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.

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