Exaltation and Cruelty or whatever is of a Nature contrary to itself. It sees to the End of all Temptations: As it bears no Evil in itself so it conceives none in Thoughts to any other: If it be betrayed it bears it; for its Ground and Spring is the Mercies and Forgiveness of God. Its Crown is Meekness, its Life is Everlasting Life unfeigned, and takes its Kingdom with Intreaty and not with Contention, and keeps it by Lowliness of Mind. … nor doth it murmur at Grief and Oppression. It never rejoyceth, except through Sufferings … I found it alone being forsaken; I have Fellowship therein, with them … who through Death obtained this Resurrection and Eternal Holy Life.

Fox and The Second Generation of Quaker ‘Leaders’:

It is from Thomas Ellwood, Milton’s Quaker friend and amanuensis, that we get the clearest picture of Nayler in his closing days. In December 1659 he was a lad of twenty, living at home with his father at Crowell in Oxfordshire, attracted to Quakerism through his admiration of Guli Springett, who later married William Penn. Her stepfather and mother, the Penningtons, were old friends of the Ellwood family, and it was in their company that he attended the Quaker meeting at Chalfont together with his family, held at a farmhouse called The Grove, close to the quiet haven of Jordans, which became a centre for Quaker pilgrims. James Nayler attended the meeting with his old friend and co-worker, Edward Burrough, who was the only Friend to speak at the meeting. We have no record of what he said, but we do have the following statement which he made in his Preface to The Cause of Stumbling Removed by Richard Hubberthorne in 1657 on the ‘contention surrounding James Nayler’:

And as concerning this thing, which was looked upon as a breech among us by many, yet it’s over, and Truth stands a-top of it, and the beauty of Truth appears through it all, and Truth is more lovely when it is proved and purged.

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We might assume that Burrough gave a similar message at the meeting he attended the following year at ‘Jordans’. Ellwood’s autobiography also contains the following sketch of their witness:

As for Edward Burrough, he was a brisk young man of a ready tongue (and might have been, for aught I then knew, a Scholar), which made me the less to admire his Way of Reasoning. But what drop’d from James Nayler had the greater Force upon me, because he look’d but like a plain, simple Country-man, having the appearance of a Husbandman or Shepherd.

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But though he died in early middle-life, those contemporary friends who were best able to secure his legacy survived him only by a few years. Hubberthorne, Nayler’s faithful friend, was one of the first to die, aged just thirty-four. Edward Burrough died in 1662, after eight months’ imprisonment in the Old Bailey, leaving behind him widespread consternation among Friends, together with a sense of irreparable bereavement. Francis Howgill died six years later in Appleby gaol, where he had shared Nayler’s first imprisonment. Farnsworth, who had been ‘convinced’ at the same time as Nayler, and had followed his fortunes with paternal interest ever since died in a London gaol in 1666. Only Dewsbury, who had brought about the reconciliation of Fox and Nayler, lived to any great age, dying in London in 1688, having spent nearly half a lifetime in gaol. Other close associates of Nayler went into self-imposed ‘exile’, like Robert Rich, the London merchant, who went to Barbados in 1659. He frequented Quaker meetings there and supported those in prison back in Britain. But his relations with the Society were anything but cordial, and he never forgave Fox for what he regarded as his persecution of an innocent man. The London Friends responded to his repeated attacks by disowning Rich, refusing even to accept his donation for the relief of the poor after the Great Fire. He returned to London in 1679 and became once more a familiar figure in Friends’ meetings before his death later that year.

Death of Cromwell & Commonwealth:

But this was twenty years after Nayler’s death, by which time his name had gone down in a sea of infamy with most Friends. His offence and punishment had been of so spectacular a nature that they threatened to survive in the collective memory of the Society long after the recollection had vanished of his repentance and recovery. Moreover, the whole episode of his breach with Fox had brought an atmosphere into it which was not easy to disperse. A church founded on democratic principles, which acknowledged no superiors in its ministry was hard to reconcile with Fox’s stiff and autocratic attitude. Many of Nayler’s followers never returned to their allegiance but remained a source of disorder in numerous districts of England and Wales.

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The Death-Mask of Oliver Cromwell, 1658.

In the year between Oliver Cromwell’s death and the restoration of Charles II, Quakers refused the positions they were offered by the Committee of Safety to help in ensuring public order, partly for political reasons, but also because violence might be involved. Friends’ attitude to the secular authority was that they should respect the law in so far as it did not conflict with their direct apprehension of the law of Christ, and if they had to break it, they willingly accepted the consequences, refusing to pay a fine or accept a pardon, in witness to the fact that they were doing what they knew to be right. They fearlessly sought out those in authority and spoke to them frankly, as equals. George Fox had met Cromwell several times before the Protector’s death and harangued him about the responsibilities of government as well as the sufferings of persecuted Friends. It is a tribute to Fox’s personality that both Cromwell and Charles II showed respect for him as well as curiosity. And when the opportunity arose in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to set up governments based on Quaker principles, the challenge was taken up and boldly carried through by William Penn and others.

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The Embleme of England’s Distractions, As also of her attained, and further expected Freedom & Happiness, 1658.

052The Rump of the Long Parliament was in charge after Richard Cromwell had been deposed by the Army in April 1659 and was responsible for Nayler’s release. Although it was sent packing by the army officers under Major-General Lambert (right) in October, as Lambert’s support melted away, it reassembled on Boxing Day. A Paper signed by 164 Friends offering to replace their fellows in gaol was sent to Parliament petitioning about the renewed persecution of their brethren that …

… lie in prisons and houses of correction and dungeons, and many in fetters and irons, and have been cruelly beat by the cruel gaolers, and many have been persecuted to death, and have died in prison, and many lie sick and weak in prison and on straw, so we, in love to our brethren, do offer up our bodies and selves to you, for to put us as lambs into the same dungeons … and nasty holes and prisons … that they may not die in prison … For we are willing to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to take their sufferings upon us that you would inflict upon them. … Christ saith it is he that suffereth and was not visited …

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In his General Epistle to them who are of the Royal Priesthood (1659), Fox also attacked those who wished to restore the Mass for the Papists, Common Prayer for the Episcopal men and the Directory for Presbyterians. He even attacked the Church-made and framed faith for the Independents and Mixed Baptists. He contrasted all these ‘Church-made faiths’ with the Quaker faith, the unity and fellowship of which would stand when all the others were ended. He also drew attention to the hypocrisy of churches which had once called for toleration of their practices, but were now persecuting others, including the Quakers, foreshadowing what was to come:

‘Forgive us, as we forgive them’, cry Papists, cry Episopals. These cry the Lord’s Prayer, and then like a company of senseless men fall a-fighting with one another about their trespasses and debts, and never mind what they prayed, as though they never looked for forgiveness, and to receive the things they prayed for, that fall a-persecuting and imprisoning  one another, and taking their brethren and fellow-servants by the throat about religion, (who) in their prayers said ‘Father, forgive us, as we forgive them’, and will not forgive.

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Return of the King – Restoring ‘Order’?:

As the year neared it end, Admiral Lawson, in command of the fleet anchored in the Thames, declared for Parliament, and General Monck (depicted in the contemporary porcelain figure, right) at the head of an army in Scotland, who had made it known for some months that he was in support of the civil authority, was about to march on London. He crossed the border on New Year’s Day, to be greeted with proclamations from all parts of the country in favour of a ‘free parliament’. Lambert offered no resistance and in early February, and backed by the civic authorities in London, Monck insisted that the Rump should admit the moderate members excluded in 1648 so that it could arrange for free elections. Everyone knew that this would mean the return of the King.

In his diary, Samuel Pepys (pictured below) describes how, on 6 February 1660, Monck entered the capital with his army to be warmly welcomed by Parliament, though the Common Council and the city apprentices hesitated to rally to his banner.

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George Fox came up from Reading in time to see the destruction of the city gates and portcullises by the troops, recommended by Parliament to Monck as the quickest means of bringing the City Council to heel. Fox saw this act of vandalism as a prophecy of the ruin which he had foretold would come upon the city. The following day, the Quakers were already suffering a foretaste of their treatment under a Royalist Government, and Pepys witnessed their rough handling by Monck’s soldiers at Whitehall.

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Above: Whitehall from St. James’ Park, by Peter Tillemans (detail). The Coldstream Guards drill in front of the Horse Guards building, while Charles II strolls through the park with members of his court.

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The accession of Charles II, in defiance of Fox’s prophecies, gave the signal for an orgy of persecution which lasted with a few short intermissions for the rest of his reign. The Quakers showed themselves the most uncompromising of all the sects, and upon them, the storm broke with peculiar violence. The authorities simply did not know what to do with them, they showed so little fear and so much firmness. They crammed them into prisons but they still held their meetings there. They told their gaolers that …

… they might as well think to stop the sun from shining, or the tide from flowing whilst but two of them were left together. 

Heterodoxy and schism became commonplace among Quakers during the rest of Fox’s lifetime and into the next century. The next serious breach was made by John Perrot, a returned missionary, whose sufferings at the hands of the Inquisition in Rome had turned a brain already weakened by hysterical mysticism. Perrot had attempted to preach in Rome and had suffered three years’ imprisonment in a madhouse by order of the Inquisition. On his return to Britain, he raised the question of whether ‘customary, traditional ways of worship’ were already creeping in among Friends. The practices complained of were slight: most prominent in the controversy was that of taking off one’s hat while praying in a Quaker meeting. At the time of Nayler’s release from Bridewell, Perrot was convulsing the Society with his campaign against ‘hat-honour’, which he argued should be refused to the Deity, no less than to earthly dignitaries. It was a mad effort for the glorification of the Divine in man, surely the most perverse offshoot of the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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To Fox, this was a matter of turning Friends from unity in the power of God into vain and useless disputes. Yet backed by the sympathy and respect aroused by Perrot’s sufferings for the Truth, the ‘heresy’ made great headway, the more that Fox, imprisoned in Scarborough Castle, was unable to oppose it in person with the weight of his influence and common sense. He wrote a letter of disownment and condemnation which was read to Perrot on board the ship which was about to set sail for Barbados. In this way, Fox exercised the authority which many friends expected of him; but feelings were running strongly enough on both sides for this to risk the danger of splitting the movement in two. It was not Fox, but Dewsbury who sent a letter to Perrot which he also published, of the need for reconciliation, and of God’s power to preserve his own truth:

And as to my particular self, it is not my nature to be found striving with thee or any upon the earth; but, having declared the Truth to thee, I will return to my rest in the Lord, and let every birth live the length of its day; and let the time manifest what is born of God, for that spirit that stands up in self-striving will weary and die, and end in the earth.

037During this potential schism, from 1664 to 1666, Fox was enduring harrowing imprisonment at Lancaster and Scarborough. His body was numbed with cold and his fingers swelled so that one was grown as big as two. During this time, the question of authority was still an urgent one; and in his absence, a specially convened meeting issued a letter committing a power of decision and judgement to such good ancient Friends as have been and are sound in the Faith, and agreeable to the witness of God in his people. The reaction to the dangers of individual guidance was creating the beginnings of a hierarchy, of which Fox could have expected to be at the pinnacle.

When he was released, he had a new vision, of a structure for Friends without human leadership, where balance could be achieved between the insight of the individual and the corporate wisdom of his own group of Friends. The step which Fox took to enforce discipline by the revival of ‘Monthly Meetings’, which had existed in some places during the Commonwealth but had often disappeared during the more recent persecutions. Ill as he was, he rode around the country establishing a complete system of these meetings.

Any or all of the members of ordinary local meetings which comprised it could attend these county-wide meetings. In its business affairs, as in all other matters, the decider was ‘the Spirit of God’, made known in the hearts of those present. No decision would be made until each and every one of them was convinced of this. Matters of concern were referred to Monthly Meeting from the constituent meetings, and each Monthly Meeting could refer them to the Yearly Meeting which could take action on behalf of the whole Society of Friends throughout Britain. Fox’s further travels were in support of this autonomous system which he felt justified in calling ‘gospel order’. His presence and his ‘epistles’ must have carried great weight, yet we sometimes read of him leaving most of the speaking to his companions in meetings and playing a minimal active part. He wrote that the least member in the Church hath an office and is serviceable, and every member hath need one of another. The extent to which he surrendered his leading position was one of the most remarkable things in his life. Though he was seldom explicit about the struggles with his own conscience, this may be seen as the outcome of a long process of self-examination and readjustment, in the light of the schisms, persecutions and spiritual promptings of the years between 1656 and 1666.

Yet while this was devised to heal one schism, it gave rise to another yet more dangerous and more widespread one, the ‘Wilkinson-Story Separation’. In the eyes of these two influential Quakers, this new departure in Church government was a betrayal of the Inner Light. Fox, they thought, had ‘delegated’ the task of ‘spiritual direction’, which was the prerogative of each member, to the ‘Meeting’. Henceforth, every individual member would have to bow to a corporate ruling rather than follow the leading of their own conscience. This controversy lasted over many years, with both parties being unwilling to give way to reach a compromise. Its consequences were lamentable not just within the Society but also outside since it revealed Quakerism as being a ‘unity rent by disunion’. The validity of its cardinal doctrine was called into question; for while the two opposing sides laid claim to the guidance of the Spirit, it was obvious to all that one side must be decided and therefore deceiving others. Fox’s natural authority, both by temperament and as founder, was liable to take the course already charted in the case of Perrot. This was probably reinforced by the anxieties and loyalties of a great many Quakers, and by the deaths, at about this time, of quite many ‘the first publishers of Truth’, Fox’s original co-workers. Even when the storm had subsided, it left its traces in a new diffidence in trusting to untested inspiration or striking out into fresh paths, and on the part of outsiders in a sceptical atmosphere which made doubly difficult their evangelistic work.

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Although Fox did not regard the Bible as the fountain of Truth, he believed that its writings flowed from this fountain, as did the inspired actions and words of Friends, so it was natural that they should draw from it. Charles II asked one of them, How did you come to believe the Scripture were true? The answer was:

I have believed the Scriptures from a child to be a declaration of truth, when I had but a literal knowledge, education and tradition; but now I know the Scriptures to be true by the manifestations and operation of God fulfilling them in me.

It was not only the grown-ups but the children who showed great courage in the face of persecution. At Bristol, Reading and Cambridge, when all the men and women were in prison, the children continued to meet. A letter to George Fox from Reading dated 15 November 1664 says:

Our little children kept the meeting up when we were all in prison, notwithstanding the wicked justice, when he came and found them there, beat them with a staff he had with a spear in it.

In Bristol, too, the children met and were savagely beaten for doing so but they bore it patiently and cheerfully. Boys and girls of ten and twelve years were threatened with prison and beaten unless they promised not to meet together for the worship of God any more but the children in that respect were unmoveable. By contrast, the Ranters were never ‘natural’ martyrs. Like Lollards and Familists before them, they usually recanted when called upon to do so. Since most of them did not believe in immortality, the satisfactions of martyrdom were less obvious: resistance to death would require a deeper and more worked out faith than that possessed by most of them but this was that the sort of faith that the Quakers had come to own. In 1672, Fox wrote, in his ‘Second Epistle’, of their ‘passive resistance’ in the following eloquent terms:

Friends never feared their Acts, nor prisons, nor gaols, nor houses of correction, nor banishments, nor spoilings of goods; nay, nor life itself. And there was never any persecution that came, but we saw it was for good; and we looked upon it to be good, as from God; and there never were any prisons that I was in, or sufferings, but still it was for the bringing multitudes more out of prison. For they that imprisoned the Truth and quenched the Sprit in themselves, would prison it and quench it without them. So that there was a time when there were so many in prison that it became a by-word, “Truth was scarcely to be found but in gaols.”

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Friends, unlike Ranters, often suffered at the hands of these same ‘magistrates’, and a number of them died in prison. These experiences brought them close to prisoners and outcasts, and also tested their Christian love and forbearance towards their judges, guards and gaolers. On many occasions, these people were won over from enmity and ridicule to respect and trust. For a belief of ‘that of God in everyone’ asserted that acting towards oppressors in the Spirit of Christ, believers would reach and awaken the same spirit within their ‘enemies’. Despite his doctrinal differences, Baxter admired the stoutness of the Quakers under persecution, one of the most important reasons for their survival into the eighteenth century and beyond:

… they were so resolute and gloried in their constancy and suffering, that they met openly and were dragged away to the common jail, and yet resisted not and the rest came the next day, so that the jail at Newgate was filled with them. Many of them died in prison, and yet they continued to meet.

Promptings of ‘the Spirit’, Prophesying & Persecution:

When James II succeeded his brother, there were 1,383 Friends in prison, of whom about two hundred were women. Though the records are imperfect, it has been estimated that at least four hundred and fifty Quakers had died in gaol since the Restoration, so terrible were the conditions of imprisonment. Bishop Barnet, who wrote a history of his own times, gave a description of the persecution of the Quakers:

When they were seized, none of them would get out of the way. They went all together to prison; they stayed there till they were dismissed, for they were dismissed, for they would not petition to be set at liberty, nor would they pay their fines … and as soon as they were let out, they went to their meeting-houses again; and when they found these were shut up by order, they held their meetings, in the streets, before the doors of those houses. They said they would not be ashamed of their meeting … but would do it the more publicly, because they were forbidden to do it.

Not just during persecutions, but at all times Quakers had to witness to the Spirit of God within them, knowing that their words and actions might be God’s means of awakening this Spirit in a fellow man or woman. If they kept shops, they knew they must shoe equal honesty to all; customers discovered that they could even send a child to buy from it without being cheated through the unfair adjustment of prices, weights and measures. If a craftsman, the Quaker’s work must be sound but simple, not encouraging worldly vanity. If he was a labourer, he must give his employer full and honest service, yet show him the respect due to an equal, not a superior. In some local registers of craftsmen, the term ‘Quaker’ was applied as if it were a ‘trade’.

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Like the ‘prophets of old’, the Quakers might be called to apparently irrational actions. They lived in an era when the traditional structures and beliefs in religion and politics (largely undifferentiated at the time) were being challenged by Levellers and Diggers, Familists and Ranters. Some of these groups developed an extreme emotional fervour and moral individualism which acknowledged no formal commandments. Many also anticipated the ending of the world throughout the period. Friends had to discover where they stood concerning these beliefs, all the more because they attracted adherents from these groups. In the 1670s, Fox responded to this influx and the criticism it led to by tightening the church government in the Society of Friends, and this, in turn, led to further splits in the movement. The ‘dissidents’ opposed subordination of the individual light within the ‘sense of the meeting’ and objected to the imposition of a more hierarchical structure in the form of a ‘national church’ with monthly, quarterly and annual meetings, as well as separate women’s meetings. They compared these structures with those of other churches, rejecting on principle the condemnation of individual Quakers by any church meeting. For them, the re-organisation was ‘an infringement upon individual liberty’, denying the continuing presence of Christ within all believers. Penn, on the other hand, argued that these were ‘libertine spirits’ who tread down your hedge under their specious pretence of being left to the light within.

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Two significant nonconformist figures among critics of the movement, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter both conflated and confused Quaker beliefs and practices with those of the Ranters, though Bunyan emphasised that only the Ranters had made the doctrines threadbare at the alehouse, and the Quakers have set a new gloss on them by … outward legal holiness. But Bunyan also lumped Ranters and Quakers together in condemnation because both permitted women ministers. The Ranter leader Lawrence Clarkson, looking back from 1660, had no doubt that the early Quakers shared his beliefs about God, the devil and the resurrection, only they had a righteousness of the law which I had not.  The same sense of God which had earlier led George Fox to walk barefoot through Lichfield crying ‘Woe to the bloody city!’ or to climb Pendle Hill to ‘sound the day of the Lord’ was present in more considered actions, such as Penn’s inner ‘calling’ to found the State of Pennsylvania and set up its constitution on principles which included no army or militia, no death penalty, and respect for the rights of Amerindians as equals.

The spread of Quakerism, emptying the ‘steeple-houses’ of Anabaptists and Dissenters, witnessed both to the defeat of the political Levellers and to the continued existence and even the extension of radical ideas. The multitude was still ‘much inclined’ to a ‘popular parity, a levelling anarchy’ in 1650. Even after the Restoration, Samuel Fisher was defending Quakerism against accusations of ‘this rude and levelling humour’. As late as 1678, Thomas Comber was suggesting that the Quakers derived from Gerrard Winstanley, the ‘True Leveller’.

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Heterodoxy & Nonconformity:

The enormous problem of disciplining this amorphous and heterodox movement fell principally to George Fox. For all independent protestant churches, the appeal to conscience, to the inner voice, conflicted with the necessity of organisation and discipline, if the church was to survive. If, as it seems, the early Quakers drew their support mainly from Ranter and Seeker groupings, then their serious challenge was to impose such a common order on the most individualist of all nonconformists. It cost Fox much heart-searching and enmity before he convinced the movement, as his pastoral letters reveal. But gradually, the need to draw lines between themselves and the Ranters, and to eliminate Ranters within their own ill-defined ranks, led Quakers to place more emphasis on human sinfulness, even among Friends. In 1659, Lawrence Clarkson, the Ranter ‘leader’ turned Quaker rebuked ‘ranting devils’ who continued to say that God was the author of evil and that ‘for them, sin was no sin’. The absolute individualism of the appeal to Christ within everyone had to be curbed. It seems to have been the approach of the restoration that decided Fox in favour of pacifism and non-participation in politics. He accepted as the reality that the Kingdom of God was not coming soon. So long as that had appeared to be on the agenda, political attitudes had necessarily to remain fluid. After its disappearance, the problem was one of the relationship of the Society of Friends as a sect to the world in which it had to continue to exist.

Speech, as well as action, had to be open to the Sprit’s inspiration. It was of paramount importance to say what one knew to be true. Friends refused to speak on oath because this would have implied that their everyday utterances were untrustworthy. Incidentally, this gave magistrates an almost certain way of committing them to prison, for if a Friend was asked to take ‘the Oath of Allegiance’, which could be administered to anyone to prove he was a true subject of the realm, the answer was ‘No’. As with so many of their insights, there were two paths to this conclusion: by following in action the logic of their principles; and by taking seriously the New Testament (‘Swear not at all’, and ‘Let your Yea be Yea and your Nay, Nay’). In one of his Journal entries for 1664, George Fox recorded one Courtroom exchange:

Judge:  Sirrah, will you take the oath?

G.F.:     I am none of thy sirrahs, I am no sirrah, I am a Christian.      Art thou a judge, and sits here and gives ill names to prisoners? It does not become either thy grey hairs or thy office. Thou ought not to give names to prisoners.

Judge:  I am a Christian too.

G.F.:     Then do Christian works.

Judge:  Sirrah, thou thinkest to frighten me with thy words …

G.F.:     I speak in love to thee. 

Judge:  George Fox, I speak in love to thee too.

G.F.:     Love gives no names.

Judge:  Wilt thou swear? Wilt thou take the oath.  Yeah or nay?

G.F.:     As I said before, whether must I obey God or man, judge thee. Christ commands not to swear; and if thee, or you, or any minister or priest here will prove that Christ or the apostles, after they had forbidden swearing, commanded that (we) should swear, then I will swear. (And several priests being there, never one appeared or offered to speak.)

Judge:  George Fox, will you swear or not?

G.F.:      It’s in obedience to Christ’s command I do not swear, and for his sake we suffer. And you are sensible enough of swearers how they first swear one way and then another. And if I could take any oath at all upon any occasion, I should take that; but it is not denying oaths upon occasions, but all oaths according to Christ’s doctrine.

Judge:  Then you will not swear. Take him away, gaoler.

G.F.:     It is for Christ’s sake I cannot swear, and in obedience to his commands I suffer, and so the Lord forgive you all. 

Anthony Pearson, a young judge whose conversion on the Bench was one of the most dramatic incidents in Nayler’s early ministry, had since the Restoration ceased to be numbered amongst the Quakers. For many years he had done fine service for Friends, pleading for them with the government and making his home a place of refuge and hospitality. His continued interest in politics, however, acted as a widening wedge between him and Friends, and his appearance at Nayler’s hearing before the Committee of Parliament seems to have been his last act of comradeship. In 1660, he made his peace with the Royalist authorities by abjuring the chimerical notions of those giddy times. He became Under Sheriff of Durham and died in ‘ecclesiastical sanctity’ in about 1665.

The leading Friends of the first generation were great pamphleteers, and when they died it was customary to publish a ‘Collected Works’. In James Nayler’s case, this did not appear until nearly fifty years after his death. In its pages, he qualified the Quaker doctrine of human perfectability in the Light by his sharp awareness of the ebb and flow of spiritual strength, the possibility of self-deception and the believers’ need to understand the ‘darker’ side of their personalities. He wrote of how he experienced judgement and mercy as one, how he was able to lay aside all resentments and find peace, love and strength in the utter loss of himself. It was not long before the sober, respectable Quaker image began to replace that of the wandering enthusiast with his revelations from God and revolutionary zeal. Men such as William Penn, son of an admiral and friend of James II, Isaac Penington, son of the Lord Mayor of London, and Robert Barclay, son of a Scottish laird and trained in theology, joined or came to prominence. Barclay wrote, in particular, about the importance of silent ministry in worship, as a form of ‘unspoken love’:

Such is the evident certainly of that divine strength that it is communicated by thus meeting together, and waiting in silence upon God, that sometimes when one hath come in, … this Power being in good measure raised in the whole meeting will suddenly lay hold upon his spirit, and wonderfully help to raise up the good in him and beget him into the sense of the same Power, to the melting and warming of his heart; even as the warmth would take hold upon a man that is cold coming to a stove, or as a flame will lay hold upon some little combustible matter being near unto it. 

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Above: ‘The valley thick with corn’  (1825) by Samuel Palmer, from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. John Lampen writes: ‘the picture (while not a likeness of George Fox) expresses many things I feel about Fox: his early experiences in the countryside, his naive and visionary qualities, his insistence that the Garden of Eden can be recovered, and his imagery so often drawn from rural life.

‘True Light’ – Psychology & Theology in Early Quakerism:

For the early Friends, what John Lampen has defined, in psychological terms, as the ‘decisive impulse of the unconscious’ confirmed the ethical guidance of what they understood by Christ, the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. This quotation from John’s gospel has sometimes been called the ‘Quaker’s text’ because they asserted more strongly than most other Christians that this illumination was a general and identifiable experience. By ‘general’, Lampen means that they believed it came to Muslims and Amerindians as well as to Christians, humanists and agnostics. By ‘identifiable’, he means that they gave definite criteria to distinguish it from ‘the disguised gratification of our unconscious will’.  Quakers saw  Christ in four aspects, he argues. He is the eternal Word of John’s gospel, preceding all history. Secondly, he gives substance and meaning to all the prophecies, symbols and leadings towards the ‘One God’ of the Jewish religion and other later religious traditions, such as Christianity and Islam. Thirdly, he is the historical Jesus who, Fox said, wholly embodied these ‘foreshadowings’. Fourthly, as James Nayler had set out, there was ‘the Christ I witness in me now’. This is the aspect of Christ which other early leaders witnessed to, Christ as the Light, Spirit or Seed within. Fox identified this Sprit in man with Jesus Christ, rather than just ‘God’ because of his initial revelation and Jesus’ own promise to be with his followers even to the end of the world. He had read in the Bible that Christ would be known to his people as king and lawgiver, prophet and teacher, shepherd and healer, priest and saviour – the ‘offices’ or functions of the Light which he too had personally experienced.

But this is not to claim that every believer has a total private illumination. Jesus set up a community and told them to love one another as they had loved him. Fox used the concept of the indwelling Christ not to make unique claims for himself or anyone else, but to emphasise that anyone in the worshipping group might be prompted to say the word which that group (or individual Friends within it) needed to hear. This was what he called the ‘prophetic’ word of Christ, a word which was an objective reality rather than a psychological one. George Fox’s sanity and humanity are as apparent as his mysticism and sense of mission, in his life and writings.  There is no doubt of his religious experience; not a sudden flash, but gradually evolving from his first insight as a troubled young man. He possessed from the beginning a keen sensitivity to the evil in the world, both in private lives and political circumstances; his spiritual participation in what early Friends suffered for their witness brought him at times to a state of collapse. John Lampen believes this awareness of external malice was coupled to a sense of danger from within, from the bad part of his nature which had led him to contemplate suicide and with which he had to come to terms. Fox’s position was logical, once he had accepted the concepts of the ‘world’ and ‘sin’.  By the ‘World’, Fox and his contemporaries meant, as Cecil W Sharman has summarised:

… outward interests and activities of this life alone; people who give their attention only to these, and  who look down on any who give priority to religious or ethical considerations.

The early Quaker attitude towards sin and perfection had its dangers. Was the vision of the individual paramount? Was there to be no external authority? In that case, as its enemies pointed out, there was no fundamental difference between them and the Ranters, who were not an organised group but a loose movement for radical thinkers. As far as the concept of ‘original sin’ was concerned, Fox believed that the responsibility for this was to be laid at man’s door, not God’s. In his 1659 book, The Great Mistery, he wrote:

As for the soul, that is immortal, for God breathed into man the breath of life and made man a living soul, and sin came by disobedience – and that separates between man and God who is pure and hath all souls in his hand; but as for you are in a cave of darkness, the mystery of the soul is from you hidden, but you confess it is by your means that sin is conveyed to your children. Yea, take it to yourselves, it is your work and the Lord hath no hand in it, not in sin nor in making sinners.

In the same volume, Fox quarrelled with Richard Baxter’s saying that Christ’s kingdom is a hospital, and has no subjects but diseased ones. To this, he replied:

We read of no such thing in scripture … But they who follow the Lamb, in their mouth is no guile, nor spot, nor fault before the throne of God …; and they are the faithful, and called, and chosen that overcome the world, and his kingdom stands in power and in righteousness and joy in the Holy Ghost, and is not a ‘hospital’, nor his subjects diseased ones, for he heals them, and coverts them, and washes them. The diseased, or such as come to Christ to be healed, them who come to him he heals them of what infirmity soever it be, and cures them, and clothes them in the right mind.

Since part of the strength of the Inner Light, of conscience, is its ability to change with a changing intellectual climate, it is not surprising that in the England of Charles II the Quaker consensus came down on the side of discipline, organisation and common sense. They had spread their ideas by becoming wandering speakers, and the torrent of pamphlets on religious matters which poured from the presses during the Commonwealth had owed much to them. Some of them were deeply exercised about the paradoxes of good and evil, God and nature; others simply enjoyed the advantages of a philosophy which devalued all ethical codes. Christopher Hill suggested in his 1972 work on the sects in the Civil War that …

The Quaker movement up to 1659, was far closer to the Ranters in spirit than its leaders later liked to recall after they had spent many weary hours differentiating themselves from Ranters and ex-Ranters. 

But, after the Restoration, the Inner Light had to adapt itself to the standards of the commercial world where ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ helped one to prosper. It was as pointless to condemn this as a sell-out as to praise its realism; it was simply the consequence of the organised survival of a group which had turned the world upside down only to see it turned the ‘right’ way up again. By the 1680s, Fox’s inner voice was telling him something quite different from what it had been telling both him and James Nayler thirty years earlier. Nayler had already become a dark shadow lying across the communal memory of the Society.

From ‘Anarchy’ to ‘Progress’ – Penn, Baxter & Bunyan:

In his Preface to Fox’s Journal, looking back from 1692, the year following George Fox’s death, William Penn identified many Quakers in the earlier days of the Ranter wing, who:

… would have every man independent, that as he had the principle in himself, he should only stand and fall to that, and nobody else; and though the measure of Light and Grace might differ, yet the nature of it was the same, and being so, they struck at the spiritual unity which a people guided by the same Principal are naturally led into …

Some weakly mistook good order in the government of church affairs for discipline in worship, and that it was so pressed or recommended by him and other brethren.

The potential tension between this independent principle and spiritual unity convulsed the Quaker movement three times during Fox’s lifetime. In the first of these, the controversy surrounding James Nayler, the doctrine of the Inward Light had been severely tested. It may have been the case that the church could only survive by establishing itself as an institution, albeit quite different from other churches, even nonconformist ones, in its doctrines and practices. But some Friends, even today, feel that their Society never recaptured the qualities which were symbolically ‘cast out’ with James Nayler. Although still persecuted until 1689, the long-term development of the Society, through a period of withdrawal from the world, commercial success, enlightened social witness, the evangelical movement, to the humanism of today, Quakerism may seem to have more to do with the rationalism of John Locke than the mysticism and prophetic fire of the younger George Fox and James Nayler.

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In 1673, Penn also wrote that it was a Ranter error to suppose that Christ’s fulfilling of the law discharged believers from all obligation and duty required by the law as well as to suppose that all things a man did were good simply because he had convinced himself they were. The later seventeenth-century Quaker conundrum was how to win agreement on objective standards of good and bad, lawful and sinful. This, Penn argued, necessitated church ‘authority’ of some kind. Otherwise, Friends would have to wish…

… farewell to all Christian church order and discipline (which would then provide) an inlet to Ranterism and so to atheism. 

That stated the clear dilemma of a highly individualistic church which had grown up from being a millenarian sect and was at first organisationally influenced mainly by a desire to remove hindrances to spiritual freedom. In the post-Commonwealth era, it had to face the problem of continuing to exist in, what for Friends was undoubtedly an uncongenial world that was being re-established. That necessitated discipline and organisation and a more regular form of teaching ministry. No longer, in Penn’s words, could men afford…

… to wait for a motion of the spirit for everything.

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Penn had won fame as a soldier and had been a great favourite at the Court of Charles II, but he no longer wore a sword as the Quakers,  whom he had joined, thought that all fighting was wrong. Instead of the ‘French garbe’ (right), armour and sword that he had worn when Samuel Pepys met him in 1664, he dressed in the same dark cloth jackets and breeches that were worn by other Quakers, with short-crowned felt hats. Of course, he later went to America to be able to worship and serve God freely, founding the colony of Pennsylvania.

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Following the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II was persuaded by his restored bishops to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity’ which required ministers to promise to use the Prayer Book and to obey the bishops. If they did not do this by St. Bartholemew’s Day in August 1662 they were turned out of their churches and livings. Richard Baxter believed that it was wrong to force people to do anything against their consciences and so he would not agree to the Act. Baxter said:

And now hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread.

Many congregations followed their popular ministers out of the churches, travelling about to go on listening to their teaching and preaching in private houses. The government responded by passing The Conventicle Act, forbidding such meetings and sending everyone who attended them to prison. As a result, the prisons were soon full of those who defied the Act, especially the Quakers. The justices were so busy with the Quakers and the prisons so full of them that they had less time and room for other Nonconformists. A further Act was passed against them called the ‘Five Mile Act’ which said that they must not come within five miles of any important town or of any place at all where they had once been ministers. This prevented them from receiving charitable funds from their home parishes, thus cutting off their incomes completely. Left to himself, the ‘merry monarch’ would have probably allowed both Catholics and Nonconformists to worship in freedom. Parliament would not allow this, however, but the magistrates knew that they could allow nonconformist preaching to continue in private houses. In 1672 the King issued a Declaration of Indulgence, doing away with some of the fierce laws against Nonconformists and granting licenses for certain preachers. Richard Baxter was one of the ministers to get a licence and he returned to London, settling in Bloomsbury.

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Baxter reveals how many ministers thought t it was better for them to go on teaching and preaching openly even if they were sent to prison than to starve or, worse still, see their children starve. Baxter went on preaching in his own house to his family and friends, first in London and then in Acton. As more and more people from neighbouring parishes were coming to hear him preach, he was careful not to preach during the time of ‘divine worship’ at the parish churches. As his house was close to the church, he used to preach before the service and then take all the people over to the church with him afterwards to hear the vicar. But the vicar betrayed him to the magistrates and he was sent to Clerkenwell jail since Newgate was already too full of Quakers. He was allowed a room of his own and his wife to stay with him, so they kept house as comfortably and contentedly as at home, though in a narrower space. 

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While staying with friends at Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, Baxter met William Penn, and the two of them held a meeting in which they discussed and debated before an audience. It lasted from ten in the morning until five without even a break for refreshments. William Penn was a man with a large private income, the son of an admiral who had been a close personal friend of James, Duke of York, who had been in charge of the Navy during Charles II’s reign. We have no record of his disputation with Baxter, but it may well have had a significant effect in the shift in Quaker doctrine which has been characterised as ‘the Quakers’ return to sin’. The man who above all made this ‘adjustment’ was Robert Barclay, son of an old Scottish landed family related to the Stuarts, who was also to be seen at James II’s court. In addition to his famous Apology (1678), Barclay had also published an attack on The Anarchy of the Ranters and other Libertines as late as 1676.

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Baxter continued to teach thousands of people in London who, after the Great Fire and the Acts against the Nonconformists, were without churches and ministers. In February 1685, Charles II died and his brother James, Duke of York, became King. Although, as a Roman Catholic, he could have continued his brother’s tacit toleration in the interests of making common cause with the Dissenters, James hated them because so many of them had opposed him acceding to the throne. Almost as soon as he did so, he authorised the active persecution of them to resume. Baxter was their most famous preacher and writer and, though worn out by age and illness, James thought that the Nonconformists could best be punished by making an example of him through a public trial. His ‘judge’ was the Lord Chief Justice of England, Judge Jeffreys, a man who would do anything the King required. He was the last in a long line of Welsh recruits to the world of Tudor and Stuart political careerists, a clever but cruel man, who is notorious for having hanged more people than any judge before, including the poor West country farmers who rose up in support of the Monmouth rebellion later the same year.

Baxter was duly brought to trial before him at the Guildhall on 30 May 1685, apparently on a charge of sedition, based on twisted interpretations of his Bible commentaries. According to a letter in the collection of a contemporary minister, Rev. Daniel Williams (1643-1716), written by an eye-witness to an ‘honoured old friend’, Baxter told the ‘mad’ Judge who was ‘ablaze with anger and brandy’:

“One day, all these things will surely be understood and it will be seen what a sad and foolish thing it is that one set of Protestant Christians are made to persecute another set. … I am not concerned to answer such stuff (as I am accused of) but am ready to produce my writings, and my life and conversation is known to many in this nation.”

That was all Baxter was allowed to say in his own defence, since Jeffreys pointed out to him that he had “written books enough to load a cart, everyone full of sedition, I might say treason, as an egg is full of meat.” Baxter was imprisoned at Southwark since he was unwilling to pay the fine of five hundred marks. He remained in prison for eighteen months. The correspondent commented sarcastically:

We have fine judges and juries in England you see! This viper, I am told, proposed a whipping through the city, but I hear some of his brethren abhorred the notion and stamped on it. So amongst them out of their great clemency, they have set the above fine. …

036John Bunyan was also one of those ‘mechanic preachers’ who lived out much of his life in prison, spending seven years in Bedford gaol where he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which became, next to the Bible, the most popular and sometimes the only other book in homes all over England. When Bunyan was brought before a judge in 1670, he was told that if he did not stop preaching he must be hanged. Bunyan replied, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the Gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.” He remained in prison for twelve years, during which time he wrote many books, including his famous allegory.

Justice Hotham’s famous remark to Fox in 1652, that Quakers had prevented the nation being overrun by Ranters, looks rather different in the context of 1685 and Fox’s Journal, written in that decade than it did when it was first uttered. Without the Quakers, he had gone on:

… all the justices in the nation could not have stopped it with all their laws, because (said he) they would have said as we said and done as we commanded, and yet have kept their own principle still. But this principle of truth, said he, overthrows their principle, and the root and ground thereof.

Assuming it was correctly reported by Fox himself, perhaps a rather large assumption, this is not a simple statement like ‘Methodism saved England from a French Revolution’. JPs could never have destroyed Ranterism because Ranters would compromise, recant, and yet remain of the same opinion; but the Quakers’ principle led them to bear witness in public, and so to be far less dangerous. If they were to survive, their public witness forced on them the organisation which destroyed the Ranter element in their faith. One of the Ranter characteristics, by contrast, was their readiness to flee from persecution.

George Fox witnessed to the lifelong character of his spiritual struggle in his words as he came out of his last Quaker meeting, a few days before his death in 1691: “I am glad I was here, … now I am fully clear.” The nature of this struggle can be seen during the periods of mental stress which he went through in the years up to 1649, in the summer of 1658 and the winter of 1670-71. His descriptions speak of insecurity and uncertainty, a sense of actual danger, threatening visions and an almost telepathic identification with the sufferings of others. These spells brought physical prostration, sometimes alternating with short bursts of hyperactivity. In each case, the period ended with one or more visions which spoke to him of wholeness and integration, and which left him ready to face new problems and demands with deeper spiritual resources. For instance, his almost fatal illness in the winter of 1670-71 was immediately followed by his strenuous visit to America. The people of Baycliff said of Fox that “He is such a man as never was, he knows people’s thoughts.” He interpreted dreams and was credited with healing powers. It is not surprising that legends grew up around him, such as that he could be in different parts of the country at the same time. But there is no doubt, from both his own Journal and contemporary accounts that he understood the needs of his fellows, their strengths and weaknesses, and that the practical and mystical went hand in hand with him.

Fox did not use his gift of discernment primarily to judge others but to try to arouse in them the ‘witness of God’ which would convert or ‘convince’ them from the heart; it was not his own words, but that which answered them within the hearer which was meaningful. A priest with whom he had been disputing said, “Neighbours, this is the business: George Fox is come to the light of the sun, and now he thinks to put out my starlight.” Fox told him he would not quench the least measure of God in any, much less put out his starlight if it was true starlight – light from the Morning Star. But sometimes Fox felt the need to match his kindliness with sternness. When one man came and told Fox that he had had a vision of him: … I was sitting in a great chair … he was to come and put off his hat and bow down to the ground before me, Fox told him, “Repent, thou beast.” When an individual experienced the teaching, healing and judging power of the Light in him, he could find confirmation of the fact that this was no delusion or personal fantasy by turning to accounts of the historical Jesus and finding them consistent with their own personal experiences. For this presence which believers encountered in the depths of their being, Fox used an abundance of metaphors: Light, Rock, Ensign, Seed, Anchor, Voice, Hammer, Word, Truth, Life, Lamb, Heavenly Man, Captain, Foundation, and many more. All these were used almost interchangeably with ‘Christ Jesus’ and ‘the Spirit of God’. Fox was never in doubt that what Friends would find in those ‘depths’ was Christ, teaching and ministering to them in a way which was consonant with what they could read of him in the Gospels.

Paradise Regained? True Simplicity & Uniform ‘Grey’:

In his interpretation of the historical Jesus, George Fox went back to the traditions of Jesus’ teaching and ministry preserved in the synoptic gospels. His theme was eschatological, that the Kingdom of Heaven had now come. However it presented itself, it must be grasped and held fast; everything else would be added to it. This teaching characterised the early Quaker experience and emphasised the seeking of the Kingdom over the doctrine of the atonement found especially in John’s Gospel and the epistles. Fox suggested that the events of Jesus’ earthly life were in some real sense re-enacted within Friends.

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In this way, he supported the claim of Milton (pictured right), that Paradise could be regained, restoring the right relationship between God and man and the whole of creation. We owe the theme of Paradise Regained to another Quaker, Thomas Ellwood, to whom Milton lent the manuscript of Paradise Lost. Apparently, he returned it with the comment, Thou hast said much of paradise lost, but what of paradise found? Fox himself demanded that believers must come out of the state that Adam is in, in the Fall, to know the state that he was in before he fell.

He took seriously the claims of the New Testament that salvation has already come, that our bodies are temples of God, and that if we abide in the Light there is no occasion of stumbling in us. For most of his life, Fox seems to have had a rare ‘full assurance’ of God’s grace, but he was not alone in this among early Quakers.

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Neither was the Quaker ’cause’ limited to a small number of enthusiasts. By the time of George Fox’s death in 1691, one Englishman in every hundred was a Quaker, worshipping in a way which had almost no point of contact with the other churches’ tradition. traditions. They were the largest of the dissenting sects. Their movement was equally remarkable for its courage, its toleration, its discipline and its democracy. In ‘steeple-houses, law courts, shops and streets, in and out of prison, in prosperity and under threat of death, among the humble and before the powerful, they witnessed to a direct experience of God which changed the way they lived their lives. Experience of this Divine Light bore out the truth of Scripture, and they expected to find that the insight given to one could not contradict that given to another; nor could it disagree with the teaching of Jesus. As Fox wrote, All they that are in the Light are in unity; for the Light is but one. Any disagreement, whether over a course of action or a matter of belief, could only indicate that one or more parties to the discussion had not yet clearly perceived the truth. The desire to harmonise the individual vision with the corporate wisdom of the meeting was not easy. Painful experience played a part in drawing a line. One early Quaker writer described their experience of the meetings s/he attended:

When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united to them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian. …

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In the days of the Commonwealth, Friends were not conspicuous for asceticism, though they tried (and most were obliged) to live simply. Within the much more permissive Restoration culture, they were led to a strong witness for moderation and simplicity in dress, eating, drinking, and every use of the gifts of creation. Since every word one spoke should be as sacred as an oath, every meal a sacrament, every day a holy-day, it was natural that they should condemn licentious painting, music and theatre of the 1660s, the elaborate and artificial manners of the gentry, the love of rich dishes, jewels and expensive clothes, the luxuries of madmen who destroy the creation.

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028This was not, at first, a set of rules, but gradually, after Fox died in 1691, Quakers began to conform to the stereotypical image of uniform grey clothes, ‘plain speech’ and an aversion to art, music and ‘sociable living’, which Fox would have castigated, as Margaret Fell did at the end of her life, as ‘running into forms’. But George Fox was not a ‘modern’ born out of his time, as some have suggested. He was very much a seventeenth-century man, nor did he set himself up to give answers, though he was sure where they could be found. His deeper insights are capable of interpretation, development and rediscovery, perhaps infinitely, for they touch the centre of all men’s religious experience.

To every quotation, modern, Quaker or biblical, his rejoinder would be the personal challenge he first issued to Margaret Fell in 1652 on his first visit to her home at Swarthmore Hall: Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?

 

 

Sources:

003Christopher Hill (1972), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christopher Hill (1973), Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert Latham (ed.) (1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates).

Mabel R Brailsford (1927), A Quaker From Cromwell’s Army: James Nayler. London: The Swarthmore Press.

Cecil W Sharman (ed.) ( 1980), No More but my Love: Letters of George Fox, 1624-91. London: Quaker Home Service.

John Lampen (ed.) (1981), Wait in the Light: The Spirituality of George Fox. London: Quaker Home Service.

Katharine Moore (1961), Richard Baxter – Toleration and Tyranny, 1615-1691). London: Longmans.

Norman Cohn (1957), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.

 

 

Posted March 23, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglicanism, Apocalypse, baptism, Baptists, Bible, Britain, British history, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Colonisation, Commonwealth, Compromise, democracy, Domesticity, English Civil War(s), English Language, eschatology, Family, gentry, Gospel of John, History, Humanism, Humanities, John's Gospel, literacy, Literature, morality, Mysticism, Narrative, Navy, Nonconformist Chapels, Parliament, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Respectability, Revolution, Scotland, Stuart times, Synoptic Gospels, theology, toleration, tyranny, United Kingdom, Women's History

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One – ‘The Holy Youth’ of Niklashausen, the Bundschuh and the growth of German Nationalism to 1517:

Below: Europe in 1466: The Age of the New Monarchies

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During the second half of the fifteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom.  Setbacks experienced by the advancing Ottomans, such as their failure to overcome Albania, defended resolutely by George Castriota (Skandenberg) from 1443 to 1468, meant that it was more difficult for them to tolerate the independence of Byzantine territory to their rear. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation in the West. His army laid siege to Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian commander (and regent), János Hunyádi (below). By 1460, the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the Morea had fallen with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remnant of Byzantium was finally extinguished. In 1457, the Bohemians elected the Hussite George Podebrady as their king. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468.

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The prestige of the Holy Roman Emperor sank particularly low, The dignity and authority of the imperial office continued to dwindle as Germany continued to disintegrate into a jumble of principalities. Frederick III had, at first, largely because of his name, been the focus of the wildest millennial expectations; but in the course of a reign which lasted from 1452 to 1493, he proved a singularly ineffective monarch. His deposition was prevented only by the lack of any suitable rival and latterly his very existence was almost forgotten by his subjects. The vacuum at the centre of the state produced a chronic and widespread anxiety, which found its expression in the folklore of the future Frederick but which could also vent itself in sudden waves of eschatological enthusiasm. Amongst its commonest manifestations were mass pilgrimages, reminiscent of the popular crusades and the flagellant processions of earlier times, and no less liable to escape from ecclesiastical control.

The situation was particularly explosive in the territories of the Prince-Bishop of Würzberg. During the early part of the fifteenth century, the bishops had been wildly extravagant and were unable to pay their debts except by levying even heavier taxes. By 1474 the taxes had become so burdensome that one of the Bishop’s officials, comparing the local peasantry to a team of horses drawing a heavy wagon, remarked that if a single egg were added to that wagon, the horses would no longer be able to pull it. To a laity which had learnt from generations of heterodox preachers that the clergy ought to live in total poverty, this heavy burden of taxation was bound to appear particularly monstrous. In the city and diocese of Würzberg, it was no longer acceptable for the bishop, whatever his personal qualities, to be regarded by the laity and especially by the poor as an exploiter.

In 1476, the small of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley, not far from Würzberg, was the backdrop for a movement which could almost be seen as a new People’s Crusade. Much that had occurred during the earlier crusades in France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley was now repeated in southern Germany, but this time messianic Kingdom was no Heavenly Jerusalem but the State of Nature, as it had been pictured by John Ball in England and the Táborites in Bohemia. The Messiah was a young man called Hans Böhm, a name which suggests that he was either of Bohemian descent or else that in the popular mind he was associated with Hussite teachings. He was a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place. Hence the nickname, by which he is still known, of the Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen. He had heard the tale of an Italian Franciscan, Giovanni di Capistrano, from a generation earlier, who had through Germany preaching repentance, urging his audience to put away their fine clothes and to burn all dice and playing cards. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of Lent, the shepherd burnt his drum before the parish church of Niklashausen and began to preach to the people.

Exactly like the shepherd lad who is said to have launched the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, Böhm declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him surrounded by a heavenly radiance and had given him a message of prodigious importance. In the parish church of Niklashausen there stood a statue of the Virgin to which miraculous powers were attributed, long attracting pilgrims. Now, he claimed, this spot had become the salvation of the world. God had intended to punish mankind, but the Virgin had interceded and God had agreed to withhold punishment if people came to Niklashausen in their multitudes, otherwise, the punishment would, after all, descend upon the world. From the village alone, the Virgin would bestow her blessings upon all lands, since divine grace was to be found in the Tauber valley alone. Whoever made the pilgrimage would be absolved of all their sins and whoever died there would not suffer purgatory, but go straight to heaven.

This former shepherd was a simple man, but now he was suddenly able to command astonishing eloquence. On Sundays and feast days crowds streamed to hear him. At first, he merely preached repentance: women were to throw away their gold and jewellery, men were to wear less colourful costumes. Before long, however, the shepherd was claiming miraculous powers for himself. That God had not sent a frost to kill off all corn and vines was due to his prayers alone, he proclaimed. He also swore that he could lead any soul out of hell with his own hand.

Although Böhm had begun to preach with the consent of the parish priest, it was to be expected that he would eventually turn against the clergy. He voiced the traditional accusations of ‘Avarice’ and ‘Luxury’. It would be easier, he asserted, to make a Christian out of a Jew than out of a priest. God had been outraged by the behaviour of the clergy; now he would tolerate it no longer. The day of reckoning was at hand when the clergy would be happy to cover up their tonsures to escape from their pursuers, for to kill a cleric would then be seen as a most meritorious act. God had withdrawn his strength from them, and there would soon be no priests or monks left on earth. If they burnt him as a heretic, he threatened, a fearful punishment awaited them. He also called upon the people to stop paying taxes and tithes. Priests should be made to give up their many benefices and live from meal to meal on what their parishioners chose to give them. The celebrated Abbot of Sponheim commented:

What would the laymen like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master’s yoke.

The Primate of Germany, the Archbishop of Mainz, also saw in the propheta of Niklashausen a force which might inflict irreparable damage on the Church. In the end, Böhm also revealed himself as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian Millennium based on Natural Law.  In the coming Kingdom, the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in ‘olden times’. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else, from the poorest peasant to local lords and princes to the Emperor:

Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread… The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!

The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban poor; we know that townsfolk came to Niklashausen from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand in demanding that all basic resources and activities should be free for all men, Böhm’s teaching was appealing to the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had, in fact, been theirs in ‘olden time’, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs that they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, a miraculous being sent by God, which drew tens of thousands to the Tauber Valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, a saviour who could bestow on them the fulness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.

News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighbourhood and was carried further afield by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of the common folk of all ages and both sexes, including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and on to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth’. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these people believed of Nikashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. The hordes advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition. One became particularly popular:

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

As the pilgrims arrived at Niklashausen they placed offerings before the statue of the Virgin, but an even more intense devotion was given to the propheta himself. They dropped to their knees before him, crying, O Man of God, sent from Heaven, take pity on us! It was reported that by laying-on of hands, he had cured people who had been blind or dumb from birth, that he had raised the dead and that he had made a spring gush from a rock. Chroniclers talk of as many as seventy thousand gathered together on a single day, and though this figure is absurd, the assemblies must have been very sizeable. A vast camp grew up around the little village; tents were set up in which tradesmen, artisans and cooks catered for the travellers’ needs. From time to time, Böhm would mount a tub, or appear at an upper window, to preach his revolutionary doctrine to the crowds (see the woodcut below).

The pilgrimages began towards the end of March 1474 and by June the authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, had decided that Böhm’s propaganda was a serious menace to the social order which must be dealt with. The Town Council of Nuremberg forbade their citizens from going on pilgrimage to Niklashausen and Würzberg soon followed suit. Perturbed at the number of strangers who were pouring through the town, the Council closed as many of its gates as possible, bade its citizens to arm themselves and did what it could to put a stop to wild talk. In the end, the Prince-Bishop set about breaking the power of the propheta. He summoned a Diet at which it was decided that Böhm should be arrested.

According to his enemies, Böhm now tried to organise a revolt, telling his audience in a sermon on 7 July to come armed, without women or children, on the next Sunday. On the night before, a squad of horsemen sent by the Bishop descended on Niklashausen, seizing Böhm and carrying him off to Würzburg. The next day thousands of the assembled pilgrims marched, with only a few weapons but many giant candles taken from the shrine, to the castle at Würzburg where Böhm was imprisoned, arriving at dawn beneath the castle walls. The Bishop and the Town Council sent an emissary to reason with the pilgrims, but he was driven off with stones. A second emissary was more successful in persuading those pilgrims who were subjects of the Bishop to return to their homes. The rest stood firm, insisting on the release of the Holy Youth. A few cannon-shots were fired over their heads, but when no-one was hurt, the pilgrims were convinced that the Virgin was protecting them. As a result, they then tried to storm the town. This time the shots were directed at them and were followed by a cavalry-charge in which some forty of them were killed, the rest fleeing in panic.

Support for Böhm was so strong that even after this overwhelming victory the Bishop and Town Council could not feel secure. The burghers of Würzburg were warned to expect a second and more formidable attack. It was also feared that there were many within the city who might join forces with the pilgrims. The Bishop sent out a request to the neighbouring lords to hold themselves ready to come to his assistance if needed. Before any fresh disturbances could occur, however, Böhm had been tried by an ecclesiastical court and found guilty of heresy and sorcery. Two of his peasant disciples were beheaded and the Holy Youth himself was burnt at the stake, the common people hoping in vain for a miracle from Heaven which would save him. His ashes were thrown into the river so they could not become relics.

Everything possible was done to eradicate all trace of Böhm and his works. The offerings left at the church of Niklashausen were confiscated and shared between the Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Würzburg and the count in whose territory the church stood. In all the affected areas of Germany, bishops, princes and town councils joined in forbidding any further pilgrimages to the village shrine. Nevertheless, pilgrims continued to arrive even after they were threatened with excommunication and the church had been closed and placed under an interdict. In the end, at the beginning of 1477, the church was demolished by order of the Archbishop.

Undoubtedly, the Holy Youth of Niklashausen had been exploited by men far shrewder than he was. Certain local lords made use of the popular excitement to weaken their overlord, the Bishop of Würzburg, with whom they had been in conflict for some years. These men headed the nocturnal march on the city; one of them had later, by way of penance, to hand over much of his land to the cathedral chapter. Like many previous propheta, Böhm was a simple shepherd-boy; we are told that from earliest youth he had appeared as half-witted, that until he began to preach he had never been able to form a coherent sentence, and that he was even unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to throw vast areas of Germany into commotion due to the backing he received. The parish priest of Niklashausen was quick to realise that a few miracles could attract huge offerings to his hitherto obscure shrine; he later admitted inventing miracles and attributing them to Böhm. The major part, however, was played by a hermit who had for some time been living in a nearby cave and who had acquired a great reputation for holiness. He seems to exercised a total domination over Böhm, both intimidating him and inspiring him. When Böhm addressed the crowds from a window the hermit stood behind him and prompted him, as he is shown to be doing in the woodcut from Schedel’s Chronicle below:

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Even if this part of the popular narrative is fanciful propaganda, it probably indicates the true relationship between the two men. The hermit fled when the Holy Youth was arrested, but was caught soon afterwards. The ecclesiastical records name him as Beghard, a native of Bohemia and a Hussite. Although the evidence cannot be called conclusive, it seems reasonably certain that it was the hermit who turned a religious pilgrimage into a revolutionary movement. In the quiet and picturesque Tauber Valley, he must have seen the future centre of a millennial kingdom in which the primal egalitarian order was to be restored.

Egalitarian millenarianism had now effectively penetrated Germany. The forgotten manuscript, the Reformation of Sigismund, after existing for some forty years, appeared for the first time as a printed book within a couple of years of Böhm’s burning and was reprinted in 1480, 1484, 1490 and 1494. The original manuscript was written just after the collapse of Táborite power in Bohemia and was an example of the attraction of the movement’s ideals. Despite its relatively moderate programme, which I have written about in earlier posts on this site, it too summoned the poor to take up the sword and enforce their rights under the leadership of the priest-king Frederick. In a far more violent form, the same theme reappears in the Book of a Hundred Chapters which was produced by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely upon it in order to write his treatise, in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

What that strange prophet foretells at enormous length is, after all, precisely what had been so simply articulated by John Ball, the Lollards and the Táborites. After one bloody struggle against the hosts of Antichrist perfect justice would be re-established on earth and all men would be equals and brothers, perhaps even holding all things in common. These fantasies were not confined to books; also in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine there appeared conspiratorial movements which were dedicated to translating them into reality. These were the movements which were known collectively as the Bundschuh, a term meaning a peasant’s clog and having the same significance as the term sansculotte during the French Revolution.

In one respect this ‘revolutionary’ was truly original – nobody before him had combined devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome, through the imposition of a Canon Law which had introduced the idea of private property and thereby undermined the value of fraternity, opening the way to envy and hate.

Behind this curious interpretation of early Church history, lay a whole different and distorted philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were German-speaking Germans; other languages, including Hebrew, came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe, and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was so vast, covering the whole of Europe, that Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. It had been the most perfect of empires, a true earthly paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the ‘Decalogue’ invented by Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind. The Revolutionary appended a copy of these to his work.

The time was at hand, he claimed, when the power of evil epitomised by the Latin peoples and their Church was to be broken forever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse Germany from the Latin corruption and bring back the ‘Golden Age’ based on the Statutes of Trier but would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s Dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the ‘Revolutionary’ to yet another reinterpretation. The four successive Empires – Assyria, Babylon, Syria and Greece – now turned into France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overwhelming pride of these nations the Emperor would conquer them all and establish the German Empire as the fifth and greatest Empire, which shall not pass away. Next, returning from his western campaigns, the Emperor would utterly defeat the Turks. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he would carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land would be conquered for Christendom and the society of Mohammedans would be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood. After all this the Emperor will reign supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

According to ‘the Revolutionary’, the teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to the Jews, not the Germans, for whom the proper religion was still that which had prevailed in ‘the Golden Age’ of Trier and which Emperor Frederick would reinstate. When that happened the spiritual centre of the world would not be Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanquished pope. But it would be the Emperor – ‘the Revolutionary’ himself, triumphant and glorified, who would stand at the centre of the future religion as the ‘supreme priest’, recognised as ‘an earthly God’.  The future Empire was thus to be no less than a quasi-religious community or theocracy, united in adoration and dread of a messiah who would be the embodiment of the German spirit. This was what ‘the Revolutionary’ had in mind when he cried, jubilantly, that the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and will do so again, and with more power than ever.

In this fantasy, the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result was uncannily similar to the quasi-religious folk fantasies which were the core of the National-Socialist ‘ideology’ of interwar Germany five centuries later. We only have to turn back to the tracts produced by Rosenberg and Darré, among others, to be struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once revealed and was the source of all good down the centuries until it was undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior non-German people and the Church of Rome. This ‘true German’ culture would now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble but ‘truly German’ stock, under a God-sent saviour who is it once an emperor and a messiah. The whole history of the Third Reich is foreshadowed, the offensives in the West and the East, the Terror wielded as an instrument of policy and for its own sake, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-German peoples and the biggest massacres in human history. All that is missing is the final consummation of the world-empire, the welt-Reich, which, in Adolf Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years, like the earthly kingdom of the returning Messiah in the earlier Judao-Christian prophecies.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time, nor has it ever been, in contrast to the Reformation of Sigismund, and there is nothing to suggest that the anonymous ‘Revolutionary’ played any significant part in the social movements of his day. The importance of the text lies in its recognisable influences in the apocalyptic literature of the Middle Ages. In particular, there can be little doubt that the prophecy of a future Frederick, a ‘Sleeping Emperor’ who would be the messiah of the poor, continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one emperor after another, from Sigismund to Charles V, the people contrived to see a reincarnation of Frederick II. When these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them, the collective imagination of the people continued to dwell on a mythological parallel emperor ‘of lowly descent’, who would rise up from among the poor, to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead. The ‘Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’, writing in 1510 had predicted the apocalyptic year for 1515. When a Bundschuh rising broke out in the same area in 1513 its declared aim was to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre.

The leader of the Bundschuh was a peasant called Joss Fritz and many of the rank-and-file were also peasants. This was not the first rising he had organised. Like the outbreak at Niklashausen, the rising which occurred in the diocese of Speyer in 1502 was provoked in a general sense by the failure of the latest attempt to restore the disintegrating structure of the Empire, and by the excessive taxes levied by an insolvent Prince-Bishop, but its object was nothing less than a social revolution of the most thorough-going kind.  Not only the peasantry but also the urban poor, disbanded mercenaries, beggars and the like are known to have played a large part in the movement, giving it its peculiar character. For there were many other peasant risings in southern Germany at that time, and they all aimed merely at limited reforms of the feudal system. Only the Bundschuh aimed at achieving the Millennium. All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people, all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.

The flag of the movement showed Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog, above it the slogan: Nothing but God’s Justice! It was planned to capture the town of Bruschal, where the Bishop’s palace was located; from there the movement was to spread throughout Germany, bringing freedom to the peasants and town-dwellers who supported it, but death to everyone else. Although this plot was betrayed and the movement crushed, Joss Fritz survived to organise similar risings in 1513 and 1517, in which there were similar mixes of fantasies: on the one hand exterminating all the rich and powerful and establishing an egalitarian order and on the other, a determination to get rid of blasphemers, of being led by the Emperor and of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the image of the Bundschuh came to possess such prodigious significance that it was a popular belief that the original capture of Jerusalem had been achieved by peasants fighting under that banner.

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Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, national boundaries were hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more important than that of the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent. This development is most marked in the development of England, Scotland, France and Spain. The growth of national consciousness was not, however, dependent on the authority of a unitary state. The strong consciousness of Germanness and German nationhood evolved in a very different political context from that of the western European states.

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Above: Central-Eastern Europe in the Later Middle Ages (circa 1493).

Meanwhile, in a different part of Germany – Thuringia, a territory fertile in millenarian myths and movements –  a radical reformer, Thomas Müntzer, was embarking on a stormy career which was to end by turning him too into a prophet of the egalitarian Millennium.

(to be continued…)

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