Apocalypse Now and Then

Frank Kermode

  • The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 by J.F.C. Harrison
    Routledge, 277 pp, £9.95

Thanks to the work of Norman Cohn, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Keith Thomas and others, we have, over the past few years, acquired a lot of information about millenarianism as a social and historical force. The belief that the end is nigh, or that a new series of times is about to begin, is very ancient, but it is also modern. It is, moreover, a belief upon which people are liable to act, often with disastrous consequences to themselves and others. Persistent, dangerous as well as very interesting, it is a faith that invites more seductively than most the attention of the historian, and Professor Harrison, noting some very peculiar manifestations of it in the period of the Napoleonic wars and the succeeding years, has found himself a very good subject.

He speaks of himself as writing ‘popular’ history and examining the ‘structure of popular thought’, but he is aware, perhaps a little uneasily, that apocalyptic patterns of thinking are by no means confined to the lower classes. Certainly the scepticism which they had always engendered prevailed in the educated classes at the time of his study and the association of popular millennialism with political radicalism, powerful though by no means necessary or universal, naturally strengthened the opposition of the Establishment. Yet all Christians had in some sense to accept the premises of the millennialists, however much they disliked their cant and their behaviour: they were to be found, indeed not to be missed, in the Bible. However subtle our reflections on the End, on the Last Days and what succeeds them, they have the same texts behind them as the beliefs of Norman Cohn’s prophets, marching on a neighbouring city and mistaking it for Jerusalem, or the Peculiar People catalogued by Harrison, certain that the world will end on this day or that, or awaiting the birth of the Shiloh to the 65-year-old Joanna Southcott.

It may be that some variety of myth concerning the End is necessary to everybody, but there can be no doubt that the forms of it that have prevailed in our culture were established by the Bible – by Daniel, Revelation, and the ‘little apocalypse’ of Mark and the other synoptics. Scholars still argue about the exact sense of the word ‘apocalyptic’ as it applies to the first Christians, but nobody doubts that the religion is apocalyptic, nor that it was born in a period of flourishing apocalyptism. Over two thousand years the basic ideas, numbers and allegorical figures have undergone an astonishing variety of interpretations and been put to a great many uses. The world-historical system of Joachim of Flora, almost eight centuries old, turns up all over the place in Blake, in D H Lawrence, in Hegel and Hitler, in the sects studied by Christopher Hill. Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, which had its place in every Elizabethan church, provided a world history with England at its centre and the apocalyptic tropes and numbers as its scheme. Spenser based the first Book of his vast patriotic epic on the Book of Revelation; his Una is the Woman Clothed with the Sun, just like Joanna Southcott. Apocalypse can be an agent of imperialist propaganda as well as of radical politics.

By the time we get to Harrison’s period, centuries of fundamentalism had passed, and it was among people to whom the Bible was almost the only book that the prospect of an imminent millennium called for action, whether political or not. It is with the sociology of these people that Harrison is concerned. He refuses to make much of the unusual degree to which patterns of apocalyptic thinking persist historically; methodologically cautious, perhaps overconfident that nobody will any longer take such ideas seriously, he looks at his millennialists in terms of their times. Since movements of the kind they launched need the inspiration of a prophet, much is said about charisma and Weberian types, but the prophets themselves are vividly described as individuals, and there is much of interest on the subjects of their ideological inheritance and their relations with contemporary intellectuals of less extreme sorts.

In times of severe political repression enthusiastic movements among the lower classes are likely to suffer along with more overtly political and subversive enterprises. Several dissident messiah-figures were charged with treason, but then found to be mad and sent to lunatic asylums, quite in the modern manner. There were personal contacts between the apocalyptic movements and such non-charismatic intellectuals as Godwin, whose anarchism is a wholly secular version of the antinomianism often associated with apocalyptic sects. Scraps of Boehme and Swedenborg got into the language and visions of the enthusiasts, but mostly they did their own thinking, or drew directly on the Bible. One interesting feature of their organisations is that men were not favoured over women, and females made as good prophets as men; this equality extends to their other arrangements, so that we might, at a pinch, see Mary Wollstonecraft as a secular version of Joanna Southcott.

Typically, a millennialist group would be made up of labourers, tradesmen, servants, and an infusion of the better-off and better-educated. Its beliefs, apart from those directly derived from the Bible, would be a mixture of popular beliefs in dreams, omens and the like, and a less localised magic (for instance, the belief that the visible world exactly signified the invisible). Also characteristic was a very naive attitude to figurative language, and a confidence in the magical properties of numbers.

It was from such an ideological bank that Richard Brothers borrowed the notion that he was destined to lead the Jews back to the Holy Land (sorting out the Jews is often a precondition of the millennium) and to rebuild the city and the Temple. He made very elaborate specifications for the first of these tasks, but invited Flaxman to design the Temple. The account here given of Brothers is very illuminating, and so is that of the better-known Southcott. Joanna made no claims except to direct inspiration. She knew she was an ignorant woman, but this was thought good, as she could provide a purer channel for the Word. She wrote a great deal, and two of her books were required to be possessed by all who were ‘sealed’ her followers. Given that she was the Woman Clothed with the Sun, they did not think her pregnancy odd; the Word easily prevails over common probability, and when she died some thought she might still rise and bear the child. Those who hold such beliefs find it hard to understand why others reject them, those who reject them find it hard to do so without expressions of disgust or accusations of fraud (see Rowlandson’s caricature of Southcott being examined by the doctors). Yet there seems to have been no intent to deceive, and genuine dismay at the outcome, at least until, as always happens when prophecy fails, explanations were found which made the unexpected series of events concordant with the prophecies, which had only appeared to be disconfirmed. (See Leon Festinger’s excellent book, When Prophecy Failed, a study of a modern sect similarly disappointed.)

The usual fate of these movements is failure and oblivion, even when there are Writings which survive the death of the prophet. The Southcottians lingered on, splitting into factions with new leaders, until the mid-century, and even, with much attendant absurdity, into the 20th. Brothers is characteristic of the leader who left no direct succession. When they succeed, as did the first Christianity and the Mormons, they have to become institutionalised. Harrison discusses the Mormons, and some other American phenomena, by way of seeing whether the comparison with British millennialism might prove illuminating. The Mormons survived the loss of their first prophet, and made an extraordinary march into the unmapped West before settling down into a calmer (though still very active) phase of their history. The Millerites made the mistake specifically avoided by the early Christians of naming the day of the Second Coming (22 October 1844); I do not know how these bibliolaters explained Mark 13: 32 ‘of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ Harrison tells the diverting if painful tale of a Boston businessman who gave away all that he had, fearing to be encumbered with possessions on 22 October, but afterwards sued in the courts for its return, pleading that his mind had been deranged by the prophet Miller. The Shakers and others are likewise produced for comparative study. American millenarianism is a vast and wonderful subject. The Americans had more space, and seemed more inclined to form stable communes, they were equally interested in the Signs of the Times, but the Signs themselves seemed to be different.

In the England of the 1790s, you didn’t have to be an enthusiast or visionary to conclude that the Last Days were imminent. They were to be a period of disaster, of the reign of anti-Christ, and a plague of false prophets. This has always been the apocalyptic condition most easily met, and it is, of course, the people who have most to gain and least to lose by a destruction of the existing order who get most excited by the Last Days and fear them least. Yet Harrison is careful not to accept in any simple form the notion that millennialism is always associated with social deprivation, or with radicalism. Some radicals were millenarians, some millenarians were radicals. Only the other day, Bob Dylan had to explain that in becoming a reborn Christian he was not necessarily moving to the extreme right in politics, proof that enthusiasm is compatible with a good income and an interest in keeping things roughly as they are.

If the differentiae of millenarian sects, in the period that concerns Harrison, or in any period, are not political and not theological, how should they be described? It is certainly very important to assess their passion for allegory and numbers. It may be related to superstitions that had been shed by secular intellectuals, yet the expectation that the Beast and the Woman should be actual historical persons, and that the secret numbers of Daniel and Revelation should relate to world history, is as old as apocalypse itself. The sums were always possible, for the history of the world was short (in the 1790s it was only approaching its sixth millennium), and there were some numbers (666 is the most famous) which could be used as wild cards to make the answer to the question of the Second Coming work out right for the person doing the sum. As to hidden meanings, they were still sought everywhere by poets and priests; only in Germany had the literary criticism of the Bible reached the stage where it was possible for scholars to hold sophisticated views about Biblical fictions. What divided an enthusiast from a parson or a rational intellectual was more a fear of enthusiasm itself, of particular ways of expressing the sense of texts or dreams, than of the matter expressed. In this fear Swift is at one with Wesley. A prime differentia, in other words, is simple manners. Another related characteristic, as I’ve suggested, is a willingness to act on one’s belief, which entails opposition from institutions set up to take care of it for one.

What does it all matter, now? Well, a moment’s thought is enough to convince one that our world is full of charismatic fundamentalists, and not only in California, but also in Iran, in Africa, even within the Catholic Church itself. And there are other flexible fictions, workable if you have a very simple view of human history and a sufficiently gnomic set of texts and a leader to interpret them. Much practical wickedness may flow from the mistaking of figure for fact, and attempting to order the world into conformity with the figure. Belief in myths can be devastating, even if it is associated with great political causes; we hardly need Palestine and Ireland to remind us of that. Perhaps the value of knowing about such people as Brothers and their absurd delusions is simply that they exhibit, in a form that proved harmless, the motives which, endowed with political power, can bring tyranny and destruction on a scale undreamed of by calm intellectuals who know a myth from a fiction and a fiction from a fact.