Friday, 16 August 2019
Thoughts about the Muggletonians
When the philosophical or religious foundation of a mythology is under severe stress, either from reform or attack from within, from the pressures of war, famine, or plague, or from usurpation by a rival mythology, that mythology can either implode or explode. Myth erupts into everyday life with powerful forces of creation and destruction.
This is what happened in the Amarna period in Ancient Egypt when the pharaoh Akhenaten swept aside the chaotic sprawl of competing divinities in favour of the worship of a single god, the Aten. An inscription in his successor Tutankhamun’s name describes how, as a result of Akhenaten’s heresy, “The temples of the gods and goddesses fell to pieces. . . . The land was turned topsy-turvy, and the gods turned their backs on it. . . . If anyone prayed to a god or goddess for help, they would not come. Their hearts were broken.”
There are many instances, particularly in the story of Christianity, where the shockwave of the arrival of a new faith causes a catastrophic failure of the old. In 627 CE, when the pagan high priest Coifi counselled King Edwin of Northumbria to convert to Christianity, he himself desecrated the altar of the god Woden with Woden’s own sacred weapon, the spear.
The English Revolution of the mid-17th century brought a convulsion within Christianity itself. Myth erupted onto the streets of London with a swaggering confidence. The city was teeming with “false Christs, and false prophets and prophetesses, and counterfeit Virgin Maries”, in the words of John Reeve, who himself believed that he and his cousin Lodowick Muggleton, both tailors, were directly commissioned by God as the “two last Spiritual witnesses” foreseen in the Book of Revelation.
In February 1651 (1652, new style) when God revealed their commission to John Reeve, their first task was to assert their new power to bless or to curse men and women to eternity in visits to two other prophets. The first was the goldsmith TheaurauJohn Tany, who since 1649 had proclaimed himself the Lord’s High Priest, charged to gather together the scattered tribes of the Jews and lead them to Jerusalem. The second was John Robins, a Ranter who, according to Muggleton, “declared himself to be God Almighty, and that he was the Judge of the Quick and of the Dead, and that he was that first Adam that was in that innocent state, and that his Body had been dead for Five Thousand, Six Hundred and odd Years, and now he was risen again from the Dead.” Robins raised so many of the Old Testament Prophets from the dead that Muggleton recorded, “I have had Nine or Tenn of them at my House at a time.” In this mythological context, to deny that Robins was God, Reeve and Muggleton were forced to declare him not simply an ordinary man, but the Antichrist, or the Man of Sin spoken of in Thessalonians.
This extraordinary upsurge of millenarian fever in Revolutionary England is directly linked to radical social changes experienced in a “world turned upside down”, in Christopher Hill’s phrase. The works of Tany, Reeve, and Muggleton make clear that it was as much a mythological movement as a theological one. Reeve and Muggleton were not even London’s first “last witnesses”. In 1636 two weavers named Richard Farnham and John Bull had already claimed this role, were imprisoned and—ironically given their Biblical destiny as bringers of plagues—died of the plague. But their death was disputed. Farnham’s followers testified to his resurrection on 8 January 1642, and the pair were said to have sailed away in vessels made of bulrushes, to convert the lost tribes of Israel. They sailed, as TheaurauJohn Tany was also to do, out of the world of material reality, and into the world of pure myth.
The Muggletonians for a time offered a serious challenge to the emerging Quakers. Both were pacifist movements, though the Muggletonians preferred eating, drinking, and singing “Divine Songs” to sitting in Quaker silence. Lodovick Muggleton so enraged William Penn he provoked him to swear. But the premature death of their prophet John Reeve meant the movement lost momentum, and the very last Muggletonian, Philip Noakes, died in 1979.
Muggletonian thought, however, survives strongly in the poetry and symbolism of William Blake. In his book Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, E.P. Thompson teases out many connections between Blake’s ideas and his way of expressing them with Muggletonian writings and beliefs. He suggests that Blake’s mother Catherine Hermitage and her family were quite probably Muggletonians—a George Hermitage was a composer of divine songs—and that Blake “in his childhood was made familiar with the structure of antinomian thought and the central images of Genesis and Revelation in a Muggletonian notation”. It’s worth noting that one Muggletonian sect, the Reevites, believed they could converse with angels and have visions of the dead.