Five Feet Tall in His Socks

Patrick Collinson

  • Last Witnesses: The Muggletonian History, 1652-1979 by William Lamont
    Ashgate, 267 pp, £55.00, August 2006, ISBN 0 7546 5532 6

It is said that when representatives of the Society of Friends came to Buckingham Palace in 1945 to present a loyal address at the end of World War Two, the king asked who these people were. ‘Some call them Quakers, Your Majesty.’ ‘Oh,’ the king said. ‘I didn’t know that there were any of them left.’ According to the protocols of sociologists of religion, the Quakers are a sect, rather than a denomination, and perhaps after three centuries there shouldn’t have been any left. But of course there were, and are, plenty of them. The late Bryan Wilson, a taxonomist of sects, was reduced to inventing a special category for the Quakers, a sect which should have turned into a denomination but obstinately refused to do so. Endogamy had something to do with that. Among my many Quaker relations I recall a cousin, orphaned at the age of 54, who said that he supposed that he should now get married. ‘But it will have to be to a Quaker, and the trouble is they’re all so plain.’ (He married a rather attractive Quaker of about his own age.)

George VI should have known better. But we are all to be forgiven for having supposed, if we had ever heard of the Muggletonians, that there were none of them left, that there had been none left for two or three centuries. But we were proved wrong in 1974, when two Jehovah’s Witnesses made a routine call on a Kentish fruit farmer called Philip Noakes, who may have been (can we be sure?) the very last Muggletonian. (His widow still lives, aged 90, but was never a Muggletonian.) At about the same time, E.P. Thompson, who was already interested in the Muggletonian legacy, found his way to Noakes’s apple loft. He had been directed there by Noakes’s son-in-law, who had been alerted to Thompson’s interest through the correspondence columns of the TLS. In the loft Thompson found more than a hundred boxes containing the Muggletonian archive, which Noakes, on a wartime journey to Covent Garden market, had rescued when the Muggletonian Reading Room in Bishopsgate was blitzed. These boxes have now found a home in the British Library as Additional MSS 60168-60256, thanks to the good offices of Noakes’s widow, Thompson, William Lamont and others.

What to do with this equivalent, for the archaeology of sectarian nonconformity, of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun? There followed from the appropriation of the Muggletonian archive a practical exploration of a theoretical distinction that I had made, back in those same 1970s, between vertical and horizontal accounts of religious history. The vertical came first, well represented in the Anglican hymn ‘Thy hand, Oh God, has guided/The Church from age to age’. Such vertical history has mostly been written in the interests of the religious groups whose annals it has traced, such as Congregationalists or Jesuits (or, conversely, against those interests: see Foxe’s Book of Martyrs). Vertical church history is likely to be confessional. Horizontal history came later, as practitioners of the social and cultural history of religious movements and tendencies dug into these annals to suggest what religious history may have ‘meant’ in terms of the social and political integument, categories accessible to modern people. (That this kind of reductionism is now out of fashion with anthropologists and sociologists is relevant.) Among those who attempted horizontal investigations of the Muggletonians was, notably, Christopher Hill, who found significant links between these people and John Milton, as they drank and argued in the London pubs of the 1650s. For Hill and Thompson these were ‘radicals’, political as well as religious activists, part of Hill’s World Turned Upside Down.

A vertical history of the subject could not at that time be attempted. But now, thanks to what was found in that orchard loft in 1974, it can, and this is what William Lamont has done in Last Witnesses: The Muggletonian History, which will surely remain the definitive history of this odd sect. And the first thing to emerge from what we now know is that, pace Hill and Thompson, the Muggletonians were not political radicals.

That possibility having gone away, a horizontal history of Muggletonianism, while it may cast some light on the conditions in which the sect gestated and was born, is not going to be of much value to social historians. So who were the Muggletonians, what sorts of people? The answer seems to be, typically, Hill’s middling, industrious sort. All social analyses of religious movements in late medieval and early modern England are likely to correct the Nietzschean stereotype of a depressed, dispossessed constituency, rebelling through the opiate metaphor of religion. The social profile of the early Quakers, for example, proves to have been rather higher than might have been expected.

And so with the Muggletonians. The founders of the sect were London tailors, and so was an early convert, the ex-Ranter Lawrence Clarkson. Another adherent, Christopher Hill (no relation) was a heel-maker. Alexander Delamaine, the sect’s first archivist and a former Baptist, was a wealthy London tobacconist, who left his wife £1685, a small fortune. Thomas Tomkinson, the leader of the second generation, came from a substantial family of Staffordshire tenant-farmers. Big money came into play in the 19th century with the Frost brothers, prosperous brass founders from Derby. But later in the century the sect was ruled ‘by force of intellect’ rather than wealth by Thomas Robinson, a mostly unemployed shoemaker and recipient of the sect’s charity. Most members belonged to the lower levels of artisanship and trade, neither poor nor rich. They included, as one would expect, many women, whose role in transmitting the faith must not be underestimated. The sect was anchored in London, but there were important outposts in the East Midlands, and a few spots further afield: Wales, even North America. Since the Muggletonians never numbered more than a few hundred, and since 99 per cent of people of their sort did not choose to become Muggletonians, there is not much that social history can make of all this. If there are horizontal questions to be answered, they are for the religious historian, who can hope to answer them only in the most particular, even intimate context.

So back to William Lamont’s vertical. He has a strange story to tell, something which could have been peddled only in the religious farmers’ market that was England in the 1650s. The ‘Muggletonian thing’ was founded on a divine revelation made to a London tailor called John Reeve in February 1652. God spoke to Reeve directly, audibly, not in the inner voice favoured by the Quakers but ‘as a man speaks privately with a friend’. So there was no ecstasy, no blinding light. Anybody in the vicinity could have heard what God said. It followed that God was not some insubstantial thing, certainly not some spirit within every man, but a being shaped like a man (man a being shaped like God), and living not so far above our heads – six miles up in fact. This revelation made Reeve the First Witness in a new dispensation. For three hundred years to come, the only unforgivable sin was to deny the credentials of the Witnesses. Why the plural? What Reeve received in his revelation included the prescription that his cousin Lodowicke Muggleton (another London tradesman) should be his ‘mouth’, Aaron to Reeve’s Moses. Later Muggletonians spoke of two Witnesses, each having equal authority. But it was Muggleton’s authority that stayed the course.

How had this come about? Why Muggletonians rather than Reeveites? Mainly because Reeve died not long after he had founded the sect. What followed, the ascendancy of Muggleton, against enemies within and without, resembles any number of episodes in religious history, where an organisation man succeeds and routinises the charisma of the original leader: Brother Elias taking over from St Francis, Bullinger from Zwingli, Beza from Calvin, Brigham Young from Joseph Smith, the Khalifa Abdullahi from the Mahdi, Philip Feldman from Father Kowalski and Maria Kozlowska (in the Polish Mariavite Church); or even Saul of Tarsus from Jesus of Nazareth. Lamont is not especially interested in such parallels, least of all in what general lessons they may teach. His interest is strictly vertical, the unique history of the Muggletonians, which is a sufficiently complex history in itself.

The Muggletonian-Quaker relationship is a good place to start. Muggleton and his followers needed to define themselves against something, and that something was the Quakers, as well as the Fifth Monarchists, the Ranters (who provided their most troublesome recruit, Lawrence Clarkson), and another would-be and shortlived Messiah, Thomas Totney, who by divine revelation received a new name, Theauraujohn Tany, and who was lost at sea in pursuit of a design to return 144,000 Jews to the Holy Land. Tany recorded: ‘The Lord came upon me in power . . . and fell upon me in my shop.’ He was struck dumb, blind and insensible ‘in the beholding of hundreds of men’.

There is a danger of patronising, even mocking, these mid-17th-century religious prodigies. Even Alexander Gordon, the admirable Victorian Unitarian (the author of 778 articles in the Dictionary of National Biography), who was a good and understanding friend to the Muggletonians, labelled Tany a ‘fanatic’. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he is reclassified as ‘prophet and visionary’, a crazy-learned man whose vision was like molten gold (he was by trade a goldsmith), from which he made trinkets with his words, which are ‘as worthy of preservation as much of the solemn and weighty pronouncements of heavyweight puritans’ – all of whose utterances have crumbled to dust. Muggleton had a knock-down answer to disdainful critics. Past prophets had been herdsmen, past apostles fishermen. So what was wrong with the Last Witnesses being two London tailors? Those (like me) who adhere to some vestiges of ‘orthodox’ Christian belief have to ask ourselves why the articles of the faith we profess Sunday by Sunday in the Creed should be more rational, more respectable, than the utterances of Tany or a Muggleton.

Muggleton’s methodology, as a sectarian leader, bore resemblances to the methods of George Fox and other early Quakers, as investigated most recently by Kate Peters in Print Culture and the Early Quakers; with the significant exception that Muggleton and his followers were rather more likely to go in for a kind of ritual cursing of those deemed to be the enemy, especially those who rejected the claims of the Witnesses. The Ranter John Robins was cursed as ‘that last great Antichrist’. One of the last to be cursed was Walter Scott. (They did blessings too.) Leadership and discipline was exerted through letters, and also through occasional face-to-face encounters with opponents. The letters were then incorporated and given a wider currency in printed pamphlets and books, which served to define, and progressively redefine, the doctrine. Like the Quakers with their ‘Meeting for Sufferings’, the Muggletonians treasured their memories of Muggleton’s imprisonment in 1677, and the day of his release, 19 July, was the second most important holiday in their calendar. Apart from that, they didn’t do martyrs.

One very significant difference between the Muggletonians and the Quakers was that Muggleton and his followers did not actively proselytise. For those who knocked on the door, there was free admission, provided that the authority of the Witnesses was acknowledged. But for the Muggletonians there was no compelle intrare, no mission. They believed that non-Muggletonians could be saved, though they lacked the firm assurance of salvation available to those who had accepted the authority of the Witnesses. That is why there were never more than a few hundred Muggletonians. Why that handful should have survived for three centuries is a question that still needs to be answered. As Lamont remarks: ‘The wonder of the Muggletonian history is not that there were so few Muggletonians but that a non-evangelising sect could last so long.’

The beginning of an idea of what Muggletonianism was all about is given in a document composed on 1 January 1870, probably by a man called J.D. Aspland, and entitled Faith and Practice of the Muggletonians. The Muggletonians rejected all forms of public worship. Those who believed in the power of prayer, as if God was in the least interested, were deviants. The Muggletonians met on the first Wednesday of the month, but only to socialise, to read from their sacred texts, and to sing their songs, which were set to popular tunes. This, until the opening of the Bishopsgate Reading Room, happened in the snug of some local pub, which allowed Macaulay to call them ‘tipplers’. Muggletonians were opposed to all kinds of ‘priestcraft’. (All clergy would have been cursed, if they had got round to it.) They believed that in every individual there are two seeds, one of God (faith), the other of the Devil (reason). They believed that Reeve and Muggleton were God’s last Messengers before the Second Coming, which, however, was not expected soon: so not an especially apocalyptic movement, and emphatically not millenarian. That aspect of routinisation was something Muggleton brought to the original Reeveite revelation, saving the sect from the un-self-fulfilling fate of failed prophecy, that scene on the mountain top in Beyond the Fringe. But the death of Oliver Cromwell, the collapse of the English republic, and the restoration of the monarchy also helped. In the 1660s it was no longer either credible or prudent to shout out loud: ‘Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.’

The two Testaments, Old and New, had been succeeded by a Third, when in February 1652 God spoke to Reeve. God was not an all-pervasive, invisible spirit. There are no invisible spirits. At death, the soul dies with the body. That had happened to God himself, since Muggletonians were Unitarians. But Muggletonian ‘mortalism’ was not absolute, or nihilist. Body and soul would rise at the last day, as God had resurrected, to inhabit a heaven which was not far out of reach.

The difficulty for a modern, encountering the Muggletonians, may be how to sort out what seems accessible, even acceptable, from beliefs which defy belief, like a God whose vital statistics could be known, about five feet tall in his socks. But we cannot pick and choose from early modern belief systems things in which we, or our friends, still profess to believe, like the existence of God, or the incarnation, while dismissing and discarding such inconvenient beliefs as an all-pervasive, ever intrusive providence, the Devil and all his works, and witchcraft. Like it or not, if we want to understand what it was to be religious in the 17th century, we have to take the package whole.

Why is this a problem with the Muggletonians? There is so much that is perhaps deceptively accessible. The Muggletonians, like the Quakers, managed to put their primal ‘enthusiasm’ behind them as they became ordinary, reasonable people. Part of their rationale was to free their members from fear: the fear of hellfire and brimstone that was common currency at the time; even the desperate psychology of abandonment that infested the Calvinism out of which men like Reeve and Muggleton had emerged. Hell was inside you, nowhere else. The Devil was something that existed only in the morbid imagination of men. There were no witches. Divine providence, a principle widely invoked to explain everything from earthquakes to indigestion, was a human invention. God had no ‘particular interest’ in the affairs of men.

To believe in a literal hell, or providence, or witches, was to read scripture with the false eye of reason rather than faith. Muggletonianism was erected on a radically revisionist understanding of scripture. If Solomon in Ecclesiastes wrote that, at death, the spirit returns to God who gave it, that proved that Solomon was ‘no scripture writer’. Better read the Book of Job, where the debate between God and Satan was ‘nothing else but the motions of Job’s heart passing through his troubled soul’. (That could be sound exegesis.) We are more than halfway to a secularised world-view, a world in which God was for all practical purposes dead, having intervened in human affairs for the last time in February 1652. Muggleton’s successor, Thomas Tomkinson, resembled Hobbes in his radical materialism, while Lamont can claim that Muggleton himself anticipated the Kantian doctrine of the autonomy of ethics. Even if God did not exist, ‘yet could I not do any otherwise than I do.’ Virtuous behaviour consisted in conformity to a law written in the conscience. So Muggletonianism was very close to deism. Muggleton’s correspondence – and letter-writing for him was all important – reveals him to have been a wise agony aunt, sensitive to human frailty. There are little clues from the 18th century which link the sect with the visionary politics of William Blake, and even with Benjamin Franklin; these, however, Lamont feels bound to discount.

What is it that we can no longer cope with? The implications of mortalism, that man was no different from other animals, who would also be resurrected to find a place in heaven? The materiality of that heaven, not much higher than Mount Everest, managed by Moses and Elias when God visited earth in the shape of Jesus, God now back there, like a man, five feet tall? A cosmology which defied all that Newton, Muggleton’s contemporary, was telling the world about itself?

Church history consists of heresies, and of the definition of orthodoxy over and against those heresies. Without that contention, no history, no creeds. The long history of Muggletonianism – and the Muggletonians did speak of their fellowship as a church – observes that rule. Without heresies and schisms there would be little to write about, since the quiet enjoyment of what it was to be a Muggletonian hardly makes for a story. Lamont admits that the existence of the archive may lead the historian to make too much of internal rancour and dissent, since these matters are disproportionately on record.

From first to last, and to oversimplify, there was only one issue that divided the Muggletonians: the religious excitement of Reeve’s original revelations (second adventist and millenarian, the stuff of 1650s religious radicalism) versus Muggleton’s calm prolepsis of a Kantian moral universe. It all boiled down to whether God took a ‘particular interest’ in his creatures. And from that stemmed belief, or not, in providence, and whether such a figure as Cromwell or anyone else could prove providential, and whether prayer (or, for that matter, cursing) worked, or was worthwhile. That was the issue of 1671, the time of a major rebellion against Muggleton’s authority; and again in 1774, when the Reeveite creed was revived by one James Birch. And the same battles, true Muggletonians versus ‘Reeveonians’, were fought all over again in the mid-19th century. Again and again, there was contention over Reeve and Muggleton’s ur-text, A Divine Looking Glass, and its controversial, Muggletonian recensions. What this amounted to was nothing less than the question of whether Muggletonianism was just another enthusiastic religion, or something a little beyond religion. Nothing like this debate, so far as I know, happened within any other religious sect.

It was not just the archive that kept such issues alive. For generation on generation, Muggletonians retained in their collective and shared memory the salient features of their history, as well as much that was more incidental. The most obscure reference to the sacred texts would be immediately recognised. This was a sacred grove, an arcane intellectual ghetto. As late as 1941, Muggleton’s advice to avoid sickness by drinking broth and keeping away from doctors was passed on by one believer to another in Muggleton’s very words.

Which brings us back to the problem of Muggletonian survivalism. A sociologist might want to look at patterns of coupling, and of reproduction (thinking, perhaps, of those Quakers). And he would have a problem. The Muggletonian church could lose when members married out, as they did, but it could also gain, perhaps more often than not, when marriage entailed a kind of conversion (a substitute for recruitment by evangelism). My wife has a cousin who became a moderate Jehovah’s Witness in similar circumstances. How did the numbers add up? Lamont doesn’t attempt to do the sums, nor is he really interested. He is a historian of the intellect, and of the spirit. So why does he think that the Muggletonians went on far into the 20th century?

Fred Noakes wrote in 1934: ‘Our “Little Flock” is getting very small now and there does not seem any prospect of more coming.’ His son Philip, the only Muggletonian personally known to a modern historian, spoke of ‘we’ when he might have said ‘I’. By the late 1930s the old songs were no longer sung. Lamont wants to think that Muggletonian materialism was the secret of their strange endurance. Perhaps so. Records of the annual February dinners have as much to say about the quality of the food as about spiritual communication. Perhaps we should reclassify the Muggletonians with Freemasonry and 18th and 19th-century clubs rather than with ‘religion’.

But that doesn’t satisfy. What does? Lamont points to the Waco siege of April 1993, the endgame of a series of millenarian nightmares: the kind of mistake the Muggletonians (thanks to Muggleton) were careful not to make. Vertical history points to the factor of shared memory, very powerful in the Muggletonian case; and to personal leadership: Tomkinson in the 18th century; the Frost brothers in the 19th. They tried to turn Muggletonianism into a mainstream denomination. That didn’t happen, but they kept it alive. And after the Frosts, Thomas Robinson, the shoemaker sage of Bishopsgate. With Robinson gone, it was the beginning of the end.

But I don’t think that verticality can provide an entirely satisfactory explanation of how and why this strange 17th-century sect should have endured for three centuries, and then died: nor, for all those hundred boxes, can anyone now tell us what it may have felt like to be a Muggletonian, sure of salvation, free of the anxieties which went with conventional evangelical religion; nor perhaps (with apologies to Lamont) why non-Muggletonians should care. This is one of those subjects which slips through the mesh of history as we have practised it, or which demands a more intensive, demanding investigation than even Lamont has been able to devote to it, or even than a hundred boxes of evidence can support.